This is the second part of a series discussing how Deliberate Practice principles are embodied in our Total Immersion method and manner of training. You may read Part 1 first.
I am referring to Chapter 4 “The Gold Standard” in Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, in the sub-section called “The Principles Of Deliberate Practice.”
Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. (page 99)
Let me break this down in our swimming context…
Other People Have Already Figured Out
There is a time when a new path must be blazed and someone needs to sacrifice her time and effort and possibly her career to explore that new way of doing things. She just might discover some revolutionary insights or a whole new paradigm. But she likely will not. Trail-blazers like this are quite interesting to watch while they are in their discovery process.
But, if you want to achieve something in these established domains of sport and art in a timely manner you had better get on a path others have already blazed and proven success by.
And, in review of one of the points I made in the first part of this series, it is important that you make sure you are on the path that matches your goal and values.
You may want more speed in swimming. There is the popular, conventional pathway which is producing faster swimmers – and it produces the fastest swimmers in the world – but at terrible cost in injury to most athletes on that path, as statistics clearly show. Every swimmer thinks he will be the exception to the injury rate, but very few are.
If you are OK with that, then get on this path and dedicate yourself to follow someone’s well-organized plan and doing it well. There are many coaches, many programs to choose from and many swimmers on this path to find company with.
But if you have other values held in tension with speed – such as health and longevity of your joints – you had better find an alternative path that has a better track record for producing those outcomes than conventional swim programs do.
Effective Training Techniques
Starting in 1972, Total Immersion Head Coach Terry Laughlin was one of those trail-blazers, experimenting with ways to train under-performing swimmers in a new way. He was deeply dissatisfied with the results of his own dedicated swimming efforts in youth and what the conventional path had to offer people like him. In an unexpected twist after graduation, this unsuccessful collegiate swimmer suddenly found himself in a coaching position which launched him on a quest to figure out why the best swimmers also happen to be the most smooth and beautiful in the water. What did their champion bodies know and do that he and the others didn’t?
And, so gradually, through intuition, research, a lot of trial-and-error, and eventually success, Coach Terry developed an approach that effectively taught expert swimmer ‘secrets’ to the late-starting adults and so-called ‘untalented’ swimmers – the ordinary people of the world. It made marvelous swimming accessible to those who did not begin with the instincts that so few others had.
One of the keys to the effectiveness of the Total Immersion method is how it breaks down large, complicated skills into smaller, learn-able pieces, arranging those pieces in a certain order by physics and physiology, from fundamental to advanced. These steps are small enough that any standard-equipped human can grasp, develop and integrate these internal skills which ‘naturals’ and elites have hidden inside. With these internal skills in place the visible product of beautiful swimming, and the external results of greater speed and endurance happen so much more easily. Without those hidden skills and sequenced steps, higher performance swimming would not be accessible to ordinary people.
The Distinction Of Total Immersion
I need to stress here – in my view, the distinction of TI is its teaching-and-learning method, not a particular stroke style or appearance. What makes it superior to all other programs that I know of is its proven ability to turn ordinary people, the not-so-gifted, and turn them into marvelous swimmers. These folks become smooth, efficient, and much more pleased with the training experience.
Whether you like the so-called ‘TI Stroke’ or not, the thing that I saw TI do that is revolutionary in conventional swimming is:
1) It identified, organize and sequenced the necessary skills – in particularly, this organization revealed the internal (hidden) skills which make possible the external (visible) visible skills.
2) It showed how to start from any point of incompetency and step-by-step build one skill upon another, joining pieces together until there is a whole complex stroke and capable swimmer.
For example: Conventional swimming instructions tends to aim immediately at moving the arms and the legs, particularly to keep the body up, near the surface. According to how the human body develops control and the requirement of physics, those are not the first skills to be addressed, but the last. First, train the spine to be straight, stabilized and to distribute the weight, so that they body becomes balanced to the surface of the water, without need for movement of arms and legs. Train in short segments, between the need for breaths. Then the arms and legs can be trained to focus solely on propulsion rather than on survival.
Can You Teach Yourself?
Though I loved to work hard and didn’t mind the suffering when I joined the high school swim team, I could not consider myself a natural at swimming by any means, proven by my unspectacular times and debilitating injuries and then later by my debilitating injury as a collegiate triathlete. Back then there was no one nearby to teach me a better way.
But I am extremely curious, I am hungry to learn and gain skills, and I am very patient and persistent with solitary auto-didactic (self-teaching) projects. (Being a strong introvert has something to do with that I suppose.) I’ve taught myself several complex skills which serve me now. In other words, I have strong motivation and focus, which compensates for some lack of so-called ‘natural talent’.
