I had the opportunity to go to St Michael’s College for high school. As part of the grade 10 curriculum, St Mike’s requires all students to take a course in Latin. Yup… Latin. Why on earth Latin? There are a two main reasons for Latin. First is that as a language Latin – unlike English – is extremely logical, so studying Latin reinforces the same manner of study as in the sciences… logic based reasoning, rational expansion from root structures to complex structures. Second is that Latin is the root language of all the romantic languages (i.e. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan). Hence, learning the root of all romantic languages makes acquisition of any or all of the romantic languages that much simpler. Studying Latin may make sense in high school, but what has Latin got to do with sport, with training, with movement? Glad you asked…
The image above comes from Wikipedia (link) under the subject heading of Romantic languages. The diagram depicts the linguistic roots and connections between all the Romantic languages.
The image to the right is a diagram which attempts to parallel the roots and connections in language to those in sport.
The roots of the language of movement are the ABCs: agility, balance and coordination. These skills are trained in calisthenics/gymnastics and in all the various forms of dance. The language of movement expands beyond the ABCs to include a wide range of derivative movements found in the locomotor, receiving and sending skills.
Application of the Concept
With language, you can study Latin to develop a foundation for all romantic languages, or you can study any one of the romantic languages and then transition to learning other languages in the family with relative ease.
In sport, it is no different.
In sport, you can study (or train if you prefer) calisthenics/gymnastics or dance to gain a foundation for all sports, or you can study any one sport and then transition to learning other sport specific technique with relative ease.
The key though is studying the sport, not hammering away at it, crushing workouts, that will not help you one iota to develop either basic skill sets and abilities, nor derivative skills specific to sport.
The key is studying sport no different than studying language. Movement is a language so to become better at moving you have to study where you do not move well and gain flexibility and mobility; you have to study what patterns you can and cannot coordinate well, where your timing falls off resulting in loss of speed, loss of power, and rapid fatigue.
Brainless working out, whether that is mindless repetitions in the gym lifting weights, swimming meters, riding or running endless miles without any conscious thought, purposeful attention to how you are moving, from where, freely or with restriction, coordinated or ill timed is not study, therefore there can be and will be no translation of ability from one sport to another, nor improvement in any sport. In fact, with brainless working out, there is only one end point… the dead end of hitting your head against a wall exchanged for diminishing returns.
Evidence of the Concept – US Olympian Ed Moses
Perhaps the most exquisite evidence to the concept of movement as a language is US National Olympic Swim Team member Ed Moses. Until a senior in high school, Ed Moses only swam during the summer months preferring basketball, golf, soccer, and baseball to swimming. Then as a senior he accepted the challenge to train a full schedule, and within a year rose to being ranked 15th in the world in the 100m Breaststroke. Two years later Ed Moses won silver in the 100m BR, and gold in the 4×100 medley relay at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
How is it possible in a country whose Olympic Trials are as competitive as Finals in the Olympics that an athlete can go from what US College swim team coaches would consider a non-competitive swimmer to being ranked internationally, to winning Olympic medals… and doing so within a period of 3 years?
If you went back and asked Ed Moses, his coach and all US College swim team coaches at the time how he did it, they will tell you the same thing… Ed Moses studied Breaststroke as if it was a language. Moses studied the technique of swimming, specifically that of Breaststroke [BR] – the most inefficient and most technically challenging of all swim strokes – to the point that he became the benchmark in breaststroke technique. US College swim team coaches would simply tell their swimmers to watch and study and learn the technique of Ed Moses… pure and simple, that is how you swim the stroke if you want to win.
Moses studied the language of BR and learnt to speak BR better than anyone else; that he did it in 3 years, becoming one of the best of the best, and an Olympic medalist should really not be surprising when you think of him as simply out-studying his competitors.
Moses didn’t crush harder workouts, push himself further to extremes in his physiology or psychology, pushing himself to death closer than any other athlete to succeed (the way current coaching philosophies would have you believe [i.e.] that HiiT / Hi Intensity Interval Training is the way).
Moses studied the language of swimming more intensely, trained the language to a higher degree of perfection than any other athlete and that is how he took the swimming world by storm… not be brawn but by intellect. Moses approached swimming not as a physical problem that had to be solved but as an intellectual problem: study and train to move more efficiently than the best, and you will out-swim the best of the best while exerting yourself less.
There is additional information, gifs, images, and a video on Ed Moses in a blog on The Athletes Cloud website – click here to link.
Evidence of the Concept – Canadian Olympian Penny Oleksiak
Canadians, we have our own version of Ed Moses in 2016 Rio Olympic medalist, and Canada’s youngest Olympic medalist: Penny Oleksiak. Unlike Ed Moses who did swim at a young age, Penny Oleksiak didn’t learn how to swim until the age of 9, and only joined a competitive swim team at the age of 12. But like Ed Moses, it was only 3+ years later that Oleksiak was not only at the Olympics but became Canada’s most decorated swimmer of all time.
