‘Rewire your Brain’ for Purposeful Attention
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 18th, 2011

DP posted the following on the TI Forum: Swim practice normally leaves me feeling  centered and refreshed but today I just couldn’t find my sense of balance and comfort and things fell apart when I progressed from 25-yard to 50-yard repeats to attempting 2 x 100, mainly because  I lost focus. My attention deteriorated gradually from the first 50-yard repeat and, as it did, so did my sense of stroke control. What strategies do you use to maintain focus as you swim farther?

I had to learn to accept my limitations–in thinking as much as efficiency–and work patiently to turn weaknesses into strengths. When I first began practicing Mindful Swimming I wasn’t thinking of it that way.  The first aspect of what we now think of as TI Technique that I began practicing was a neutral head position around 1991. I soon realized that 25 years of habit and muscle memory of looking forward would be hard to undo.  It took a real conscious effort to put and keep my head in a neutral position. At the time I wasn’t only not used to swimming with a neutral head. I also wasn’t used to holding a single specific thought while I swam.

While spending 25 years swimming with a high head, I’d also spent most of it — particularly as a college swimmer — striving to preserve my sanity during long, repetitive sets by going on a mental walkabout , daydreaming about being someplace else, or musing about what I might do when workout was over.  That became just as strong a habit as anything I did with my arms and legs.

So when I began trying to change my stroke from Habitually Human to Mindfully Fishlike in the 1990s, it soon became clear I’d need to rewire my brain for Purposeful Attention first.  Since things you practice tend to improve, 10 years later, when I swam 28.5 miles around Manhattan for the first time, not only was my stroke far more efficient (I took 40 percent fewer strokes than the rest of the field), I was also able to maintain a chosen focus for thousands of strokes at a stretch.

Be patient. Keep at it. Before long you’ll begin to sense–as Buddhist monks do–that the calming and centering experience of focus has become its own reward, and you’ll do it even when not trying to change a stroke habit. In fact, it will be a habit.

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2 Responses to “‘Rewire your Brain’ for Purposeful Attention”

  1. Pablo Pérez says:

    I would like to share something with you all, although I know it is not directly related with this topic.

    I am not swimming lately. I just had a hip arthroscopy four days ago and I am starting my rehab (dying to get into the pool once the stitches are taken off). I have not swam a lot this summer because of that (pain).

    But lately I was thinking if all this thing about TI was right.
    I see, clearly, the benefits of swimming in this way. For the health, for the body, for the brain…

    But I was thinking: why swimming in this way when, feeling young and with strength, I could swim as I always did and go quicker. May be I could turn to this once I get older, or feel differently… I just can get some of the things I like about TI and get rid of the rest: I could lower my arms, as I already do, but not swirl so much, not lower my head that much, I could my legs and feet more…

    Then, this morning (in Spain), as I was doing my rehab exercises, I saw this marvellous thing called Sun Yang swimming the Final of the 1500 m freestyle.

    From the very beginning I realized that he swims in a different way than the others. He took far fewer strokes than any of the other finalists, uses his legs just a bit, gets his head much lower, inspires in alternate sides every three strokes, keeps his legs up… and, of course, enlarges his strokes as he is trying to reach the wall with each of them.

    Just pure TI swimming. It was really something magical watch this young in the pool. He seems to float, to be propelled by something other than his body.

    It took him a little while to get a difference over the rest, but by the 650 m mark he was far ahead of the second. His rythm unchanged. You could almost imagine his face. For sure he was going to be a relaxed one.

    By that time he was already almost three seconds above the WR mark. But that difference never got wider.

    With 200 m to go, he gave it all. He increased a bit his cadence, but not much. He enlarged his stroke and began using his feet a little more. Then, he did something even more amazind in the final 50 m and, in a great sprint, surpassed the WR mark.

    Once he got rid of his googles and hat, he showed a very relaxed face. As if not such an effort had been made.

    All my questions went away today. Now I know for sure this is the correct way. And also that, in any particular moment, if speed is needed, I can change it a little bit.

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  2. Pablo
    It’s lovely that you gained such clarity from watching Sun Yang. My blog today will be about the effects of that swim.

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