The practice advice continues from Deep Practice Encouragement – Part 2…
You Can’t Do It All At Once
You can’t perfect everything at once, or in one season. Yet, by race day, you’ve got to have some chosen skill improvements hard-wired into your neuro-muscular system so they can actually run on autopilot under the stress of the event. If you try to tackle too many new skills, out of order or in too short of time, few of them will be ready to serve you reliably on that race day.
So, the key here is to understand – according to how the human body physically develops – the order that complex swimming skills are best developed, and pick a select few high priority ones to work on this training season and bring them to the automated state that you can rely on. Then you will be free to let your mind concentrate on other higher level race-related matters on that big day. Yes, you’re TI-trained heightened awareness will notice other weaknesses and problems you wish were not there, but you can tackle some of those in the next cycle of the cognitive-associative-autonomous training process. Focus on first things first, and give it sufficient time to take hold in your brain.
Organic, Not Dogmatic
Also, let’s be clear that high performance training should not be dogmatic either. High performance in a holistic way (mind-body harmony) cannot happen under dogmatic conditions. There are days when something deeper inside the body’s wisdom says, ‘just go swim on autopilot’. After all, this is what you’ve worked so hard in Deep Practice to be able to do. The mistake is to assume that skill improvement will magically occur under autopilot swimming mode – it does not. Don’t confuse the two modes of swimming and their purpose. ‘Just go swim’ to have fun, relax or race (allowing the mind to focus on higher levels of input), but then ‘go focus hard’ to get better. This is an organic path we follow for developing our body and mind together.
Those who are most passionate about racing performance might struggle with swimming just for the pleasure of it sometimes, but I will argue that if this swimmer loses touch with the pleasure of swimming, he will eventually lose touch with higher performance in it also.
Additionally, these high-ambition swimmers may misunderstand how the improvement process works and may be too quick to slip into the relatively ‘easy’ mode of tough but mindless metabolic sets (mistakenly thinking ‘more pain = more improvement’), and avoid the relatively difficult cognitive work of building more precise neuro-muscular control at every intensity level. Smarter work is still hard work – it is actually harder work than traditional ‘go-hard’ swimming because of the cognitive discipline required, and it is more effective, as the researchers convincingly explain.
On the other side, the swimmer who ‘just wants to swim for the pleasure, not for racing’ may not challenge himself to stay in that cognitive stage, and may settle quickly for the OK Plateau. There is an interesting ‘leaky’ nature to pleasure – it stays strong and fresh when we stay in the process of improvement, but let skill stagnate and the intensity of pleasure diminishes. Then one finds himself swimming laps and needs to send his mind elsewhere to endure the boredom, and for what?
Remember: boredom is a signal that something is wrong.
Challenge And Pleasure Grow Together
So, the performance swimmer needs to stay in touch with the pleasure of swimming in order to perform better, and the pleasure swimmer needs to stay in the process of continual improvement in order to keep it pleasurable.
I may have shared this axiom in some other essay, but I will use it again here:
In order to keep the ground you’ve got, you’ve got to keep taking new ground. The skill + pleasure dynamic in our sport is dynamic – one must keep moving forward or lose the fulness of what he’s got.
But just aim for a bite-sized piece of new skill-ground and work on it for this season. Don’t try to do everything at once. Then, when you’ve acquired that skill (to an automated state), pick a new piece and work on that for another season, and so on (or re-work the same skill at higher levels of challenge!). We have cyclical, seasonal growth patterns in nature all around us. This is our example to follow.
Integration Of Deliberate Practice
I want to acknowledge that Total Immersion did not invent this concept of Deep Practice [referred to as ‘Deliberate Practice‘ by Ericsson] – only that we’ve integrated it whole-heartedly into the sport of swimming where, as an institution, it seems to be dismissed wholesale in the traditional mindset. Block the pain, tune out, and ‘just swim hard’ is the mantra of traditional swimming. Yet, Deep Practice (deep concentration on specific skill development) is a common feature in so many of the high performance land-based sports and arts – it is not unusual at all on land, it is just strangely unusual in our sport. TI would like to see that changed around the world.
I also want to point out that this Deep Practice concept only makes sense in swimming performance when swimming better is viewed primarily as a neurologic problem (improving energy use and precision of muscle movement) rather than primarily as a fitness problem (producing more power, enduring more pain). The ‘fitness-orientation’ says “finish more tasks!”, while the neurological/skill-orientation says, “finish the task better!”
So, in our logic Deep Practice is the key to success whether you seek High Performance Results, or High Enjoyment Fitness.
We Cannot Do Everything
One last recognition: we cannot do everything.
We cannot perfect the skills of every interest and hobby we’ve got. So, frankly, we all have and must settle for the OK Plateau in many areas of life because we have limited time, energy, attention, and resources. However, this should give us pause to consider what is truly most important for us to keep focusing in our improvement-efforts upon. Then we may set up a Deep/Deliberate Practice plan surrounding that activity. While for those areas of life of less importance we may consciously use the process to bring our skill up to an acceptable point then free our conscience from feeling like we should do more. That would bring some peace also, wouldn’t it?
I see my swim coach self not merely as one who teaches cognitive skills to make better swimmers, but as one who uses swimming to teach cognitive skills to make better people. Some of you are really passionate about swimming and you know our focus on cognitive skill-building is the key to your performance and pleasure in it. For others, swimming may not be your deepest passion, and that is OK. For you, I hope you’ll practice these cognitive skills in the relatively easy zone of swimming then see how you can apply those same skills to other, more difficult areas of life and make your experience there so much better.