How long will it take to integrate this skill so that I can do it without thinking so much?
That is a version of the question I hear from time to time. It is a good question with a very complicated answer, if I were to attempt to personalized it for each person who asked.
There is a lot that goes into the equation of integration for each person. Here are the details that come to mind immediately:
- The complexity of the skill being changed.
- The strength of the fundamental skills that must be in place to support this skill project (the difference between basic fundamental skills and higher dependent skills).
- The level of automation you are aiming for (your ability to turn on the ‘auto-pilot’ for this skill and focus on other things).
- The quality of your attention (to hold focus and give precise commands to points of your body).
- The level of your proprioception (your ability to accurately sense position and movement through the nervous system).
- Your experience in going through the physical skill improvement process (the more you’ve done it the easier it becomes – dancers have an advantage!).
- How well you design the practice set (to work with the way the brain learns complex skills).
- The quality of the feedback loop (relevant, direct, immediate).
- Duration and intensity of practice set (not too little nor too much).
- Frequency of practice (frequently enough, while providing necessary rest in between).
All those details would overwhelm most swimmers, no doubt. But this is what Total Immersion coaches are train to consider when planning practices for individual students. However, our goal is to set you free to coach yourself more and more by gradually imparting the understanding for those details.
With that goal in mind I will attempt to give you some sort of concrete answer to the question, while acknowledging the extreme complexity of it. That complexity makes it impossible for me to give a precise estimate for any person who might read this – since the swimmer’s individual situation determines those details – but I can give you something solid to work with in a very general way.
Here it is:
You may expect some level of automation of the skill somewhere within 2000 mindful, successful repetitions of the position or movement pattern.
Now, Gail, my wife and therapist who specializes in working with neurologically injured/damaged people has been discussing this with me – some people could take a lot less than that for sure. But I wanted to give an answer that will work for the common human swimmers we work with in the pool.
And yet, I am going to leave this answer open to debate and improvement, if you care to join in the discussion. I wanted to start with some estimate based on 15 years of Total Immersion experience and observation of quite a few swimmers. I think it holds true for me, even as I experiment and make modifications to my stroke, which I have been doing regularly for all these years.
Note carefully how I phrased that answer… ‘some level of automation’ and ‘somewhere within 2000’ and ‘mindful, successful repetitions’.
Some level of automation – when you want to know how long it will take, you must clearly define in terms of external product and internal sensation what ‘it’ is. The more vague your desired result the more vague the time estimate will be. I am proposing that you can get some tangible level of automation of most common smooth swimming skills after 2000 repetitions – automated enough to hold up under low-intensity swimming, with ‘automation’ meaning the ‘hard-wires’ in the brain get firmly connected and you can remember how to do it right away in the next practice. But if it is an advanced skill this requires the fundamental skills to be in place to support it. Sorry, no shortcuts. You can’t play the blues until you learn some fingering scales, (and you can’t play the blues for 2 hours straight without doing the intense training for that level of performance.)
Somewhere within 2000 repetitions – maybe it will take you 200, maybe all 2000. But by 2000 you should notice some new patterns sticking firmly in your muscle memory.
Mindful repetitions – these will require conscious, intentional commands given to muscles in order to retrain their action. Mindless, non-attentive repetitions don’t count toward the total number.
Successful repetitions – this assumes that you can execute at least one movement as intended. Now you need to do it 2000 times the same way. Those unsuccessful movements don’t count toward the total number.
Why bother giving a number at all, if it is so conditional?
First of all – some of you have asked!
Second, for those who are new at the stroke-transformation process I want you to have some solid number to start planning your expectations with. You can refine it with more experience, and become intuitive later on.
~ ~ ~
Does 2000 seem like a lot? Too little?
Let’s assume one may move forward roughly 1 meter per stroke. – in a 4000 meter swim (for math simplicity let’s forget the turns and push-off which would subtract some of that distance) will require about 4000 strokes – 2000 on the right and 2000 on the left. If one were to aim for a very specific correction to one of his arms, and he were able to execute that change successfully for most of those strokes he might imprint that change into his muscle memory in just one long swim. But it is not common for someone to spend 4000 meters concentrating on one single stroke correction – that indeed would be extraordinary.
Let’s apply this integration heuristic to a more practical example to see how the planning around this number could work:
Let’s say our swimmer has 3 skill projects to he wants to work on.
- Project A – head position
- Project B – catch position on left arm
- Project C – breathing on weak side
He is going to assign 500 meters to each project in a practice.
Since head position is held steady at every moment, in every stroke (except breathing), that may take 4 practices (4x 500 = 2000) to integrate.
Since catch on the left arm will be executed about 250 times in 500 meters that may take 8 practices (8x 250 = 2000) to integrate.
Since breathing on the weak side may happen every 3 strokes (granted he is disciplining himself to breath both side evenly on a 3-stroke pattern) then he gets about 175 repetitions in 500 meters. It may take about 12 practices to integrate this change.
~ ~ ~
Of course, all those calculations assumed this swimmer was going to execute the change successfully 100% of the strokes. But wouldn’t we regard it as quite good if he were still executing it well 80-90% of the stroke? Yeah. And we might regard the skill as still quite weak if he was executing it well 50% or less. I think you get the idea – it is a number to use as a planning and measurement tool – that’s all.
There are a hundred ‘what-if?’ comments we could make about this heuristic approach to estimating imprint time. But it gives you some logic based on experience to start estimating your improvement schedule by.
If you’d like to constructively debate or help me think from other perspectives on this idea, I would love to hear from you. I am eager to learn and improve these tools.
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