Along with the previous article in this series describing the role of focal points (mental representations), we are getting to the heart of the practice with the feedback loop.
If you have ever learned to play an instrument (or tried to) or just listened to music appreciatively, I think you can imagine how hard it would be to learn if there was a delay between the moment your fingers touched the strings or keys and the sound that was produced.
Music is marvelous to learn in this respect because the feedback is direct (to your own nervous system) and immediate (no delay). You can instantaneously make the connection between the cause and the effect. When the effect is incorrect or inferior, you know it immediately – you feel it faster than you consciously think about it – and you can then respond in the next moment with a correction or improvement. You can do it over and over and over again until you do it better. All this time, your brain is mapping a better route to the result you want.
In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson notes (Chapter 3, page 99) that…
Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. Early in the training process much of that feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems.
Without a doubt you are going to save time and trouble coming to a live coach and getting her to demonstrate what you need to do then physically guide you into the correct body position and movement patterns.
But you probably don’t want to keep that up considering the expense in time and money. The ultimate thrill of all this training is to be able to fly your vessel solo through all kinds of swimming conditions. The coach won’t be there. You can only take your body and what you train into your own brain.
With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires effective mental representations.
(See the previous post which discusses those mental representations, or what we call focal points in Total Immersion.)
Your best approach when training under a live coach is to suck all you can out of that coach’s mind so that you can feel and comprehend in your body what that coach feels in hers when she is swimming like you want to swim. Your training is not merely about learning the correct position or movement, but more importantly, learning how to train yourself. You have to learn to train and fly solo – even if you continue to study under a coach. If you do gradually take more responsibility onto yourself, you and your coach can keep going farther and farther.
Your Internal Feedback System
Again, think about what it must be like to learn to practice and play beautiful music. Just about every musician I know of spends the vast majority practicing on their own, and with their peers. They likely continue to study under a master, but they still spend most of their practice hours without that external feedback. They have the most convenient form of feedback with them at all times – the sounds they make on their own!
As a swimmer you are not without similar feedback coming to your nervous system – specifically, through your proprioception. Your nervous system reaches through every point of your body, receiving and sending signals. You can learn to wake up and notice these signals, to tap into those channels and start participating consciously in that communication. Water flows along your skin. Gravity presses down upon your skeletal frame. Water pressure pushes up and all around you. Bubbles form, air pockets make sound, waves press and splash. You are bombarded by important information that you can use – once you learn to pay attention and interpret what it all means.
Assuming you have studied under a technique-oriented program of some sort, and have some images in your mind for what your body should be doing, here are two methods you can use right away to develop your own feedback system for improving technique, when your coach is not around to show you.
Exaggerate And Contrast
In order to more easily identify the sweet spot of some position or movement pattern you are working on, first try exaggerating the movement in ways that are on either side of the ‘correct’ position you are searching for. Try an extreme position (just one side at a time) and then compare that with a position that you think is closer to the ideal. You’ll notice much more about the difference between correct and incorrect and be set up to make more improvements by feel.
For example, when you are trying to find the ‘neutral head’ position (which we call the ‘weightless head’ in TI) try swimming a few strokes tilting the head up, looking ahead, and then drop the head completely, turning off all the muscles. Feel the difference. Feel where the head settles by itself, between gravity pushing down and water pressure pushing up.
Now, do the opposite – push your face deep down into the water, like trying to cause the head to sink. Feel the strain in your neck and upper back. Swim that way for several strokes until the sensations get quite distinct. Then release the head and neck completely and let water pressure push it back up to the neutral position. Search for any remnants of that ‘pushed-down’ effort and remove them.
By exercising the movement in some extreme or exaggerated way, then switching to something more ideal your nervous system will be awakened to the contrast between them. You’ll notice sensations that appear in the incorrect (exaggerated) way that you can feel are not favorable – then when you shift to what you think is the ideal position you can search for remnants of that dysfunction, then adjust your position further to remove those.
Compare Strong Side To Weak Side
Here is another self-coaching technique – use your strong side as a reference point for training your weak side. Just about every swimmer I have seen is able to point out something they can do better on one side than on the other. It isn’t perfect but it’s better than no reference point and you can feel the difference distinctly inside your own body. It’s a convenient self-training tool.
And, with this you need a list (of focal points, body parts, movement segments) to then systematically, one-by-one compare the sensation on strong side to the sensation on the weak side. By process of elimination, you can isolate which very specific features of your weak side are not matching up to the strong side and feel how they are different. Then you can focus on that specific point, try some small adjustments – again, one-by-one – until you find the adjustment that makes it feel or behave more like the strong side.
A great application for this technique is to compare breathing on your strong (favorite) side and your weak side. I prescribe this one often. Even if your breathing on the strong side isn’t that great itself, wouldn’t it be a lot better if your weak side was at least that comfortable?
And, one more layer to add to this technique – zoom in on just a moment in time of the stroke too. Isolate just a micro-second and compare that to the strong side. If you try to sense too much body or time at once it will be overwhelming.
It is easy to get overwhelmed – this is exactly why a skilled coach is valuable – she can cut through that mountain of information, to get to the root of the problem. Understandably, this is probably why most people just want to pay the coach to do it for them. But you can do a lot more of this for yourself. You really can! By zooming in, taking one focal point and comparing and tweaking for a while, taking just one moment of the movement, you can continue to discover and gain more influence over the improvement process.
Build Up Your Feedback System
In both of these methods you can make improvement on your own even if you are not sure you are doing it perfectly like your favorite master would. It will likely be better than what you were doing before. Even if your image of the ideal is off a bit, it is the building of your feedback system, your method of self-evaluation and correction that will empower you to more quickly improve when you do have the next opportunity to get updated understanding from a live training session with your coach.
And, one day you just might find that you know as much about best technique as your coach does (if he doesn’t keep studying, updating, and improving himself) and then you’ll either need to become your own master coach or find a new one who can guide you further. Either way, you’ll want to keep improving your feedback system so you can handle whatever the mastery path leads you into.
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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