Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On meeting a Paralympic legend.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Chris Holmes. I have to say I didn't know who he was, but he turned out to be a brilliant and motivational speaker. As a boy he was keen on sport, including rugby and cricket, and he was a county standard swimmer. He had three ambitions: to get his A-Levels, to go to Cambridge, and to represent his country at sport. Then, when he was 14 years old, he woke up one morning to discover that he’s lost his sight. He had a genetic eye condition called exudative vitreoretinopathy (the retina is folded and doesn't grow properly, so it tears easily), but up until this point his eyesight hadn't been badly affected. But even now that his sight had been lost, he was still determined to achieve his three goals. Chris returned to the pool and committed to the same training regime as sighted swimmers aspiring for the Olympics. He got straight As at A-Level and read politics at Cambridge, but his first swimming championships wasn't such a success. This was the Junior European Championships in Moscow, just a year after he’d lost his sight. After his race, an official said to him “It’s a long way to come 28th out of 29”. Chris saw that in order to finish on the podium he’d have to improve his time by about six seconds – a massive time in a 100-metre swim. But then he did a really clever thing: he worked out the number of training sessions that he would do before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and calculated that he would only have to improve by one five-hundredths of a second per session. This seemed eminently possible. I was immediately reminded of Sir Clive Woodward’s famous quote “Winning the World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better”. I asked Chris if anyone had helped him come up with his idea, but it was entirely his own reasoning. The training regime he followed meant getting up at 4.40 in the morning, and swimming 7,000 metres in the morning, and another 7,000 metres in the evening. He did this, six days a week, for 17 years. He would go on to win six gold medals in Barcelona, and nine Olympic medals in a career in which he broke 35 World records. When talking about his achievements, Chris would often begin a sentence by saying “I was lucky enough to win…” Clearly, hard work counted considerably more than luck. But what struck me was the phenomenal mental strength he had at just 14 and 15 years old. I suppose you could argue that he was “lucky” to have that. Chris Holmes is the most remarkable person I've ever met. He’s almost certainly the most remarkable that I shall ever meet. David Donner

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The A - Z of Sports Vision - Adrenaline

Adrenaline (Also known as epinephrine) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit at the top of the kidneys. It has a number of functions, such as regulating our heart rate. But it’s particularly involved in our reaction to a threat or stress – the so-called “fight or flight” response. In sport, this can have a number of benefits. Blood is diverted from the organs that are no use in a fight, such as the digestive system (hence butterflies in the stomach), to those that are needed – the muscles in our limbs. Our heart rate increases, as well as our metabolism, enabling us to release more energy, especially from fats. All this is really useful for a fairly short burst of physical activity, but not so good for endurance sports or when you’re putting on a golf course. In the eye, adrenaline causes relaxation of the ciliary muscle, which results in a loss of ability to focus close objects clearly (accommodation). The pupil also enlarges, resulting in a reduction in our depth of focus. This can make it more difficult for an older shooter to focus on the sight of a gun. In more stressful situations, “tunnel vision” can occur. We don’t actually lose our ability to see to the sides, but attention tends to focus on a limited area, especially in the face of a threat. For a penalty taker, the goalkeeper can be perceived as a threat: indeed, goalkeepers seem to have cottoned on to this, and try and make their presence felt as much as possible. There are some times when a narrow focus of attention can be useful, such as a when a darts player just wants to concentrate on the board. For a rugby prop forward, there are times when it can be useful, such as when the scrum engages, but times when it isn't, such as when he finds himself in open play. So for optimal sporting performance you need the right amount of adrenaline – not too much and not too little. It’s therefore essential that players practice in competitive situations. They’ll still be up for the game, but will still be able to spot the killer pass to the player who’s unmarked. David Donner