Are Life Stressors Impairing Your Swimming?

Are Life Stressors Impairing Your Swimming?

Erin Cameron Blog, Dr. Erin Cameron, Latest&Greatest, Psychology Leave a Comment

Mental fatigue: an often overlooked factor that may be impacting the performance of youth swimmers.

School, homework, sport, cell phones, television, video games, social media... The bombardment of mental stimulation in today's youth is astounding and possibly higher today than it ever has been in the past. It makes sense that all of this mental stimulation can negatively impact their daily lives in many ways, but can it also directly impact swimming performance? 

YES.

How do we recognize signs of mental fatigue? What can we do to help? How much does mental fatigue impact swimming performance? 

We had the pleasure of learning the answers to these questions from a leading researcher on this topic, Eduardo Macedo Penna

Enjoy our written interview below. 

Click here for a link to the full research abstract and practical implication posted on our site last week. 

Please provide a brief summary of your study design for our readers.

"We tested if a prolonged cognitive task prior to the swimming was able to impair the performance of young swimmers. We tested the 1500 m swimming performance under two conditions (in a randomized order):"

  1. "Mental fatigue session: prior the swimming, the athletes perform for 30 minutes the Stroop Color Test. This test consists in respond verbally the color of words presented in a paper. The words were: RED, BLUE, GREEN and YELLOW and these words were printed in different colors. This test requires a constant inhibition control, as the first intuitive response it read the word instead of the color."
  2. "Control condition: the athletes watched a documentary for the same period (30 min). We also measure some physiological variables related to the autonomic control (Heart Rate Variability) and during the swimming, each 300 m we measure the Rating of Perceived Exertion of the swimming (in other words, how the athlete perceives the effort to produce the performance). It was identified a reduced performance in Mental Fatigue situation accompanied by a higher Rating of Perceived Effort."

"In other words, when the athletes were mentally fatigued, their perceived that they had to “work harder” to perform, and this performance was worse. In the study, mental fatigue was induced via a standardized test."

What do you believe are 5-10 of the most common causes of mental fatigue in youth swimmers in general?

"Our focus was on young athletes particularly because this kind of athlete is exposed to several activities during the day that can induce some kind of mental fatigue:

  1. Play video games in tablets or smartphones
  2. Prolonged chats using mobile apps (requiring sustained attention)
  3. School stress
  4. Sporting (swimming stress)"

"In most of the cases, athletes have a hard day in school and after they go straight to the swimming pool to train."

What are the most common signs of mental fatigue that coaches, parents and swimmers should be aware of?

"The signs of mental fatigue, especially in a more ecological context are not as easy to identify as a “physiological fatigue." Though, it is important to be aware if the athlete has some difficulty focusing on some variable of his/her training. Any sight of dispersed attention, focus or difficulties understanding orders or instructions can be a sign of mental fatigue."

How accurate are our current tests to determine mental fatigue/stress in youth athletes?

"Actually, there is no specific test to determine mental fatigue in athletes. There some psychometric tools with good applicability to measuring the stress/recovery balance during training and competitions (for example the RESTQ questionnaire) but concerning specifically mental fatigue there is no tool for that. Some cognitive tests (for example executive functions tests) can be made, but their validity to measure mental fatigue it was not tested yet."

In the study, the performance measure was a 1500 m swim. Do you believe that similar results would be seen with races of shorter distances?

"Our hypothesis was to test the influence of mental fatigue in a prolonged swimming because this kind of exercise requires a constant cerebral regulation of performance. In other words, you don’t swim a 1500 m trial with an “all out” strategy as you do in a 50 or 100 m. Furthermore, there is some evidence in the literature pointing that short-term high-intensity activities are less susceptible to the negative effect of mental fatigue."

If a coach or parent suspects that a swimmer might be experiencing increased metal fatigue, what should they do to address this?

"It is important for the coach to understand that their swimmers, especially the school-aged ones, will be training under this condition some periods of the year (for example during exams weeks or in the week before) and they might expect some impaired performance during these periods. The important thing here its to try the best of effort to coordinate the annual training planning with the school calendar, to not require high performance (competitions or important training periods) in weeks when athletes are likely to be mentally fatigued in some way."

Are there any specific interventions or strategies, such as meditation, that may be helpful for young swimmers experiencing mental fatigue?

"It already demonstrated that the caffeine supplementation can be a very good strategy to reverse the negative effect of mental fatigue on physical performance. So, a good cup of coffee before the training session can help! Other specific strategies such meditation or psychological approaches have not been tested yet, but their effects can also be positive."

What do you believe are the top 2-3 take away messages from your study that swimmers, coaches or parents can use to improve the performance and health of young swimmers?

"The most important key message of our study is that parents, coaches and the athletes should be aware of what kind of activity should be avoided before the training session. Those activities which require a prolonged sustained attention as excessive use of smartphones and tablets, video games or similar activities, can be harmful to the physical performance. Coaches also must be aware of prolonged tactical/technical explanations before the training, as this also requires a prolonged attentional focus of their athletes."

Anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

"This research was conducted at the Sports Training Center of Federal University of Minas Gerais – Brazil. The Training Center facilities were used by the Great Britain Olympic Association during the preparation period to Rio 2016. This research was the first one of this “new born” training center and several more research in swimming is being developed in partnership with the UFMG Exercise Physiology Lab. To see our publications, our website is https://lafiseufmg.com/publicacoes/artigos/."

"Here some photos of the training center and the swimming pool and some information about our facilities." (See Below)

Mental fatigue: an often overlooked factor that may be impacting the performance of youth swimmers.

