Student of the Game

Julian Morales

Student of the Game


Lebron James was asked a question about the final play of the All-Star game five days after the event. His answer was a detailed response with no holes about the one quick play that happened at the end of the game. It had everyone buzzing over how he could remember everything in such vivid detail. Lebron has often been praised for his innate athletic ability. To be able to power through defenses just by being bigger and stronger. Is it really just how big and how strong he is that makes him successful at the sport? After hearing his interviews and seeing how his mind works, the clear answer is no. 


The NBA is full of extremely athletic players. Most vertical leaps are over 40 inches, most can change directions really quickly, and most have extremely good hand-eye coordination. What separates Lebron is his mind and how he works. He knows basketball. During Laker’s film sessions he would regularly chime in to teach his teammates about opposing defensive schemes, other player moves, and which teams run which plays. Coaches talk about it being hard enough getting everyone on the same page where the athletes know what to do. Meanwhile Lebron not only knows what to do, but knows what the opposing players are going to do.


Some people say, “well Lebron was just gifted with a great memory.” These are the same people that give too much weight to the word “talent” and are missing out on the potential of the human body. Neuroplasticity is a term that describes the learning process. It means our brains aren’t fixed but they’re able to change through growth and reorganization. In the book Peak, Anders Ericsson talks about a study he did where he tested remembering random strings of numbers. Common wisdom at the time said that you could only hold 7-8 numbers in your head at a time. Anders’s student for the study was Steve and they put common wisdom to the test. In their 4th hour session Steve could successfully do up to 8 numbers, struggled with 9 numbers, and never successfully hit 10 numbers. During their 5th session they had a breakthrough where Steve was able to hit 10 numbers and then 11 numbers shortly after. If the average was considered 7 numbers then Steve is considered to have a well above average memory.  Steve didn’t stop there though. By the end of their 200th session Steve was able to remember a random string of 82 numbers. Steve didn’t have a gift, he simply practiced in a deliberate way to improve the skill he was working on.


How can you apply this to your swimming? First, you need to embrace that you can improve to become a great swimmer. There may be a fixed number of people that can go to the olympics but there’s no fixed number of people that can qualify for Olympic Trials. You need to see yourself being a great swimmer and believe that if you do the work necessary, then you’ll be able to get to that level. Next, you need to practice deliberately to get there. Simplest way is to know what’s going on in practice! Don’t be one of the swimmers that doesn’t know what’s going on. You should know the set, know what you should be doing during the set, and also have something that you know you need to work on. For example if you have a bad habit of breathing in and out of your walls then be proactive in making better habits because you know it’s going to help you. Olympic gold medalist Brendan Hansen said, “if you’re just doing the workout, then you’re not working as hard as I do.” During training, our body is constantly fighting our mind. Our body is perfectly content with sitting on the couch and doing nothing. Doing nothing doesn’t produce medals though. You need to bypass your body’s instinct to want to stop in order to harness the body’s power of adaptation. Your body is either adapting in a positive way or adapting in a negative way and it’s up to you to choose which direction your body goes. Think of it as you’re either driving the bus or sitting in the passenger seat hoping the bus is taking you where you want to go. In the book Peak, Anders Ericsson repeatedly said we create our own potential. Take control of the bus and give yourself the opportunity to be great. Last, you need to keep shooting for small, consistent improvements every day. For example, they say most people trying to learn the guitar make progress for about two weeks and then never pick up the guitar again. People usually make a lot of progress at the beginning but it’ll be the consistency of what you do over time that matters for the end result. You don’t get to the top of a mountain by looking at it. You get to the top of the mountain by taking one step at a time. You should think about every practice you do as deliberately training to drop a tenth of a second. As you get older that tenth of a second turns into training for every hundredth of a second.


Everyday is an opportunity to improve and learn more about your sport. Ask yourself what do you need to know about swimming in order to be great. Be a student of the game.


- Tommy Cunningham