The Champ and the Warrior Go for a Swim

Three sports. More than ten age groups. Thousands of competitors.

This doesn’t seem like the best place to make a friend, and yet, some of the closest bonds are created out there on the battlefield. But that’s the beauty of sport – it inspires. Throw in three sports, an ocean, a massive hill, and a ton of mud, and it becomes impossible not to be inspired by your fellow competitor.

This was the case at this year’s XTERRA World Championship on Maui. The morning after John Davis received the XTERRA Warrior Award, he ran into the Middaughs at breakfast.

“Josiah mentioned the award and he seemed very genuine,” said John. “That was pretty cool. So I thought, let’s go for a swim.”

The two recently got together in the pool, which turned into another swim, which then became a Thanksgiving shared by two new friends.

Want to know what two great athletes talk about when they are together? We do too. So we recently caught up with John and Josiah, who graciously shared techniques on how to improve your stroke, break bad habits, and inject some fun into your off season.

“As a former elite swimmer, John is a master of his craft, whereas I started triathlon with no formal swim background,” said Josiah.

In college, John was an NCAA All-American swimmer and USA National team member. In 1991 he led the University of North Carolina to three ACC swimming and diving championships and won 11 individual ACC crowns – the most in conference history. Additionally, he trained and tried out for the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Teams.

“When I was in college, I was taught that volume was important,” said John. “But I like Josiah’s way of saying that to become a better swimmer, you have to be willing to work on your craft. Since I was ten, I’ve had coaches drill into my swimmer brain that the more efficient you are, the more water you move. And the more water you move, the faster you can swim.

“Josiah and I talked about how many swimmers are like a tankers pushing water instead of trying to be a torpedo or submarine. When you are efficient, you create the least resistance to moving through the water. And there’s nothing more impressive than watching someone effortlessly move through the pool.”

“Unfortunately, I have developed some bad habits, and with the hundreds of thousands of yards of swimming I have done, I’ve reinforced incorrect movement patterns,” said Josiah.

Seriously? Could have fooled us. However, if an XTERRA World Champ has some bad habits, the rest of us probably do too.

“The good news is that you can break bad habits,” said Josiah. “If you practice the correct techniques often enough, you can rewire the brain and retrain your muscles with motor learning.”

The first stage of motor learning is the cognitive stage, in which you have to be first willing to admit you are doing something incorrectly. Then, you have to be patient while things inevitably get awkward.

“This is the perfect time of year to forget about the clock,” advises Josiah. “Just slow things way down and do one thing at a time.”

“Definitely get away from the stupid clock,” agrees John. “One simple thing you can do is count the number of strokes it takes to get across the pool. The fewer strokes you take, the less effort you expend. And if you can’t do this, get a coach. Or just swim next to someone who is better than you and ask them to tell you what they see.”

The next stage of motor learning is the associative stage, in which your movements become more refined and you start to see improvement. What this means, is that you have to practice. A lot.

Both John and Josiah agree that drills are key.

“Get away from volume and stick with frequency,” advises Josiah. “Just keep working on one thing until you master it.”

The final stage of learning a new movement pattern is that you begin doing the right thing automatically. However, this can take time. In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, he wrote that research suggests that 10,000 hours is the magic number to master a new skill. Today, scientists say that it’s more like an hour a day for 20 years – again, frequency over volume.

“Visualization is a huge key as well,” says Josiah. “If you can take a few minutes and visualize yourself being more efficient or streamlined, it’s amazing what happens when you back that up with the work.”

“What’s important is that you don’t give up,” says John, who knows a little bit about persistence. “And Josiah’s advice will definitely lead to success if you commit to doing something each and every day.”

(You can read more about Josiah Middaugh’s five keys to success in next week’s Middaugh Coaching Corner.)

“I have a lot of access to a lot of elite athletes who are not coachable and not fun to train with,” said John. “That’s why Josiah is a champion. He is open to input.  He wants to improve. And he doesn’t give up.”