Regardless whether you are going to regular master’s practices with a local club and coach on deck, taking your paper workout with you to the pool that you received from an online coach or source, what is your intent when you arrive at the pool?  Are you looking for a workout where you feel exhausted at the end, or are you there to practice and improve you technique and ultimately get faster? 

I often hear swimmers getting out of the pool thanking the coach for a great workout, mainly because they are exhausted exhaustion synonymous with quality workout).  Many athletes have been conditioned to expect this when they finish a workout, whether it is in the gym, track, bike or the pool.  What have they done during that time that will help make them better at a sport than when they arrived for their workout?  All sports practice/workout sessions have a warm-up period designed to help get the muscles warmed up before hitting the main work portion of the session as which time the focus shifts to number of intervals, number of repeats, distances and rest intervals, all depending upon which conditioning your are trying to achieve for that particular session.  But, have you or did you really spend anytime actually trying to perfect your skill for that sport? 

So, how do YOU look at Swimming?  Is it just an exercise routine or practice?  I believe this is the root question Terry Laughlin, TI Founder and CEO, is imploring all of us to evaluate.  I started thinking about this more seriously after the ASCA World Clinic, September 2011.  I was on a break from the USMS Master’s Coach Certification Course and was talking to Terry in the hall.  He had just arrived from his morning swim and I automatically asked how his workout went.  He gently reminded me that he approached his swim sessions as practices not workouts.  Now, in MY mind, I was thinking practice but the voice generated the words workout.  Why was this?  Had I actually come to view my swim sessions as workouts?  As I thought about this more I decided to look up the definitions of each as on the surface the difference can appear to be just semantics.

Workout as defined by Wikipedia turns into a definition of physical exercise and is defined as “any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness. It is performed for various reasons including strengthening muscles and the cardiovascular system, honing athletic skills, weight loss or maintenance, as well as for the purpose of enjoyment. Frequent and regular physical exercise boosts the immune system, and helps prevent the "diseases of affluence" such as heart disease, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Practice as defined by Wikipedia is:  the act of rehearsing a behavior over and over, or engaging in an activity again and again, for the purpose of improving or mastering it, as in the phrase "practice makes perfect". Sports teams practice to prepare for actual games. Playing a musical instrument well takes a lot of practice. It is a method of learning and of acquiring experience. The word derives from the Greek "πρακτική" (praktike), feminine of "πρακτικός" (praktikos), "fit for or concerned with action, practical" and that from the verb "πράσσω" (prasso),"to achieve, bring about, effect, accomplish". 

And Wikipedia goes on to say that practice sessions are scheduled or undertaken for the purposes of rehearsing and performance improvement.  Sports teams, bands, individuals, etc., engage in practice sessions.

I had been working on this idea of practice versus workouts since my discussion with Terry, but before I could get it finalized, Terry sent out an email outlining a talk he had given to a recent Greensboro, North Carolina, TI Coaches Certification and Weekend Workshop attendees.  In this email, Terry, introduced a new term “deliberate practice” principles.  This was an additional term in the Wikipedia reference, as I don’t recall seeing it last year.   The concept is one that I was familiar with but the term was new.  Terry pointed out that these principles have guided many successful amateur and professional athletes to reach the peak of their sports.  Specifically, he mentions Phil Mickelson and an interview Phil gave in the NY Times about his practice philosophy and practice ethics.

The article in the NY Times indicates there is another level to practice, ‘deliberate’ practice.  Wikipedia further states that how well an individual improves is dependent upon several factors, i.e., the frequency of practice sessions and type of feedback.  Frequency is important because if we do not practice enough or often then the reinforcement fades just as in our classroom learning and studying, resulting in forgetting why we paid good money to go to a weekend workshop, or hired a coach to help us improve.  It says that if the feedback either by an outside source (coach or friend), or internally is not appropriate, then your practice will be ineffective, and worse yet, detrimental for the obvious reason that you will be practicing and reinforcing the incorrect skills.  Of course, as with all individuals, the amount of practice depends upon the individual’s ability to learn and improve on any given skill is different and some are faster to pick things up than others.  However, it is a never-ending process or Kaizen.

