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Friday Interview: Stefan Szczepan Ph.D. Discusses Immediate Feedback in Swimmers

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).
Hi, my name is Stefan Szczepan. I'm a scientist at University School of Physical Education in Wroclaw, Poland and I work at the Department of Swimming. This year I received a doctor degree. I'm interested in motor control and learning included motor skill acquisition processes in water environment, especially teaching communication, forms of instruction, augmented feedback, and practice schedules. My mentor is Professor Krystyna Zaton, the head of Institute of Physical Activity in Water Environment in my University. She guides me in the science. I’m very proud with this relationship and I am very thankful for the trust and the knowledge transfer. My most recent research is about the impact of immediate verbal feedback and concurrent visual feedback on the improvement of swimming technique. I am the author or co-author of few articles in research journals. I connect theory with practice while teaching swimming and swimmers trainer.

2. You recently published an article immediate feedback and swimming. What are the different types of feedback?
Feedback is sensory information that results from movement. There are two types of feedback: intrinsic (integral) and extrinsic (augmented feedback). Intrinsic feedback is the sensory information arising as a result of physical activity by the means of sensory mechanisms (exteroreceptors and proprioreceptors). Information that derives from the receptor allows for movement regulation as well as the adjustment of motor task completion to the desired model of physical activity. Extrinsic feedback is formed after the completion of a motor activity and is transmitted by a third. Examples of extrinsic information are verbal communication, gestures, video, timer displays. There are several distinct types of feedback which are categorized according to the time of its transmission: concurrent feedback (provided during motor task concern continuous information), immediate feedback (provided during motor task concern discrete information) and delayed (transmitted after the completion of the motor action). Types of feedback are the most important for me. The most effective information is verbal and immediate. If you are interested in it – follow this link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25114741

3. In your study you worked on improving the swimmers stroke length, can you explain how
you did this?
This study that we conducted together with Professor Zaton concerns the issues related to the importance of the transfer of feedback in an immediate manner to the learner during the learning swimming process. The work shows that the time in which the feedback reaches the learner is important in the motor control and that it improves swimming technique. The feedback communicated to the learner in real time manner regarding a performed motor function allows for the removal of errors in the short-term memory or prevents their formation. I chose a simple kinematic parameter of swimming movement as stroke length to confirm the importance of immediate verbal feedback. In this way the emergence of an error in the time-space structure of swimming motility was eliminated. The objective numerical dimension of the mistakes made allowed for a quantified relationship between the shortening of the swimming stroke length and the constant frequency of the propulsive movements. These factors led to a decrease in the efficiency of swimming, which was noted in the swimming velocity and a decrease in the economization of the swimming techniques, as indicated by the index SI. For these purpose I used special wireless tools including a system, transmitter and receiver for swimmer and teacher. This gave a possibility of a verbally and immediately control of swimming movement. It's an amazing technology that I spent significant money to develop and it works incredibly well.

4. What were the main results of your study?
The use of these tools in an experiment conducted on the experimental group, in which the information regarding the execution of the performed activity was transferred to students in an immediate manner, indicated that the swimming stroke is significantly improved along with an increased swimming speed while maintaining the same frequency of movements. This resulted in an effective movement in the aquatic environment. In the control group, however, where such information was not given, there was no observed swimming stroke elongation while maintaining the same frequency of movements. The transmission of immediate feedback in order to prevent the occurrence of errors or to eliminate them entirely, this also resulted in an improvement in the economization of swimming motor functions. The economization of swimming techniques was assessed using the index of SI [stroke index], which was considered as its measurement. Increase in the index SI values will see a decrease in the physiological cost of effort. In the control group this increase was not observed. It looks like that work tool and the assumptions of study can be used in any other motor swimming motor activity, not only stroke length. An example would be learning and improving movements of the legs and hands, body position in the water or coordination aspects, as well as other swimming motor elements.

5. What were the practical implications for coaches and swimmers from your study?
With the breaking of communication barriers, the following improve:
  1. Preventing the occurrence of errors and removing them from the motor memory.
  2. Improving motor structures and the cost reduction of physiological effort.
  3. Conditions will be created to improve the quality of swimming techniques with various degrees of accomplishment of utilitarian.
  4. Recreational values of physical culture, as well as antagonistic values noticeable in the competitive sports oriented towards maximizing achievement. 
The applied value of the method used, in which the verbal feedback was transmitted instantaneously in an immediate manner, in the practice of teaching and coaching is the enrichment of the communication technology regarding the correct structure of swimming motor functions. This is the main principle. The above assumptions are based on the physiological structure of human memory, whose different types are classified depending on how long information is stored in them. At first site, takes include human motor memory and second site augmented immediate verbal feedback. I give a method with used immediate verbal feedback for improves swimming technique and effectively the swimming learning process.
6. Do you think the results would be different if you had older, elite or untrained swimmers?
For sure people perceive information differently, due to age, sex or seniority. Probably we would observe differences between elite and non swimmers. This study showed the impact of immediate feedback on young swimmers. It can be apply for all swimmers, but the results may be a little different. In the future, I will plan other studies that answer on this question clearly.

