Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Mad Science: Putting Ourselves Back Together

I feel better.  
I suffer from a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I would personally argue is not a disorder, exactly, considering that most people struggle when they don’t get enough sunlight.  But whatever.  My symptoms are complicated by the reality that I work in a windowless bunker in Midtown Manhattan, and they were complicated even more this past weekend when temperatures in New York and Connecticut dipped into the single digits alongside several days of snow and overcast skies.  I usually deal with my SAD by swimming and bike commuting, but I couldn’t get to the pool early in the week, and with the weather, cycling was impossible as well.  This left me with far too much energy, too many ugly brain chemicals, and not enough light.  At exactly the same time, I was also dealing with some profoundly negative thoughts about a project I’ve allowed to become entirely too personal.  By midday on Tuesday, I was bouncing off the walls.  I found myself snapping at my wife and indulging some rather nasty fantasies…  This was not good.
I finally got to the pool Tuesday night, and it was a Godsend.  My main sets were as follows.

5 x 100 freestyle @ 1:30, descending 1-5
 - 1:16, 1:15, 1:13, 1:12, 1:10
2 x short ladder - 25 / 50 / 75 / 100; all @ 1:10, FULL SPRINT
 - :14 / :28 / :45 / 1:08
 - Rest one minute
 - :15 / :34 / :53 / 1:12
I started the 5 x 100 descending way faster than I should have, so that by the time I got to the second half of the workout, I didn’t have as much left in the tank as I might have liked.  I couldn’t double-back from the first 75 sprint to the 100 sprint at the same blistering pace I’d put down to that point in that second set.  Still, 1:08 from a push to end that first iteration of the second set was entirely respectable.  I was working alongside the local YMCA age-group team, and their coach was impressed, for whatever that’s worth.  Granted, Connecticut is a long way from the Heartland of American Swimming.  I was still pleased with the overall effort.
I wound up putting in 2800 yards in just under an hour.  This involved a lot more rest than I usually allow myself, but as I noted above, half this workout was done at tempo pace[1] or faster.  At 43, I don’t sprint much anymore.  Thus, the intensity of this workout was itself a significant challenge, especially as it related to my recovery times.
I finished about 8 p.m., and then my group swimming lesson guys showed up.  There are three guys in my Tuesday class, and for a change, they are all dedicated, reasonably athletic, and decidedly coachable.  This makes teaching a pleasure.  We worked on freestyle drills for about forty minutes:
 - Basic kicking drill
 - Catch-up stroke
 - Kicking drill with shoulder roll
 - Catch-up stroke with shoulder roll
 - Swimming with closed fists
 - Swimming and breathing to the side
My guys did great!  In fact, they did so well that we closed practice by having all three guys swim freestyle across the deep end, a first for all three.  For dudes who had just spent thirty years or more being deathly afraid of the water, this was a major accomplishment.  I watched with some pride as their fear fell away, and they conquered what had previously been an inconceivably scary challenge.  That was a nice way to end the evening.  
Next week, they want me to teach them to egg-beater.
I then rode my regular commute on Wednesday, and by late Wednesday morning, thanks to the power of workout endorphins, I felt like my usual self.
This brings us, obliquely, to Odell Beckham Jr. and his performance in the Giants’ playoff loss at Green Bay this past Sunday night.  Much has been made of Beckham and the Giants’ wide receivers taking a trip on the Monday after their last regular season game to Florida to hang out on Justin Bieber’s boat.  Sports writers—none of whom, I don’t think, have ever actually played sports above the high school level—universally pointed to this trip as the reason that the Giants lost.  Most commented that the trip itself showed a lack of focus and preparation from the Giants’ receivers and from Beckham in particular.  
I don’t think that this is correct, but it’s certainly true that Beckham played poorly.  He had a number of drops on good passes from QB Eli Manning in a game in which the Giants offense badly needed a spark.  And while this was not be the entire reason that the Giants lost, it certainly didn’t help.

However.  The reason that the Giants lost is that their offensive line run-blocked like absolute shit.  As Joe Buck and Troy Aikman pointed out during the game, the Packers spent most of the night in a two-high safety look, playing specifically against the Giants’ long passing game and double-covering Beckham in particular.  Good plan.  Essentially, the Packers dared the Giants to try running the ball.  Manning did just that.  He checked repeatedly into inside running plays, and when his backs could get past the line-of-scrimmage, they went for big gains, putting up ten or even fifteen yards-per-carry.  RB Paul Perkins in particular had a good game.
As Army Football fans will already understand, however, running the football successfully requires consistency.  The Giants’ running game was not consistent.  It was boom-or-bust, with most of their runs getting stuffed at the line by just the Packers’ front four, occasionally with the aid of a linebacker.  The Giants’ O-Linemen could not reliably move the Packers’ D-Linemen to create holes for the backs, which allowed the Packers to get pressure on Manning and—more importantly—to blanket Beckham all game long.  The Giants had way too many three-and-outs, their defense wore down over the course of the game, and they lost.  Beckham didn’t help, but neither did he create this problem.

