Swimmers get army stress test
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.