7. Do you think immediate tactile or visual feedback would have different results?
Teaching and improvement of swimming technique is effective when external information is transmitted in three forms: words, images and practical actions. In case of the tactile I need to appeal to kinesthetic differentiation. It is one of the most important motor abilities. This ability is a precise perception of strength, time, and space. Feeling spatial movements, feeling of movement speed, what it’s called "water feeling” makes precise control of the movements. Tactile feedback can improve kinesthetic differentiation and makes to decrease energy cost and achieving better results. We deal this issue at my University. As regards the visual feedback I use special device. For example, it is the optical fiber giving the swimmer concurrent visual information. The light beam also provides the swimmer with the information on swimming speed. The ability to control the speed of swimming is an important part of preparation during swimming training. This is especially important when the desire is to obtain a pure training stimulus. Swimming with a defined - constant speed impacts on economical labor, and allows for maintaining a low physiological cost. Therefore, the development of a method that allows for acquisition and improvement of that skill is an important methodical goal in the process of swimming training optimization.

8. When working on biomechanics, how do you suggest tapering down feedback when the swimmer is progressing?
The role of the teacher is to provide feedback as long as the swimmer will acquire motor habit. Motor habit in human motor memory are formed after several thousand repetitions, therefore, the time of their acquisition is different. The next step in order to improve the quality of swimming mobility is multiple individual repetitions of the correct structure for motion, which was acquired by the use of immediate, verbal regulation regarding the swimming motor structures. Of course, if there are errors the teacher must again respond. Feedback can be addictive. In order to avoid the negative effects of frequent augmented feedback various techniques have been applied such as faded, bandwidth, summary, average or self-controlled schedules have been used.

9. Should teams utilize immediate auditory feedback?
I have a plan to develop my device and bring it to the swimming team. This allows the delivers of the individual swimmer and for the whole group. It will be easier to conduct training.

10. What makes your research different from others?
An innovative aspect of the subject undertaken is to identify empirically, that the time in which the information reaches the learner is important in the learning process and that it improves swimming technique. My work examines important aspect impeding the process of teaching of swimming and technique improvement. The interference in didactic communication – it is particularly noticeable when an exercise is executed in an atypical environment, for example in water. The aquatic environment hinders the reception of information because a number of disruptive factors such as the distance between the teacher and the learner or ambient noise favors errors in a given exercise. Thus, the environmental factors make it hard to use verbal feedback to its full communicative potential in the process of swimming acquisition or technique improvement. It may also be challenging to immediately eliminate or prevent (within short-term memory) errors as or before they appear, as I said early. I believe that the results of the present research work should contribute to defining the actual significance of immediate verbal feedback in swimming acquisition and improvement.

11. Which teachers have most influenced your research?
The person who influenced the most on my research has been my professor Krystyna Zatoń. For me she is a really big scientist. All the time she teaches me how to be better. It requires a lot of my sacrifices. Since I started working with her at Department of Swimming my life sped up, but I like it. I can learn a lot from a great biomechanic of swimming, a professor Marek Rejman too. We work together. I guess that we are good scientific team. Also I take inspiration from different scientists who are engaged in motor control and learning. There are many in the world, so I need to check of the database brand new publications.

12. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
I’m currently working on the evaluation of the achievements of swimmers. This evaluation is performed during motor activity in real time. Ability to take correct feedback to evaluation swimming technique can increase swimming performance. Usually, data are obtained from delay, e.g. with using movement analysis software. In addition, the aquatic environment interferes common available device for the evaluation, e.g. Infrared. Therefore I develop telemetry measuring swimming techniques. It enables in real-time provide feedback on the structure of the swimming movement. Wireless method of assessing swimming techniques can be used for research purposes to create maps of swimming techniques, to quantify. In addition, I’m interested in biofeedback and the implementation of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in the verification of feedback in swimming learning. Both issues seem to be good for my future. Many questions pertaining to increase the process of swimming acquisition and teaching remain unanswered and further research appears necessary. I hope it finishes successfully. I have one rule in my life, that says never stop.

Thanks Stefan!

Friday Interview: Liz Sanil Discusses Motor Learning

1) Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession,
education, credentials, experience etc.).
I first became interested in kinesiology after a visit to an athletic therapist following a high school wrestling injury. During my undergraduate degree I became particularly interested in motor learning and control. My MSc, Ph.D. and postdoctoral research have focused on practice factors such as practice scheduling and feedback and providing choice to the learner during practice.

2) You have published many articles on motor learning. What are the different theories on motor learning?
Theory plays a large role in my research projects. The predominant formal theory in motor leaning today is Schmidt's schema theory, which addresses movement production and evaluation. This theory borrowed the effective parts of earlier motor learning and psychology theories and built upon them with knowledge about motor control and leaning processes. Schmidt's Schema theory does not however provide us with a complete understanding of motor learning and there are other important theoretical perspectives and hypotheses which can contribute to our understanding of motor learning.  Schmidt and Lee (2011, chapter 13) divide these perspectives into categories including the cognitive perspective which addresses the role of cognitive processes such as planning and evaluation of movement in motor leaning, the hierarchical control perspective which addresses the construction of motor programs, shifting control of a skill from higher to lower-level control processes, and the Bernstein perspective which addresses stages of learning though which degrees of freedom (e.g. joints) are progressively released and reorganized. This perspective also emphasizes the interaction between the sensory-motor system and the environment. Recently, some aspects of motor learning have also been examined from motivational perspectives originating in psychology theory.

