Trust Your Instincts
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 19th, 2011

I have written often of how both the physiognomy and instincts of humans undermine our efforts to swim well, because we’re terrestrial mammals in an aquatic environment. But it’s possible to develop a new set of instincts – both instincts for working with, not against, water, and for learning itself.

Mike McCloskey posted this on the TI Discussion Forum

I was recently rereading The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey and was stuck by this: “Perhaps a better way to describe the player who is “unconscious” is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The concentrated mind has no room for thinking how well the body is doing, much less of the how-to’s of the doing. When a player is in this state, there is little to interfere with the full expression of his potential to perform, learn, and enjoy.”

For the mind to be still and concentrated, Gallwey writes that it must be free of judgements about what is “good” or “bad” and just observe what “is”.

Mike goes on to say that he has long “been convinced my kicking sucks” and frustrated by his inability to improve. Influenced by the Inner Game, he tried an experiment with vertical kicking.

If I sink to the bottom of the pool so be it.  I decided beforehand not to think about kicking, or how to kick, or how my kick sucks, or what my ankles or toes should do, or how my knee should bend or not bend. Instead I tried not to THINK–just feel and observe.

I noticed my head went under the water a little but resurfaced right away. The life guard was looking at me. My toes pointed towards the bottom of the pool. I wasn’t trying to kick hard or that fast but I was being pushed up.

I could feel the heaviness of the water on the top of my feet. Never felt that before. The water felt kind of thick but not sticky. More like watery mud than glue. My whole leg felt involved with the action from my toes to my hips. It wasn’t really tiring or overloading any one area–just spread out over every lower muscle.

The Optimal State of Consciousness for Practice

The Inner Game of Tennis was the first book I read  which left a profound and enduring influence on how I practice and teach swimming. I read it while coaching position at the US Merchant Marine Academy in 1974. I picked it up because I had started playing tennis, as a replacement for swimming in my fitness regime. My interest in tennis only lasted a few weeks. The book has stayed with me for almost four decades.

Here are the key ideas I drew from Mike’s post

1) Treat anything that happens during practice as information. Learning to swim is more challenging and complicated for adults, than kids, in part because adults tend to compare every experience with a lifetime of other experiences, impressions and ‘rules.’ Kids just do things in the moment and focus purely on that moment’s experience. Kids are also more likely to view swim lessons as a form of play. For adults it’s serious stuff.

Cultivating a curious even-keeled attitude (semi-intentional pun) is essential. As is the ability to view a less-successful attempt, not as a failure, but as a success in identifying, and eliminating, a less effective way of moving. As long as Mike was convinced his kick sucks, his every experience with it confirmed that view. As soon as he decided to simply experience and not judge, he became attuned to useful and encourgaing sensations.

2) Practice moving meditation.  The still and concentrated mind Gallwey describes is the antithesis of the “monkey mind” described by Buddhist monks. As I blogged recentlyabout the Superlearning State our normal waking state is of a highly diffuse focus. We need to be alert and ready to respond to a stream of unexpected stimuli, inputs and happenings – when driving for instance.

This is the Beta brainwave state in which our brain cycles at 13-40 hertz (cycles per second). The optimal state for learning is the Alpha or ‘Superlearning’ state at 8 to 12 hertz, in which we’re calm, but keenly alert. This state is resistant to distraction and optimal for targeted focus.

What puts us in this particular state? Moving meditation. That’s why TI practice is based on a series of swimming ‘mantras.’ Focal Points. Stroke Counts. Tempo Trainer Beeps.

In Mike’s case, practicing with an open, non-judging, mind allowed him to access a stream of far more acute kinesthetic cues, strong enough that he could describe them vividly.

This suggests to me that a goal of Focal Point practice should be to experience the kinesthetic part of swimming so strongly that you can describe the sensations produced as vividly as in Mike’s example above. In time, these will develop into instincts that serve us well, rather than undermine us.

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