This is the third part of a series on how we demonstrate Deliberate Practice principles in our particular way of training. You may start with Part 1, and Part 2.

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” Anders Ericsson describes a second feature of this kind of practice:

Deliberate Practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.

Let’s break this down in our context of swimming part by part, but be aware that the punchline of this post is in the last section…


Working Outside Your Comfort Zone

I’ve written some about working outside the comfort zone in these posts:


Just Beyond Your Current Skill

And specifically, I written some on the idea of working on challenges that are just beyond your current level of skill:

And, a three part series starting with Deep Practice Encouragement.

To summarize, from time to time, you can and should certainly click into auto-pilot mode and enjoy the fitness and skill you’ve got already – that’s essentially what you want your training to make you capable of for race day. But be aware that only when you are applying best attention to building skills under challenging conditions, will you be doing work that causes you to improve. Auto-pilot is not an improvement state.


Near Maximal Effort

The expertise that Ericsson studies is that which requires skill, with or without great physical fitness involved.  In swimming, of course, physical fitness is necessary. It’s just that conventional swimming tends to treat this sport as a brute strength activity. Strength is needed, but it has to be intelligently applied to produce decent results. TI and everything on this blog makes the case that speed, endurance and pleasure in swimming is foremost a neurological skill, and fitness will be developed by necessity in a thorough, skill-building process. Swimming is highly technical and therefore it is highly neurological.

You can watch this video I made on Speed Is A Skill


In the metabolic and muscular aspects of swimming fitness, up-to-date trainers may agree that going hard all the time is counter-productive, and eventually destructive to the body. Going moderate (= at tempo) all the time is counter-productive too. We understand that the swimmers should be working in a variety of intensity zones and the latest trend is called polarized training, which prescribes a ratio of easy to hard work – (some may recommend 90% easy and 10% very hard).

It is when we apply ‘near maximal effort’ to the neuro-muscular and mental aspects of our training that we are applying this feature of Deliberate Practice. Consider how a chess player or professional concert pianist or a martial artist or emergency response personnel will practice their skills – there is no such thing as mindless practice in these fields. For these kinds of professionals you might be able to imagine how it is better to do shorter practices of high attention to detail than to do lots of practice with a mind checked out for most of it. Though both are important, quality is priority over quantity.

That’s the dilemma that swimmers find themselves in, wondering how to train the fitness side and the technical side, as if they were separate activities. I continually make the case that these two dimensions of training cannot be separated – start with this post Fitness And Technique Unite.


Not Enjoyable?

Now, this is the part I was really wanting to address in this article. Ericsson has observed that those who are experts in their field have trained for hours each weeks, virtually every month over the years and a great deal of this practice was not enjoyable for them.

What keeps them going?

Angela Duckworth, the psychologist and author, would call this characteristic grit (check out her TED Talk). I do think this is an important feature for sport and life.

But, how do masterful swimmers in our way do it?

The late founder and head coach of Total Immersion, Terry Laughlin claims it is joy that actually keeps us in kaizen – the pursuit of continual personal improvement – over the years.

How then do we reconcile Ericsson’s observation with Total Immersion’s claim that it makes this masterful practice of swimming so much more enjoyable?

This is where I can bring in the concept of Flow and autotelic learning from positive psychology pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Flow is:

the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. (Wikipedia – Flow)

Does that sound like what you do in the pool? I hope so!

Does that sound like what you observe the other people in the pool doing? Likely not.

Flow is not just a state to achieve during the big event, but something we learn to cultivate in every practice. It is what we use our warm up to achieve and then practice in such a way to sustain throughout the practice. If we lose it, something needs to be corrected, or we need rest. This reward-in-the-act is what keeps us going.

An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.” (Wikipedia – Autotelic)

That describes my 30 year experience in endurance training, and my experience as a life-long learner in general.


Deep Practice

I prefer to use the term Deep Practice instead of Deliberate Practice because I insert this features of flow and autotelic experience which reliably counter that ‘not fun’ symptom of deliberate practice. I receive a substantial immediate and intrinsic reward in the activity of practice, as well as the satisfaction which lingers the rest of the day. My mind is not only deeply engaged, but deeply curious and interested in the performance puzzles I am working on – both fitness and technical puzzles. By this, I enjoy my practices – nearly all of my practices are designed to take me into some realm of discomfort, to expand my skills, and many of my practices are physically difficult – yet I can honestly say I enjoy them.

Mind you – the ‘not fun’ feature that Ericsson observed was a side-effect of the kind of training they did, not a cause of their expertise. This means there is great possibility that this negative feature could be reduced or eliminated through an improvement in how training is done, and in the mindset we cultivate for it. That is the very thing TI claims to offer. That is the very thing deep practitioners say they experience in it.

Does that sound like the kind of practice you would like to do also?


You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in Total Immersion:


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