3) What is the motor learning research confident about?
Much of the application of motor learning research is dependent upon factors such as the type of task to be learned, the characteristics of the learner (such as age or experience level) and the type of environment in which the skill is learned and performed. New theoretical perspectives and hypotheses are also being examined in attempts to address the shortfalls of current theories. Nonetheless, there are several general concepts we can be reasonably confident about that are applicable to coaching. One very  straightforward concept is termed "law of practice", which states that with all other things being equal, the more practice trials completed, the more learning will occur. Improvements are generally large at the start of practice and decrease in magnitude over time (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, chapter 11). Another example is the concept of stages of learning; several researchers have proposed that learners move through a series of stages in the learning of a motor skill.  While the number of stages and their specific names differ between researchers, it is generally agreed that at the start of practicing a new skill, learners engage in a lot of cognitive activity figuring out appropriate strategies. At this early stage performance is quite variable and many training techniques are most effective, aiding in the development of appropriate strategies. In the next stage learners have already figured out what it is they need to do and now focus more on adjustments to how the skill is performed. In this stage the movements become more consistent and effective through relatively small changes. After quite some time of practice the skill may become relatively automatic, freeing up resources for the learner to use on other tasks (Schmidt & Lee, 2011, chapter 13). Understanding approximately where a particular learner or athlete is in terms of these stages of learning can help a coach choose appropriate training techniques to benefit learning.

The research provides consistent evidence for the effectiveness of many training techniques in relation to factors such as practice scheduling, feedback, focus of attention, models, guidance and part versus whole practice, but in interest of space I won't go into great detail here (See chapters 11 & 12 in Schmidt & Lee, 2011).

4) What are some big unknowns or misconceptions?
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about motorlearning, particularly in sport, is
that performance during practice is indicative of learning that has taken place. Because motor learning is considered a relatively permanent change in performance, due to practice, sometimes the changes that are taking place with learning are not immediately evident. Many strategies that have been shown to benefit learning can be detrimental to performance during a practice session. Dr. Damian Farrow gives a great example of this distinction using an example of swimming training sessions (see pages 372-375 in Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice, Hodges, N.J. & Williams A.M. eds.) He distinguishes between performance-based practice sessions and learning-focused practice sessions. Performance-based sessions have a focus on performance outcome measures (e.g. time, stoke rate) and the inclusion of all elements of a race environment (e.g. starting with a dive rather than at the edge of the pool), while learning-focused sessions focus on technical skill production, sometimes including trial and error, with much less emphasis on outcome measures. Even though swimmers may indeed be learning and improving technique during the learning-focused sessions, the changes may not be evident until a later performance -based session.

Another misconception is that learners (athletes) are good at predicting how well they have learned a skill. As discussed above, some training strategies may lead to poorer performance during a practice session even though significant learning has occurred. Conversely, a practice session during which an athlete has shown very good performance, may have resulted in relatively little learning. Often learners who have performed well during a practice session using a less effective training strategy for learning will over-estimate how much they have learned, while those who produced poorer performance using a more effective strategy will under-estimate how much they have learned (e.g. Simon & Bjork, 2001.)

5) What aspects of motor learning should coaches, particularly swim coaches use?
There are several training strategies, in particular, practice organization, instruction and feedback strategies with evidence from motor learning research, that are helpful for coaches. Distinguishing between performance and learning as discussed above is one aspect  of practice that should be considered by coaches. In general, coaches should also consider variety in practice schedules when deciding upon drills for a particular practice session. A simple application of this would be to space out the practice of a particular skill (e.g. flip-turn) throughout the practice rather than completing several in a row at the beginning of practice. Another consideration for coaches is that too much feedback from external sources, such as a coach, can produce a dependency on that feedback. One way to guard against this dependency is to ask swimmers how they felt they performed before providing feedback. Another way would be to withhold feedback from certain trials or delay the feedback provision until several trials have been performed. Dr. Farrow gives specific examples of changes he has suggested for typical swimming training sessions in the past. (see pages 372-375 in Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice, Hodges, N.J. & Williams A.M. eds.)

6) What were the practical implications for coaches and swimmers from your study?
One important thing to note is that our study used what we call a discrete skill (a skill with a definite beginning and end) while the majority of swimming would be considered a continuous skill (a skill with no inherent beginning and end). With this in mind, this study would be most applicable to aspects of swimming such as a dive or flip turn. However, please keep in mind that these swimming-specific skills are more complex and difficult than the simple crokinole-type skill used in our study. In our study one group started with the easiest version of a task and progressed through more difficult versions throughout practice. The other group began with the most difficult version and progressed through easier versions. In most sport situations where an athlete is learning a new skill, the schedule of the first group (easy-to-difficult progression) is the one followed. In our study the second group (difficult-to-easy progression) performed better during practice and on a transfer test. A transfer test measures how well a learner (or athlete) is able to adapt what has been practiced to a new version of a task. In swimming the need for this type of adaptation may arise when an athlete encounters an unfamiliar starting block, or begins a turn from a less-than-ideal location. In our study, the second group started practice with a large amount of error and decreased the amount of error throughout practice as the versions of the task got easier and as the learners gained more experience. This suggests that for some tasks (such as our relatively easy discrete task) error at the start of practice isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we suggest that the challenge of a more difficult task at the right time during practice may be what benefits the learner on later transfer tests. In terms of practical implications for coaches, of course, with the safety of the athlete kept in mind, a coach might consider that errors at the beginning of practice are not necessarily detrimental to learning in the long run and may help with adaptation to new situations. Some factors to consider when designing practice schedules are the difficulty of the task itself, the experience of the learner and how important adaptation of the skill is. With further studies examining the role of errors at the beginning of practice for more difficult and/or continuous tasks, more specific recommendations applicable to swimming may come forth.

