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Data Source: Zamparo P, Bonifazi M (2013). Bioenergetics of cycling sports activities in water.

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Dealing with Anticipated Stress

Take Home Points on Dealing with Anticipated Stress
  1. How athletes deal with anticipated is often overlooked in communicating
  2. Elite performers show increased activity of the insular cortex to anticipate adverse events
  3. Psychology intersects with our understanding of the central governor hypothesis
We all know the feeling of an impending hard set, or on a bigger picture, a hard training block or even a Hell Week.  Anticipation of such an event may even trigger physiological responses: pangs of nervousness, sweating, and perhaps nausea.  Yet we also know that under stress, the best athletes simply cope better than lesser athletes?  What may differentiate the elite from the average?

"Individuals optimize exercise level as it relates to differences between expected and experienced exertion, which can be conceptualized as a body prediction error. The process of computing a body prediction error involves the insular cortex, which is important for interoception, i.e. the sense of the physiological condition of the body." (Paulus 2012)

Elite military operators have been shown to be more adept than control subjects in this realm.  Previous research has shown greater neural processing by Navy SEALs in response to threat stimuli via heightened right insular cortex activation.  (Paulus 2012) One interesting note from studies of elite military selection schools is how many candidates drop out of training in the first day.  Surely, the matter is not physical as training has hardly begun.  Not everyone has the physical and mental capability for elite performance in any genre, but it is enlightening to see the power of the mind in this area

In plain terms, this discussion simply means swimmers may psyche themselves out not from current distress but from anticipated future distress.  Interestingly, the general mechanisms may be similar to the proposed theories behind the central governor, which states that physical output reflects our brain’s perception of physical status.  ("During self-paced exercise, the exercise work rate is regulated by the brain based on the integration of numerous signals from various physiological systems. It has been proposed that the brain regulates the degree of muscle activation and thus exercise intensity specifically to prevent harmful physiological disturbances" (Tucker 2009))

Practical Implication
Now, certainly this information can be used to drive swimmers to push harder through discomfort.  There are many different strategies to cope with the discomfort of a hard effort.  But that’s not our main focus here.  Instead, what about the buildup to a hard effort? 

While functional MRIs to measure insular cortex activity are not readily available poolside, simple strategies may help many swimmers.  Ultimately, the key is for swimmers to have strategies to deal with anticipated stress   Everyone responds to different cues.  Some may respond best to an environment in which the enormity of a hard task is minimized.  Others may respond best to getting pumped up by coaches and teammates. 

Key point is to understand that particular physiological mechanisms underlie psychological strategies.  How we think in this realm will ultimately affect our physiology.  Coaches must create the right environment for athletes to choose the best strategies for themselves to handle future physical stress.


  1. Tucker R.  The anticipatory regulation of performance: the physiological basis for pacing strategies and the development of a perception-based model for exercise performance.Br J Sports Med. 2009 Jun;43(6):392-400. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.050799. Epub 2009 Feb 17.
  2. Paulus MP1, Simmons ANFitzpatrick SNPotterat EGVan Orden KFBauman JSwain JL.PLoS One. Differential brain activation to angry faces by elite warfighters: neural processing evidence for enhanced threatdetection.2010 Apr 14;5(4):e10096. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010096.
  3. Paulus MP1, Flagan TSimmons ANGillis KKotturi SThom NJohnson DCVan Orden KFDavenport PWSwainJLSubjecting elite athletes to inspiratory breathing load reveals behavioral and neural signatures of optimalprformers in extreme environments. PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e29394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029394. Epub 2012 Jan 19.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

3 Things you Didn't Know About Ultra-Endurance Swimming

Take Home Points on 3 Things you Didn't Know About Ultra-Endurance Swimming
  1. Ultra-endurance swimming often doesn't result in maximal fatigue, cause hunger, or alter swimming hand path.
  2. This form of training isn't as negative as some suggest on swimming skill.
Many associate ultra-endurance swimming with pain and fatigue. However, we know little
on the subject, despite it's growing popularity. Now, many swimmers have performed ultra-endurance swimming during practice through the forms of tests sets (Timed 30 minute swim or timed 3,000) and Allan Philips has discussed some of the risks/benefits of this training previously. Most swimmers would likely agree these sets are arduous times. For one, there is no break. Another difficulty is the pure mental strength required for the task. These are two reasons some coaches (for one Bob Bowman) enjoy these sets. Unfortunately, these are anecdotal reasons for this form of training. Scientifically, little is known on ultra-endurance swimming. Here are three misconceptions on ultra-endurance swimming.

