Bob McAdams was trained in freestyle at age 7 using conventional training methods and began swimming regularly for fitness as an adult after his doctor told him that he needed to get more aerobic exercise. Initially, he was just trying to increase the distance he could swim without needing to stop, but he became interested in trying to improve his speed after watching the 1996 Olympics on television. Around that same time, he learned about U.S. Masters Swimming and realized that it was possible for adults to swim competitively, and even though he had never been exposed to competitive swimming as a kid, he developed a goal of becoming a competitive swimmer as an adult. This eventually led him to Total Immersion, and he finally participated in his first swim meet in 2002. Around that same time, he was recruited by Terry Laughlin to become a coach and went through his TI coach training. He began coaching at a TI kids’ camp and at TI weekend workshops the following year, and began offering private lessons in 2004. Since then, he has worked with beginning swimmers, fitness swimmers, triathletes, and competitive swimmers ranging in age from 3 to 74. He has also had several articles on various aspects of swimming published in the online newsletter Total Swim. Bob continues to swim competitively and to work on improving his times and increasing the spectrum of pool events in which he has participated.
It was three months ago that I learned of Terry Laughlin’s death, and since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question posed in the title.
First, let me say a little bit about what constitutes greatness when it comes to swim coaching. I doubt that there is any swim coach who has achieved enough greatness for their name to be widely known outside of swimming circles. And within swimming circles, the coaches who have been regarded as “great” have typically been those who coached elite swimmers while they were making impressive achievements. The rationale is that since elite swimmers are already doing so many things correctly, a coach who can help them to become even better must be a real expert.
But when we examine Terry’s accomplishments, it becomes clear that he took greatness in swim coaching to a whole new level. Here is a man who, during his 66 years on Earth, created a swim coaching program that:
- has established a continuing presence on 5 continents
- has worked successfully with swimmers ranging in age from young children to people in their 90s
- has benefited swimmers ranging in level from beginners who are still trying to feel comfortable in the water to advanced competitive swimmers who are pursuing lofty goals
- has programs that are designed to meet the needs of both pool swimmers and open water swimmers
- has helped a wide variety of swimmers pursue their swimming goals, whether those goals involve competition, fitness, meeting job prerequisites, or simply obtaining more enjoyment from being in the water.
I can’t think of another swimming coach whose accomplishments have been that broad!
So how did he do it? What set Terry apart from other coaches? I came up with 7 things.
- Terry focused on the science of efficient swimming.
One of the most significant things about this statement is that it is significant. After all, we might expect that every swimming coach would be focusing on this, and of course many do in varying degrees. But the fact is that much of traditional swim coaching has, essentially, tried to treat swimmers like runners, saying, in effect, “You know how to do it. So now let’s condition you so that you can do it at faster speeds and/or over longer distances.” But Terry realized that because water is such a dense medium when you’re moving through it, and such a slippery medium when you’re pushing against it, the science of how humans move efficiently through the water is central to good swimming.
I suspect that the reason why the train-swimmers-like-runners paradigm was so persistent has to do with the way that people typically become swim coaches. Most swim coaches are people who joined a swim team as a kid and did well enough at it that they were still swimming competitively when they entered college. So while their classmates were getting summer and part-time jobs working at a fast food restaurant or grocery store, they got jobs coaching swimming, and their chief qualifying credential was their success as competitive swimmers.
It was only natural that these coaches would adopt the same training paradigm that had been used with them, for two reasons: First, it was what they were used to, so they assumed it was “how things are done.” Second, the swimmers who succeeded under the train-swimmers-like-runners paradigm were those who were able to figure out intuitively how to move efficiently through the water, so they assumed that other swimmers would be able to do the same thing.
What happened in practice, of course, was that some swimmers failed, decided they weren’t any good at swimming, and quit, while others partially succeeded and stayed with swimming until their mediocre performance caused them to get cut from their team, or until they became discouraged with it and quit on their own. And a few succeeded and went on to become the next crop of swim coaches. It was easy to pass off the first group as people who weren’t cut out to be swimmers and the second group as people who either weren’t cut out to be great swimmers or who didn’t work at it hard enough.
