Thursday, August 9, 2012

Double Bronze

Who would have thought that of all the sports to create what I have come to see as a wonderful idea, boxing seems to be enlightened at these Olympic games. I'm referring to the practice of awarding "two" bronze medals to the athletes who lose the semi-final bouts. After all, the winners of the semi-final have medal in their back pocket. The only reason for the final bout is to determine its colour.
When I first heard/saw this practice in action, I raised the proverbial Spokian eyebrow but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. There's nothing in my view that's more difficult than to have one's gold medal dream shattered/lost/derailed/evaporate (insert verb of choice here) then be asked to rally from that devastation and play for a bronze medal.

Heh, I know all the points on the other side of the argument and I really don't have an antidote for any one of them. But when a sport is played whereby one opponent is pitted against another rather than against the field (i.e. athletics [aka track & field]), it makes good sense and sensibility to simply reward a team/athlete who makes it to the semi-finals knowing you have a medal in your back pocket and like the two who will battle it out for gold & silver, you can perform with some abandon which in my view can make for better performance and when that occurs, everyone wins.

Is that going to happen? It can and will if the IOC says it must but it's unlikely and if you read the blog of 7/5/12 you'll see why.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Muscle Memory

One of the best things about "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" is the articles by colleagues who have taken me up on my invitation to include their thoughts on all things pertinent to curling at the highest level (which easily transpose to many other sports and activities). One of my best friends in the "college of curling coaches" hails from the only province that has curling as its official sport. That would be Saskatchewan! My guest author then, as it is today, is Merv Fonger, coach of Team Holland (among many others as advisor). When I got home today and checked into Facebook, I saw that Merv had penned the following about "muscle memory". I then decided to add my two cents worth. Enjoy and send me/us a comment from your coaching experiences!

The whole idea of maximum performance is to simply go on autopilot. Allowing the mind to focus on only performance and nothing else is an important key to being successful. Sound technical skills are a must in order to compete at the high performance level. If the focus is on how to do it rather than simply executing the skill, then you lose your flow and the focus is not where it needs to be. 

We have a multitude of skills that we use when we perform. It is important to know when and how to use them without giving it a second thought. Those skills that require technical training need to be soundly incorporated into muscle memory before the big event, whatever that might be. 

Technically strong performers are confident, assertive and task oriented because they have the ability to take what tools they need and go on autopilot without fear of negative consequences. It is not that new skills and different ways of doing things are bad, but they are necessary for people to improve performance. Knowing when to implement the changes and developing a plan to getting those skills to autopilot mode is what is important. 

Peaking can only take place when the performer has total confidence in the technical package. Yogi Berra once said, "How can you hit and think at the same time?'. Nike has the right idea, Just do it!

It's 2/3 of the way through the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Those of us in Canada are blessed with what can only be described as wall-to-wall coverage on a variety of platforms. We can watch events live on TV, iPods, iPads ... or sit back in the evening and watch a comprehensive accounting of the day's events. That's not the case in other countries, notably our neighbours south of the 39th parallel who see it all unfold in historical perspective. You need to talk to those nice folks at the peacock network (that would be NBC). 

One of the most interesting facets of the coverage here are the sports science vignettes by Dr. Greg Wells. One really caught my eye and it was all about the subject of Merv's Facebook article. It was about "muscle memory". In synopsis form, this is what Dr. Wells said.

First off, it's not muscles that have the "memory". It's a part of the brain call the cerebellum. This is where repeated muscular movement (over thousands of repetitions) open neural pathways that fire without the athlete really thinking about it. In fact, and here's the interesting part, if the athlete were to think or was distracted, the blood flow required by the cerebellum to fire those neurons is diverted to the cerebral cortex where decision making is centred. The result is a sabotaging of all those hours upon hours of work the athlete, musician etc. spent creating those neural pathways. 

When one understands the sport science behind something like this, it makes us much more aware of the pitfalls of "over-thinking" and being "distracted", both areas that can be trained but awareness is the first step. 

Yes, Merv, "just do it"!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cash For Medals

It was a very long time coming but Canada, along with nine other countries* now pays its athletes for podium finishes. It wasn't without controversy as you might expect. I guess it was the puritanical thought that all Olympians would strive for excellence with excellence symbolized by that gold medal as its own reward. Sounds great but consider this. An athlete that trains full time for his/her sport will in all likely have to forego any time of full time employment, picking up part time work when and where it's available which makes the average annual income for this type of athlete $15 000. So to have that augmented to a degree is certainly justified in my view.

Here's what countries are paying their athletes for gold medal podium finishes. Some countries pay lesser amounts for silver and bronze medals. But, before you cast your eyes south in this blog, you might think it's the Olympic superpowers that pay the most. Well, prepare to be surprised.

Italy - $182 400
Russia - $134 900
France - $65 200
Switzerland - $40 0000
Japan - $35 900
China - $31 400
USA - $25 000
Australia - $20 300
Canada - $20 000
Germany - $19 500

I'm sure Kobe and Lebron will be thrilled with their $25 000 from the USOC! Hmm, what's that about going back to amateurs at the Olympics?

According to the source of this information, I can conclude that all the rest of the countries in the Olympic family do not pay anything for podium finishes. So perhaps there are countries conspicuous by their absence rather than their presence on the list (can you say Great Britain, host for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games?).

Before I close, it's only natural that with this Olympics the long standing argument about Olympic funding in general gets an airing and the two countries that share the world's longest undefended border could not be more opposite, or are they?

In Canada, our Olympic programme is funded through tax dollars while in the U.S. funding for USOC programmes comes from corporate donations. Sounds opposite but I can make the case that it's the tax payer/consumer that foots the bill in both countries. I'm sure that all those corporations in the U.S. have their respective accounting departments, ahem, accounting for all that "corporate funding" it provides in the price of their goods and/or services. Who purchases those goods and services? Well, we do, the aforementioned tax payer/consumer. In Canada, we do have corporations that step up to the plate to fund programmes. One need only look at curling to see Kruger, Tims and M & M Meat Shops as evidence. So those out there slagging corporate Canada, look below the Olympic surface and you'll see a different story!

Not much difference from where I sit behind a pane in the glass, or in this case, in front of my big screen surround sound TV watching the world's great athletes perform on the biggest stage.

* If your country pays its athletes for Olympic podium finishes and you're not on my list, my apologies and do send me the correct data for your country so I can include it.