  1. You Don't Reach Maximal Fatigue: Fatigue is multifactorial, associated with a decrease in muscle performance. Swimming fatigue is most noted with an increase in energy cost and a change in biomechanical stroke parameters. Despite the frequent discussion of physiological factors influencing fatigue, psychological factors are also thought to impair swimming. For example, when swimming for an extended period of time rating of perceived exertion (RPE) increases. Conscious information is the memory of the RPE of a familiar task. When an athlete is performing a novel exercise or distance, a conservative pacing approach is performed. This is why many can raise their effort level at the end of a task. The decision to cease the task would be mainly due to two psychological factors: the potential motivation and the perceived exertion. A recent study analyzed the effects of a 25-km time trial on national and international swimmers (not ultra-endurance swimmers) and found a significantly higher RPE, but not a maximal RPE during the swim. The reason for not reaching maximal RPE may be due to the novelty of the race for these swimmers (mostly sprinters) or the positive experience of finishing the task. Now, the results may be different with highly trained ultra-endurance swimmers, but for most swimmers you aren't even reaching maximal effort during ultra-endurance swimming! 
  2. You Don't Get Hungry! Hunger, like fatigue, is a complicated subject. One would expect a swimmer to become hungry during an ultra-endurance race due to the amount of calories burned. This high caloric expenditure creates a negative energy balance, yet during a 25-km swim, swimmers don't report hunger! The authors concluded "the reduction in leptin compensated for a negative energy balance due to the prolonged effort through an increase in appetite". Despite the lack of hunger, consuming some calories is paramount for ultra-endurance training. For example, if an ultra-endurance swimmer is not consuming calories they may lack in energy for maximal performance. The swimmers may also risk hyponatremia, low blood salt. Hyponatremia is a deadly condition, which kills a couple ultra-endurance runners each year. Now, the swimmers don't need to eat something, but could simply drink a fluid containing calories.  
  3. Hand Path Doesn't Change: Many coaches avoid ultra-endurance sets as they are adapting the principle of specificity. However, this study noted no change in the hand path of the swimmers during an ultra-endurance race. This doesn't imply they are using "race" specific biomechanics, but that they are locking into a pattern which isn't changing form. Since the hand path isn't changing one could argue this form of training isn't as negative as previously thought.
These three things you didn't know about ultra-endurance swimming are from one study, of non-ultra-endurance-swimmers. More research on trained ultra-endurance swimmers is warranted, as one would assume they can reach higher levels of fatigue during this racing.

If you are prescribing ultra-endurance training sets, keep this notions in mind, as safety and maximal performance are two main goals!

  1. Invernizzi PL, Limonta E, Bosio A, Scurati R, Veicsteinas A, Esposito F. Effects of a 25-km trial on psychological, physiological and stroke characteristics of short- and mid-distance swimmers. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2014 Feb;54(1):53-62.
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, Strength Coach Consultant, Creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Being a Good Swim Parent: Part II

Take Home Points on Being a Good Swim Parent
  1. Positive feedback is valuable, but the focus of positive feedback should highlight the process more than the result or the swimmer’s inherent traits
  2. Excess praise for performance or inherent traits may encourage a “fixed mindset”
  3. When shaping strokes, accurate feedback is essential
Last week, I began discussing tips for being a swim parent. This is a continuation of this
series, shifting the focus from involvement to feedback. Positive feedback is valuable, and generally more effective than negative feedback (other than if constructive criticism is required). Several articles on this site have addressed multiple issues related to feedback. As written previously:

“Clearly the evidence suggests that positive feedback enhances learning more than negative feedback. This information is not to suggest we lower standards and pat everyone on the back for participating, though it’s clear that positive reinforcement in general can improve skill retention. It simply means that the brain craves reinforcement after success.” (See, Positive and Negative Feedback)

Despite the superiority of positive feedback, praise should not be dispensed haphazardly. In fact, certain types of praise, though well intended, may limit swimmers in the long term. 

Consider different types of praise:
  • You are one of the best swimmers on this team! 
  • That was a great race! 
  • Great focus on your turns during your 200s! 
  • You held your technique all the way through that long practice! 
The first two statements praise status or outcome. The third and fourth statement praise process and effort. All statements are positive and offer encouragement…so what’s the difference and why does it matter? 

In a series of studies, Mueller and Dweck (1998) had subjects (fifth graders) perform academic tasks and offered different types of praise for success. Some subjects were praised for their intelligence while others were praised for their effort. Authors noted that kids “praised for intelligence were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort.” Is that really so bad? Consider this…

“After failure, [children praised for intelligence] also displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort. Finally, children praised for intelligence described it as a fixed trait more than children praised for hard work, who believed it to be subject to improvement.”