The term ‘deliberate practice’ has been the subject of research by psychologist, K. Anders Ericcson, professor of Psychology, Florida State University.  Ericcson has been the leader in researching deliberate practice and what it means exactly.  According to Ericcson (full description here) people tend to believe that expert performer/performance, those individuals who have attained professional classification or those considered elite amateur status  (most Olympians) in their respective sports, is due to their superhuman abilities or characteristics which are different from the normal person. Ericcson states that it is agreed upon that expert performance IS different from normal performance and that these expert performers do in fact possess physical traits and characteristics that exceed the normal persons.  However, he further says that these traits are ‘immutable’ due solely to natural talent.  Ericcson goes on to state that these differences between the expert and normal performer are more a reflection of the experts “life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”  One of Ericcson’s core findings is the precise fundamental difference between the way TI approaches swimming and encourages its clients and supporters to change their practice habits and they way they approach life in general versus the general mainstream swimming community.  The elite swimming community really never discusses how their swimmers got to that level and how they trained.  When you go to the ASCA clinics and listen to these elite coaches talk about how they coach these superstars you only hear about the amazing practices (workouts) and the sets they make them do.  And you look around the room and almost every coach is busily copying every word and workout down so they can go home and replicate the workouts in hopes of producing the next superhuman swimmer.   But, Ericcson says, “…how expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practices than with merely performing a skill a large number of times. An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practicing a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”  Which is precisely what the article with Phil Mickelson talks about.

This was more of the type of practice philosophy that I had grown up with.  My other love is baseball, and I have been playing since I was in tee ball.  Often, I would go from the swimming pool to the baseball field in the same day.  It is through this lens and through my physical education degree, coaching background and experience playing other sports that I can look at team sports and differentiate practices and workouts.  When I think about these other sports I realize that Baseball, Football, Volleyball, etc., call what they do everyday in their respective areas practice. They save the word workouts for when they hit the weights, running, and conditioning activities not related to the playing or execution of their sport.  Their practices consist of repetitions of specific drills related to their respective sports.  For instance in baseball they take batting practice, multiple repetitions of honing the swing, hitting to opposite field, bunting, etc.  They take specific infield/outfield practice, catching ground balls and fly balls and throwing to bases in different situations (simulating men on base and different number of outs).  They practice running the bases, taking leads, stealing and sliding.  Pitchers do specific work as well, working in the bullpens on curves, fastballs, sliders, change ups, pick-off moves, etc.  Every aspect and area of the game are broken down to the smallest detail for practicing and achieving mastery and then put back together as a complete activity.  As my college baseball coach emphasized, when the time came to make a play you would have practiced it enough and would have thought out the appropriate action ahead of time so that when you were involved in the action you would react and not think about what needed to be done.  This would result in a routine play looking easy and a spectacular play look routine by previous deliberate practice.

When you reflect on this deliberate practice as described by Ericcson and start looking at elite athletes and their stories of how they got to where they are today as an expert in their field, you can see how they achieved this through deliberate practice.  An underlying problem with the people who do not come from a sports background do not realize the amount of practice athletes, especially the professional athletes and top elite athletes spend honing that craft through mindful practice.  Thinking about every little thing associated with that particular task.  They only see the end result at a big meet or game and they make it look so easy.  This is very similar to TI in that people who have seen really good TI form, i.e., Shinji and others, see that they make it look so easy and beautiful.  But, most beginners and maybe most TI advocates don’t realize that it took Shinji 4+ years to get to point you see in his videos.  It has been and continues to be a journey not a destination. 

This is one thing that I have noticed with new TI swimmers.  They are amazed at the amount of detail and thinking that takes place for just a few number of drills, and become mentally tired when they first start learning TI.  I have to keep reminding them that it is not the destination we are after but the journey TI takes us through, both in swimming and life.  For most this is a new experience and one that our current “be an expert in 60 minutes” has an extremely difficult time with–patience and relaxation.

For the TI swimmer slow deliberate practice is a must, and depends upon how long you have been swimming.  For the new swimmers it is the majority of your practice time and as the experience and mastery grows, the frequency of dedicated sessions turn to tune-ups before your main practice session and then again as you cool down before you leave the pool.

I am often asked at the end of Total Immersion Weekend Clinics on how does one incorporate what they have learned into their masters practices when they get back home when their main coach does not endorse TI Swimming techniques or philosophy?

The short answer is yes you can incorporate what you have learned when you get back home.  TI Coach, Joe Novak, has a great article, ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective Swimmers’ that describes how you can incorporate TI into your masters/group workouts. But, a more important and underlying question you need to answer is how do you look at approach your swimming sessions, as a deliberate practice, practice or a workout?  The coaches that I have know who do not endorse TI Swimming Technique do so from lack of knowledge about TI Swimming.  They have not taken the time to read about TI but rather take comments from other coaches who say they know TI and do not like it.  The other reason is that some of their swimmers who have recently been to a workshop and return are either slower (initially), do not execute the proper form due to either forgetting or not practicing enough and therefore develop a negative outlook about TI.  Either way follow the steps outlined by Coach Novak and you will persevere.

Practice is necessary and important to achieve the end result of perfect TI or perfect anything.  So my three phrases would be:


Conscious/Patient/Deliberate Purposeful Practice.

Quality not quantity.

Enjoy the journey don’t rush to get to the destination.