Again… how does an athlete come from nowhere, and end up on the podium of international competition in such a short period of time?
The information available on Oleksiak states that prior to swimming she was involved in both gymnastics and competitive dance… the root of all movement languages. If Oleksiak truly studied – as it appears she did – these foundational and fundamental skill sets, then learning to swim and being able to accelerate quickly in the sport was a mere extrapolation of the skills she learnt on dryland. No different than Ed Moses who was learning how to move efficiently by playing many different sports, Oleksiak learnt how to move – and how to swim – long before she stepped into water.
Now consider how many other girls are swimming across Canada with dreams of swimming at the Olympics? Yet how many will? Some of them started swimming years before Oleksiak, some as early as age 6 or 7, yet they will never qualify for national level competition? How many girls will swim coaches burn out, blow up, and in some cases absolutely destroy pushing them to train harder, and harder, and then harder still in pursuit of qualifying for Olympic Trials, the Canadian National Team? Instead of teaching them to study language like Oleksiak, these girls will be told that self inflicted harm – i.e. no pain, no gain – is the path to success, that ‘surviving’ workouts is the goal… not learning, not studying.
Penny Oleksiak and Ed Moses are ‘not’ special in the way sports media would have you believe… they were born swimmers or born swimming. Neither Moses nor Oleksiak were born swimmers. What these two athletes show instead is that its not long arms, big feet, or “raw talent”… but a profound commitment to understanding or learning how you move, and studying to move better is the key to peak performance.
Moral of the Story
The moral of the story is not that it takes only 3 years to train for the Olympics, its that it should only take 3 years for athletes who have developed a solid base of foundational and fundamental movement techniques – i.e. a sound base in the root of the language of movement – to acquire, gain, and refine sport specific technique to the point of being competitive at the international level.
The corollary to this moral is the question… what on earth are all the athletes doing who are failing to succeed in sport yet have been training for years on end?
Well the answer to that is simple: if you, your swim coach, your own philosophy is that training hard, pushing yourself to hurt, “no pain, no gain” is the path to success, to excellence in sport, to mastery of movement… then you will find yourself constantly beaten in competition, passed by competitors who you believe aren’t as capable as you, aren’t as worthy as you, and over time, your frustration, disappointment, will build into anger, even hate.
In the end, you will come to think that there is something wrong with you, when there isn’t. You are fine, your approach to sport was incorrect.
Hammer at sport as if its something that needs to be broken, and you will only end up breaking yourself.
If you are not studying sport as if its a language, if you are attacking it like its an obstacle course that has to be beaten into submission, then the only thing that will end up beaten is you. You will eventually quit sport either because of a lack of progress, or because of beating yourself up constantly… you will quit because of injury or illness, or even a chronic disease which manifested as a result of your self inflicted torture.
Study sport. Study movement. Gain an understanding, an appreciation, an awareness, respect of how you move, what movement is efficient and what isn’t, how to change and modify movement to make it more efficient, study… study… practice… practice… and then practice more and sport will reveal itself to you.
Athletes Who Changed Sports, and Continued to Succeed
Michael Woods was a Canadian middle distance track & field runner but was dealing constantly with lower leg injuries which prevented him from truly rising to his potential in the sport of running. So Woods switched to cycling… and now rides as a professional on the Cannondale (EF) Education First WorldTour Team (formerly Cannondale Drapac), in 2015 he won a stage in the Tour of Utah, in 2017 he finished 7th Overall in the Vuelta a Espana, and this year took 2nd place Overall in the Spring Classic Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Click here for an article on his 2nd place finish @Velonews.com
Primoz Roglic was a ski jumper, the 2007 Junior World Champion and an Olympian representing Slovenia at the 2010 Winter Games. Roglic now rides for UCI WorldTour team Lotto-Jumbo and in 2018 has taken 1st place in both the Tour de Romandie and Tour of the Basque Country. Click here for an article on his 1st place finish in the Tour de Romandie @Velonews.com
Gwen Jorgensen went undefeated in the ITU 2015 Triathlon season. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Jorgensen won gold in triathlon and then she stopped to have a baby. Having hit the pinnacle in triathlon, she decided it was time to give it a go in another sport: running, specifically in the marathon. But Jorgensen is not just giving running a go, her goal is Olympic gold in the marathon. But her journey for Olympic gold doesn’t start in lofty places, it starts with a humble beginning of realizing that she has a long way to go.
When you realize that sport is a language, then when you hit an impasse in one sport, you know that it doesn’t have to signify the end of your athletic career. Athletes who have studied sport as a language know that they can translate their skills to other sports, and knowing the process of gaining sport specific technique have no fears over learning the technique of yet another sport. In fact, that is what makes them professional athletes… isn’t it.