I have spent a great deal of space on this blog to explain the view that superior performance is composed of both an extraordinary product on the outside – such as speed – and an extraordinary feature on the inside – energy efficiency.
Whether your goal is to swim faster or your goal is to make the action of swimming more pleasant, training for efficiency is the foundation for both. Efficiency is the state of using energy well. When the body is using energy well, you can accomplish more, and it feels wonderful.
The Evidence Of Efficiency
Energy used well is revealed in the objective, external evidence of one being able to swim faster, or sustain a pace longer, in combination with the subjective, internal evidence of everything just feeling more wonderful in the body and mind. One swimmer could have more speed, but this alone does not prove efficiency. And one could have ‘good feelings’ in the body or mind and neither does this alone prove efficiency. Both of these together build the case that one has truly improved efficiency.
A commentator might point out the winner in a race, or ‘first-out-of-the water’ in a triathlon and declare their superior efficiency, but no, this only shows that they were fast. It does not tell us anything about how well he or she used energy compared to the others. No one sees the cost she paid inside her body. Time and speed are easy to observe and measure. But the measurement of efficiency is very tricky. It’s is revealed by subjective bio-feedback. It’s relatively easy to hook up electronics to monitor a runner or cyclist, but nearly impossible to do this with swimmers without placing them in a situation that is quite unlike their normal swimming context. So, until technology provides an unobtrusive solution for generating conclusive data to help us end all debates, we have complicated, subjective and indirect evidence to work with to build our methods for pursuing this efficient state.
Now, with that said, in this series of posts I will discuss what it means to pursue swimming efficiency using what Anders Ericsson, the leading expert in the science of expertise calls Deliberate Practice, or what in my conversations I tend to refer to as Deep Practice – for reasons I will explain later in this series. Upon reading more of Ericsson’s work, especially the latest book and best summary of his findings, it is encouraging to see principles of deliberate practice are not hard to grasp, which we will likely recognize from other realms of expertise (like music, martial arts, science, etc.) that we may be familiar with.
Dr. Ericsson explains it in Chapter 4 “The Gold Standard” in Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, in the sub-section called “The Principles Of Deliberate Practice”, page 97.
In short, we are saying that deliberate practice is different from other sorts of purposeful practice in two important ways: First, it requires a field that is already reasonably well developed… Second, deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance.
With this definition we are drawing a clear distinction between purposeful practice – in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve – and practice that is both purposeful and informed… Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.
When Ericsson writes of ‘reasonably well developed’ field, he is talking about activities like competitive sports where there is a rigorous objective measurement of performance – you win or lose, you are faster or slower, you finish the task or you do not. Competitive swimming definitely fits this – performance is measured in terms of placing first, a faster time, or a distance covered.
So, we have two critical features of what Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice:
- A way to measure superior performance
- Proven methods for getting there (from a teacher or a program).
Superior performance in terms of going faster is easy to measure. But superior performance in terms of internal efficiency is not.
Now, if you are pursuing ‘just speed’ – speed at any cost – there are numerous schools, coaches and programs that provide this. The pathway for this sole value on speed is well-developed. The roads which lead to the Olympics and world championship events are the ultimate filter for the methods that produce fast swimmers and filter out the humans who can survive those methods.
If you draw examples and methodology from the programs on that pathway, understand that those methods are built upon one value for top-speed to the exclusion of other values which conflict with it – this means you are seeking speed-at-any-cost, and it is statistically shown that there is a very high risk to the health of your body. I am sure some athletes step off that path because they start to see glimpses of the bill they will pay in the future if they keep trying to work on this path and realize the potential gain is not worth the risk to their long-term health. That is a difficult choice. While others don’t seem to notice or care about that price they may pay in the future so they continue on. A few of them actually make it to the top. And from those statistics we may estimate that very, very few do it without any future price to pay. Which champions openly report their aches and pains in the years after they retire?
It is possible that some elite athletes and their coaches train with high attention to their subjective feedback to improve internal efficiency. They may recognize that they have room to use the power they have better rather than always keep trying to add more power to the equation. Such refinements take precious attention and time at that level – which competes for the time they might give to power-training. The pressures to achieve external results quickly on this path must be enormous. There is a scandalous injury rate among collegiate and elite swimmers. And, there is a reason doping is such a great concern in elite sports today, even in swimming.
[On the mastery path] achievement does happen. I think it is just an orientational pivot… juxtaposed in the world that both you and I live in, especially in the world of world-class sport, is that if we don’t get an achievement, an outcome, we are asked not to come back. And, that’s from the head coach to the star athlete. If [they] can’t create a sustainable outcome there is not a contract waiting for them. And so it really becomes a deep challenge to work to pivot people towards [mastery], moving beyond… just the need for achievement, and helping them find the process that has insight, that has meaning, and that is reproduceable under any circumstances, whether it’s a calm environment or hostile environment. And those are the marks of masters.