But Terry was one of those mediocre swimmers. He at one point got cut from his team, and by his own account was only able to make his college team because it wasn’t all that good. So when he began coaching, he felt empathy for the mediocre swimmers, and knew from experience that many of them were just as fit and were working just as hard as those who were succeeding. So Terry made it his life’s work to figure out what the successful swimmers were doing differently. And that led him into basic physics, hydrodynamics, and human physiology (as it compares with fish physiology).
- Terry also focused on the science of effective training.
About 10 years ago, I read some posts in a swimming group by a man whom some of his peers described as the most dedicated masters swimmer they had ever seen. They said that he spent an enormous number of hours in the pool, but added that he was only achieving mediocre results because his technique was poor. After repeated suggestions, the man finally signed up for a lesson with an Olympic swimmer (he was convinced that only an Olympian was qualified to give him advice on his technique), but he reported in disappointment that he hadn’t been able to make the technique changes the Olympian had told him he needed to make in order to move faster in the water.
And this illustrates an important point: It doesn’t do any good to know where the destination is unless you also know a path that will get you there! Terry realized that the science of how humans learn new motor skills (particularly as a replacement for old, faulty motor skills that have been so deeply ingrained that they have become muscle memories) is every bit as important to swim coaching as is the science of how humans move efficiently through the water. And this led Terry to the drill sequences that form the core of the Total Immersion training program.
- Terry cared about people.
It appeared to me that Terry genuinely cared about every person he encountered, and that led him to want to help them pursue their swimming goals, whatever those goals were.
I originally found Total Immersion because of two events that happened a few months apart.
First, I went to a one-hour stroke clinic on freestyle at a local pool in the hope of improving my freestyle times (as I had done a year earlier when I attended a clinic on flip turns at the same pool). But, to my disappointment, I didn’t see any immediate improvements in my freestyle speed. And, as I continued practicing what we were taught, I developed, for the first time in my swimming career, shoulder problems! In fact, in the very month when I had been hoping to achieve some benchmarks I had set for myself, I was instead having to stay out of the pool to give my shoulder time to recover. In desperation, I went to a local bookstore and looked through books on swimming to see if any of them had exercises for recovering from shoulder problems. I ended up buying a blue and yellow book by Terry Laughlin called Total Immersion.
Several months later, I approached the aquatic director at the YMCA where I was swimming and asked what she would recommend for someone who was trying to learn competitive stroke technique and was willing to spend some money on it. Without hesitation, she picked up a piece of paper and wrote out the web id of the Total Immersion website, and said that a couple of their coaches had attended Total Immersion training and their facility had begun using the Total Immersion drills with their kids’ swim team (which, by the way, had a very good record of achievement). This recommendation confirmed the interest I had already begun to develop in the Total Immersion program, but when I thought about it afterward, I realized that there was also a second subtle message: Here was a woman who directed an aquatic program that got its revenues by providing swim training, officially to both kids and adults, and yet an adult had just walked up to her, figuratively waved money in her face, and said he wanted to learn competitive stroke technique, and she had responded by sending him somewhere else. While she was clearly recommending Total Immersion, she was also, in a roundabout way, saying that their facility didn’t want to deal with an odd fish like me.
And that was not the last time I was to encounter the same attitude from their facility. Three years later, when I had honed my freestyle and backstroke skills and learned butterfly and breaststroke through the Total Immersion videos, I was starting to think about entering my first swim meet, but realized that there were some things I still needed to learn before I could do this: forward starts, backstroke starts, open turns (for butterfly and breaststroke), and the stroke-changing turns that are unique to individual medley. After waiting in vain for the facility to offer any training in these things for adults, I finally decided that maybe I really was an odd fish and that they weren’t offering training in these things because nobody but me wanted to learn them. So I signed up for a couple of private lessons.
Although it became clear that neither of the instructors they assigned to me knew how to teach forward starts, the second one enlisted the help of another instructor who was a teen on their swim team, and they managed to teach me a decent enough start to enable me to be in my first meet. But I was shocked, the next time the facility advertised private lessons, to find that they had added a stipulation that the lessons were only open to swimmers aged 18 and under! They really didn’t want to deal with an odd fish like me!