The last line is the key statement, and a major point in Dweck’s popular book Mindset. When well-meaning praise is heaped on kids for performance, they may internalize that quality as limited. Seeing this as a fixed trait may lead to a fixed mindset, with one symptom being kids trying to protect their status rather than striving for continual growth (growth mindset = the opposite of fixed mindset). 

Also note that praise for inherent traits tends to be generic while praise for effort offers opportunities for specificity. As Zentall (2010) cautions, 

“more nongeneric praise related linearly to greater motivation, yet self-evaluation and persistence were impacted differently by inconsistent praise types. Hearing even a small amount of generic praise reduced persistence, whereas hearing a small amount of nongeneric praise preserved self-evaluation.”

For example, praise for “staying tough on your turns” is both non-generic and effort based, whereas “you’re a great swimmer with awesome race times” is performance based and generic. Its possible that non-generic praise has an deeper underlying message of "I care."


Though the prior literature directly references praise for intelligence, coaches and psychologists in the field have drawn parallels to praise for athletic traits versus praise for efforts. Perhaps it’s that athletes interpret effort-based praise as more genuine than generic, performance praise. 

Finally, remember that technique is the coach’s realm, so praise for turns or stroke mechanics might not be welcome from parents unless the coaches and parents have had a prior conversation about the parents’ role.  Still, effort is universal and is a better subject for praise than race results or traits seen as inherent. 

Another way a swim parent can encourage self reflection and internal motivation without providing direct skills feedback, is by asking the swimmer: "what did you do well?". As a parent, simply listen, learn, and continually ask for as many positive race attributes. After the conservation praise them for evaluating themselves, a difficult task.


  1. Mueller CM, Dweck CS. Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 Jul;75(1):33-52.
  2. Zentall SR, Morris BJ. "Good job, you're so smart": The effects of inconsistency of praise type on young children's motivation. J Exp Child Psychol. 2010 Oct;107(2):155-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2010.04.015. Epub 2010 Jun 8.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Motor Imagery Guide for Swimmers

Take Home Points on Motor Imagery Guide for Swimmers

  1. Motor imagery may enhance gains in biomechanics, injury rehabilitation, mobility, and psychology.
  2. Consider adding 15 minutes of motor imagery in your training.
The use of motor imagery (MI;the mental representation of an action without overt execution,also known as visualization) during actual training sessions is usually recommended. Most Olympians use some form of MI, but it is rarely practiced in non-elite athletes. The lack of use is not well understood, as it can range from improving race anxiety to improving mobility

Allami (2014) split ten right handed subjects (~27.5 years) into two training groups. In one group, subjects executed a reach to grasp task for 240 trials. In the second group, subjects learned the task through a combination of mental rehearsal for the initial 180 trials followed by the execution of 60 trials. Thus, one group physically executed the task for 240 trials, the other only for 60 trials.

The task has been previously described in detail. Briefly, they used a two-step task, where subjects reached for and grasped an object, and transported it to insert it in an adapted support.

In the mental rehearsal task, the subjects were instructed to follow the same sequence of events as in the physical practice, except that they were told to imagine and feel themselves (first person) doing the task as if real (i.e., grasp the object, lift it and transport it to the support).

Amplitudes and latencies of event-related potentials (ERPs) were compared across groups at different stages during learning.


ERP activity increases dramatically with training and reaches the same amplitude over the premotor regions in the two groups, despite large differences in physically executed trials.

Another study looked at motor skill acquisition. Zhang (2014) had twenty-six right hand-dominant college
students (M=12, F=14; ~22 years) undergo a resting- and task-state functional MRI scan. Overall, the protocol included a pre-rest scan, pre-task scan, a motor imagery (MI) learning period or a no-learning period, a post-rest scan and a post-test scan.
The experimental group performed finger movements coordinated with a metronome. During the learning period, 14 motor imagery practice sessions were performed over 14 days.


Greater connectivity strengths in fusiform gyrus and precuneus of the sensory resting state networks (RSNs), LVN and SMN after learning. There was also decreased network strength induced by learning in the cognitive RSN specifically DMN. 

However, the use of motor imagery during heavy training may not be most effective, as motor imagery may be altered during fatigue. 

Di Rienzo (2012) had twelve swimmers (nine males, mean age 15.5 years) perform a 45 min physically-fatiguing protocol where they swam from 70% to 100% of their maximal aerobic speed. They were tested in motor imagery ability immediately before and after fatigue state. Participants randomly imagined performing a swim turn using internal and external visual imagery. Self-reports ratings, imagery times and electrodermal responses, an index of alertness from the autonomic nervous system, were the dependent variables.