7) What is the future of motor learning and sports?
Motor learning researchers and coaches have much to offer each other. For example, coaches can help researchers understand the applied nature of skill-learning for his or her sport, while researchers can provide new evidence-based training strategies for coaches to consider. Skill acquisition specialists, knowledgeable about motor learning are currently working together with high-performance sport organizations (e.g. in Australia and New Zealand) to impact the performance of elite athletes.

8) What research projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
Plans for my future research program focus on practice variables such as scheduling and feedback and taking a look at the wider picture of the practice context as a whole. This work will be based in motor learning and control theory as well as sport and exercise psychology theory.

References and relevant reading
Schmidt, R. A., & Lee T.D. (2011) Motor Control and Learning a Behavioral Emphasis (5th ed.) Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.
Hodges, N. J. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.).(2012). Skill Acquisition in Sport Research, Theory and Practice (2nd ed.) New York, NY, Routledge.
Simon, D.A., & Bjork, R.A. (2001) Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27, 907-912.
Farrow, D., Baker, J., & MacMahon, C. (Eds.).(2013). Developing Sport Expertise Researchers and Coaches put Theory into Practice (2nd ed.) New York, NY, Routledge.

External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention

External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention
  1. External focus cues may interact with different feedback strategies based on expectations of results
  2. There is some, but not definitive evidence, that males and females may respond differently to different focus strategies
  3. Evidence suggests no difference exists in efficacy of external vs internal focus cues for simple tasks, but external focus cues may be more appropriate for complex task
A couple years ago we posted a well received post on different strategies of attentional
focus (External vs Internal Focus for Optimal Skill Acquisition).  In general, focus strategies can be grouped into external focus versus internal focus.  Think of external focus as being related to external factors, such as a whole movement pattern or an external object (“push the water back”), or internal factors, such as movement of a body part (“pull your arm back”).

This is a relatively novel line of research with much of the evidence appearing in the last 10-15 years.  Though a relatively simple concept, there are many different ways to apply this concept, with the best approach often not as simple as one strategy being uniformly better than the other.  While most of the evidence tends toward favoring external focus strategies over internal focus strategies, different situations may call for different approaches. (See also, Age Group Swim Coaching Tips: External Cues For Reading the Clock and Leaving on Time).

As with most general research, specific swimming applications are limited, so we must extrapolate from non-swimming studies (but note, Freudenheim 2010, external focus superior in 25m sprint trials).  One non-swim study with potential swim applications (Ille 2013) involved external vs internal focus strategies on sprint start performance.  Novice and expert athletes were tested in sprint starts under three different conditions: external focus, internal focus, neutral instructions.  Authors found that, “The reaction time and the running time were significantly shorter in the external focus condition than in the internal focus condition, for both expert and novice participants.”

Yet rarely does any focus strategy occur in a vacuum.  Focus cues must always be interpreted with the myriad of thoughts and feedback circulating throughout the swimmer’s head simultaneously.   For example, a focus strategy in which the athlete is blinded to the results may be different than how the swimmer processes information  when results are known (and that doesn’t even account for the added variable of “real” competition results, which can’t be replicated in the lab).  

Pascua (2014) partially addressed this issue in a study blending focus cues with performance expectancy, meaning subjects were provided with social-comparative feedback before subsequent trials were attempted.  All subjects were tested under external vs internal focus combined with enhanced expectancy or non-enhanced expectancy.   Results showed that external focus combined with enhanced expectancy (positive feedback), had the best results in target throwing accuracy and skill retention in the novel throwing task performed with subjects’ non-dominant hand. 

Finally it’s possible, that situational and intrinsic factors may both affect the optimal focus strategy.  Becker (2013) studied children and adults of both genders in novel balancing tasks classified as simple or complex.  In contrast to many studies showing uniform superiority of external focus cues, this study showed no difference in performance or retention for simple tasks.  However, consistent with prior literature, external focus was superior for the complex task both in performance and retention.  Note though, this latter finding was only applicable for males. 

Practical Implication

As with prior findings, recent literature shows that external focus cues result in better performance and better retention for complex skills.  In general, coaches should frame technical cues in external focus terms, but this guideline is not universal.  One recent study has shown that males and females respond differently to different cueing strategies in a novel balance task, but more research is needed to clarify if fundamental gender differences exist. 


  1. Becker K1, Smith PJ2.  Age, task complexity, and sex as potential moderators of attentional focus effects.  Percept Mot Skills. 2013 Aug;117(1):1172-86.
  2. Pascua LA1, Wulf G, Lewthwaite R.  Additive benefits of external focus and enhanced performance expectancy for motor learning.  J Sports Sci. 2014 May 29:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Ille A1, Selin I, Do MC, Thon B.  Attentional focus effects on sprint start performance as a function of skill level.  J Sports Sci. 2013;31(15):1705-12. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2013.797097. Epub 2013 May 28.
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.

