Saturday, June 6, I was a guest at the first anniversary celebration of the Catskill Recreation Center, in Arkville NY, deep in the heart of the beautiful Catskill Mountains, an enjoyable 75-minute drive from my home in New Paltz. In her email inviting me to participate, Becky Manning, the center’s director described it as “an amazing facility in the middle of nowhere.” And indeed it is amazing: The pool–six 25-yard lap lanes and a zero-entry area for teaching–is attractive and maintained with obvious care. Not to mention, the setting was glorious, with a mountain backdrop, visible from the water.
The plan was for me to present a brief video-and-slide show explaining TI’s ultra-efficient freestyle techniques, then guest-coach Masters swim. The slide show went well, with the audience showing keen interest and asking great questions. Then we went to the pool.
During the slide show I described ‘cognitive difficulty’ as a core principle of the TI method: In both learning and training, we design tasks that require the brain to work hard—the diametric opposite of ‘autopilot’ swimming or rote repetition.
I explained that this not only accelerates learning and improvement; it makes swimming far more enjoyable. Best of all, neuroscientists have described ‘mindful movement’as one of the most powerful things you can do to stay mentally sharp as you age. It can even reduce risk of Alzheimer’s!
Swimming while ‘Present’
As we began practice, I said we wouldn’t be using the pace clock. Partly because the pace clock makes minimal demands on the brain. But also because not using it would break a pattern with which they’d probably grown quite familiar during previous Masters workouts—focusing on an outcome, rather than the process that produces the outcome. The simple act of putting them into unfamiliar territory should make the brain more alert.
In place of timed swims, I said we’d do two kinds of tasks that would require them to pay attention on every stroke—stroke counting and Focal Point practice. I began by asking them to swim 50 yards and count their strokes, to set a baseline for exercises to follow. I expected the range of counts for 50 yards to fall between 30-plus and 50-plus—or 15 to 25 SPL.
When I asked the group to report their stroke counts after swimming 50 yards, two-thirds had forgotten to count or lost track of their count. In fact, it took three tries for everyone to successfully complete this relatively undemanding thinking-while-swimming exercise! I wasn’t surprised: I’ve had a similar experience at least a dozen times when giving this simple assignment to similar groups (i.e. swimmers without TI experience), while conducting a clinic or acting as a guest coach.
This illustrates how instinctive it is to go on autopilot, or let the mind wander idly. The more you do it, the harder it is to break the habit. That’s why a third of our clinic participants needed three tries to count strokes for 50 yards. It’s also why you need to be as disciplined and patient while learning the habit of focus, as to learn the most advanced stroking skill.
Drills Teach Thinking
In A Primer on Stroke Drills, the first post in this series, I defined a drill as “any form of practice designed to improve technique and efficiency.” But just as much—and, I believe, even more important to long-term improvement and satisfaction–a drill that has been designed and taught properly–and practiced as intended–is our most essential tool for training yourself to focus while swimming.
This is why we observe three key principles for effective drill practice in Total Immersion self-coaching tools and coached lessons and workshops.
Three Ways to Strengthen Focus
- Do more, not longer, reps. We strongly recommend you continue most drills for just six to eight seconds (or meters). Besides increasing your chances of imprinting only effective movement, short reps also sharpen your focus. Practicing quality focus is as important as practicing quality movement and leads to the mental discipline and endurance needed to sustain focus for longer periods—or more complex skills.
- Focus on one thing. While most TI drills offer a ‘menu’ of three to five distinct Focal Points, aim to do just one thing better than you ever have on each rep. Over time—initially with drills, then increasingly with whole stroke–those three to five distinct thoughts or sensations will seamlessly blend into a single unified skill.
- Assess both movement and attention. At the end of each drill or whole stroke rep—especially when working on a new skill—assess the quality of the movement you were working on, and the consistency of your attention during the rep.
The drills and whole-stroke practice in our latest release, the Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Self-Coaching Toolkit are designed to improve your focus, and your swimming. Click here to learn more.