Self-reports ratings indicated that participants did not encounter difficulty when performing motor imagery after fatigue. However, motor imagery times were significantly shortened during posttest compared to both pretest and actual turn times, thus indicating reduced timing accuracy. Looking at the selective effect of physical fatigue on external visual imagery did not reveal any difference before and after fatigue, whereas significantly shorter imagined times and electrodermal responses were observed during the posttest for internal visual imagery. A significant correlation was observed between motor imagery vividness (estimated through imagery questionnaire) and autonomic responses during motor imagery after fatigue. These data support that unlike local muscle fatigue, physical fatigue occurring during intense sport training sessions is likely to affect motor imagery accuracy.

Another possible use for motor imagery is the use of imagery during an injury. Hoyek (2014) had sixteen
participants (M=8, F=8; ~46.31 years) randomly assigned to a MI or control group.
The MI group imagined four movements using first-person perspective imagery. Each movement was imagined 10 times divided in five sets of two separated by 30-s rest periods.
Shoulder functional assessment (Constant score), range of motion, and pain were measured before and after.


Higher Constant score was observed in the MI than in the control group. The MI group had greater improvement amplitude in flexion, extension, and external rotation. The MI group also had decreased pain. 


MI has the potential of improving biomechanics through neural plasticity. It also may improve pain and function in those with shoulder impingement. Future studies must use better comparison groups for confirmation and making the most effective recommendations. 

6 Steps for Motor Imagery for Swimmers

There are several techniques for motor imagery training. For your individualized program, please consult a sports psychologist. If looking to try out motor imagery, try these 8 steps:
  1. Before the motor imagery in the pool. The physical nature of the imagery should include wearing a suit and being in the water (if weather and temperature permits). 
  2. Begin with deep breathing for 5 minutes. The purpose of instructing the participants through relaxation was to facilitate gaining control of breathing and physiological responses (e.g., heart rate); however, the focus was not on obtaining a highly relaxed state but to prepare for MI. 
  3. Follow this with 10 minutes of MI. Use an imagery script in which the participants were instructed to focus on their personal thoughts and feelings related to a performance event. A script is better than a video, since they'll ideally be in the water. 
  4. Focus on the specifics of swimming the task (i.e., reinforcing participants to focus on thoughts, feelings, and actions as during the physical performance and focusing on the kinesthetic nature of imagery), timing (i.e., same timing as race), learning (i.e., focusing on the ‘‘feel’’ of the movement), and emotion (i.e., experiencing all emotions and arousal associated with performance). With regard to the learning component, ‘‘feel’’ of the movement is more applicable for trained swimmers
  5. Don't instruct the participants on a specific perspective (internal or external) they should use during imagery. 
  6. Perform the script a total of 2 times. 
  7. Allow a few minutes (2 - 3 minutes) for individual mental rehearsal. 


  1. Di Rienzo F, Collet C, Hoyek N, Guillot A. Selective effect of physical fatigue on motor imagery accuracy. PLoS One. 2012;7(10)
  2. Allami N, Brovelli A, Hamzaoui el M, Regragui F, Paulignan Y, Boussaoud D. Neurophysiological correlates of visuo-motor learning through mental and physical practice. Neuropsychologia. 2014 Mar;55:6-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.12.017. Epub 2014 Jan 3.
  3. Hoyek N, Di Rienzo F, Collet C, Hoyek F, Guillot A. The therapeutic role of motor imagery on the functional rehabilitation of a stage II shoulder impingement syndrome. Disabil Rehabil. 2014 Feb 28. [Epub ahead of print]
  4. Zhang H, Long Z, Ge R, Xu L, Jin Z, Yao L, Liu Y. Motor imagery learning modulates functional connectivity of multiple brain systems in resting state. PLoS One. 2014 Jan 17;9(1):e85489. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085489. eCollection 2014.
The newest edition of the Swimming Science Research Review was released yesterday. The theme of this edition is motor learning, make sure to order your copy to stay current with the latest research on dry-land. Below are the tables of contents of this edition. 


