director of Total Immersion *** Swim Camps. Terry is also the
technique coach for United States Swimming's Olympic Development
Camps. We welcome your questions or comments on-line at
stroke tips and/or information on Total Immersion swim camps.
SOMETIMES IT'S BETTER NOT TO SWIM
by Terry Laughlin
We've all heard it before: Developing an efficient stroke is a
time-consuming and painstaking process. What we haven't heard is
that it doesn't have to be.
That's because we confuse ?lite athletes with the rest of us.
lites don't have much choice. Because there are so many motions to
coordinate perfectly, it takes countless hours of practice to
refine them and reach a high enough skill level to be a top
contender. So many hours, in fact, that the grooming of an Olympic-
level swimmer usually begins in early childhood, perhaps at the age
of 7 or 8. Several years are invested in nothing more than learning
basic skills. Only then does the maturing swimmer turn the training
focus more to building strength and endurance, probably for another
5 to 7 years. But even then the skill-polishing process goes on and
on. Coaches guide the process every step of the way.
*** swimmers don't have that luxury. Without professionals
to guide them and with few scarce hourstnever mind yearstto invest,
they usually just swim and swim and hope that as their mileage
piles up, their strokes will improve. Instead they're making it
worse, "practicing their mistakes" and getting better at them all
the time. The more they swim and the longer this continues, the
harder it gets to reverse the cycle. One of my students jokingly
called this state "terminal mediocrity."
Usually, the only way to break such bad habits is to find a
coach. But not everyone can do that. If you know how, you can turn
things around and begin learning improved skills all by yourself.
And the quickest and most effective way to do that is the skill
drill. It's the same method I used for two decades to teach high
school and college students how to swim efficiently. But I've
modified it over years of teaching ***s at swim camps, so the
drills can be used easily for self-teaching.
They work by speeding up the learning curve. Efficient
swimming has a flow that gives great swimmers an effortless grace
in their strokes, but they usually develop that flow over many
years, consciously and unconsciously experimenting with different
styles, sometimes with a coach's guidance, often without. Those
experiments, over time, allow them to experience moments where the
stroke feels just right, moments which the body seizes and stores
in a catalogue of similar, related experiences.
Total Immersion takes this haphazard and painfully slow
process and organizes it into a step-by-step learning system of
drills selected to create these moments in an organized and
reliable way. It brings to us those elusive feelings of being "in
synch" instead of making us stumble onto them ourselves. It lets us
reproduce them at will and practice them.
When you go back to swimming the full stroke, after improving
individual parts of it with drills and learning what each one feels
like when done fluently, your body re-assembles them into a much-
improved whole. Your senses have done your learning for you, hugely
accelerating your progress by taking "snapshots" of sensations that
great swimmers feel consistently as they knife through the water.
In a matter of a few hours, swimmers who have been frustrated
for years by poor technique can dramatically improve their
swimming, a process that is virtually impossible by plodding
mindlessly up and down the lanes--practicing your mistakes. Even
with conventional instruction, this learning process usually
consumes many tedious and frustrating months. The irony is that
while Olympic-level swimmers often devote as much as 20% of their
pool time to drills, most *** swimmers, with far more potential
for improving, do little or no drill work. So of course they get
little or none of its miraculous results.
Skill drills are the best way to improve your stroke because
they take advantage of four powerful physical facts:
1. Your muscles need a dose of amnesia. Muscles have memories.
Habits are powerful, and that's just what the stroke you've been
using for years has become--a habit. Not a good one, either.
Because you've been struggling for so long, your muscles have
become very good at moving like that.
Muscle memory is like an old record that has been played
hundreds of times. The needle, tracking the grooves over and over,
gradually wears them deeper. In sports, your muscles and nervous
system become more and more "grooved" to automatically execute a
movement the same way. Fine, if your stroke is efficient. Not fine
if it's not. Practiced for long enough, a bad stroke becomes almost
immune to change.
Almost. Stroke drills are powerful enough to break that cycle
because they're disguised, different enough from your normal motion
that your muscle doesn't "recognize" the movement and try to do it
in the same old way. You practice new skills on a neuromuscular
"blank slate," without having to erase anything first.
2. Small pieces are easier to swallow. Stroke drills are "bite-
size" skills. Because the whole stroke is made up of so many finely
coordinated parts, it's impossible to swallow the whole thing. You
can't concentrate on and improve it all at once. Drills take a
complicated movement and break it down into a series of mini-
skills, each of which can be quickly mastered. Then you simply
reassemble these tbuilding blockst into a new, more efficient
stroke. If each drill addresses a key skill, and you do them in the
order the body best understands, it's just like putting up a
building. The first drill is the foundation, each succeeding drill
adds another floor.
3. Instead of trial-and-error, it's trial-and-success. Drills
provide lots of positive reinforcement. You can master them
quickly, so you can begin practicing smooth movements right away.
The more you practice a drill, the more it becomes your new habit
and crowds out the sloppy patterns living in muscle memory. The
more time you spend drilling, and the less time you spend swimming
with your old stroke, the faster your muscles will learn how to
move you in a new, more efficient way.
4. It's language the body understands. Skill drills are a "natural"
learning experience. Conventional stroke instruction tries to get
at the muscles through the mind. First, you hear or read a
description of what you have to do. Next, you try to figure out
what the movement will feel like when you're doing it. Then you
instruct your muscles to imitate that feeling. Finally, you see
whether you got it right.
Skill drills skip all these translations. They bypass the
vague brain stages and go directly to a "visceral" understanding.
They simplifytand acceleratetthe learning process.
And the beauty is, they're self-adjusting. The more you need
skill drills, the better they'll work for you. I often recommend
that swimmers with the most ground to cover spend 80 percent or
more of their water time doing drills if they expect to make
headway against years of ingrained bad habits that are grudgingly
resistant to change. For them, drills are not only the best way to
root out stubborn stroke patterns, they may be the only way. And
though every swimmer is different, drills often work with
incredible speed. Everyone I've taught them to has improved. I
can't think of any other swim instruction method that can say that.
Among the literally dozens of movements you can practice in
the pool to improve your swimming, I teach a sequence of five in
every Total Immersion Swim Camp I givetwhether it's a one-day
clinic or a comprehensive week-long program. Once campers master
them, they're amazed at how different their swimming feels right
away. They've launched the progress process: knocking down bad
habits and building good ones.
Sure drills are practice, sort of like playing your scales on
the piano when you'd rather be tackling the whole sonata. But
remember: You're finally practicing your successes, not your
failures. Drills are the best investment you can make in your
Terry Laughlin will teach his stroke drill practice system at
technique workshops ***s in San Diego, L.A., D.C., Atlanta,
Tucson, Newport Beach, Dallas, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco
between February and May.