Have you ever asked your coach, “Hey, look at me. Am I doing this right?”

What are you trying to get with that question?

Feedback.

You need feedback to tell whether you are doing the right thing or not so you can make some improvement. There’s no way to learn something (and I mean learn it, in the sense that you acquire the skill, or integrate the knowledge in a way that shifts your behavior) or improve something without feedback.

But this feedback from the coach is outside of you. What do you do when you don’t have the coach around to tell you whether you are doing it right or not? What are your feedback devices then?

The most effective feedback (think learning-on-steroids) is that which is immediate and direct to your nervous system, bypassing the reasoning altogether.

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Think about this – if you’ve ever learned to play a musical instrument or practiced as a singer (or just listened to someone practicing) you know the benefit of immediate feedback going straight to your nervous system. A perfect note, or tone or rhythm is instantly registered by the brain as correct and a false one likewise. You instantly know good from bad, or right from wrong without having to ‘think about it’. This allows you to make adjustments to your technique instantly, immediately retest, and then do it over and over and over again, hundreds of times, until the correct pattern is set. It still requires hard work because it takes concentration, patience and persistence (and an appropriate regard for the usefulness of failure) but it is the most effective learning system for the human brain.

Asking your coach for feedback on what she saw you do is going to give you feedback that has to first go into your brain through your reasoning, and then into your imagination to visualize the adjustment that needs to be made, and then you have to rationally decide what to adjust, then at the next opportunity to tweak your motor-response through intentionality, retest, and then go ask for feedback outside of you again. That’s a long path to learning. I realize its the path we usually have to start with in swimming. But you can see that musicians don’t have to start with such a long path – they can start with feedback-direct-to-nervous-system right away. You want to move to that more superior form of feedback, something like a musician has, as quickly as you can develop the detection skills for it. It will speed up the learning process immensely.

So, at the pool you may ask me what I saw, but I will ask you what you felt.

And I want to call your attention to not just what it felt like when you did it wrong, but more importantly, what it felt like when you did it right. Did you notice?

You may have heard the tale that people who work with paper currency in banks go through training to detect fake money- not by handling fake money, but by handling real money. The banker becomes intimately familiar with real money, not by memorizing facts and details about how the paper currency was produced, but by feeling the features directly with his fingers. It becomes so deeply ingrained in the nervous system that a slight irregularity in how the money feels or flexes, now it reflects light, (or even in how it smells) would attract his suspicion.

This is why we use drill work with focal points so extensively in producing a masterful stroke and a masterful swimming performance. We want to develop such an intimate feel for every detail of the stroke, starting at slow or even static positions, breaking down and examining every detail layer by layer, and eventually working our way into concentration on those details even at highest intensity swimming (if you like). We want to know what our best stroke should feel like in intimate detail, then imprint it so deeply so that we can rely on it under any swimming (or survival) conditions.

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I will use drills to put you into position to produce ‘right’ and then I want you to repeat it so many times until the feel for ‘right’ burns into your muscle memory and nervous system. THEN, you will feel when it is right and feel when it is wrong right in the middle of your swim without someone having to point it out to you.

[Side note: Please don’t get hung up on this idea of ‘right = perfect’. For you ‘right = better-than-yesterday’, and if you stick with that definition day after day, you will find yourself an amazing swimmer before you know it. Please read this blog post of mine if you need a bit more encouragement on dropping perfectionism and picking up kaizen (continual improvement).]

One of the biggest detection devices on your is your somatosensory system  – (a fancy name for a function of your nervous system) which allows us to sense details like temperature, pain, pressure – inside the body – in the organs, bones, joints, muscles, cardio-vascular system – and outside, especially in the surface of our skin.  This somatosensory system is what makes your [proprioception] possible. Proprioception is your ability to feel the right position and movements from within, without having to look at it- without having to ask your coach to look at you to see if you are doing it right.

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Here are some examples we may use:

  • When you have a weightless head, the way water presses back on your face.

  • When you have your leading arm on track, at its target, water will flow evenly up your arm in a detectable way.

  • When your head is in right position you will feel water breaking over the back of your head (or swim cap) in a certain way.

  • When your catch is solid, you will feel a steady and evenly distributed pressure along the entire palm and forearm.

  • When your catch timing is right on, you’ll feel energy transferring through your upper back and down to the elbow of your spearing arm driving forward in the water.

  • When your spearing forearm and hand and fingers are relaxed you will feel the flow of water much, much more than if your fingers, hand and wrist are tense.

