by Matthew Leitch, 17 February 2002
Misconception: The more effort you make the more force you can apply, more power you can generate, and the faster you can go.
How skill really works: The relationship between effort and performance is complex and effort is rarely helpful. The force generated can be increased by relaxing opposing muscles (a mental focus that also tends to diminish awareness of tension elsewhere), reducing the risk of injury (and the fear of injury that results), and getting a better body posture, angle, etc to make best use of muscular contractions.
When you use muscles to apply force (perhaps to move yourself) your muscles mostly fall into three groups: (1) agonists - that pull in the direction you want, (2) stabilizers - that steady your joints but are neutral in their effect, and (3) antagonists - that pull against the direction you want and should be as relaxed as you can make them.
As you learn a physical skill you normally start off with quite a lot of muscular tension, some of it with muscles opposing each other and simply compressing your joints to no effect. As your skill grows, fewer muscles are used and you become more efficient.
If you focus on relaxing antagonists instead of tensing agonists you may be able to accelerate this learning and you will certainly experience less feelings of effort. You may be surprised at how hard your muscles will work without bullying.
Example: Aikido. Aikido is learned with a lot of emphasis on relaxation, and learning to let go of the tension that is normally felt in a fight. The traditions of Aikido revolve around the belief in a mystical energy known as ki that is all around us, but flows from the body's centre out through the limbs like water through a hose. It provides strength without exertion. I doubt if ki really exists, and suspect that what is really happening is a shift of attention from tensing agonists to relaxing antagonists combined with a reduction in antagonist tension. Expert Aikido is impressive so whatever it is, it works.
The risk of injury may have a powerful role in what we normally refer to as "confidence", "belief", or "motivation". It's obvious that when players lose hope of winning a particular game or match they put less energy into playing and their performance falls. This is a particular problem if there actually was a worthwhile chance of winning.
Why does this happen? Most commentators and sports psychologists concentrate on the "self belief" angle and question whether the player really, deep down, believes he/she can win.
There may be some truth in this, but most of the time I suspect the real reasons are quite rational:
If you take sensible steps to reduce the risk of injury you can afford to keep on playing at full throttle even when your real chances of winning are slim. The main steps are:
This is a matter of physics rather than psychology so outside my expertise. I do know that the best techniques are not always obvious. It's helpful to copy good players and take coaching advice, but even this is no guarantee of success.
Example: Swimming. Until the late 1970s the standard advice on arm and hand movements was to pull straight through. Then Dr James E Counsilman noticed something odd about his best swimmer, Mark Spitz (yes, the Mark Spitz): when Spitz swam faster his stroke rate dropped. Think about it! The Doc (already author of "The science of swimming" so with a reputation to keep up) attached lights to swimmers' hands and had them swim over underwater cameras in the dark. The results, and Counsilman's analysis, changed swimming coaching at the top level forever, and were published in his 1981 blockbuster "Competitive Swimming". Pulling straight through is bad technique because it accelerates a small amount of water, which soon gets hard to chase. Good technique is for the hand to move sideways during the pull so it moves into still water and a larger amount of water is accelerated over a much shorter distance.
Another popular swimming myth concerns the breast stroke kick. It was thought that squeezing the legs together at the end helped push the swimmer forward by a kind of jet propulsion. Measurements have now shown that this was fantasy.
The moat effect I explained in connection with "the learning curve" is another reason finding strong technique can be tricky. There is no shortage of technical advice though, especially in golf.© 2002 Matthew Leitch