  1. Athletes are More Coordinated | PROPRIOCEPTION   
  2. Fatigue Alters Motor Imagery Accuracy  | IMAGERY  
  3. Submaximal Speed Improves Maximal Speed in Untrained  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  4. Cortical Changes in as Quick as Five Days  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  5. Motor Imagery Improves Shoulder Pain  | IMAGERY  
  6. Mental Rehearsal Results in Similar Gains as Practice  | IMAGERY  
  7. Mental Fatigue Impairs Endurance Performance  | MENTAL FATIGUE  
  8. Aerobic Exercises Causes SICI and Neural Plasticity  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  9. Motor Imagery May Improve Motor Skill  | IMAGERY  
  10. CMJ Performance Correlates with Cortical Level  | OVERTRAINING   
  11. Individuals Learn at Different Speeds  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  12. Individualized Feedback Improves Long-Term Retention  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  13. High-Intensity Training Alters Skilled Movement  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  14. Co-Contraction Training Improves Strength  | STRENGTH
  15. Unilateral Training May Crossover Skill  | CROSS-EDUCATION   
  16. Random Practices Improves Retention  | MOTOR LEARNING   
  17. HIIT Doesn’t Decrease Enjoyment  | ENJOYMENT  
  18. Intense Training Alters Cortical Composition  | NEURAL PLASTICITY  
  19. fMRI Appears Accurate for Neural Plasticity Changes  | NEURAL PLASTICITY  

The influx of online information makes it difficult to stay up-to-date with informative, accurate research studies. The Swimming Science Research Review brings you a comprehensive research articles on swimming, biomechanics, physiology, psychology, and much more! 

This monthly publication keeps busy coaches and swimming enthusiast on top of swimming research to help their programs excel, despite being extremely busy. 


Written by G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical at University of Southern California (USC) and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). At USC, he was a clinical research assistant performing research on adolescent  diabetes, lung adaptations to swimming, and swimming biomechanics. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal. He is currently the owner of COR, providing Physical Therapy, Personal Training, and Swim Lessons to swimmers and athletes of all skills and ages. He is also the creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder SystemSwimming ScienceSwimming Science Research Review, and the Swimming Troubleshooting System.

Coaching the Narcissistic Swimmer

Take Home Points on Coaching the Narcissistic Swimmer

  1. Athletes with narcissistic personalities thrive on adulation and relative standing to peers
  2. Different athletes require different motivation strategies
  3. Consider the mental stress of constant competition during practice and dryland, particularly as it relates to different personality types
It’s no secret that modern athletes live in a culture of individual expression.  Gone are the days when quiet obedience to coaching authority was the rule, though swimming’s rigid adherence to the clock.   Indeed, modern study has shown that America’s youth rates high on narcissism.  With the ubiquity of social media offering a platform of self-expression, that development seems only natural.  As coaches, it’s critical to adapt and not simply yearn for “the good old days.”

Yet despite the negative connotations Iinked to the word narcissism, this trait can actually help athletes perform at high levels.  Recent study (though not yet formally published) has shown that narcissistic personality may in fact correlate with high performance under pressure.   

As Dr. Ross Roberts at the University of Bangor notes, “We think the reason why narcissists thrive in these stressful situations is because when they excel under these circumstances; they receive the admiration and adulation that they crave. You could say that they’re personalities that are ‘driven by glory’. People with these personality types perform less well in situations where their desires will not be met – where pressure is lacking.”

For some athletes, adulation is an emotional need, only satisfied through the recognition that comes from high achievement.  The coaching implication is these athletes thrive on challenge and racing in practice.  Understanding the inherent differences in different types of athletes is critical for coaches to provide the optimal training environment for each athlete. (see also, The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid it)

Prior research is consistent with these findings showing that some athletes do perform better when the spotlight is on.  Wallace (2002) conducted four experiments with opportunities for different levels of recognition based on achievement.  “In each study, narcissists performed better when self-enhancement opportunity was high rather than low. In contrast, the performance of participants with low narcissism was relatively unaffected by self-enhancement opportunity. Other findings suggested that narcissists' self-enhancement motivation stems more from a desire to garner admiration than from a desire to self-evaluate.”

In similar findings, Woodman (2011) noted “high narcissists' performance significantly increased with greater identifiability, whereas low narcissists displayed no such performance differences. Results suggested that this effect was due to an increase in narcissists' on-task effort (ratings of perceived exertion and heart rate) when they knew that their performance was to be identified.”

We’ve all been frustrated by the athlete who gives less than their best effort when no one is watching but find ways to “step it up” when the spotlight is one.  But what does this say about those without the narcissistic bent?   Different sources of internal motivation require different approaches to coaching.

Catherine Shearer, sports psychologist at the Sport Wales Institute, adds “[Coaches] need to be able to manipulate the environment so that they are using the right techniques for each individual athlete.  Creating a training environment that is full of rivalry could be helpful for a narcissist type, but this could have an adverse effect on an athlete who is trying to use a training session for perfecting a technique.”
The physical perils of excessive competition during practice have been discussed previously on here (Dryland Mistake: Crossfit for Swimmers), but the mental side deserves mention as well.  Whereas some want to see how many reps they can do (and often need to be held back to protect them from themselves), others are motivated by the task itself irrespective of improving social standing or garnering attention from others.  It is imperative that coaches recognize what makes each athlete tick and provide the right environment for each to thrive. 


