There is a common experience swimmers may run into after a workshop in particular – I might call it the ‘Awareness Gap’.

Here is the scenario: A swimmer who has been practicing TI on his own comes to a workshop with a list of things he wants to work on. Some of those might be specific points and some of them may be vague, yet he knows something isn’t correct.

And then, through the course of the workshop he learns to recognize the causes of his problem points, the solutions and the process he needs to follow to make the desired improvements.

At the beginning of the course we take a BEFORE video and analyze it. At the end of the course we take another video and do it again.

When some students see the AFTER video they get excited about progress they’ve made and the projects they have in mind to work on at home over the next few weeks. But what happens to other students is that they see the AFTER video and feel they have lost everything they were trying to work on. They feel like they have progressed backwards, not forwards.

There are a few reasons why someone may actually swim worse during the AFTER video shoot:

  •  He is tired, physically or mentally and loses concentration.
  •  He is uncomfortably aware that he is in front of the camera and too focused on that rather than his stroke.
  •  Just before the video shoot, he received additional skill ideas and information and now his head is overloaded. He loses concentration on the priority focal point that made so much improvement early in the course.

But there is another, more likely possibility of what happens:

His net level of skill has indeed improved – and it is apparent to the instructors – but something has happened to his perception that makes him suddenly feel like he is farther from his goal rather than nearer.

awareness gap

At Moment A (arriving at the workshop) our student has some idea that improvement is possible – he has signed up for the course, after all. He has some level of skill and some level of awareness of what he should be capable of.

At Moment B, somewhere along his learning process, he has indeed increased in skill, and this is apparent to those of us observing from the outside. However, inside our swimmer’s head, his awareness of what is possible and of the finer details involved in his potential has expanded dramatically. The gap between the skill he had then (Moment A) and the skill he has now (Moment B) has increased in a very positive way. The gap between his awareness of what is possible and the details involved has also expanded. Everything has become so much more illuminated. The body, the brain and the mind have expanded in their capacities.

If a student can keep an eye on both gaps, he can maintain a realistic perspective and maintain great motivation for improvement. If he loses sight of either one, he runs the risk of injuring it. Dwell on the progress made without expanding awareness of potential and the swimmer may grow complacent, thinking he has arrived and is now ‘good enough’. Dwell on the expanding awareness without measuring improvement and the swimmer may grow discouraged thinking he is not a good learner.

And progress comes in two forms – the inner expansion of mental skill, and its eventual manifestation in the stroke and performance from neuro-muscular skill. I look for both in the swimmer as we work together – I watch and listen for the signs that an internal change is happening, and from that, I look for the external changes that will result from it. I know the internal changes must come first, and that the external changes may need some time and practice to emerge. I am very patient because I know how the neurons must grows.

The thing to keep in mind is that the practice of TI is as much, if not more about training the mind as it is about training the stroke. The further we go the more important the mental part becomes.

In every lesson and workshop I am trying to monitor my student’s perception and attitude and guide those because they set the student up either for continual improvement or for perpetual frustration.

Being aware of what is happening in the mind may actually be more important than being aware of what is happening to the body – because it is through the mind that we interpret the body and its performance, as well as control and improve it.

Now for the practical tip:

If you are practicing and you feel failure in your stroke – guess what? That is actually a very good sign! And it is better yet if you can pinpoint each failure point that composes that overall sense of failure. Your awareness that things are wrong is the first step of progress – that means your nervous system is awake and tuned in. Your recognition of exactly what is causing it is the next critical step – that means your mind understands the causes and effects and the brain can find them. Now you are in a position to do something about it. After that it becomes a process of listing those failure points out, putting them in order of priority and then setting off to work on them one-by-one, step-by-step, in the order of priority. That’s basically what you come to a TI Coach for, and this is what we are training you to do as a Self-Coached Swimmer.

When you feel something wrong and you begin to feel discouragement creeping in I recommend that you practice some mental aikido: take the energy of that discouragement, acknowledge it, then redirect it, or rather, re-frame your interpretation of all that information hitting your nervous system – recognize that you are actually being set up for a great improvement opportunity, not failure. Failure is a friend, not an enemy, when you interpret the information in a useful way. If you love listening and working with your body instead of against it, you will realize your body is actually telling you the way which you should go. In that moment, let go of external pressures, back off the intensity so you have more neurological bandwidth available to make fine observations, then pick up some drills and focal points to start working on the highest priority features of your stroke. Increase intensity when you body says it is ready and eager to do so. You will know when.

And that advice works just as well in the middle of a race as it does in the middle of a practice. That’s why we practice it in our practice!


If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of the book Mastery by George Leonard. This is a short, and priceless book to help us form the understanding and attitude of how we can pursue continual improvement.

And an invaluable companion to it: Effortless Exercise by Grant Moleneux. (You can get this in pdf format in the TI Store – use the code coachmathudson to get a little 10% discount).

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