Purposeful Statistical Ignorance

Sometimes our mind can get in the way.  I remember my coach in Calgary Deryk Snelling saying, ‘keep your head in your own lane’.  It was one of those maxims that was easier said than done, but certainly important.  I’m sure you’ve been in a race and you’ve gone out too fast and someone is bearing down on your lead; then it’s very hard to keep your head in your lane.

Sometimes it isn’t even someone else bearing down on you.  Sometimes it is your thoughts.  Your head is saying things like; you can’t do it, you’re getting too tired, you aren’t good enough to win, or even; give up!  You are catastrophizing. Maybe it is something you have seen or read that is haunting you, like: everyone you know that has ‘broken a minute’ are amazing swimmers and you aren’t as good as them!  Or maybe you have tried unsuccessfully numerous times. So you get stuck.  Or in a slump.  And as Dr Seuss tells us: ‘un-slumping yourself is not easily done’.  Maybe to ‘un-slump’ you need to re-set your purpose.


‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go’ by Dr Seuss.

New studies have shown that placebo’s are so good at healing that drug companies hid their findings.  A placebo is a sugar pill and has no medicine in it, but the patient is told it is medicine.  Oddly, the patient gets better, so essentially you healed yourself using only your mind. You just believed.

In competition you want your mind in your lane, or on task, because sometimes its an abstract thing like a time, or a PB, or a record, or a statistic that we can’t stop thinking about.  And just like your mind can help you, it can also take our mind out of our lane, off our purpose and become destructive.

In the old days of sports science, some scientists made matters worse; for example it was published that the four-minute-mile wasn’t physically possible.  So the bugbear statistic of a sub-four minute mile gained strength; it couldn’t be done. It wasn’t physically possible; everyone said so, even the best runners.  For example in the years prior to Sir Roger Bannister’s record-breaking performance, John Landy had raced the following times for the mile run: 4:02.1 – 4:02.6 – 4:02.8 – 4:02.5 – 4:02.7 – 4:02.3.  He was interviewed and said:

Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.

— John Landy, 1952

Eventually someone like Bannister comes along (in 1954) and put all that doubt to shame.  How is that possible?  PB’s in swimming, and things like ‘going under a minute’, or a world record, or a club record, or any statistic can become mental stumbling blocks.  There isn’t really a logical reason that 60.0 seconds is any different to 59.9 seconds but so many swimmers get stuck at that point just like runners got stuck on the four-minute mile.  It would seem that being able to say ‘I can go under a minute’ is a big benchmark. It’s not of course, there is no brick wall, it is just your own ‘self-talk’ being negative instead of positive.

Poster by Gary_Befriend a giant

Befriend a giant. Your mind is a powerful ally.

When we talk to ourselves I suggest we give ourselves a mental placebo and then blindly, ignorantly, believe in ourselves.  Shut down negative self-talk and catastrophizing.  Maybe that is something new but the power of the mind is not.

In my racing days, the 1500m race in swimming was a race that had to be swum as an even split race.  The closer your splits were together the better you were.  The best in the world swam that way and they hit 60s for 100m repeatedly.  Then along came Kieran Perkins in Victoria in 1994 at the Commonwealth Games.  His coach wanted him to take his race out fast and see if he could set a good time to the 800m and then coast the rest of the way.  Luckily he was far faster than the rest of the field so he could do this without compromising a gold medal.  And his coach didn’t want Kieran to get over-tired for the World Championships a few weeks later by swimming hard the whole way.

So off Perkins went with his plan in place.  He went out fast.  He split 3:50 at 400m on his way to the world record in the 800m (7:46.00) and then he did something amazing. He didn’t slow down.  He had been told to slow down, but he didn’t, he kept swimming fast, going on to set the world record in the 1500.  His body and mind were given the option; to swim slow or fast.  He went with how he felt rather than what he was told.  There was no even split there, no mind meltdown, he just swam.  Blindly and happily.  He said he just felt good.  He was un-encumbered by his times and swam fast because it felt right.

To get over these imaginary barriers, these pre-conceived ways of swimming, a swimmer has to purposely ignore them, ignore the statistics… or wait for someone else to break them.   So to be first to the top spot, first to break a record, we need to pretend those statistics don’t exist.

“It all starts with desire, the drive to be the best. Fuelled by my faith in my training, I will overcome all obstacles. I am brave! I am not afraid to face anyone on the track. I believe this is not a dream. It is my reality.”

— Roger Bannister

Overcoming the ghosts of past PB’s, or the statistics that become barriers, then we need to learn to have purposeful statistical ignorance and swim without a care.

Less than two months after Bannister broke the four-minute mile, John Landy did a time of 3:57.9.

About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at: https://www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/gary_Vandermeulen
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2 Responses to Purposeful Statistical Ignorance

  1. Nice 1 Gary. Enjoyed the read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rick Madge says:

    Excellent post, Gary. I’m really enjoying these.
    I love the Bannister / Landy story, especially as its so much more interesting than just the 4 minute mile. Bannister trained little, but using state-of-the-art (at the time) High Intensity Interval Training. Something that will resonate with swimmers these days. He also had a very balanced life, being a medical student / doctor and a top athlete. An inspiration and an innovator on so many levels. And Landy’s perseverance certainly paid off, giving us another important lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

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