Overtraining Inhibits Motor Learning

Take Home Points on Overtraining Inhibits Motor Learning

  1. Overtraining inhibits motor learning and swimming stroke enhancement
  2. Monitoring the neuromuscular system is possible through a daily maximal coutnermovement jump or 25-yard/meter sprint
Not long ago, Grant Smith submitted an excellent guest post on overtraining in elite
swimmers. One are of overtraining Grant didn't include was the influence of overtranining on motor learning. Motor learning has received a lot of interest with the rise of USRPT, but no matter what type of training you prescribe or perform, motor learning is mandatory since the best biomechanics contribute to swimming success. If you haven't read our three earlier pieces on motor learning, be sure to check out:
  1. Motor learning for swimmers part I
  2. Motor learning for swimmers part II
  3. Motor learning for swimmers part III
Although we've written a lot about motor learning, we still don't know much about this new subject. When asked, Dr. Riemer Vegter, a motor learning expert, 'what aspects of motor learning are well understood?' he simply replied 'none'. 

Nonetheless, we do know learning a new motor skill results in rewiring of the brain; this process is termed neural plasticity. One form of neural plasticity is perceptual learning, which occurs when one's perception is improved following practice. 

Once learning occurs, the neural changes are temporary and unstable. Consolidation is the process of stabilizing these changes and results in categorization into short- or long-term forms of memory.

Sleep deprivation, performing a similar task while the first is being consolidated, or repeated training can prevent learning.

Overtraining can result in an initial perception of learning, followed by a decline termed perceptual deterioration.

Ashley (2012) had thirty-one subjects perform tasks where the subjects had to view a monitor with lights, and indicate if the lights were moving rightward or leftward.

The subjects performed a practice phase of approximately 10 trials, and then they performed 480 trials in 96 blocks where accuracy and time were recorded.

The subjects were split into three groups:
  1. Control: task was performed one time on day one and one time on day two.
  2. Overtraining: task was performed twice on day one and once on day two.
  3. Delay: task was performed twice on day one with a one hour break [nap] and once on day two.
First, it was determined learning occurred in the control trial. The overtraining group demonstrated no learning over the course of the first two days. In the delay group significant learning occurred after the training.

The overtraining group had a larger (non-significant) decrease in reaction time compared to the control group.

This study suggests overtraining impairs learning for motion discrimination. However, a one hour break alleviated these impairments. These findings now bring to question the relevance of a nap preventing overtraining in repetitive tasks or if simply a break is necessary for improvement of overtraining.

During high swimming training periods, providing breaks are necessary for improved motor control. Although reaction time does not seem to be impaired, others have found the neuromuscular system is measurable through a countermovement jump test (Balsalobre-Fernández 2014). Keep in mind this study was not performed on a task the same magnitude of swimming, suggesting the relevance is theoretical. However, during periods of heavy training, monitoring the neuromuscular system is imperative for allowing motor learning. A simple practical task for swimmers could be a 25-yard sprint from the block not allowing more than a few tenths deviation from a swimmer's top time. If a swimmer does have large deviation, more rest is likely necessary if you want improvements in motor learning.


  1. Balsalobre-Fernández C, Tejero-González CM, Del Campo-Vecino J. Hormonal and Neuromuscular Responses to High Level Middle and Long-Distance Competition. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2014 Jan 14. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Ashley S, Pearson J. When more equals less: overtraining inhibits perceptual learning owing to lack of wakeful consolidation. Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Aug 15.
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.

Friday Interview: Riemer Vegter Discusses Motor Learning

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession,
education, credentials, experience, etc.).
I am a lecturer at the Center for Human Movement Science, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. Currently I am in the final stages of finishing my PhD. on motor learning processes underlying manual wheelchair skill acquisition, applying a combination of biomechanics, physiology and coordination dynamics. Before starting my PhD I was a Junior Scientist on the biomechanical modeling of 4-bar prosthetic knee joints.

2. You recently published an article entitled, Inter-individual differences in the initial 80 minutes of motor learning of handrim wheelchair propulsion. Please tell us how your study was designed?
Actually a previous paper (Vegter et al 2013) sparked our interest to further look further into motor learning differences between individuals. At that time we had performed multiple studies about motor learning of experimental groups as a whole. By combining these studies we had a chance to see if we could further differentiate types of learners. Since all studies were designed with a similar practice dose we thought it possible to study the combination by using advanced statistical models to control for the different intervention natures.

3. What concepts of motor learning did you apply?
In essence we studied what we called the natural learning process of the participants. They got no instructions other then to not fall of the treadmill. An additional interest in the data analysis was the intra-individual variability of the performance, since this is speculated to be closely related to motor learning processes.

4. Tell us about the groups, why were they created in this way?
The two learning groups were a first step in differentiating types of learners. We have been looking into more advanced techniques to separate groups based on unique features (like pattern recognition, cluster analysis and latent class growth modelling), however most of these techniques need more participants to have enough statistical power. Therefore we kept it simple and chose a criterium of a relative 10% increase in mechanical efficiency to separate the two groups at the pretest

5. What were the results of your study?
Interestingly, the group that increased more during the pretest actually started with absolute lower scores, but with a higher intra-individual variability. In other words at the start they performed worse, but more variable. Yet, during the 12 min pretest they already learned faster and at the end were about the same level. Over the additional practice (80 min in total) the fast learners benefited more from the practice and got to a higher mechanical efficiency.

6. In swimming, motor learning and improving biomechanics play a large role. What does your study teach us about motor learning?
From my perspective there are a number of important similarities between wheelchair propulsion and swimming. The first is they are both cyclical. A lot of motor learning studies look at discrete movements like picking up an object, and repeat that only a number of times. With wheelchair propulsion over 700 repetitions are done in only 12 minutes! Because of this cyclical nature we can couple physiology to biomechanics and look at the efficiency of the energy spent internally that gets out into the world as power performed. Secondly it is a task new to a number of individuals when they are already a bit older and less in development like children. Thus, they are both good examples about how we learn later in life. Third, they both need whole body movements without continuous visual feedback about the limbs that actually perform the task, thus good propriocepsis is important.