I gathered that one of the reasons Terry spent so much time training adults was because almost no one else was doing it, and Terry felt strongly that the same swimming opportunities should be available to everyone, regardless of age, background, race, nationality, or any disability they might have.
- Terry liked to give people new dreams and help them find new ways to enjoy the water.
Several years ago, I had the experience, for the first time, of giving a lesson to a swimmer in real open water (as opposed to a roped-in, lifeguarded section of a lake). I am a pool swimmer rather than an open water swimmer, and I described in an email to Terry how, for the first time in my life, I had gone far enough in a lake to see the scenery change on the shore, and had had the realization that I could actually use swimming to go somewhere! Terry had, of course, had this experience many times, but he seemed delighted that I had finally experienced it.
Again and again I saw Terry find real joy in the fact that he had helped a swimmer to have a new experience in the water or gain a new insight. And while I had given some thought to becoming a Total Immersion coach before Terry approached me about it, the fact remains that he approached me before I approached him.
Terry also suggested at one point that I think about writing a book on the experience of becoming a competitive swimmer as an adult, since so few people do it. I haven’t done it yet, but I have given some thought to it, and it still might happen!
- Terry was humble.
I don’t recall ever seeing Terry try to toot his own horn or assert his own importance. And I believe that that humility also affected the Total Immersion program in several important ways.
A reason Total Immersion has worked with such a wide variety of swimmers is because Terry was willing to help swimmers achieve goals that weren’t likely to help build Terry’s reputation. A coach might build his acclaim in swimming circles by helping a swimmer to make it to Olympic trials, or by helping a member of an Olympic team to win a gold medal. but they aren’t likely to do it by helping a swimmer who’s afraid of the deep end to feel comfortable in water over their head, or by helping an adult to be in their first swim meet or make it through the swim leg of their first triathlon, or by helping a man in his 90s to improve his swimming.
Terry’s humility also kept him open to the possibility that someone else might have gained an insight into swimming that he hadn’t, and that undoubtedly benefited the Total Immersion program in a number of ways.
It also takes a certain amount of humility for an accomplished swim coach like Terry to believe that he can teach other people to train swimmers as well as he can. And it takes even more humility for him to believe that he can teach other people to train coaches as well as he can. But if Terry had not had that kind of humility, the Total Immersion program couldn’t have established a continuing presence on 5 continents. And it would have died (or at least begun dying) on the day Terry died.
- Terry had an amazing way of turning experiences that would discourage most people into learning experiences.
Being cut from a swim team has been enough to cause many swimmers to give up competitive swimming, but for Terry it became the beginning of a lifelong quest to figure out why some swimmers move through the water with greater ease than others. And Terry applied this same attitude toward other setbacks. When he had to stop swimming for several months because of shoulder surgery and avoid stressing the shoulder too much during the recovery, Terry turned it into a learning experience and actually gained some new insights into how our bodies interact with the water, which he chronicled in a series of articles. And Terry even turned his final illness into a learning experience.
- Terry had an infectious passion for the sport of swimming.
One of the last things Terry wrote was an account of swimming in an open water event with one of his daughters in late August. That seems really appropriate, because it means that one of the last things he did, even while his cancer was progressing, was to participate in an activity that had been the passion of his life.
You didn’t have to interact with Terry very much to realize that, for him, swim coaching was not just a job—swimming and swim coaching were a passion! I saw him on numerous occasions take the time to give people his counsel, even though there appeared to be no conceivable way he could ever receive any compensation for it, and I suspect that he would have coached for free if his financial needs were already being met. I gather that, for him, receiving money for coaching was just a means of allowing him to devote more of his time to it.
As I think about all of these things, I must admit that it makes me a bit nervous. I find myself wondering whether Terry really succeeded in teaching us all of that. Did he succeed in giving us, not just his knowledge, but also the other qualities that made him such a success? Above all, did he succeed in filling us with his passion for the sport of swimming? To that, I can only say: I hope so!