The unanswered question is whether some athletes do indeed “raise their game” when the spotlight shines bright or do they simply require external attention to give reach their normal level.  Though it’s much preferred to deliver when it counts during competition, we’d all prefer consistent effort during practice.  But regardless of whatever training system you employ, always consider different psychological responses unique to each type of athlete.  One size fits none! 

  1. Narcissism Boosts Athletes PerformanceStudy Finds.  Wales Online.  May 2, 2012 
  2. Wallace HMBaumeister RF.  The performance of narcissists rises and falls with perceived opportunity for glory.  J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002 May;82(5):819-34.
  3. Woodman TRoberts RHardy LCallow NRogers CH.  There is an "I" in TEAM: narcissism and social loafing. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2011 Jun;82(2):285-90.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Positive and Negative Feedback

Every coach has their own style.  Some are “in your face” yellers, while others are more reserved.  Choosing between positive and negative feedback is an endless challenge, no matter your coaching style.  Both types of feedback have their roles, but we must know whether the feedback we provide is actually contributing to the outcomes we observe.  In general though, positive feedback is a more favored strategy according to the evidence.  As we wrote in Optimizing Feedback in the Pool Part II...

“Clearly the evidence suggests that positive feedback enhances learning more than negative feedback. This information is not to suggest we lower standards and pat everyone on the back for participating, though it’s clear that positive reinforcement in general can improve skill retention. It simply means that the brain craves reinforcement after success.   

One important concept in evaluating feedback is regression to the mean.   Regression to the mean simply means that in a given sample of repeated performances, results will cluster around an average.  Some will be higher, some may be lower, but all will naturally move toward the average, either from above or from below.  Regression to the mean is a well-established statistical fact with applications in all areas, including sports performance.

In his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) Nobel Prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes a situation that demonstrates the interaction between regression to the mean and coaching.  In his book, he describes visiting a foreign military flight school and observing instructors interact with students.  Some patterns emerged…

Instructors regularly offered negative feedback to students after rough landings, observing that their performance naturally improved after a rough landing when paired with negative feedback.  Conversely, they were stingy with positive feedback after especially smooth landings, noting that performance typically deteriorated when positive feedback was offered after a good performance.  Their rationale for their feedback strategies was that negative feedback motivated students to raise their performance after a bad landing, while positive feedback made students complacent, hence their inability to perform consecutive exemplary landings. 

While these conclusions may have merit in any individual case, as a rule they are infected by our inherent bias to create meaning, which possibly reinforces suboptimal feedback strategies.   After all, its only natural that we’d seek logical explanations from what we observe before us.  But maybe our negative feedback isn’t as effective as we think…and maybe any regressions from exemplary performance after heaping praise on athletes has little to do with complacency and more to do with statistical trends.  As Kahnemann adds, 

“The failure to understand the effect of regression leads one to overestimate the effectiveness of punishment and to underestimate the effectiveness of reward.  In social interaction as well as in training, rewards are typically administered when performance is good, and punishments are typically administered when performance is poor.  By regression alone, therefore, behavior is most likely to improve after punishment and deteriorate after reward.”

Did yelling at the athlete for a substandard performance really make them better the next time around?  Did slobbering praise into the lane for a great effort foster complacency?  Or did statistics almost ensure subsequent efforts would adjust accordingly? Statistical rules are undeniable and are critical for us to separate our observations from bias.  

Yet despite these rules, it would be incorrect to assume that our feedback is entirely meaningless.  Every athlete responds differently and there are some who respond to negative feedback, though you can argue a distinction between “tough love” and genuine negativity.  Individual preferences are critical to recognize, but always consider the cause-and-effect of our feedback strategies and don’t assume based on outcomes alone.      


  1. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow, Allen Lane 2011.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Brief Swimming Review Volume 1 Edition 4

In an attempt to improve swimming transparency, a brief swimming related literature review will be posted on Saturday. If you enjoy this brief swimming review, consider supporting and purchasing the Swimming Science Research Review
Backstroke Start Foot Position

Backstroke swimmers continually push the limits of the start by raising their feet higher and higher on the wall.  Jesus (2013) et al. looked at the kinematic and kinetic changes from various foot positioning on the wall. Six elite swimmers performed two sets of 4 maximal 15 m bouts with the feet either emersed or immersed in water.