With respect to to the biomechanics I think it is interesting that in both cases the action of the limbs don't react to fixed points in our environment, but to moving elements like water or a rotating handrim and that in one action we both need to combine propulsion and steering.

To take away from our study with respect to swimming I'd say its important to see the role of variability within an individual as a means to improve on technique. We are currently doing a study were we try to create an environment that invites the individual to be more variable, without forcing them to. In my opinion it is important that the variability should come from intrinsic rather then extrinsic factors.

Another point might be that in general movement patterns tend to go from high frequent short movements to low frequent long movements which often leads to a reduced energy cost of the same task.

7. In your opinion, what aspects of motor learning are well understood?
8. What aspects of motor learning are not well understood?
All. Although this might be a bit exaggerated we can still only observe learning from the outside and see what happens if we change the conditions. We don't really understand why and how these changes happen in the human body. We think he body is constantly searching to try to minimize energy expenditure and possibly the amount of attention necessary, but we can still only speculate whether these are the actual optimization criteria.

9. If you were simply teaching a swimming skill, how frequently would you expose the athlete to the desired skill?
I would not think of it as simply! Although my knowledge about swimming is limited I would say it is a very hard task to do at a high performance level. Since we looked at individual differences in our study I think I am obliged to say that this is specific to each individual. Perhaps trying to find out more about that individual might help to predict the amount and kind of practice. In general I think its safe to say variability is important and trying more variations on the desired skill will help to improve.

10. What type of feedback maximizes motor learning?
I cannot say this from my research. I think currently it is thought important to emphasize end goals and knowledge of results, rather then the often coached feedback of for instance specific joint-angles or body-positions during a certain phase of the movement.

11. How often should this feedback be provided?
Again, depending on the individual and the performance level of the athlete.

12. Any aspects of motor learning do you feel coaches could emphasize more?
The important role of variability and the difficulty in understanding movement. Often when we try to improve an individual's performance we think we know what he or she is doing 'wrong', yet I personally feel that most often their performance is the current optimum solution of our human system under development. As an example we know that the frequency of propulsion goes down because of learning, but an intervention trying to get that frequency down faster has the adverse result; although the frequency goes down because of it the efficiency of the task goes down.

13. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
I will keep doing research in the field of wheeled mobility and motor learning. Hopefully in the future we will also collaborate with elite wheelchar athletes to both learn from them and help them improve. 
Thanks Riemer! Follow him @RiemerVegter

Swimming and Shaving Part II: Should you Shave Year Round?

Take Home Points on Swimming and Shaving Part II: Should you Shave Year Round?

  1. Shaving only once a year likely alters motor control in the water.
  2. Shaving more frequently may improve motor learning and provide positive reinforcement for swimmers.
I recently read an article by Allan Phillips titled, “Does Shaving Improve Swim Performance?” In summary, Phillips states that, “Although the evidence behind shaving is sparse and not recently updated, there is little reason to believe that shaving would make anyone worse.” Sharp and Costill (1989) found that during normal breaststroke swim, “compared to their unshaven breaststroke swim, the shaving group experienced a significant reduction in blood lactate, oxygen consumption, an increase in stroke length, and an insignificant decline in heart rate during the free swim. The control group showed no changes in any performance measures.” Also during an underwater glide experiment, “A separate group of swimmers (nine who shaved body hair and nine controls), shaving significantly reduced the rate of velocity decay during a prone glide after a maximal underwater leg push-off.” Along with physiological benefits there are many psychological benefits to shaving. Phillips quotes an unpublished study from the University of Indiana that states, “Sensory input from the hair inhibits perception and thus removal of hair would enhance perceptual motor skill. Enhanced motor skill may improve a swimmer’s stroke mechanics, thereby increasing propulsive force or reducing resistance and improving performance (Sharp, Costill, 1989)."

Positive Benefits of Shaving

It seems there are only positives that come from shaving and swim performance. My question to coaches is, “Why are we only allowing our athletes to experience these once or twice a year?” If there are benefits, wouldn’t it be an advantage to practice these previous to the most important swim of the season? Many people believe by shaving more than just once a season the athlete will lose the psychological advantage needed for success at the big meet. However, that meet typically occurs when the athlete has her taper, wears her nicest suit, races in the fastest fastest pool and many other variables that would lead to a mental edge. Shaving is only one of many variables that leads to the excitement of shave and taper meets.

In order to make neurological adaptations it is essential to be exposed to the stimulus that the athlete is adapting a great number of times. It would be incorrect to assume athletes can make these adaptations after being exposed to a stimulus for only a few days of the year. As stated previously, Sharp and Costill found that shaved vs unshaved swimmers experience reduction in blood lactate, oxygen consumption, and an increase in stroke length. With this being true, it would suggest that the same swimming events would require different (however minuscule) physiological requirements when an athlete is unshaved compared to that same athlete when s/he is shaved. With different physiological demands, a different race strategy would be required for the same event when the athlete is shaved vs when the athlete is unshaved. In order to maximize those unique racing strategies when it ultimately counts (ie taper meet) it would be necessary to practice those specific strategies throughout the season.

