We are continuing our series on the application of Deliberate Practice in our way of training:

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 is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice. (page 99)



You can show up to your workout, and deliberately go through the assigned sets and get a good workout for your muscles and metabolism. You can burn lots of calories. You can feel that nice ‘wasted’ feeling afterwards (as my ‘not interested in technique’ swimmer/runner friend puts it – there’s a reason why, at the exact same age, his body is falling apart and slowing down while mine is getting stronger).

But we know this is not the kind of activity referred to in Deliberate Practice. We must add more definition to this word ‘deliberate’ in order to build the correct vision for it.


Full Attention

The kind of practice that will actually improve your skill – to improve the precision of your movements and train them to stay precise in high intensity, longer distance, and under more difficult conditions – this requires your full attention.

I’ve pointed out before that there is a time and place for Auto-Pilot and in fact, we want our training to get us ready for marvelous auto-pilot swimming. But reliable quality in Auto-Pilot mode must be earned by hundreds of hours in Deliberate Practice mode.

This high-quality attention, sustained during practice, and sustained practice after practice is the part that can potentially make deliberate practice not so fun. But, is tuning-out of hard efforts more fun? Apparently not for most, since boredom remains the chief complaint among conventional lap swimmers.

Mind you, attention in the sense that we are using it does not mean more thinking = cerebral thinking or analyzing – it is about being immersed in sensory input and responsive to it. (More on this in Thinking Of Feeling?) Attention of this kind is primarily an action deep in the brain, in areas that receive and process sensory information and decide which motor programs to initiate in response. The thinking mind gives permission but then stays mostly out of the way (if it is trained to). This kind of attention is what mindfulness training builds, and we are doing it in motion.

There is a growing mountain of scientific support for the understanding that trained attention – mindfulness – is far more likely to set one up for enjoyable practice, for an enjoyable existence, than tuning out of discomfort or allowing a wandering mind.

If you won’t develop attention skills by sitting still at home there is good news – you can do it every time you get in the pool to swim! If an attentive mind promises more enjoyment, we might as well apply that attention to making specific improvements to our swimming technique. Not only do we enjoy movement and flow of water more, we get better at making it happen the way we’d like it to.

But we must be aware that there is a distinct difference between the ‘Swim Harder’ approach and the ‘Swim Smarter’ approach. In Swim Harder you keep pushing your physical boundaries, pushing through discomfort in hard workouts, and tune-out in order to get through it. In contrast, in Swim Smarter you keep tuning in order to discover the ways you can actually expand your mental, technical and physical capabilities. You must read and respond to the signals coming from the water and from your body, rather than ignore them. Swim Harder assumes ‘all is fine, just get the work it done’, while the Swim Smarter approach acknowledges the enormous room each humans has for improved efficiency in water, and values the investment of effort in that direction.

The physical aspects (think ‘metabolism and muscle’ work) don’t require so much attention – but the mental and the technical aspects require full attention – because these are specifically targeting the brain’s wiring. Your conscious mind is the best and only tool you have to do this work deliberately. When you learn how to direct your attention, where to direct your attention you are in a superior position to make deliberate changes to your performance at any time.


Go Beyond Directions


Your coach might be very intelligent, and very experienced in guiding you, but still, you are in the more powerful observation and decision position. You are in the pilot’s seat of your own vessel. You have direct access to all that feedback coming from your nervous system. Rather than expect the coach to know what your body is saying (she can only guess based on external clues and your own report), you’ve got to pick that coach’s brain to learn how to read those signals from your own body and make decisions for yourself, on the go, when there is no option to consult someone outside your own head. You are always going to be the sole pilot of your vessel so might as well learn how to do it like your favorite swimmer role model does.

More on this in the next part…


Specific Goal

Within that larger goal of improving speed or endurance, you break that overall capability down into its individual skill components. You break those skills down further into micro-skills. You then create an improvement goal for that small piece and focus part of your practice on it (as discussed in the previous part of this series).


Make Adjustments

In each practice set you play a game like ‘Hot Or Cold’ sensing when you are moving closer to your objective or farther away. You stay attentive to the feedback coming from your body, comparing these to your external metrics to sense progress or regress. You make adjustments in the middle of the action to correct, protect or improve the action. You use rest moments to consider what just happened and plan what you will do better on the next repeat. You finish practice with an assessment of what went well and what not, and how that should influence the plans for the next practice.


Fall In Love

I dare say, to sustain this kind of practice over weeks and months and years you must fall in love with the process of mastery of every detail. There must be some reward in the act of practice itself, because this kind of attention involved in such deliberate, ‘Swim Smarter’ training is much more difficult than mere ‘Swim Harder’ training.

The possibility for pleasure in such difficult discipline comes from the mental atmosphere you create around your practice. It is the expectation of improvement in small details coupled with the tools you are given to actually affect those improvements which set you up for satisfaction in each practice – even when you sometimes experience more failure than success. If you succeed you get the pleasure of feeling improved movement, improved flow of water around the body. If you fail you gain insight into what details are standing in the way of your improvement and the opportunity to plan your next practice according to that insight.

Each practice can be a delight. As a matter of fact, it is not just the stroke you are improving, it is your method of practice you are improving – its your attitude about a life of continual personal improvement. It is your whole approach to doing anything that is difficult, anything which involves skill, which offers you the choice to resist and suffer, or accept and improve your approach and be rewarded from day to day.


You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in our way of training:


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