I was an injury-vulnerable swimmer for 13 years before I found TI, and when I did I took the materials and I taught myself from them. In 9 years I never visited a coach (none were nearby at that time), but I did a fairly good job developing an admirable ‘TI stroke’ – a stroke that was recognized as the TI Stroke from the outdated training materials I was using! From my new TI practice I improved performance as a swimmer considerably moving from regular 1500 swims in the pool to 4k in the sea, even though I was aging past the alleged ‘prime’ for swimming faster.
Those two features in TI, noted above, made it possible for me to do this. And, it can make it possible for you too. The effective training technique has been captured in the written materials and the training videos, to some extent.
However, at my coach training in 2010, it was initially uncomfortable to be shown that my stroke needed updating to TI’s current understanding. But once I tested the new ideas that were gently shown to me, I realized that this improved understanding was going to improve my capabilities even further. I realize there was more to learn and there would always be more to learn. It took a coach to show me what I couldn’t see for myself, and of what I couldn’t know on my own. Over the weeks and months after I embraced the changes, practiced, integrated, I reaped the rewards of it. And I have picked up new insights all along the way.
I still train alone and prefer it most of the time – because there is no one nearby that trains this mindful way – but I do relish the occasional opportunities I have to teach and to train along side my TI Coach colleagues and my avid TI swimmer friends. I learn so much more and am encouraged to improve further.
PS – A little secret: you know that famous Shinji freestyle video that we all admire? He taught himself to swim like that. The story he told me was that, although he had no swimming background, he built an Endless Pool studio with video system at his parent’s house and would go there each night after a hard days work and spend a couple hours meticulously training his stroke. If you’ve got the time, money for the tools, and obsession like that, you too can swim like Shinji!
Your Coach Is Your Short-Cut
Now that I have been a swim coach for about 8 years and worked with hundreds of swimmers from around the world, I realize that, for whatever reason, there are not many people who will or who want to learn all this by themselves. Some people have gotten far on their own with books and videos – which is a genuine form of ‘being coached’, of accessing the proven method – but it does save a lot of time and effort to be shown by a live coach what to do right now in this moment, from moment to moment. This is especially helpful in the early stages of learning a new thing. The coach is the short-cut, so the speak, but one that costs more money than the books and videos.
I do think some of you really can teach yourselves Fundamental TI and Advanced Training methods, just studying the materials that are available for free (such as my blog) and for purchase – and there are a lot more materials available now than when I started. These materials were designed after 30+ years of testing and refinement, made to work with ordinary people like you and me. But I am now inclined to believe that self-teaching will be fruitful only for those who have the characteristics and will to do this. You will know who you are, because you are fairly confident about your learning style. If in doubt, you probably are not this kind of person.
For the rest of you, I offer this advice – for some season of time, or periodically, you will need to access a live, certified coach or training event and be guided on the skills and drills and sequence for practicing. You may need help getting started on your current level then can practice quite a while on your own. Then, when ready to go to a new level you may access a coach’s guidance again, and so forth. If you happen to live in a place where there is a group of TI swimmers, or a TI Coach-guided weekly practice you are very fortunate.
Squeeze Out Some Extra Value
But there is a way to get even more out of those live training experiences than I see many people getting. You need to get more out of these events so that you can lower your dependency on them.
Most students come and focus on those skills and drills – good. But what you also need to pay attention to is the method, the activities, the sequence of skills and activities the coach assigns. Notice the coach’s decisions made to increase, to hold, or to slightly lower the challenge level some student is working with. There is a very particular, important way that TI is taught by a TI-trained coach. Things are presented in a certain sequence and a certain way. Decisions are made with certain principles and priorities in mind. If you pay attention and ask questions about the details of how a session in the pool is structured and why certain changes were made, you may gain a lot more insight in how to design practices for yourself. Better yet, ask your instructor to give you an outline of the practice sessions that you experienced. Do not just attend, experience, and forget what you did in the water. Write copious notes. Take pictures and video. Ask for as much documentation as the coach will give you, then ask for more!
Oh, no. I am now going to get some email requests for outlines from our past workshops… But for this reason I have put so much effort into building the Online Coaching Program, to document these principles, the sequences, the training patterns, and teach the way of making decisions, to help students get familiar with those. By experiencing a training plan I have written, students learn to write one on their own.
I really am on a quest to help you break your dependency on needing a live coach so much… until you want to go to a new level, and then we are here to help you go further. There is always more to learn!
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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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