Anders Ericsson declares that “the main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations.” (page 75). It would therefore be very important that we figure out what mental representations are in the context of our deliberate swim practice!
Ericsson describes these in Chapter 3 “Mental Representations” of his book Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise. In our method we call them cues (a.k.a. focal points).
Because they are so important in motor learning and mastery training of any kind, the topic of focal points is brought up all over my blog. But you may like to read a few posts devoted to them:
Defining Mental Representations
Ericsson admits that it is hard to state a general definition that satisfies all specific applications, but offers that mental representations “in essence… are preexisting patterns of information – facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on – that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations.” (pages 61)
Focal points, as we use them, are packages of such information about how the body position or a part of the movement pattern should look and feel. It is both a diagnostic device and a command given to a part of the body to conform to the model held in the mind of the athlete. They are used for detection, correction, improvement and protection. They make up a vital piece of the athlete’s control panel.
Even when the skill being practiced is primarily physical, a major factor is the development of proper mental representations. Consider a competitive diver working on a new dive. Much of the practice is devoted to forming a clear mental picture of what the dive should look like at every moment and, more importantly, what it should feel like in terms of body positioning and momentum. (page 60)
Speaking of diving – the Chinese dominate the sport. Here are some insights from Coach Rett who has worked with them, as well as a video of highlights training with the Chinese team. And, if you hear anyone starting to whine because their coach requires them to focus too much, you can read about the reasons a British coach prefers to work with swimmers in China. After reading that I am tempted to move there myself…
Build A Tool Box
To make improvement in swimming you need to build up a tool box of focal points for what every position and piece should look like, what it should feel like, and what effects it should produce when functioning well in context of the whole stroke. Focal points are the analogies, metaphors, sensory descriptors, and muscle commands you need to pilot your vessel – they are communication packets of your feedback and response system. Infusing your brain with these is what our live training events are devoted to – and this is why your brain gets so tired after a couple hours even though your body may not have been moving so intensely.
For swimming, we would use focal points that are:
- Internal – to communicate with internal features of our body
- External – to guide the body’s interaction with water
- Visualize – to guide the body’s imitation of hydrodynamic vessels and superior aquatic mammals
Fortunately, you don’t have to invent the essential ones on your own. We offer a standard toolbox with dozens of focal points covering every piece of the stroke. Each experienced colleague I know of has additional ones they’ve created – we love to share these among each other and add to our own toolboxes. (In addition to outlines of all the drills – older and newer ones – and their focal points, I have a section in our online training library called 101 Focal Points. I keep adding to it as I develop new ones or borrow more from others. Even my students create good ones which I ask to include).
Concept Versus Sensation
Recently, in a conversation with TI Master Coach Shane Eversfield he pointed out the superiority of focal points which center on a sensation rather than an abstract concept.
A concept-command would be like ‘Make the recovery arm shaped like an equilateral triangle’, while a sensation-command would be, “Make the forearm and hand soft, like a rag doll”. A concept-command may involve the frontal cortex of your brain – your conscious problem-solving and reasoning – while a sensation-command just bypasses all that and gets to the parts of the brain that actually know how to figure out movement puzzles. (This is the difference between thinking that gets in the way of your swimming and feeling which gets things figured out).
More about thinking:
I wrote previously in Coach, Is It Correct? about the necessity for each swim student to seek out and grab onto the sensation that is associated with a particular piece of correct technique. The student may look up at the coach and ask, “Coach, how does it look?” And the coach should say, “Looked good. Now how did that feel?” The swimmer must memorize the sensation associated with correctness because that is how she will know she’s doing it correctly when the coach is not around to tell her.
See Quantities, Feel Qualities
Quantities are the things you can measure with an external device or observer – like time, stroke count, tempo, direction, etc. Qualities are things you must measure with your own inbuilt internal detection device: your own nervous system. You are swimming ‘blind’ in a very real sense unless you learn to see throughout your own body using your own nervous system, and view your body’s movements and position in space through proprioception. Though it seems to be easier for some than for others, this kind of seeing-through-feeling is a learn-able and necessary skill for every swimmer.
Until you get strong mental representations – focal points – burned into your long-term memory, you’ll have a hard time improving control over your body. And the more you can acquire sensory-oriented focal points, rather than conceptual ones, the more effective your training process will be.
Focal Points Are The Centerpiece
Focal points are not an accessory or side-show to the main act of swimming – they are the most powerful tool you have in your arsenal for detection, correction, improvement and protection.
Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing. (page 59)
In this book Ericsson goes on to describe how the masters and experts of every field are those who are relentless about building and updating their mental representations, even when they have already reached the top of their field. This obsession with improvement may be one of the primary reasons they reached the top in the first place.
What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. (page 62)
…the development of better mental representations… in turn [opens] up new possibilities for improved performance. (page 75)
Your devotion to using focal points is not foolish. It is an essential piece of the mastery path.
Be proud of your approach to swimming. Tune in during every practice, and confidently swim past those who are tuning out during their ‘workout’. They might be faster now, but as long as they tune-out of the action, they won’t be getting better. With time, process and attention, you certainly will.
You may read the others parts of this series on how we apply Deliberate Practice in our way of training:
- 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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