Beckham also didn’t react very well.  He melted down instead, first on the field and then in the locker room afterwards.  The cold affected his catching, his drops became a self-reinforcing cycle, and then he reportedly punched a wall and banged his head on a locker after the game.  People want to call this immaturity, but I personally think it’s the natural reaction of the kind of personality that’s capable of becoming a truly elite athlete to a severe personal setback.  Emotionally healthy, stable people will probably never understand the kind of drive and focus that it takes to develop talent like Beckham has created within himself.  He wasn’t just born with all those gifts.  He’s all-in—emotionally—both in his training and in competition.  He’s out there with his whole heart all the time with absolutely no reservations.  This is what makes him such a sensational, electric player, and it’s also what sometimes turns him into a sideline train wreck who proposes to kicking nets.  He cares about his game to the point of having lost all sense of perspective, and that’s great… right up until it isn’t.  Playing like that leaves no emotional reserves for would-be reversals.  It’s not like he can just turn this on and off, either.
For this reason, I think the receivers’ trip to Florida was a good idea.  Beckham has admitted that he struggled to sleep the week before the playoff game.  Dude therefore seems like a headcase who needed to clear his mind and refocus before the game.  No problem.  His mistake, such as it was, was putting pictures of the trip on Instagram.
But I get it.  Or did you think I just put in one of the best swimming efforts of the last year because I was happy?  
What happened is that I had a shit couple of days.  I found myself bouncing around inside my own head, well beyond what’s normal and healthy and into distinctly ugly thought patterns, and I dealt with this in the way that I always have, by blasting it out in the water.  My mind was untracked, but my swimming was on-point, and this is not particularly unusual, though it was more common when I was younger.  I went very hard.  At nearly 100% effort for over twenty minutes, a practice that is achievable only through the use of unfiltered emotional reserves.  If you’d interrupted me in the middle, I’d have come out a complete train wreck.  As it was, I was able to swim balls-out until I simply got through it.  I finished with a pounding heart, a sore neck and shoulders, and a mercifully clear mind.  It was glorious, once I finished.
This is my life.  This is how I’ve been living for a very long time now.
A non-secret of high-level athletes is that many struggle with what society-at-large might term mental health issues.  Olympic swimming champion Amanda Beard has talked about this some, and she’s far from the only one.  Many elite athletes use what could probably be diagnosed as chronic depression to fuel a lifetime of otherworldly workouts.  Dudes just work through their problems in another way.  Meanwhile, a non-secret on the pro-cycling tour is that almost everyone has some form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  ADHD might make it hard to concentrate in the classroom, but it helps tremendously when what you’re trying to do is ride hard for four hours every day in a month-long bicycle race.  Reality is that people cope, exercise helps, and there is no force on Earth to compare with rage for powering through a long series of monster workouts.
The downside of performing on pure emotion is a lack of consistency.  Every day is not the mountaintop.  Speaking personally, I felt this worst at the beginning of high school.  I was either magnificent or terrible, particularly as a freshman.  There was no middle ground.  I punched walls, banged my head, screamed at myself… the whole bit.  By my Cow year at West Point, I’d gained some maturity, moved into a leadership role, and learned a few coping mechanisms, and these things made me a much more consistent performer.  However, it’s worth noting that I didn’t get any faster that year.  Indeed, I had exactly one truly exceptional swim after my plebe year ended, and plebe year was as emotionally fraught a time as I’ve ever experienced.  In athletics, it seems, every blessing must be mixed.  

A photo posted by Odell Beckham Jr (@obj) on

Beckham, I suspect, finds himself in a similar place.  Some days, even most days, he’s the best receiver in the game.  He is driven and electric.  He can be tremendously fun to watch.  But there’s a downside that goes with that, and for better or worse, it is almost certainly an integral part of what makes him so special right now.  He may mature and find consistency over time, but if he does, I suspect that consistency will come with a cost.  
I guess we’ll see.

[1] Pace definitions: easy (60% to 75%), aerobic (80%), tempo (85% to 90%), hard (90%+), and sprint (100%).


  1. Nice blog. Enjoyed reading this over a beer at the end of a long week. I managed to get another 2500 in the pool on Thurs. I can definitely relate. Working out is good for the head as well as the body