The results demonstrate:
"[b]ackstroke start with feet immerged displayed greater centre-of-mass horizontal starting position, centre-of-mass horizontal velocity at hands-off and take-off angle. Backstroke start with feet emerged showed greater wall contact time, centre-of-mass horizontal and downward vertical velocity at take-off, lower limbs horizontal impulse, and centre-of-mass downward vertical velocity during flight phase. Backstroke start with feet immerged and emerged displayed similar centre-of-mass horizontal water reach, back arc angle and 5 m starting time (Jesus 2013)"

Surprisingly, this study showed minimal differences (especially in time) between the two conditions. It is hard to believe the water on the feet doesn't provide an extra resistance when exiting the water for a backstroke start, nonetheless these results suggest this resistance is insignificant. 

Bone Mineral Density in Swimmers
We've discussed bone mineral density (BMD) in swimmers previously on Swim Sci (Bone Mineral Density in Swimmers) and have even proposed a low BMD may benefit swimmers (Does Low Bone Mineral Density Aid Flotation). Another study from Maïmoun (2013) notes low BMD in female swimmers compared to rhythmic gymnast. In fact, this study notes swimmers and controls have lower BMD from as early as 10 years old which persists until the age of 18! 

Now BMD is scary and an under discussed issue in swimmers. Scofield (2013) notes: /'biking and swimming, often have lower bone mineral density (BMD) than athletes participating in ball and power sports, and sometimes their BMD is lower than their inactive peers. Low BMD increases the risk of stress and fragility fractures, both while an athlete is actively competing and later in life."

However, there are issues with too much joint loading and BMD: "bone mass gain lasts longer in gymnasts, which may be explained by the delay in sexual maturation", the risk of too much bone-loading and BMD (Maïmoun 2013).

Perceived Exertion During Practice
Being able to judge an swimmer's exertion helps a coach monitor training load and status (Reliability Rating of Perceived Exertion in Swimming) . Although many coaches' feel competent in this arena, this is mostly hearsay. However, Barroso (2013) "studied 160 swimmers of different age-groups and different competitive swimming experience, and nine coaches." Each swimmer and coach rated a workout from 1 - 10, with 1 being the easiest.

The results indicate a positive correlation between the coaches' and athletes' score with age. However, even the older swimmers had poor correlation with their coaches during hard workouts. These results imply older swimmers rate their practice intensities closer to their coaches', but differences are still present during hard workouts. For this reason, receiving ratings of workout from swimmers is important at every age! 
  1. Jesus KD, Jesus KD, Figueiredo P, Gonçalves P, Pereira SM, Vilas-Boas JP, Fernandes RJ. Backstroke start kinematic and kinetic changes due to different feet positioning. J Sports Sci. 2013 May 20. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Maïmoun L, Coste O, Mura T, Philibert P, Galtier F, Mariano-Goulart D, Paris F, Sultan C. Specific bone mass acquisition in elite female athletes.J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013 May 10. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Scofield KL, Hecht SBone health in endurance athletes: runners, cyclists, and swimmers.Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Nov-Dec;11(6):328-34. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3182779193. Review.
  4. Barroso R, Cardoso RK, do Carmo EC, Tricoli V.Perceived Exertion in Coaches and Young Swimmers With Different Training Experience.Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Apr 23. [Epub ahead of print].
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Do you want to do Another?

Building internal motivation and drive is essential for long-term success and elite performance. Internal motivation has been suggested to improve performance more than external motivation (Broedling 1975; Andrisani 1976). Internal motivation also has been shown as an important variable between championship caliber and non-championship caliber teams (Blegen 2012). 

In swimming, most swimmers are asked to perform a specific amount of repetitions. This typically forces swimmers to be content or pleased with simply finishing the requested amount or even failing the workout, but finishing the amount of yards. 

Looks like punishment fly to me!
Another commonality in swimming is the use of exercise or extra swimming as a punishment, associating the punishment and pain with swimming. I know everyone has heard of a coach making a group of young swimmers perform 20 x 25 fly. No wonder fly is likely the "hardest" and most "hated" stroke in the sport!

Instead, encouraging swimmers to do more is a method of increasing internal motivation. Moreover, allowing swimmers to determine the volume of their training associates swimming volume with success. 

Now, don't get me wrong, I know this method won't work for certain swimmers, as they must be taught proper methods of self interpretation, but at the end of a repeat set, instead of having your swimmers perform countless repetitions, simply ask, "do you want to do another?" at the end of a good set! This can change the mindset of an athlete and build motivation and confidence within a swimmer. 

  1. Blegen MD, Stenson MR, Micek DM, Matthews TD. Motivational differences for participation among championship and non-championship caliber NCAA division III football teams. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Nov;26(11):2924-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182719123.
  2. Broedling, L. A., (1975). Relationship of internal-external control to work motivation and performance in an expectancy model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 65-70.
  3. Andrisani, P. J., & Nestel, G., (1976) Internal-external control as contributor of work experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, 156-165.
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Is Mental Toughness Trainable?

