On Deck With Dunc

The Pool Is The School. The Lessons Are For Life.

It’s Simple

NASA invented the zero-gravity, nitrogen boosted pen so you don’t have to.

During the heights of the Cold War, scientific and technological breakthroughs were cause for much fanfare on both sides of the political divide between the West and the Soviet Union.

Central to that politicised competition was the space race. Great pride was taken in the space-faring exploits of the Americans and the Soviets, with achievements being used to extol the virtues of democracy or communism respectively.

There is a famous story that I have shared with my swimmers in the past.

NASA was desperately trying to figure out the best way to make a ballpoint pen that could work in the zero-gravity of space. Try writing with a ballpoint pen on a surface above your head and you’ll quickly discover that, when gravity isn’t orientated correctly for the pen, problems abound.

Well not problems… simply the pen won’t write. Which is the ultimate problem for a pen.

The best brains in NASA, backed by massive space research and development budgets, determined that they would be able to trump the power of gravity, that they would be able to cast the laws of nature down at the proverbial feet of technological solution.

One idea was as exceptionally promising as it was expensive. After a series of prototypes and extensive fine-tuning, NASA successfully invented a zero-gravity pen that operated by means of compressed nitrogen.


The Soviets used a pencil.

To me this is such a great story because it demonstrates how even seriously smart and accomplished people can quickly end up focusing on entirely the wrong thing in whatever domain they are operating in.

I see it in swimming all the time. Yes – even age-group swimming.

There is a tendency to over-complicate.

There is a tendency to over-think.

When improvement isn’t fast enough or challenges are encountered parents, swimmers and coaches can sometimes immediately reach for the nitrogen-powered pens.

In our environment they tend to look like sports psychologists, dietary supplements and the latest, most expensive training and racing gear.

All of those things do have a place in the big picture but normally only in very exceptional circumstances. Consequent gains will also tend to be extremely marginal – especially at an age-group level.

Honestly, when the road is bumpy and things are a bit tough what’s needed is a good old trusty pencil.

In swimming a pencil looks like consistent, regular training, a solid diet, enough rest and a healthy dose of optimistic patience.

The trouble is none of those things have slick marketing departments or look good on social media. They don’t come in cool boxes either that give you a dopamine hit when you open it.

They’re just solid, reliable and unglamourous – like an old Soviet pencil from the 1960s.

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