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I’ve approached questions and comments like these at least a couple times before on my blog, and let me try another…

What if I am practicing the wrong thing? I don’t want to get good at something that is incorrect!

Two recent blog posts address part of this concern:

There may be many features in your stroke that are not ‘correct’ or not close to the ideal you have in mind. The first post offers some perspective on how much you need to work before experiencing a change that sticks. The second post offers some guidance and encouragement for improving your understanding of how focal points work, and how to cooperate with the correction process better.

In this post I want to help improve understanding and attitude about working through the change process.

First, the kind of help many swimmers are seeking is about changing something from ‘incorrect’ to ‘correct’. Obviously, the swimmer needs to affect some sort of change in her stroke pattern and needs a method for doing that. The next kind of help swimmers seek is taking something that is ‘correct’ and making it even better. We might call that enhancing the stroke skills.

Consider that if you change your stroke length or the tempo a little in order to adapt to a different pace or different water conditions, that requires a change in the stroke pattern, does it not? There is a range of possibilities for some parts of the ‘correct’ stroke, and the better choice is dependent on the situation. A swimmer who is capable of handling a wider range of swimming events, conditions and paces needs to be able to adjust these variables to adapt appropriately to that situation.

So, even a ‘nearly perfect’ swimmer has to be able to change things in her stroke, and do it quickly, and hold it consistent. She has to have a box full of memorized patterns she can choose from. What does correcting a stroke error and enhancing a stroke by adjusting some variable have in common? The intentional act of changing a feature in the stroke.

Stroke-Change As A Skill

In this discussion let’s first remove the concern about right/wrong, correct/incorrect for a moment, and just talk about the process of changing patterns in general.

Simply changing some pattern (a little or a lot) is a skill in itself. Every time you practice changing something and imprinting a new pattern you get better at the skill for stroke-change. There is correct/incorrect, or superior/inferior patterns for sure. But there are also variations within correct and superior patterns which a swimmer can train for.

Of course, with incorrect and inferior patterns our concern is for preventing injury and energy-waste. With variations in correct and superior patterns our aim is to build a more versatile swimmer. The intention behind changing an incorrect-inferior pattern to a correct-superior one is to remove or prevent a problem. The intention behind learning a new variation within correct/superior is to expand capabilities. The intentions for change may be different but both require the same kind of awareness-control-strength building process. On the cellular level the same thing is happening.

So then, why freak out too much about ‘practicing the wrong thing’? Other than the thrill when things go as expected and the disappointment when things don’t go so well – the process of taking a change-idea, work on the change, test the change for desired results, and adjust the experiment and go through the change-cycle again is a consistent part of the mastery-student’s life. It never ends. Since this is a regular process allowing yourself to get worked up about the highs or the lows will be a big drain on your energy. If you take some corrective advice from somewhere and start practicing to change your stroke for weeks or months and then you find out you were mistaken, or over-corrected – so what?

You may feel you lost a bit of time, but you are learning something important – how to change. And that learning process demands trial-and-error. You may have not imprinted the pattern you really wanted, but you in fact imprinted something. Notice: you are able to imprint and re-imprint, and re-imprint. That is the critical skill!

Because you went through a change-and-imprint process once means you can go through it again. And when you meet up with new insight and gain better understanding of what to aim for this second time through should get you closer to the ideal you want. Because you’ve practiced the change-process before it will get a bit easier to do each subsequent time you do it.

A Rut Or A Circuit?

While editing this post my wife said, “So what you are saying is that it is OK to make mistakes. You are learning something important from it either way.” Yes. And, then she asked, “But isn’t there a difference between making a mistake 100 times in a row and 1000 times? Don’t you fall into a deep rut then and change gets more difficult?” That’s the key right there – you must and will make changes, and build new patterns – some better than others. But you don’t have to stay stuck in a rut of only one pattern.

You can view an imprinted change as a ‘rut’ (negative) or a ‘circuit’ (positive). The point is you are learning to change patterns, to switch to a new circuit, on demand. The stroke-change skill is about setting up patterns you can choose from. It is also there to get yourself out of the rut quicker and easier each time you discover you have fallen into it. Once you can change your stroke on command (through the process), it is no longer a rut and it no longer holds you captive.

Musician Skill And Swimmer Skill

Here is another way to understand it: Consider a musician learning a new piece. A musician can learn hundreds if not thousands of musical pieces and have them all memorized by the brain, all automated. There is no ‘competition’ between these circuits, no conflict with one circuit just because another is added to the brain. With a slight reminder of the tune, his brain is activated to reproduce that piece from memory. There is no fear that learning this piece of music will make it harder for him to learn the next piece of music. In fact, he can learn hundreds of patterns and automate them, then recall them on demand. The brain has room for untold number of new circuits.

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A musician can and must learn new patterns – he can handle hundreds if not thousands of them. A swimmer can and must learn new patterns – she can handle dozens if not hundreds of them.

See this from a ‘new-brain-circuit’ analogy. A new song is a new set of circuits. A master musician is extremely skilled at building new circuits for new songs. A new musician is just learning how to train his own brain. With practice it gets easier and easier to learn new songs – however, the better a musician gets the more complicated the pieces of music he tends to learn or to create. The mastery-minded musician tends to stay on the cutting edge of challenge and growth. A stroke change is a set of new circuits. A master swimmer is extremely skilled at building new circuits for new features in her stroke. A new swimmer is just learning how to train her own brain.

With practice it gets easier and easier to make corrections to the stroke, or add new features to it. However, the better the swimmer gets the more challenging the swimming events and environments she tends to train for. The mastery-minded swimmer tends to stay on the cutting edge of challenge and growth.

Process + Attitude = Mastery

Whether that stroke adjustment is a ‘correction’ or an enhancement does not matter on the cellular level. It’s all just connecting neurons to accept signals and then strengthening them to handle those signals with more precision, more power. Right or wrong, a change is a change. As the circuit gets tested you may finds it is still not precise enough for your standards and some additional change is needed. Or it is not strong enough to hold up under stress so more time and work is needed. This is the nature of training for any and every sport.

Don’t think something is wrong with you as a person just because your swimming skill is not as good as you want it to be! If you need to change something, then that means you are quite a normal athlete in development. On one hand, for the sake of saving some time, yes, you should seek as clear of an understanding of that feature you need to correct, and as importantly, how to correct it. But, on the other hand, each time you use this process to change anything in your stroke – whether a correction or an enhancement – you increase your skill and power for making changes of any kind. You are not wasting time working with great attention, patience and persistence on some change in your stroke even if that change does not bring about an ideal result your first time through.

You are picking up skill, strength, understanding, and sensitivity to finer details every time you go through this process. This is what mastery-minded people do. And, when a master realizes that something she has been working on is in error – or more likely, once she digs into it she realizes how much more there is to discover and master – she does not grow discouraged, she gets excited. A master may be recognized not only for her observable skill, but also for her attitude for receiving correction and her agility for making a change – for building new circuits. The more the person is truly a master, the more she realizes how much more she could possibly improve. The awareness gap keeps growing but does not discourage. And so the swimmer genuinely on the mastery path is one who remains teachable, sees improvements as opportunities rather than set-backs, and who appreciates and is devoted to the change process.

So, seek improvement by mastering the change-process and the attitude so that it just gets easier and remains enjoyable to make changes to the stroke anytime you get new insight. For if you keep studying you will continually gain new insights for the rest of your life.

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