School, homework, sport, cell phones, television, video games, social media... The bombardment of mental stimulation in today's youth is astounding and possibly higher today than it ever has been in the past. It makes sense that all of this mental stimulation can negatively impact their daily lives in many ways, but can it also directly impact swimming performance? 

YES.

How do we recognize signs of mental fatigue? What can we do to help? How much does mental fatigue impact swimming performance? 

We had the pleasure of learning the answers to these questions from a leading researcher on this topic, Eduardo Macedo Penna

Enjoy our written interview below. 

Click here for a link to the full research abstract and practical implication posted on our site last week. 

Please provide a brief summary of your study design for our readers.

"We tested if a prolonged cognitive task prior to the swimming was able to impair the performance of young swimmers. We tested the 1500 m swimming performance under two conditions (in a randomized order):"

  1. "Mental fatigue session: prior the swimming, the athletes perform for 30 minutes the Stroop Color Test. This test consists in respond verbally the color of words presented in a paper. The words were: RED, BLUE, GREEN and YELLOW and these words were printed in different colors. This test requires a constant inhibition control, as the first intuitive response it read the word instead of the color."
  2. "Control condition: the athletes watched a documentary for the same period (30 min). We also measure some physiological variables related to the autonomic control (Heart Rate Variability) and during the swimming, each 300 m we measure the Rating of Perceived Exertion of the swimming (in other words, how the athlete perceives the effort to produce the performance). It was identified a reduced performance in Mental Fatigue situation accompanied by a higher Rating of Perceived Effort."

"In other words, when the athletes were mentally fatigued, their perceived that they had to “work harder” to perform, and this performance was worse. In the study, mental fatigue was induced via a standardized test."

What do you believe are 5-10 of the most common causes of mental fatigue in youth swimmers in general?

"Our focus was on young athletes particularly because this kind of athlete is exposed to several activities during the day that can induce some kind of mental fatigue, as play video games in tablets or smartphones, prolonged chats using mobile apps (requiring sustained attention) and especially because these athletes have a very hard routine to deal with school time and training time. In most of the cases, athletes have a hard day in school and after they go straight to the swimming pool to train."

What are the most common signs of mental fatigue that coaches, parents and swimmers should be aware of?

"The signs of mental fatigue, especially in a more ecological context are not as easy to identify as a “physiological fatigue." Though, it is important to be aware if the athlete has some difficulty focusing on some variable of his/her training. Any sight of dispersed attention, focus or difficulties understanding orders or instructions can be a sign of mental fatigue."

How accurate are our current tests to determine mental fatigue/stress in youth athletes?

"Actually, there is no specific test to determine mental fatigue in athletes. There some psychometric tools with good applicability to measuring the stress/recovery balance during training and competitions (for example the RESTQ questionnaire) but concerning specifically mental fatigue there is no tool for that. Some cognitive tests (for example executive functions tests) can be made, but their validity to measure mental fatigue it was not tested yet."

In the study, the performance measure was a 1500 m swim. Do you believe that similar results would be seen with races of shorter distances?

"Our hypothesis was to test the influence of mental fatigue in a prolonged swimming because this kind of exercise requires a constant cerebral regulation of performance. In other words, you don’t swim a 1500 m trial with an “all out” strategy as you do in a 50 or 100 m. Furthermore, there is some evidence in the literature pointing that short-term high-intensity activities are less susceptible to the negative effect of mental fatigue."

If a coach or parent suspects that a swimmer might be experiencing increased metal fatigue, what should they do to address this?

"It is important for the coach to understand that their swimmers, especially the school-aged ones, will be training under this condition some periods of the year (for example during exams weeks or in the week before) and they might expect some impaired performance during these periods. The important thing here its to try the best of effort to coordinate the annual training planning with the school calendar, to not require high performance (competitions or important training periods) in weeks when athletes are likely to be mentally fatigued in some way."

Are there any specific interventions or strategies, such as meditation, that may be helpful for young swimmers experiencing mental fatigue?

"It already demonstrated that the caffeine supplementation can be a very good strategy to reverse the negative effect of mental fatigue on physical performance. So, a good cup of coffee before the training session can help! Other specific strategies such meditation or psychological approaches have not been tested yet, but their effects can also be positive."

What do you believe are the top 2-3 take away messages from your study that swimmers, coaches or parents can use to improve the performance and health of young swimmers?

"The most important key message of our study is that parents, coaches and the athletes should be aware of what kind of activity should be avoided before the training session. Those activities which require a prolonged sustained attention as excessive use of smartphones and tablets, video games or similar activities, can be harmful to the physical performance. Coaches also must be aware of prolonged tactical/technical explanations before the training, as this also requires a prolonged attentional focus of their athletes."

Anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

"This research was conducted at the Sports Training Center of Federal University of Minas Gerais – Brazil. The Training Center facilities were used by the Great Britain Olympic Association during the preparation period to Rio 2016. This research was the first one of this “new born” training center and several more research in swimming is being developed in partnership with the UFMG Exercise Physiology Lab. To see our publications, our website is https://lafiseufmg.com/publicacoes/artigos/."

"Here some photos of the training center and the swimming pool and some information about our facilities." (See Below)

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Final Thoughts

There is evidence to support that heavy use of technology combined with increased mental stimulation at school can negatively impact performance, especially in long distance races and practice sets. While we may not be able to directly influence mental fatigue due to school work (nor would we always want to) we can modify the direct use of mentally fatiguing technology such as video games, prolonged texting/messaging conversations and social media use. 

We would like to thank Eduardo Macedo Penna for sharing his insight on this important topic.

Article by Erin Cameron DPT 

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