While South African athletes enjoyed the scheduled Monday and Thursday days off from the World Athletics Championship, another South African was challenging international coaches in seminars in the centre Helsinki.

“Its what you say, not the training that determines the limit of an athletes performance” announced Professor Tim Noakes, the keynote speaker at the event hosted by Finland’s coaching association and their heart monitoring watch partners. His statement was greeted with a mix of stunned silence and mutterings of ‘bol**cks’ from the less reserved Australian and New Zealand coaches.

Noakes proceeded over the next hour to pick apart many of the closely coveted coaching principles that have underpinned the rise of some coaches to legendary status.

“Lactate acid does not cause muscle fatigue; the muscles are protected by lactate acid’ stated Noakes, undermining a stalwart of physiology. “The problem is that for 90 years we have been teaching a ‘brainless’ physiology”, he continued.

Studies proved that, even in flat out sporting efforts, not all the fibres in a muscle were being used, but in extreme conditions greater work could be done. Firing a gun behind weight-lifters could be a great way to assist them to a personal best suggested Noakes, before displaying the picture of a bright red formula one Ferrari.

“How fast does this car go?” Knowledgeable, but wrong, answers were muttered into the atmosphere. “It doesn’t move without a driver,” answered Noakes, driving home his key point, “Like the athlete, it’s the drivers brain that determines how fast it will go, and it is his skill, judgement, desire, and the level of risk he is willing to sustain that determines the race winner.”

The silence was deafening, as slide-by-slide, Noakes scored point after point in his presentation, gradually turning these ‘learned men and women’ to his way of thinking.

Although sports psychology has previously been recognised as having an influence on the outcome, it has always be seen as secondary to the physiological preparation. The UCT studies suggest the reverse may be true, and that the brain predetermines the performance and uses conservative safety factors to protect the body from self-damage.

There are however, over-ride mechanisms that allow superlative performances in extreme or life-threatening situations.
Stories of the mother who lifts a car in order to pull her trapped child out from beneath have bordered on myth, but the Noakes theory gives them credence. The magnitude and urgency of the mother’s desire being sufficient to recruit extremely high percentages of muscle fibres enabling her to perform a task she would normally be incapable of.

The philosophy was underlined this week by Dominican Republics Felix Sanchez’s participation in the 400m hurdles. Despite being advised by his doctors not to compete, he overcame the pain of a broken foot bone in an attempt to win the World Championship title for the third time.
“It is really painful but I have trained too hard just to go home,” said Sanchez. “I’ll do my best because if they are going to take my championship then they are going to do it with me here, not sat in front of my TV back in my home town,” said Sanchez, who eventually ground to a halt before the first hurdle in the final. Perhaps that was when the pain exceeded the desire of the win.

It seems that the determination the athlete’s ability results from communication between the subconscious and conscious minds, which correlates past performance, desires and expectations prior to the event, which is then simply played out as a ‘déjà vu’ scenario. These internal discussions determine the reduction of ‘safety factor’ applied to the physical performance, and explains why only a portion of the total muscle fibres are recruited, even in world beating performances. The ability to reduce the safety factor opens the scope for dramatic improvements in sport.

“When you train the athlete, you impose your belief on their ability” said Noakes to the now attentive coaches. Ironically it was a message simultaneously being underlined a few kilometres away when huddles of journalist interrogated famous Finnish distance runner, Lasse Viren, as to why European athletes no longer won distance events “It is more of a mental thing with the European runners,” confirmed Viren. “If you believe you can win, anyone can win. With most non-African born runners they just don’t believe anymore.”

Neither Noakes nor Viren were suggesting that psychological advantage could result in a Citi Golf out performing a Formulae one Ferrari, but rather that having achieved the physiological training requirements of the sport, the brains influence had significantly more impact on the outcome than excessive hours of training.

Perhaps then the greatest benefits of training may be to pre-set the conscious and sub conscious belief systems to accept higher levels of hardship and performance.  Creating a willingness to reduce the physical safety factor could for instance see the marathoner who is willing to over-ride the warning signs of heat fatigue, make a break that others in the pack are unwilling to follow.

Acceptance of this concept will require selectors, sports academies and high performance centres to re-evaluate the emphasis on physiological testing. ‘Belief bending’ sessions could become the order of the day and perhaps, in less humiliating conditions, the hardship and discipline of Rudi Strauli’s “camp staldraad” will become the focus of physical preparation to condition the mind to higher performance levels.

As international coaching minds spun with questions, Noakes ended with a note of concern. “As this principle becomes accepted there can be little doubt that chemists will develop pain and fatigue-blocking pills to allow the athlete to override the safety factor.” It is unlikely that these would be detectable, leaving the winners trophy to those willing to go closest to the critical levels, and inevitably there will be catastrophic failures.

While a number of the South African team were falling out in the preliminary rounds of the championships athletes, Tim Noakes’s Gold medal presentation had sent some of the most respected international coaches with more than enough points to ponder. It was encouraging to note the presence of all the South African team coaches, who hopefully will have used each available moment to influence today’s marathon team into extending themselves to their true potential.

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