By executing a more specific race strategy on more occasions during the season, it would be expected to increase the chances of executing better race strategies at the end of the season. The sport of swimming has taught us the importance of hundredths of a second. Championship medals are won or lost every year by fractions of a second (Phelps winning the 100 fly in 2008, Le Clos defeating Phelps in the 200 fly in 2012). Mujika and colleagues reported that the difference between the gold medal and fourth place in swimming at the Sydney Olympics was only 1.62% and the difference between third and eighth was only 2.02% (Mujika et al, 2002). Therefore, increasing our chances of success by only 1-2% can dramatically change the outcome of a season or even a career.

Many coaches will argue that the primary benefit of shaving is received from the “feel” the athletes gain post-shave. Coaches and athletes alike refer to this mysterious “feel” as a concept that is a driving force for swimming success, however this is simply up to the athlete’s perceptions at any given moment and these perceptions tend to have very low reliability and validity from moment to moment. Harnessing these uncontrolled feelings and rehearsing them on a more common basis may lead to more controlled and consistent seasonal results.

It is a common belief in the swimming world to plan for shaving at the last possible minute

in order to bring the greatest physiological effects for when it matters most bringing the most success. It’s not uncommon to see top athletes remaining unshaved during a preliminary event in order to save up all their luck for the last, most important race of the season. However, (to my knowledge) there is no scientific literature that supports the hypothesis that shaving earlier reduces the effects later in a shaved athlete. It is a common fear among coaches and athletes that swimming too fast too early may lead to undesired results at the end of the season. Rather than hoping for the large gap from “in-season” and championship meet swims, athletes and coaches should understand the primary goal of achieving desired results at the end of the season. Although it may break from tradition, rehearsing more shaved and suited swims during the season may lead to greater, more predictable success at the end of the season.


However small, there seems to be only positive benefits from shaving and swimming performance. These physiological benefits may require minor changes in race strategy which would warrant more research and thought to an increased number of shaved and suited race rehearsals compared to what is seen in traditional swimming seasons.


  1. Phillips, Allan. "Does Shaving Improve Swim Performance? | Swim Sci." Swim Sci. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://www.swimmingscience.net/2013/07/does-shaving-improve-swim-performance.html>.
  2. Sharp RL, Costill DL. Influence of body hair removal on physiological responses during breaststroke swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1989 Oct;21(5):576-80.
  3. Johns RA, Houmard JA, Kobe RW, Hortobágyi T, Bruno NJ, Wells JM, Shinebarger MH. Effects of taper on swim power, stroke distance, and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 Oct;24(10):1141-6.
  4. Shaving and Perception of Cutaneous Sensation. Indiana University Counsilman Center
  5. Mujika, I., S. Padilla, and D. Pyne. Swimming Performance changes during the final 3 weeks of training to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Int J Sports Med 23:582-587, 2002.
Herbert Behm is a long time swimmer and coach, currently Assistant Coaching the Senior and Age Group programs at Phoenix Swim Club in Phoenix, Arizona. He is completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Communications at Arizona State University where he is a school record holder in the 400 Medley Relay.

ISCA Presentation Review: Dr. Rushall, Ph.D., R. Psy

These notes are taken from the ISCA conference. They are not verbatim, but a summary of the information discussed. For more on this topic, please read Swimming Energy Training in the 21st Century

Dr. Rushall, Ph.D, R. Psy
Error in training due to lack of reading research.
Harvard fatigue laboratory greatly influenced him, as it applied practical information.
"Put your evidence where your mouth is".

Motor Learning

Pincer grip with coins activates 3 areas of the brain. Squeezes a toilet paper roll activates different areas of the brain than pincer grip. Brodmann's areas in the brain are incorrect, the brain detects movements. Each individual activates different areas of the brain during the same activity. Weighted vs. body weight likely activates different areas of the brain.

Ultra Short Rest Race Pace Training (USRPT)

Requires new thinking, all swimming physiology taught has benn wrong.
Remove current ideas held.
Expect very different performances for swimmers compared to traditional training (TT).
"Principle of specificity" is king.
If lactate is ~10 mmol, learning is impossible.

Glycogen stays elevated in USRPT compared to TT, if glycogen is depleted it takes 48 hours to recovery.

Motor learning requires more repetitions than we think.
50 - meter/yard training doesn't following typical training, it requires hypoxic training.
USRPT requires lots of repetitions, it takes 7-8 exposures to mimic race conditions. 

USRPT optimizes amount of race pace training.
Train for an event, not a physiological system.

60% of SCY is underwater, making the importance of underwater kicking obvious.
Warm-up is the biggest dogma in swimming. Body temperature decreases 3 degrees during water entry, so how do you expect swimming slow to increase body temperature?
In-water warm up effect ends after ~20 seconds, making it impossible to facilitate benefits.

USRPT wants to reach capacity for training.
Old training increases, decreases glycogen and impairs ideal swimming velocity.
Varying metabolic responses occur during traditional training, which isn't ideal for motor learning.

USRPT develops aerobic training better than traditional training.
Power is better for USRPT and a better term than strength.
Sorry for the poor quality

Sorry for the poor quality
Sorry for the poor quality
Changes in capacity and performance often occur. Performance is what matters.
USRPT+Tradition does not improve performance, but tradition+USRPT does improve performance.
It is high-energy metabolism of the phosphagen-related substances that is the anaerobic activity primarily involved in racing performances in swimming.
USRPT uses more oxygen to convert type IIb to IIa [oxidative].
Not aerobic, but anaerobic adaptation.