Every coach, regardless of formal education, practices some form of sports psychology with their athletes.  One of the most commonly discussed areas on the pool deck is mental toughness.  Nearly every swimmer takes pride in their own toughness for putting in big hours (often at obscenely early times) in a sport entirely unnatural to human beings.  Mental toughness is deemed so important in swimming that the ASCA recently polled 110 coaches at all levels for their definitions of mental toughness. Here is a sample of answers from that survey, keeping in mind that many other answers echoed the sentiments in those below (2012):
  • The ability to overcome doubt, fear, pain, and distractions to achieve optimal performance.
  • Dealing with success and failure equally.
  • Doing the right thing when it the right thing is tough to do.
  • Having the ability to deal with pain (muscle fatigue) in important practice and competition situations.
Our task in this article is to examine the science on whether mental toughness is a trainable quality.  To know if toughness can be improved, we first need a baseline.  Unfortunately, a measurable baseline of mental toughness is elusive, though modern research has looked at physiological stress markers for an idea.  Although coping skills, visualization, and resilience and other psychological traits are all recognized in the literature, toughness is a broad term and takes many different forms.

Dr. Rushall offers a four pronged test to determine whether mental toughness is a valid metric. (Rushall 2013)
  1. Quantifiable.  "I know mental toughness when I see it" fails to satisfy this prong.  Physiological stress markers are one way to assess toughness, but are imperfect measures. 
  2. Manipulable.  In comparing two groups experimentally, they must operate at different percentages of baseline to compare results.  For example, VO2 max is a common physiology marker because you can compare two groups operating at different percentages of a maximum output.  Mental toughness has flaws as a manipulable metric due to lack of baseline quantification.
  3. Inter-rater reliability. Are two people looking at the same thing?  As we saw with the survey, definitions of mental toughness vary greatly.  There are no wrong answers, but there is a clear lack of uniformity. 
  4. Intra-rater reliability.  Does your own assessment of mental toughness remain consistent?  
Further, the main unanswered question is whether exposure to psychological stressors would lead to improvements in mental toughness.  Is there a causal relationship between stress and “tough” behavior.  We’ve all been through mentally challenging sets and have followed most of those sets with performance improvements.  Basic exercise physiology tells us that exposure to a physical stressor leads to physical adaptation.  Does a similar cause-and-effect apply to the mental side?  

Collins (2012) offers a recent commentary suggesting that mental toughness is indeed trainable, noting “intermittent exposure, followed by periods of adjustment before more challenge, results in a differential hormonal response to stress characterized by a more solution-focused perception.”  This explanation also accounts for the possibility of burnout as overexposure to any stressor would seem to have negative effects.  This same article cites evidence for causation in educational and non-athletic settings, but formal study in competitive sport is limited.

When explanations are elusive we often fall prey to confirmation bias.  If we lack a tangible explanation of how similar athletes can have different performances, mental toughness seems a convenient explanation, especially if we have long believed that mental toughness is responsible for effective results. “[R]esearch which has assumed that elite and super elite athletes are mentally tough with no objective measures sets a dangerous precedent” (Crust 2008).

Ultimately, it’s important to distinguish between the mental stressors inherent in high level sport with stressors added for the sole purpose of developing mental toughness.  The inherent stressors are unavoidable, but it is imperative that we continue seeking a justifiable definition of “toughness” rather than assuming that those who survive toughness training have actually benefited from the experience. 

Toughness differences undoubtedly exist, despite the difficulties in defining and measuring toughness.  The real challenge is figuring out whether mental toughness is an accurate explanation for observed phenomena. 
The next question is whether toughness can be improved in the ways we believe it can.  High level athletes demonstrate certain psychological qualities, but thus far the evidence is unclear on whether the toughness component is trainable. 

The purpose of this post was not to answer those questions but instead to challenge us to question our assumptions on the role of mental toughness training. The mental side has a profound role in performance but it our responsibility to make sure it is employed appropriately with the right level of emphasis: no more and no less.  


  1. Collins DMacNamara A.  The rocky road to the top: why talent needs trauma.  Sports Med. 2012 Nov 1;42(11):907-14. doi: 10.2165/11635140-000000000-00000.
  2. Crust, L.  A review and conceptual re-examination of the literature of mental toughness Personality and Individual Differences 45 (2008) 576–583
  3. American Swimming.  Issue 5, 2012.
  4. Dr. Brent Rushall, personal correspondence, 2013.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.