02. Experts Corner

Boosting Off-the-Block Reactions in Swimming – Cognitively!

April 22, 2022

The difference between the gold and silver medal in the 100m Men’s Freestyle final of the Tokyo Games came down to just 0.06 seconds – less than one sixth of the time it takes to blink! Today’s world-class swimmers push the boundaries of human performance so close to their limits, that such marginal differences often decide positions on the podium. This makes professional swimming one of the most competitive events in the world of sports. Hence these athletes are constantly searching for any performance edge they can, no matter how seemingly small. Here I’ll cover a study revealing that the cognitive dimension of performance could provide a new edge in reaction times, allowing swimmers to get off-the-blocks and into the water faster.

What Was Studied

I worked with Professor Brian Christie and research colleagues to test the hypothesis that improved selective attention via visual training can transfer to improved reaction times to auditory cues. This is based on the theory that the visual and auditory centers of the brain are functionally coupled in terms of shared attentional resources.

To do this we conducted a study with 15 male and female swimmers on the University of Victoria Vikes Swim Team, comprised of high performance athletes and a world champion. The goal was to see if cognitive training to improve selective attention, would yield far transfer to faster off-the-block dive times

Off-the-block dives are defined as the time between the start gun firing and the swimmer’s front foot leaving the blocks. Here are the four stages of a race dive.

Dive reactions rely on auditory selective attention, which can be thought of as mentally filtering out all other sounds in order to listen acutely for the gun. Here is the methodology we used to investigate if auditory performance could be positively affected by improved visual selective attention.

Training Intervention - we chose NeuroTracker as a tool with a strong evidence base for effectively training selective attention. As you can see in this demo, the task requires visual attention to be focused onto prioritized moving targets, and away from distractors.

Multiple studies show that training on this task produces notable gains in selective attention within 3 hours of training. We assigned an active group to perform 30 x 6-minute NeuroTracker sessions alongside their normal weekly swim training, as well as a control group who did only swim training.

Dive Testing – we closely simulated a competitive race environment for the athletes, which included an audience of college students as active spectators. To measure dive performance on millisecond timescales, we used the Ares Omega Timing System.

Each participant conducted a series of 3 separate dive tests prior to NeuroTracker training, with rests in between each dive. Then another 3 dives test were conducted in the same way 7 weeks later, after the NeuroTracker training intervention had been completed.

What Was Found

The study took place early on in the competitive swim season, so as expected, the 7 weeks of swim training produced some improvements in the control group’s dive results. However, in contrast, the active group trained on NeuroTracker demonstrated significantly larger drops in reaction times off-the-blocks.

Differences in dive reaction times, before and after NeuroTracker training

In comparison to the control group’s average improvement in reaction time of 0.034 seconds, the active group achieved their dives 0.081 seconds faster, demonstrating more than twice the gains from their additional cognitive intervention - a training advantage of 0.047 seconds.

This advantage was surprisingly consistent across the participants, suggesting a reliable far transfer effect. Anecdotal reports from the active group also included improved sustained attention and concentration levels in their academic study work. These findings support the hypothesis that training attention in one sensory modality (in this case vision), can positively affect other modalities (in this case auditory attention).

Sports vision research tends to focus exclusively on visually dominated sports like soccer, basketball, tennis and so on. However, visual training methodologies may well be relevant for the performance enhancement of non-visually dominated sports, particularly those which rely on auditory reactions, such as rowing, cycling, and running.

As this domain is relatively unstudied, it would be great to see more research investigating this area of sports performance.

The Competitive Advantage?

As we covered at the outset, professional swimmers seek marginal gains in race times because they have a relatively large impact on competition outcomes. To qualify the effects for these results I looked into race times at past Olympics, to see how much of a difference there would be in terms of who won medals.

A 0.1 second change in race results would have caused a total of 65 Olympic medals to have exchanged hands between the 1972 and 2004 Olympic Sprinting events (50 m – 200 m). Interestingly, as the standards of the sport progress over time, the differences become even more significant. For example, at just the Rio 2016 games, a total of 30 Olympic medals would have exchanged hands.

The Takeaway

Modern day professional swimmers and their coaches are constantly search for new ways to gain a marginal performance advantage. Visuo-cognitive training tools like NeuroTracker may offer a distinct performance edge with just a few hours of distributed training, and with no risks of injury or overloading existing training regimes.

View the full published study here (open access).

Effects of 3D-Multiple Object Tracking on Reaction Time Performance in High-Performance Varsity Swimmers

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