As I near the end of this discussion of Anders Ericsson‘s principles of Deliberate Practice which he laid out in his recent book Peak, I will give you the punch line right at the beginning:

You get masterful swimming in return according to your investment of time, attention to quality, and practice frequency.

The longer you practice (in terms of years, not in a single event), the better your practices are designed and executed, the more frequently you practice (in terms of days per week) – the more masterful you will become. It grows like compound interest.

Why? Because, as you practice masterfully, you get stronger at the process of practice and improvement. You can see, comprehend, respond and change details easier.

It gets easier as you go, but your standards raise in proportion to your skill – the mastery-minded swimmer is urged to keep going.

Becoming An Expert

Being an expert in swimming does not need to involve a podium spot or winning medals, though that is one way our society measures expertise of a certain kind. An expert in swimming is going to look marvelous (it’s obvious to others), she is going to feel marvelous (it’s obvious to herself), and she is going to keep improving her art.

And, we’re not talking about an expert who knows a lot about swimming from the deck, but someone who can actually demonstrate marvelous swimming with his/her own body – that is the kind of experiential mastery you are after, isn’t it?

Being an expert in swimming involves:

  1. A vision of masterful swimming – a set of mental representations for creating internal qualities as well as outer appearance and product.
  2. Use of an adequate array of tools which develop mastery.
  3. Fluent motor control over your own body.
  4. A strong problem-solving mindset and control of attention.

Your Understanding Evolves

Your eagerness to learn is not the same as having a deep understanding of how masterful swimming works. It takes years to acquire this understanding, and that comes from the practice of swimming, not just reading about it. Your eagerness to learn needs to last for years, not weeks. 

Only over months and years of practice do you build your deep understanding of what is correct or superior. Just like children gradually develop to have adult viewpoint and skillfulness, likewise your development of mental representations for swimming must grow over time to support your practice. Your understanding evolves. You do not start… I dare say you cannot start with a perfect understanding of what to aim for. Usually you start with just a better image than you had before, then work toward that. By the time you reach it, your view will have expanded further, then you get to work toward that new image. Every small achievement expands your understanding of what you need to aim for next. The horizon keeps extending ahead of you.

Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations: as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. (page 100)

You work, step-by-step, moving your way toward more masterful view of what to build inside your body – but don’t get ahead of yourself. That masterful view only improves by first working on the inferior view you have now. You have to work on the level you are at right now, and you must master that level before moving to the next. Be patient. 

Today, you are making a correction regarding what you did yesterday. Tomorrow you will work on a correction regarding what you accomplished today. It may not help to worry so much about whether it is ‘correct’ in the absolute sense – just work on making it better than it was before using the best mental representation you have right now. You’ll certainly discover ways to make that representation better as you go.

The image of the ideal in your mind will evolve, from novice view to an expert view. Over time, just as a master musician’s ear becomes extremely attentive to smallest nuance in the music, and the master painter’s eye detects subtle details in the painting, your view of what the stroke should look like and feel like will deepen. You just can’t start a new activity with an expert view of it, so embrace the learner mind.

I will get to the rest in the next post!

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You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in Total Immersion:

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