Brief Diversions During Training

An interesting study confirms what many of us already suspect: brief diversions help us to retain focus on a task over the long-term. A five minute Facebook update or a brief walk around the office can help return focus to the task when the break is over… as opposed to trying to maintain focus for an uninterrupted period of time. The researchers suggest that your brain loses interest in stimuli that remain constant. For instance, fifteen minutes after you have put on your clothes, you tend to no longer notice the sensations they produce. What does this mean for athletes and their coaches?

I have a few suggestions.

  1. Vary practice drills. I have been told by water polo coaches that the US Water Polo team (at the time) only spent seven minutes on a particular drill before moving on to a new drill. The simpler and more “self-evident” the drill, the better. While I have never verified with the US Water Polo coaching staff that they use a seven-minute time limit on their drills, it does follow quite closely to the playbook of John Wooden. Wooden’s practices were tightly-scripted affairs. Assistant coaches knew their roles, explained drills and practice expectations succinctly, and the players competed in a number of drills during each practice, none of which lasted very long.
  2. While long conditioning bouts may be a “necessary evil” for your team, find ways to break the monotony. One of my favorites with swimmers of slightly different speeds was to start two guys at the same time from opposite ends of the pool. The faster guy would try to finish a 500 before the other guy finished a 475. Distance swimming is often uncompetitive, and more about logging the yards, hitting your pace times and send-offs. What’s great about this set is that the goal is not time-related, instead, it is “don’t get caught,” or “catch the other guy.”
  3. To break the monotony in between long practice swims, another brief diversion might be a five minute buddy swim: five unstructured minutes for two paired-up swimmers to provide each other with feedback on stroke technique. Coach… butt-out. Don’t ignore the athletes, but instead, watch how they work with each other. Often times, athletes grow deaf to your critiques, but when a teammate points it out, it finally sinks in. It will also give you a better sense of their team dynamic… do they work well together, or could they use a little help with communication?

You could, of course, offer a five minute diversion in the form of a five-minute hot shower, or a five-minute sit around and talk about plans for the weekend. Here’s where I think a coach has to be careful. A diversion at the workplace is different from a diversion at practice. At practice, the focus should remain on the sport, but allowing the brain a brief recourse from the monotony of a workout (especially those long distance workouts) allows the brain to return to the next portion of practice with greater focus. Greater focus means more attention to form (technique), more intention in the athlete’s actions, and more interest in mastering the skill… which should increase the odds for better game performance in the future.


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