In the Positive Psychology realm, ‘engagement’ (Seligman) is another term for ‘flow state’ (Csikszentmihaly) which I’ve written quite a lot about in a previous series of posts. An aspect of this engagement or flow is being absorbed in a challenging task that takes all your attention and skill, where time disappears and only the task feels important in that moment.
One of the keys to enjoying swim training is to be engaged in it as a continual technical challenge rather than tune out to get a hard, merely physical workout over with.
To make it engaging for the body and mind, the task needs to present a challenge to some dimension of fitness and skills. And that task needs to be designed in such a way to present uncertainty about whether you can complete the task to your assigned standards or not. There needs to be just enough uncertainty as to whether your best effort and attention can succeed or not.
The task requires your best attention, not just your best strength. It may mean you need to more wisely restrain yourself at the beginning in order have enough strength to hold stroke count at the end. It may mean you need to keep attention on the part of the stroke where you are most vulnerable to getting slopping under fatigue, to protect it early and correct it quickly later on.
An 1000 Example
Perhaps you can swim 1000 continuously. Good, but that may not be very challenging. Can you swim 1000 with consistent optimal (for you) stroke count for every length? Don’t know? Then that’s the kind of uncertainty you need.
Set up a 1000 test swim to count strokes on every length and see what happens. Even if you don’t succeed (either you can’t hold for the entire distance or you can’t hold it consistently), you will have an opportunity to observe where you fail and why. You can learn a lot from doing test swims with clear standards in quality that leave uncertainty in your mind whether you can maintain it the whole way or not. Design a set that requires you to maintain relative ease as fatigue sets in.
A Distance Example
After a 1500 ‘warmup’ I might swim another 6 to 8 rounds of 200 at fixed tempo followed by 50 backstroke (active rest), with no stopping between rounds. I choose a distance swimming tempo that leaves me uncertain whether I can maintain it smoothly toward the latter half. If I am a bit tired that day I might aim for 6 rounds and then see how many more rounds I can do before either strength or precise control gives out and I can’t restore it. I will have an idea of what I should be capable of this week, but I assign quantities or qualities that I am not quite sure I can hold all the way to the end.
Challenged At Any Level
Can you hit perfect targets on every single stroke, for every single length of the swim?
No matter your level of skill or fitness, you set up a challenge that leaves you a bit uncertain whether you can carry out the task to the end, with the quality you’ve assigned. The uncertainty motivates you to stay attentive, to stay focused on a few particular focal points that can influence the outcome. If you could tune out and accomplish the task then it was not challenging enough.
You apply this all the way from first learning to swim to training for advanced events, no matter what level of complexity your body needs to work at. From ‘simple’ drills to really, long, potentially boring repeats, you can assign qualities that you must maintain a bit longer than ever before, or a bit higher quality than ever before.
You can make it more relaxed. You can make it more stabilized. You can reach a bit farther. You can shape it a bit better. You can make it more precisely timed. You can make it more consistent. You can make it more continuous (less rest). You can make it a bit stronger where you’ve acted weak before.
It May Take A Bit Of Courage
Don’t try to avoid failure, where the strength or the technical control gives out. As long as failure bothers you it will require a bit of courage to voluntarily subject yourself to little tests like this. But after you get the hang of fine tuning the challenge level so it provides just enough uncertainty – not too much and not too little – you will have a habit of setting up challenging practices that keep you engaged and eager for the next one.
Set up a test that makes you a little anxious. You don’t know if you can do it until you try. If you fail to accomplish the assigned quality standard, you have a chance to observe where and why. And the act of trying, even if you fail, makes you stronger and smarter, and therefore more likely to succeed next time. So do it again. And again.
Uncertainty is not something to avoid in your practice times. It is the very center of what makes a training set effective and interesting. Its what keeps you engaged in the task. It’s what makes truly productive practices fun.