I imagine just about all coaches on this world championship path declare devotion to health and long-term well-being of the athletes. But the contradiction in values is clear – in a short few years, they are paid, not to make healthier people, but to get superior speed out of their swimmers. And swimmers retain their sponsorship only if they continue to get faster. If the coach or the athlete does not produce better results, there are many standing in line to fill their spot. Both are under enormous pressure to take risks to get higher on the ladder of competition.
What we’re seeing in the universities is that we have 18 to 22 year old kids, super-jocks coming in, “Hey, don’t worry, when you’re 22 there is another kid coming behind you to take you place.” So what we’ve done is sort of build this concept and notion on, “Hey, don’t worry. We can spend your genetics long enough and then when you’re broken someone else will come along and take your place. (minute 11:25)
That is a description of the speed-only end of the spectrum.
On the other extreme, if you are pursuing only ‘good feelings’ in the water, then you might as well stand vertical and wave your body parts gently under water. That feels good. Aqua aerobics or deep water jogging can provide decent conditioning with pleasing movements, with no particular technical skill required.
But I think most people who swim may intuitively understand that there is something particularly pleasant for the nervous system about sliding through the water with less resistance, and something quite appealing to the mind when moving forward, moving towards some destination. Put these together and we find ourselves naturally attracted to not only swimming easily, but swimming faster. In other words, swimming faster is satisfying.
Truly More Efficient
When we add the next layer to this – that not only does the brain want us to feel the pleasure of water flowing smoothing over the external surface of the skin, it also wants us to feel the smooth, and proper flow of energy (or more specifically, flow of force) through the body to create the shape and movements that make easier forward movement possible.
When you put those features together, you have the definition of efficiency. Efficiency means you are:
- moving forward,
- moving forward faster or farther,
- moving in a way that wastes little energy, and
- moving your body and moving force through your body in a way without internal conflicts and damage.
Let me rephrase and emphasize that last part : If you are damaging your body, you are not efficient.
Let’s add a bit more from Kelly Starrett…
But what we’re finding is that this is really not a conversation about performance or maintenance and pain-free… there is never a compromise between being in the safest position and being in the best position and having the best joint congruency, and the best tissue loading and tissue health, and going the fastest. (11:56)
This leads us to the realization that ‘what it produces’ combined with ‘how it feels’ tells you how efficient you are.
Do you see the inclusion of other important values now? How your body goes about constructing speed (healthy mechanics) and the cost it must pay (economical use of energy) are central features of efficiency. These become primary values in the efficient-speed training path. The efficient-speed path cannot be hacked. There are no short-cuts after a certain point of clarity about the principles involved. It takes time to master this, but the rewards come in the form of safer, stronger, more pleasant action that you can perform across your lifespan.
Now, if you are pursuing efficient speed as I have just defined it – which takes every cost into account – there are virtually not many programs that I know of that teach this, that have rigorously tested, systematic methodology that do this that I am aware of. I imagine there are individual coaches with special training leading programs here and there, but far too few it seems.
If you are pursuing life-long efficiency in swimming, this means you care about the cost now and the cost in the future for the speed you produce. If you want performance distributed along your lifespan, not stacked up in just a few short years of your youth, you must be deeply aware and concerned about how you use energy. You need not only have this purpose in mind, you need a method or teacher to get you there.
Those programs which teach speed-at-any-cost to younger people who do not yet feel the consequences of these methodologies are examples to be highly skeptical of. Since they are not the subject of attention by the media, try to imagine the swimmer-cemeteries lining the path to the championship, and the permanent injury those athletes retire with after their brief moments of glory.
But do not be dismayed. If you are practicing your swimming every week with a continual-improvement-of-skill mindset, then you are purposeful.
If you have chosen a systematic program that honors these values, and are studying videos, attending workshops, and reading materials which elaborate on proven methods for achieving this kind of efficient-speed then you are also informed.
That means, by Ericsson’s definition, you too are one who engages in Deliberate Practice.
~ ~ ~
You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in Total Immersion:
- Part 1 – The Definition Of Deliberate Practice
- Part 2 – Follow A Proven, Effective Path
- Part 3 – Difficult And Enjoyable Practice
- Part 4 – Focus On Small, Specific Pieces
- Part 5 – Full Attention Required
- Part 6 – Form Better Mental Representations
- Part 7 – Expertise Takes Time
- Part 8 – Your Abilities Expand
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