1509 thinking clearly

Here is another book I must recommend for you: The Art Of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.

book cover - thinking clearly

It was just what I was looking for lately in my research when I ran across it in the airport bookstore – a list and brief description of fifty common cognitive biases that disrupt good thinking and decision-making.

The very first bias on the list succinctly describes one I have pointed out before -Dobelli’s title for it was “Why You Should Visit Cemeteries”.

I would like to re-name that title slightly for our context: “Why You Should Visit Swimmer Cemeteries”.

Why do coaches, swimmers and media commentators point out the examples of the Olympic swimmers? Because those athletes are the tip of the tip of the iceberg of those who strove, survived and reached the top, and thus get all the attention.

1509 icbg

Dobelli also labels it the ‘Survivorship Bias‘ – in our case, those who have survived the brutal filtering process to become an Olympic champion swimmer. We are enamored with those very, very select few who didn’t get physically or mentally destroyed by the process of making a champion in today’s competitive environment.

“In daily life, because triumph is made more visible than failure, you systematically over-estimate your chances of succeeding.”

Let me add to that sentence for our context, “you systematically over estimate your chances of succeeding… if you ignorantly follow the example of those who’ve made it to the top.”

Why? Because you and I are a quite far removed from the physical conditions and environment of those Olympic swimmers that supported such success, and we are rarely told the full story of the price they are paying for it.

What the coaches and media never seem to report on is the enormous failure rate (by injury, burnout, and washout) that happens to athletes who get into competitive swimming, especially from an early age. Those at the tip of the top of the sport no doubt worked very very hard to get there, but we might also argue they are the very, very lucky ones who had bodies that could handle the training with the stroke mechanics they use. The problem is: those mechanics are hurting even most of those swimmers at the top. But no one is telling you about that fact when they urge you to imitate what you see on the video of the latest hot swimmer or triathlete.

I believe coaches have an ethical imperative to talk about this fact (which I touched on in a previous post and reference to a sad story HERE) and to start reversing the trend.

If only we could, we should look at the ranks of swimmers below who didn’t make it, and even more importantly, we should look at the ones who tried unsuccessfully to do the same things we see those elites doing only to blow up their joints or burn out their psyche.

If only we would measure a ‘great’ coach not only by how many exceptional swimmers rose to the top, but also, more importantly, by how many have sustained an injury under his/her guidance.

We are impressed by elite examples for the very reason we should be wary of imitating those same examples – they have extraordinary capabilities and extraordinary resources supporting their efforts and time to dedicate fully to it. It is worth considering how they may be getting away with things in training to perform at that level that most adult-onset swimmers are not in position to imitate without great risk to the body. We are not given a full account of what it costs to do what the elites are trying to do to reach the top.

“The media is not interested in digging around in the graveyards of the unsuccessful.”

But aspiring adult-onset athletes should be.

“To avoid the survivorship bias you must do the digging yourself.”

When you or I have an opportunity to do so we should study the common characteristics among those who have blown up their shoulders, for example. What stroke mechanics and variations did they use? We should talk to those who have burned out on swimming so much they don’t want to do it any more. What methods and values were they training under? We should talk to those who have tried and tried but were told they were not the ‘swimmer type’ and should give up. What kind of teaching methods and attitude were being applied by the coaches they trained under?

Take home: next time you hear any of us coaches talk about what a swimmer should do based on some elite’s example, listen for those things that apply to all humans – real ordinary, every-day working people like you and me – not only to those of a certain elite physical capability and environment for training.

Think about it. When someone points out what to imitate in that elite swimmer consider all the things that separate that model and his training environment from you and yours – their body condition, their swimming history, their age, their genetics, their availability of time and energy as a professional. Then consider all the aspiring, dedicated, hard-working young people like that elite model who didn’t make it, and wonder why. They were working with many of the same techniques and in the same programs with the same advantages. Why didn’t it work for them? What can you learn from their failure?

If ever we get a chance to interview an elite swimmer corpse, we should do it. It may be more valuable than an exclusive interview with our favorite successful elite.

We might learn so much from the anti-examples of those who have failed so we know what technique, what patterns, what values, what mindset, what habits to avoid because these things are statistically harmful to swimmers. Eliminating from our list what we should not do, might be as helpful as adding more tips to it. Knowing what not to imitate might clarify superior technique more than we imagined it could.


This reminds me of a couple engineering book classics: Why Buildings Stand Up, and it’s logical counter-point, Why Buildings Fall Down by Matths Levy and Mario Salvadori.

The dedication page of latter has this quote:

To the memory of my mother-in-law, Judith Bookman, who, upon receiving on her ninety-second birthday the first copy of Why Buildings Stand Up, said matter of factly: “This is nice, but I would be much more interested in reading why they fall down.”

It would be nice to have a book that documented how the bodies and minds of swimmers fail so much. Don’t you think?

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