Making Images Work Part I
Joan S. Ingalls
The presenters at the Fifth Annual [Rowing] Coaches Conference at Hobart-William Smith College introduced some new concepts for coaches to think about.
Rudy Weiler, a thirty year veteran of Canadian coaching, believes that aerobic work isn't everything, it's the only thing - well almost. Weiler discourages ergometer competitions in the middle of winter. Postpone that first competition as long as possible. He advises. Furthermore, one or two level 6 workouts (100% effort) are all that are necessary in a season. Save racing for races.
Ed McNeeley, strength-coach consultant to the Canadian National Rowing Team since 1992, asserted that there is no data to support the idea that taking a muscle to failure provides an advantage. Moreover, the brain needs 5,000 correct repetitions (uninterrupted by an incorrect movement) to learn a weight lifting skill. That's four years given a normal training regimen. That's difficult to extrapolate to rowing as rowers contend with enironmental conditions that interrupt their stroke or demand a change in their stroke. McNeeley also challenges the accepted wisdom with his advise to avoid lower back injury, not by keeping the abdominal muscles strong, although that helps, but by keeping the hip flexors stretched and the gluts strong.
Some of the suggestions to coaches at the conference were comfortable reminders rather than new concepts: Have confidence in your training system. Teach your athletes tension regulation. Develop their self-confidence. Develop develop their self-esteem. Treat athletes as individuals, and motivate them. Nurture and develop sportsmanship. Teach them positive self-talk: you tell your brain a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. If you can think it, you can do it. See yourself as a winner and convince yourself that you can make it. Several presenters spoke specifically about imagery. Ted Nash said, "Create an image of a goal using videotapes over and over. Show the ideal stroke, a never ending series of visuals so clear that they [the athletes] can't lose sight of it."
What can a sports counselor add to the wisdom of these coaches? Consider the advice to show athletes images of expert rowing. The sport counselor can help coaches insure that the athletes remember those images. Not just remember them in their minds, but where it counts - in their nerves and muscles, and in the boat. The sport counselor can teach coaches about visual/kinesthetic (k/v) synesthesia, the process by which the brain transforms visual images into feelings. In the case of learning the correct stroke, the athlete transforms the image of the correct rowing stroke - from the video - into the feelings in the muscles that are controlling the movement for the correct stroke. With practice, the theory goes, a pattern of neuromuscular firing that ultimately coordinates the correct movement will develop.
To put this theory into practice, coaches can tell their athletes that as they watch a video tape of an expert rower, "Mentally 'float into' the image. Feel in your muscles how you imagine it would feel to do the movement of the expert." It might help if after the athletes watch the video, the coach takes a moment to ask the athletes to relax with a few deep breaths, close their eyes, and repeat the exercise of feeling the movement, this time making a mental image of the expert rower. Sometimes, athletes experience an image as a thought or a concept, and they don't "see" the image of the rower from the video. They expect their mental image of the expert rower to be bright and clear and realistic like the images that they have in their dreams. They can't feel their muscles working when they are not. When this happens, athletes will say that they can't do the exercise; it isn't working, etc. Coaches should be patient and reassure athletes that their visualization skills will improve with practice, especially if they relax and don't try so hard to see the image - just accept that they don't need to see it. They can imagine the feelings in the expert's muscles. Gradually, by repeating the visualization exercise in successive video-viewing sessions, they may eventually become aware of the image, and the feelings that the images generate in their body. The mental exercise - imaging the expert, instead of seeing him or her on the video - may take extra time, but it will pay off. Athletes will learn skills more quickly. Eventually, they will have to spend less time in front of the video and less time practicing on-water drills to improve skills.
Coaches can use the "get-it" process (which I described in more detail in The Get-it Process on this web site.) After looking at the expert on the video, athletes relax and the coach gives the following instructions:
This process can be repeated many times - each time the athlete finds something new to correct. If the athletes tell the coach which corrections they are trying to make, the coach can help them make the correction. Eventually, the athletes feel that their whole stoke matching the expert.
Whenever I teach an exercise that involves athletes visualizing themselves, coaches and athletes object that the image may not be accurate - that it is much better for athletes to see video tapes of themselves. No doubt the video can help, but to totally dispense with "self-made" images ignores some possibly important advantages of a self-made image of one's self. They may generate a stronger kinesthetic sensation. Every individual's body is unique and the proper biomechanics are going to be unique to each body. The exclusive reliance on video reinforces the idea that information coming from the body cannot be trusted; a piece of machinery - the video machinery - is more reliable. That may undermine an athlete's confidence in the synesthesia process. And lastly, a robust k/v synesthesia comes in handy when the video isn't available - namely in the boat.