Swim­mers get army stress test

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - CHIP LE GRAND

A swimming race is never a mat­ter of life and death. Yet when Aus­tralia’s best take to the start­ing blocks at the Tokyo Olympics, they will be armed with the same tools that elite spe­cial forces op­er­a­tives use to stay calm in com­bat and per­form un­der in­tense pres­sure.

Op­er­a­tion Re­silience, as it was ini­tially dubbed, is an un­prece­dented col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the army and Swimming Aus­tra- lia that has been op­er­at­ing be­low the radar since Jan­uary. Its ori­gins can be traced to a friendship forged on the Kokoda Track be­tween Swimming Aus­tralia chair­man and cel­e­brated helms­man John Ber­trand and the Chief of Army, Rick Burr.

The army and the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport have since signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing for up to 180 ath­letes and coaches across dif­fer­ent sports to un­dergo train­ing with the 2nd Com­mando Reg­i­ment at the army’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Train­ing and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre at

Holswor­thy. It is a two-way ex­change in which sol­diers will be trained in the lat­est “ath­lete avail­abil­ity’’ tech­nol­ogy and data anal­y­sis — a hi-tech sys­tem of in­jury pre­ven­tion used by the AIS — while prospec­tive medal­lists will learn how to con­trol their bodies’ in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion to stress so they can per­form when it mat­ters most, at the Olympics.

“They talk of ‘rac­ing to calm­ness’ be­fore an op­er­a­tion,’’ Ber­trand said. “The par­al­lel for us is for our ath­letes to be on the start­ing blocks, on the world stage, and to have a sense of self, such that they can per­form at the high­est level when it re­ally counts. That is the sil­ver bul­let for us.’’

Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Burr said keep­ing highly trained per­son­nel fit and healthy, men­tally and phys­i­cally, was equally im­por­tant for the army. “It is big­ger than spe­cial forces,’’ he said. “The idea here is to scale. How can we take this and ex­pand it across army and de­fence more broadly?’’

The col­lab­o­ra­tion was es­tab­lished af­ter a re­view of Aus­tralia’s per­for­mance in the Rio pool found fewer than 30 per cent of the ath­letes “con­verted’’ their Olympic op­por­tu­ni­ties by im­prov­ing the times they set four months ear­lier at the tri­als. The US swim team had dou­ble the con­ver­sion rate. Although the pub­lic fall­out from Rio fo­cused on the dis­ap­point­ments of some of our world cham­pion swim­mers — Cate Camp­bell and Cameron McEvoy in their 100m freestyle fi­nals and Emily See­bohm in her pet back­stroke events — fur­ther AIS anal­y­sis re­vealed the per­for­mance malaise wasn’t lim­ited to the swim team.

Peter Conde — the ar­chi­tect of Sail­ing Aus­tralia’s suc­cess­ful high-per­for­mance pro­gram who since Rio has taken charge of the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport — said: “One of the key feed­backs from sports in the wake of the 2016 Olympics was per­form­ing un­der pres­sure was a weak­ness, al­most across the board.

“The army has good ways of repli­cat­ing those kinds of sit­u­a­tions, with­out putting any­one at phys­i­cal risk, to al­low peo­ple to prac­tise this. These are ar­eas that are ab­so­lutely life and death for them. We are not talk­ing about try­ing to repli­cate what they do; we are try­ing to learn from their tech­niques and un­der­stand­ing in order to do what we do bet­ter.’’

The work with the army is one el­e­ment of an AIS “Gold Medal Ready’’ pro­gram de­signed to pre­pare the best ath­letes bet­ter to pro­duce peak per­for­mances within the chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment and pres­sure of an Olympic Games. The AIS has en­listed pre­vi­ous Olympic medal­lists to work closely with likely Tokyo team mem­bers and es­tab­lished a high­level per­for­mance com­mit­tee with Aus­tralian Olympic Com­mit­tee chief ex­ec­u­tive Matt Car­roll and chef de mis­sion Ian Ch­ester­man to im­prove the team en­vi­ron­ment at fu­ture Olympics.

An­drew Wal­she, a former di­rec­tor of Red Bull’s high­per­for­mance team, said in­no­va­tion in sport in­creas­ingly re­quired cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion and open shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion.

At Red Bull, Dr Wal­she’s work in­volved ath­letes across 180 sports, mu­si­cians, artists and de- sign­ers, and part­ner­ships with DARPA, the US de­fence agency re­spon­si­ble for in­vest­ing in emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, and the Na­tional En­dow­ment of the Arts. He was the key speaker yes­ter­day at a high-pow­ered gather­ing of sport lead­ers in Mel­bourne ar­ranged by the Sport Aus­tralia Hall of Fame, which is chaired by Ber­trand.

“The col­lec­tive wis­dom that is out there, if you har­ness it for you, the way you want to use it within the cul­ture of your team and or­gan­i­sa­tion, no one can ever copy that,” Dr Wal­she said. “We found far more gain of be­ing open and part of a broader com­mu­nity than try­ing to be a clos­eted group.’’

Gen­eral Burr said this cul­tural change had al­ready oc­curred in De­fence. “Go­ing from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’ has been a real shift,’’ he said. “For peo­ple and teams to achieve their po­ten­tial in the fu­ture, com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, we need to get ac­cess to the best minds and the best ideas.’’

The col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ath­letes and sol­diers is be­ing fa­cil­i­tated by Jemma King, a Univer­sity of Queens­land ex­pert in hu­man be­hav­iour who has spent the past three years study­ing how stress im­pacts the per­for­mance of army com­man­dos and teach­ing them to reg­u­late their re­sponse to ex­treme pres­sure us­ing tech­niques such as re­set­ting the va­gus nerve, breath­ing meth­ods and men­tal ex­er­cises.

She said the body’s re­sponse to bat­tle sim­u­la­tion or rap­pelling from a high tower was no dif­fer­ent from what hap­pened to an ath­lete when they were seized by nerves be­fore a big race. “When you are in that stressed state your amyg­dala gets fired up,’’ she ex­plained. “It is a deep part of the brain that is as­so­ci­ated with fear. It is also prim­i­tive and can­not tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a ma­raud­ing bear, get­ting a neg­a­tive com­ment on so­cial me­dia or (be­ing) roasted in the board­room. Even think­ing about a per­ceived threat will ac­ti­vate this stress-re­sponse sys­tem.’’

King said that to shoot straight or swim fast un­der pres­sure, sol­diers and ath­letes needed to be “calm but ready”.

The body’s in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion to stress is to pro­duce adren­a­line and a longer-last­ing hor­mone, cor­ti­sol. Some cor­ti­sol aids per­for­mance. Too much can shut down the im­mune sys­tem and wipe out mus­cle mem­ory and learn­ing func­tions in the brain, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to per­form.

Elite ath­letes will be taught how their body re­acts to stress, what stress lev­els they need for peak per­for­mance and how to iden­tify and coun­ter­act early signs of stress over­load. Lead­ing coaches will un­dergo the same train­ing so they can bet­ter pre­pare ath­letes for the most stress­ful two weeks of their sport­ing lives.




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