Exposures of the same set take take 3-4 exposures for improvement
M-W-F same set, but improves. Sa half the exposures.

Another benefit of USRPT, after injury takes only 2 months to catch up with group. 

Dr. Rushall feels technique and mental skills are the biggest avenues for improvement. 

Respiratory rates allow better measurement of recovery than heart rate. 
Race pace 1:1 work rest, during sprinting more than 1:1. 

50-m Training
Carlile swim club-10 age group swimmers, 5/10 #1 ranked.
Dive 25 walk backs.
Push envelope of swimming fast with hypoxic training.

Go too fast too early you use to much anaerobic and pay for it during end of race.

Offseason Training
Feels you can gradually increase velocity during beginning of a season [yet admits he has rarely worked with this as Australia doesn't have an "offseason"].
Swimmers have larger left ventricle than other sports (except other prone sports)
  1. Rushall, Brent S. "Swimming Energy Training in the 21st Century." Sports Science Associates. Hilton Hotel, Clearwater, FL. 28 August 2013. Keynote Address.  
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.

Weekly Round-up

  1. How sleep helps brain learn motor task.
  2. Fatigue shifts and scatters heart rate variability in elite endurance athletes. - by Dr. Schmitt
  3. The development of peripheral fatigue and short-term recovery during self-paced high-intensity exercise. - by Dr. Froyd
  4. Postural control and low back pain in elite athletes comparison of static balance in elite athletes with and without low back pain. - by Dr. Oyarzo
  5. Virtual swimming--breaststroke body movements facilitate vection. - by Dr. Seno
  6. Symmetry of support scull and vertical position stability in synchronized swimming. - by Dr. Winiarski
  7. Is bone tissue really affected by swimming? A systematic review.- by Gómez-Bruton
  8. Effect of gene polymorphisms on the mechanical properties of human tendon structures. - by Dr. Kubo
  9. Relation between efficiency and energy cost with coordination in aquatic locomotion. - by Dr. Figueiredo
  10. Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations? - by Brad Schoenfeld
  11. The Temporal Profile of Postactivation Potentiation is related to Strength Level. - by Dr. Seitz
  12. Athletes and novices are differently capable to recognize feint and non-feint actions. - by Dr. Güldenpenning 
  13. Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone. - by Dr. Cholewa
  14. Fructose-Maltodextrin Ratio Governs Exogenous and Other CHO Oxidation and Performance. - by Dr. O'Brien
  15. Sports drink consumption and diet of children involved in organized sport. - by Dr. Tomlin
  16. Which exercises target the gluteal muscles while minimizing activation of the tensor fascia lata? Electromyographic assessment using fine-wire electrodes. - by Dr. Selkowitz
  17. Scapular Kinematics and Shoulder Elevation in a Traditional Push-Up. - by Dr. Suprak

Learning how to Learn Motor Skills

Past posts have discussed how early matures less frequently become National team members than on-time or late matures. Now, there are a plethora of reasons for this, ranging from burn out to simply peaking. In fact, these are the main reasons why many feel early matures do not make it to the next level, but responsibility must also lie on the coaches.

As a coach, it is clear which swimmers are maturing earlier than others. A few simple signs are size, muscular development, and comparison to their siblings or parents. Another (non-coaching method) is called Tanner stage testing, which considers the development of the genitalia. Luckily, knowing if a swimmer is an early, on-time, or late maturer is irrelevant for coaches, as each swimmer should be treated equally, unfortunately, early maturers are often not treated equally by some coaches, a potential start of their decline.

Many early matures reach success due to their size. Being bigger often allows the swimmer to have a longer distance per stroke, a common criteria for swimming success. With this early success, many coaches are afraid to modify strokes, as a stroke correction may lead to a step backward to get a step forward. Instead, they allow the swimmer to “develop” their own technique, which often contains numerous biomechanical flaws, increasing their risk for injury (a common problem in early matures) and a lower ceiling than those with more ideal stroke biomechanics.

Not Learning how to Learn Motor Skills
Now, early matures are able to “naturally” development good biomechanics (oftentimes by serendipity) helping them to continually advance. Unfortunately, there is always a point where a swimmer needs to make an adjustment in their biomechanics and often times early matures hit a wall: motor learning.

Now, many argue motor learning occurs during a static period (age 9 -11), but this is a major lie. Sure, motor skills are most developed during this period, yet motor learning can occur in every stage of life. However, if you don't learn how to learn and implement a motor skill, then learning motor skills will be much harder (follow me?). In other words, late matures are continually taught motor skills to help them get better, while some early matures are left alone and are simply considered naturals. If you are never taught to learn a motor skill or if you are good early on and don't learn the process of learning a new motor skill, you will likely have a tough time learning a motor skill one you hit a plateau. Learning is a skill, and if you don't have the process, then it will likely be harder to implement a new motor skill later in one's swimming career.

What to do
Instead of being satisfied with an early matures success, all coaches must strive to teach them how to learn motor skills and the correct swimming biomehcanics. There are numerous studies indicating biomechanics (not size, strength, or physiology) is the biggest contributor to swimming success, so don't let early size, strength, or physiological advantages take away from teaching the biggest component to long-term success. Remember, everyone likes a challenge and if you can challenge them with biomechanics, you can keep your swimmers engaged and capable at learning motor skills, for now and in the future!s

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 founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, 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.