  • When your muscles are engaged but uninformly relaxed you can feel force flowing smoothly through the body, through the joints without resistance, rather than bumping up against, rigid, tense or muscularly-imbalanced points.

More example of how I use we can use the somatosensory system to gain mastery in an open-water swim:

I can tell the depth of my spearing arm by the change of temperature from the surface to a few centimeters down – there are thermal layers and fresh/salt layers in the calm sea here which can be measured in a few centimeters.

I can feel the direction or change in current in the sea by how the water hits my skin and how the pressure against my crown (laser lead point of my skull) and how the pressure feels behind my catch forearm.

[You can get an idea now why I can barely tolerate a wetsuit (and only use a .05 mm sleeveless one, if I have to) – it cuts off a blinding amount of information in the water.]

I can tell changes in wind patterns by how the chop hits my shoulder, or by the vibration against my swim cap.

I can smell and taste changes in the water composition that tell me if I am approaching a fresh water stream flowing into the sea or an anchored motor boat leaking the slightest drop of fuel, or a lotioned bather bobbing in the water nearby. It alerts me to danger or a need for course adjustment before I need to lift my head.

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You too will get this refined feel from mindful, patient, persistent effort. This TI path is simply following the way the brain works, and on this path your somatosensory system will get strengthened to a wonderful degree.

But once you reach a level of refinement and grow comfortable your brain will go searching for a new one because it needs new challenge to stay fresh and energized. (Stagnation is the enemy of your joy). You will likely need to go back through a process of getting external feedback that will call your attention to something you were unaware of – something you did not realize (something you did not feel) was wrong previously. This is where your coach and your similarly mindful swimming companions can be of ongoing assistance to you.

Once someone points out a flaw you were previously unaware of, you can tune in to that feature with your nervous system, study how it feels in the ‘normal but wrong‘ way you do it, try an adjustment, ask that friend if it ‘looks’ correct now – (let’s trust that your coach or friend will know that it is truly correct or will have a way to objectively test that the adjustment is truly an improvement) – then focus on that new correction, giving it lots of repetition to memorize how it feels – you want that new correction to become your new normal. So then you spend time imprinting that correction into your stroke and training your nervous system to keep track of it and eventually automate it.

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Some practical tips:

Use drill time to tune in to water pressure and flow over certain parts of the skin when you are carefully executing a certain position or movement pattern in slow motion. Then when you make whole strokes of incrementally increasing distance, tempo or intensity hold your attention on the same points to make sure you can preserve the best position or pattern by feel. Slow down again when you lose the feel or lose concentration, then work your way back up again to that threshold.

Drills are for tuning in and tuning up. They are absolutely indispensable for any mastery-minded swimmer no matter how advanced you believe you are. Actually, the more truly advanced in skill you are the more you will believe in the indispensability of drills for getting you there and keeping you on the path to improvement.

Get a small palm-size underwater video camera – simpler the better. It might even slip into your swim suit. Keep it with you at the pool every time. Teach your swimming companions how to use it so they can take quick clips of you swimming and you can turn around and make some adjustments. That camera is your portable external-eyes. Use the video to paint two picture in your imagination: first picture is what you were doing, and the second picture is what you need to do differently. Re-calibrate the brain for the ‘new normal’ and test and film again and again until you got it looking – and then feeling – like you want it to.

If you don’t have a friend to take video, buy a non-rusting mini-tripod (the heavy but bendable kind so it will weight the camera down). Then you can set the camera on the floor of the pool or on the deck and take video of yourself as you swim by it.

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There are too many feedback suggestions to list. Just keep this in mind to invent your own:

  • You’ve got to feel it directly with your nervous system.

  • You want to receive that feedback instantly to your nervous system as you can so you can make corrections in the moment.

Using someone else’s touch on your body (as you please) or some object to touch you is one of the most effective ways to get that feedback. (This is why it is a central feature of TI Coaching that we get in the water to help you with our hands if we can. It is far, far more effective for your learning than telling you what to do from the deck.)

One example of a creative feedback solution: I put a flat rock on the back of the cap of one of my swimmers because he said he could not feel what his head was doing (it was bobbing up and down and sideways a bit) and then had him do some drills. When his head moved it caused the rock to wiggle and then slide off the cap which he could feel right away. And this caused his nervous system to wake up to his head position and learn to sense what it was doing. This is one way I was able to provoke his proprioception to improve.

So, invent new tools to help you awaken and strengthen your own proprioception – then teach them to me, please!

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