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
Ericsson’s classic book is a bit rare, and expensive these days!
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.
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So very well written, thank you!
Great articles. In your second paragraph, you advised to pick only a few things to work on. I had been working on breathing to either side. Goal was to make sure that my weaker side (left), felt as good as my right side. Meanwhile I got an email from a coach that thought my problem with breathing was that I was breathing too shallowly. He included a video showing how to breathe from the belly and also included some exhalation exercises. After a few months, I felt that I had been getting pretty close to my goal, but was not improving. Then I decided to post a video on the forum and got the advice from another coach that my 2 bk was all wrong (timing and execution) and that was causing my breathing problem. It was obvious to me that my kick was all messed up, but was it really the cause of my problem. (I might mention that my breathing problem is I get out of breath very easily).
I guess that I do need to learn to do the 2bk properly, and probably this is the easier skill to master for right now. So, my question is this. I got 2 different answers to my problem from both TI coaches, so who do I believe? Kind of hard to establish priorities when one gets conflicting information.
You dare invite me into the mix of opinions with my own colleagues!
Can you describe more specifically what your breathing discomfort or trouble is? Not feeling like you get enough air exchange? Or not able to reach the air easily enough?
Breathing is a ‘dependent’ skill, yes, dependent on the position and stability of the body as well as timing. If the foundation is not good enough, improvements in breathing can be hindered.
I divide the breathing skill set into three parts to organize our micro-skills: 1) head position, 2) timing, and 3) air management.
When I go about helping someone solving their problem in breathing – if I can’t determine it immediately on sight – I guide them through the list of focal points in this order of priority to uncover the problem spots.
A problem in body position will make it difficult to establish good head position for the breath. A problem in full-body synchronization (legs are a part of that) can make it more difficult to set good breath timing (though legs are rarely a direct cause of breath timing problems). And there could be a problem in how and how much in the inhale/exhale action. These are all possibilities.
If your legs are directly causing the problem (rather than just causing excess drag which adds just general complication to breathing rather than specific) then you’d likely notice it affecting both the strong and weak side the same. So, I am not inclined to favor that opinion without more insight. You may have room for improvement in the legs, but not necessarily connected so closely to the breathing (unless you are just exhausted from kicking them so much!)
You may continue with the self-correction process you’ve been using – comparing the strong side to your relatively weak breathing side and, detail by detail examine and compare.
First, study head position. Is your laser lead underwater and pointed straight down the lane? If it is pointed up and out of the water even a little it can cause considerable excess drag, and compel a slower, later breath.
Second, timing – are you turning to breathe as early as possible in the stroke, and taking just a quick sip of air, then turning the head back as soon as possible? If you can see your recovery arm with your own eyes you are turning too late or taking too long to breathe. Resist the inertia of a late breath as much as possible. As tempo goes faster you can afford less and less to take a late breath. I’ve had more students find immediate increase in ease with the ‘early as possible’ breath more than any other single breathing focal point.
Third, inhale/exhale – are you lightly bubbling out your nose underwater? Are you clearly the airways with a burst of air at the last microsecond before touching the air? Are you taking just a ‘quick sip’ of air (smaller partial air exchange, rather than a big gulp)?
Diaphragmatic breathing is going to be helpful I think, but it is a very complicated thing to work in the swimming context – its hard enough to teach on land! I have been discussing this topic with one of my colleagues behind the scenes (maybe the one who gave you the advice!) so I do agree it is a legit skill, but it’s a rather advanced focal point. If it interests you then work on it. But if not, you should still be able to make a lot of improvement with the standard breathing focal points.
You asked what discomfort I am experiencing. It seems that after 1 or 2 laps I have to stop and have the urge to exhale strongly. I have been consciously trying to keep a steady stream of air on the exhale, but it doesn’t seem like it is enough. Also, I take a huge gulp of air and do not turn my head immediately after taking that breath. I often see my recovery arm coming over my head. Have trouble with the rhythm of turning the head down so quickly after breathing. Need to make these my focal points. Might mention that I have tried exhalation drills in an effort to sink to the bottom and just can’t do it. Have had many comments on the forum that I need to practice these.
So to summarize, my problem seems to be with timing and air management. Also need to work on 2bk and timing of that.
Sorry to include you in the mix, but you and the other 2 coaches are really saying the same thing, only in a different way. I have the utmost respect for both you and yes I will mention the other 2 who have helped me–Coach Stuart and also CoachDavidShen. thank all of you for your help.
Yes, Stuart and David are both friends whom I correspond with (I could have guessed too, since they are among the few who are good at giving thoughtful responses to swimmers on the forum). We would have fun together dissecting your swimming video for sure!
What I am still curious about is whether your underlying problem is:
a) you have an excessive effort (i.e too high heart rate / too desperate respiration) which points to excessive drag and energy waste. Or
b) you are having problem with air exchange – breathing opportunities are frequent enough, but the exchange is not effective and so your system bogs you down after a couple laps.
It is possible, as David pointed out (I know it would be David since he and I have been talking about diaphragmatic breathing) that you are breathing from the upper chest, rather than deeper in the belly and this can leave you feeling like you just don’t get good exchange. When you mention not being able to sink even after exhaling all the way, that makes me very curious about the actual physics puzzle set up by your body composition and current breathing pattern.
If the ideas you’ve got from us so far seem like they will lead you to your breakthrough then go for it and we eagerly await a report on what you find. I also invite you to consider a month or two in my Self-Coaching Program to get some weekly personal attention and problem-solving guidance as you work through a few of these skill objectives. I can offer a great deal more detail and personalization on that channel.