Coaching Matters

The Formula One Analogy

One of the clutch of films that seem to appear on our screens every year over Christmas is an amusing family favourite entitled, if I remember rightly, The Love Bug. Its star is an unlikely (albeit, charmingly human) Volkswagen Beetle called "Herbie", who takes the motor racing world by storm and succeeds in wiping the floor with some pretty impressive automotive opposition. Without the help of Disney, of course, the outcome would have been somewhat different: in Formula One motor racing, to use it as our example here, the only way any team can expect to be competitive is by extended investment in the time-consuming and painstaking task of the design and development of their car. The Science of Formula One DesignIf Ferrari rolled a car out onto the track the shape of a VW Beetle with a nice new set of cross-plies, their passionate fans, the Tifosi, would rightly laugh (or more likely, cry!) for they would immediately recognise that no matter how powerful its engine was it would stand no chance whatsoever of keeping up with the rest of the field even round the first turn. Yet so many of us are quite happy to drive an aquatic version of that VW Beetle when we compete at swimming without realising that unless we do something about the design and performance characteristics of our "vehicle", we stand very little chance of success other than against other similarly unaware opponents.

In general, Grand Prix racing teams can be seen to be constantly pushing the design characteristics of their cars to the allowable limits with a very clear focus on addressing four fundamental, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, design essentials:

• how to package the engine, transmission and driver in such a way that aerodynamic drag is reduced to a minimum;

• how to ensure optimum traction between the car and the track in ever changing dynamic conditions;

• how to optimise the performance of the engine in terms of its mechanical efficiency on the one hand, and its weight and fuel efficiency on the other;

• and finally, how to get the best out of the driver.

In swimming the equivalent vehicle is the body itself which houses the engine (the physiological energy supply mechanism), the transmission (the musculo-skeletal force system) and driver (the neuro-psychological component). Similarly those four design essentials could be couched in comparable terms:

• how, for any given human body shape, to reduce hydrodynamic drag to a minimum in constantly changing flow conditions;

• how to ensure optimum contact between the body parts that transmit propulsive force and the water itself;

• how to physiologically prepare the body to meet the specific demands of a particular race without compromising mechanical efficiency;

• and finally, how to prepare the swimmer in terms of the development of both skill and psychological readiness to race.

The analogy with motor racing can be taken even further when we consider the practical difficulties involved in trying to study and evaluate what is actually going on. Not so very long ago, anything much beyond a few tentative deductions made from lap times was extremely difficult - gauging the real-time performance of the car and driver in any meaningful way was constantly frustrated by the limited nature of communication between the driver and the pit, and the sheer difficulty posed by trying to "see" what was happening in such a fast moving object. Chalkboards and instant assessments in the pit were probably the best that was on offer. Then came telemetry and completely new opportunities opened up. A wide range of sensors are now used to measure a whole variety of performance variables on the track from instantaneous suspension displacements to the driver's heart-rate. The motor racing world recognised without exception that it had to constantly assess what was going on if it was to make the increasingly fine adjustments necessary to prepare for and stay in the race.

In swimming, we experience similar problems in terms of analysing performance: first, because of the equivalent communication difficulties that exist between the coach on the pool-side and the swimmer in the water; and secondly, because of a similar difficulty in seeing what is happening, not this time because of sheer speed of movement but because so much of what is important actually takes place underwater. But what do we commonly do? We stand at one end of the pool and only talk to our swimmers between swims, and we largely ignore what is happening under the water because it is both too difficult to see and even more difficult to evaluate.

Our analogy with Formula One would suggest that more of us should be addressing these issues in an informed, deliberate and imaginative manner. If, for example, we are to fully exploit the benefits of streamlining, then we need to be able to see what our swimmers are doing, to know what we are looking for and why, and to monitor any individual corrections we seek to make. We also need to ensure that swimmers themselves understand what it is they are trying to do for it is they who are the ones who are making the final adjustments to the designs of their vehicles: in this respect they are both drivers and mechanics. With such an objective in mind we might profitably begin to think outside the box in trying to resolve some of the difficulties we face just as the creative use of telemetry has done in motor racing. There is much we can learn from other sports and we should never be afraid to draw on them, to make relevant analogies, and to study how others have approached resolving the corresponding difficulties they have faced in their own sports.


Johnstone Macpherson-Stewart