What’s a Nimble Brain and Why You Want One.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 8th, 2011

TI Coach Suzanne Atkinson (read her blog here ) posted this comment in response to Does Talent Matter? Not if your goal is Personal Transformation.

“I used to consider sight reading a strength for me (not piano, but bass, trombone, tuba, etc). But it was always a conscious choice…’I’m going to sight read this perfectly today’ and it was like a rolling focus…always looking a bar ahead– but playing a bar behind–the one you just read. You couldn’t get too far ahead, or you’d forget what you’d seen, but if you played what you just saw, you didn’t have time to play what came next. Seeing sharps & flats and complex rhythms in your ‘future peripheral vision’…just ahead of the area you were scanning, alerted you to grab those pieces of info, remember the rhythm or flat you just played and discard it just as quickly. But I never really thought of it as a talent or process until just now.”

I was struck by this because, at virtually the same time Suzanne was writing this comment, I wrote this in a post on the TI Discussion Forum “I swim in a wide range of tempos to improve neural adaptability — essentially to have a nimble brain.”  Suzanne’s description made clear to me sight reading, like Tempo Training, develops a nimble brain. The question for today is what is a nimble brain, how do you develop it, and why is that good.

What’s a nimble brain?

Nimble Brain may not be a term a neurobiologist might use, but it’s one that I think nearly any would grasp immediately and state unequivocally that it’s desirable to have.  Essentially, it means that you are doing activities that require your brain to work harder, to process more pieces of information and to do so more quickly. Moving from one task to a slightly different, yet clearly related, task. Initially you might spend 10 minutes on one task, then 10 minutes on the next. Later you might spend 1 minute on one task, then 1 minute on the next – repeating that cycle 10 times. In time, this kind of practice allows you to think both thoughts at once, and seamlessly integrate the two tasks. This practice, and the development of  the skill it focuses on, results in creating new circuits. When you first perform a task, your brain forms a single, simple circuit. When you add new elements, the brain creates new circuits around that task.  When it creates new circuits, its infrastructure becomes more robust.

Activating Neurons

How do you make your brain more nimble?

Next time you go to the pool, before getting in, watch the lappers for a bit. In nearly every case, whatever movement you see them perform on the first lap, they’ll  keep  performing for as long as you watch. If you watch them next week, next year or in 10 years, you’re almost certain to see the same thing. (I know because on several occasions I’ve swum with someone I swam with, or coached, 30 or 40 years ago. Each time, they looked  exactly as I remembered.

In contrast, if you had seen me swim 40  years ago, you’d think I look like an entirely different swimmer today. And even if you compared earlier generations of TI videos to the most  current one, you’d be able to discern marked changes in my form. And while you might have difficulty discerning changes in my stroke from one set or repeat to the next if you spent an hour watching me practice today, in fact, you would be seeing constantly-changing tasks.

Any time I change tempo or SPL in a set or practice I’m giving my brain a slightly different task to perform.  Much of that time, I do that on nearly every repeat.

I do it because (i) it’s fun, (ii) it builds adaptive skills that are advantageous while racing, and (iii) becaue it gives me a healthier brain.


Why is a Nimble Brain good?

Apart from the fact that I can race better and because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable form of practice, planning your practice to include frequently-changing-but-related tasks is valuable because it builds a healthier brain. There’s a capacity neuroscientists refer to as Cognitive Reserve (CR). This means you have more circuitsm and more robust infrastructure to support any activity which can benefit from that. You can have CR in purely cognitive activities –solving math equations for instance. But CR in motor activities—those requiring a merger of thought and action–is considered even more valuable. Suzanne’s sight reading and her and my swimming practice are both examples of this.

And the great value of CR is that it’s been documented as the best insurance against a loss of mental acuity as we age.  More on this in a post to follow shortly.


2 Responses to “What’s a Nimble Brain and Why You Want One.”

  1. […] in swimming is also going to go much better with some deeper understanding and trust in the way the body and brain learn new skills and make improvements. Having even a basic understanding swimming physics, physiology and […]

  2. Suzanne says:

    Terry, I just read this, thanks for the mention. I plan to use these ideas for my masters swimmers tonight…bringing to their attention the changing tasks they are doing!

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