Swim to Grow New Brain Cells
This is an excerpt from the in-development 2010 TI Coaches Manual. I will post certain excerpts here for review and critique by forum members, anticipating your feedback can help make the final document better. After reading, let us know what questions it may leave unanswered or further connections you believe can be made.
Training the Brain
In recent months the phrase “I swim to grow new brain cells” has become my mantra. I swim for many other reasons as well – for improvement, enjoyment, to age gracefully – but swimming to grow new brain cells as my fundamental motivation makes all my other valued outcomes far more likely.
This insight is the culmination of a lifetime of swimming and teaching, as well as the product of much reading and study. The more I learn about the brain and nervous system, the more I realize how critical such knowledge will be to keeping TI content and curriculum on the cutting edge and to providing our students with the best instruction and direction.
What brain cells do.
From the moment we walk on a pool deck (or beach) the 100 billion nerve cells in our brain, called neurons, control literally everything we do, experience or think while there. Are you excited about swimming? It’s because you’ve activated neurons in one region of the brain. Does it feel like an obligation or burden? Neurons in another region are “lighting up.” If something’s not quite right – crowded lanes, hot (or cold) water, pool shorter (15yd), or longer (50m) than you prefer, one group of neurons activates if you see that as an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone. If the situation discourages you, it’s another set of neurons. You “follow the black line” with one set of brain cells; devise clever tasks that ensure improvement with another set. And finally efficient strokes are produced by a precise set of neural signals. Ragged strokes come from different circuits.
The influence of “neurobiology” is not only complete, it’s tangible. When we understand that a turn-lemons-into-lemonade attitude reflects electrical activity in a specific region of the brain, rather than a chance aspect of personality, then we realize we’re capable of changing or improving literally any aspect of what makes us human. In the same way we make a conscious choice to activate neuromuscular circuits that tip the hand down, rather than scoop it up, on entry, we can choose to create thinking habits that lead to Kaizen behaviors and ultimately to mastery. This is the most empowering concept I have ever encountered in swimming—indeed in life!
With this knowledge, every TI student can assert the power to choose what kind of swimmer they will be and how much health and happiness it will bring. This isn’t just an inspiring and empowering idea; it’s supported by far better science than the traditional technique and training theories which govern how the non-TI world teaches and practices swimming. Our mission is to spread this inspiring new paradigm and to become the acknowledged experts on how to grow new brain cells through swimming.
Learning to think differently
A focus on growing brain cells in all aspects of swimming and teaching (or anything else) will inform how you interpret or explain, how you plan, teach and practice. I answer swimmers’ questions differently–and with greater continuity and consistency--now than I did several months ago.
As active, athletic people, and as coaches, we’ve been conditioned to think about swim training and performance in physiological terms. In coming months, you will learn to observe and interpret through a neural “lens” and to interpret the physiological aspects of swimming from a neural perspective first. Here are the advantages I see for viewing swimming as a form of neural-cell development.
1. Get better with age. Physiological capacity declines with age. The capacity to create new brain cells can remain as strong as ever. In fact, many key aspects of our neural control of swimming should improve with age and experience--for instance the ability to maintain focus, or to discern limb positions or muscle-loading levels, or other key aspects of self-awareness.
2. Grow more and better brain cells. We grow brain cells while running or cycling or any physical activity. But we grow more brain cells, and forge more robust and complex connections between them, while practicing swimming. This is because humans aren’t “ancestrally wired” for swimming and even basic efficiency requires far more thoughtful and examined practice. We can make a strong case that improvement-minded swimming is the ideal activity to promote both a healthy brain and healthy body.
3. The brain learns differently. Prevailing methods for building endurance and speed are based on understanding of how the body adapts physiologically to work. But the brain masters new tasks and develops new circuits in a very different way than how the body responds to physical work. Our methods will be based on understanding how the brain, rather than heart and lungs, operates.
4. Get the best of both. We will develop and strengthen neural circuits with physical tasks, performed thoughtfully. While the brain converts perceptions and intentions into actions, the muscles and cardiovascular system still perform the physical work–which means physical conditioning happens. However, the metabolic adaptations that occur, while we focus on motor programming, are specific to the task we are seeking to master, rather than imprecise and haphazard as when we “train energy systems.”
5. The brain is the master. Without an operating system and other software, a computer is just a collection of electronic parts. Without the brain and nervous system, the body is just blood, bone and meat. The actions of every limb, muscle, organ and capillary are governed by instructions from the brain. When you focus on programming the brain, you increase your control of outcomes. When you focus on training body parts—without primary consideration of the role of the brain—you get random and unpredictable outcomes.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
My TI Story