Swim Like a SEAL: How T.I. Revolutionized Navy SEAL Swim Training
by Total Immersion
“Before Terry Laughlin, it was just a matter of getting in the water and getting it done. When I was in BUD/S training, my instructors taught us the way they learned it from their instructors. Now, that’s all changed; technique is everything. If they can master these techniques in the water, we can dramatically get their swim times down. The staff here at BUD/S can be a very skeptical bunch. We tend to resist anything from the outside. But when our personal swim times came down using Laughlin’s methods, well, we knew this was good information. We try to do as much teaching as possible here in Indoc—help them improve their technique. For some of them, this training will make the difference between making it to graduation or washing out. We’ve been able to cut swim drops by twenty-five percent– this stuff really works.” — Navy SEAL Instructor Tim King in Dick Couch’s “The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228″
It’s a little-known fact about Total Immersion– it’s not even listed in founder Terry Laughlin’s bio — that our methodology was adopted as part of official Navy SEAL swim curriculum after Terry trained their instructors in the late 90’s and re-designed the way the combat stroke was taught, in order to be more efficient. And it’s also true that even 30 years after T.I.’s founding, there are still many detractors in the competitive swim world who remain skeptical of our methods and prefer to stick with “traditional” training methods (i.e. just kick harder, pull harder), claiming that “T.I. doesn’t work for fast swimming.” Or T.I. is “only for beginners.” Or “better suited for triathletes.” Certainly, no one can argue that the U.S. military isn’t also deeply bound by tradition and the most rigorous training in the world– even more so than the world of competitive swimming– and yet, the Navy has recognized the value of changing their swim training with a method that is effective and proven. To reiterate Instructor King’s point: This stuff really works. The SEALs wouldn’t use it if it didn’t. The U.S. Navy completely changed the way they taught combat sidestroke based on our sound principles of efficient technique– and T.I. ‘s influence is embedded in the updated stroke training that the SEALs have taught for the last 20 years. Navy SEALs need to swim fast and efficiently under grueling conditions not to win a race, but because it’s their job. Speed matters to them– not to make a PR, or win a medal, or even break a world record. Speed is a matter of life and death.
During the same era that Terry was training SEAL instructors to teach swimming differently, he was also coaching sprinters at West Point, who achieved extraordinary success at the Patriot Leagues. Terry’s group of sprinters included Joe Novak (Army West Point 1995-99) , the only three-time winner of the Patriot League Swimmer of the Meet award, who captured the honor in consecutive seasons from 1997-99. Novak also helped Army West Point capture the Patriot League title in his first three seasons from 1996-98, and was named to the first-team All-League squad three times. Novak earned a spot on the Patriot League All-Decade Team. He won the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly in each of his seasons as Swimmer of the Meet. Joe has attributed much of his success in swimming to training with Terry using T.I. methods.
Terry coaching in 2016
So there’s ample evidence that:
1) T.I. technique is effective for long distances, when efficiency and speed matter tremendously.
2) T.I. technique also produces fast times for highly competitive and accomplished swimmers– yes, even sprinters.
Another interesting fact: if you click on Wikipedia’s entry for combat sidestroke, you’ll clearly see the foundational technique principles of T.I. highlighted– Balance, Length, Rotation.
At this point, some of you may be wondering… “Well, I’m not a SEAL, nor am I aspiring to that– why the heck should I care about the combat sidestroke??” And it’s a reasonable question, given that most T.I. swimmers are primarily interested in improving their freestyle. But here’s why it matters:
1) The combat sidestroke is a hybrid of sidestroke, freestyle, and breaststroke and demonstrates that the principles of biomechanical and hydrodynamic speed and efficiency are universal to swimming any stroke well. Technique matters, whether it’s freestyle or the combat stroke.
2) The combat sidestroke offers an excellent adaptive stroke option for swimmers who are limited in mobility or range of movement, either from age, injury, or disability. Freestyle is notoriously the most technically challenging stroke to master, particularly because of bilateral breathing and complex, asynchronous timing of the arms (and the 2-beat kick, for non-sprinters). Some might argue this point– however, fly and breast have a front-facing breath and stable head position, as well as a stroke where both arms move synchronously with the same timing. (Breaststroke is the first stroke many beginners learn, simply because it’s easier to breathe.) The combat sidestroke incorporates an easier style of breathing and stroking, making it an ideal option for swimmers who are looking for an adaptive swim stroke. [See DEMO of the stroke at the bottom of this post.]
Wikipedia’s entry for “combat sidestroke” reads:
Combat sidestroke or CSS is a variation of the side stroke that was developed by and taught to the United States Navy SEALs.
The combat sidestroke is a relaxing and very efficient swim stroke that is an updated version of the traditional sidestroke. The CSS is a mix of sidestroke, front crawl, and breaststroke. The combat side stroke allows the swimmer to swim more efficiently and reduce the body’s profile in the water in order to be less likely to be seen during combat operations if surface swimming is required. The concept of CSS has been that it can be used with or without wearing swim fins (flippers), the only difference being that when wearing swim fins the swimmer’s legs will always be kicking in the regular flutter kick motion without the scissor kick. This stroke is one of the strokes that can be used for prospective SEAL candidates in the SEAL physical screening test (PST), which includes a 500-yard swim in 12 minutes 30 seconds to determine if the candidate is suitable to go to the Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL school.
The entry even mentions a term Terry used in the early years of T.I. (and in his popular first book in ’96) to describe poor balance: “swimming uphill.” While Wikipedia has no citation for the influence of T.I. methodology on the combat stroke, we fortunately have a documented account of Terry’s primary role in revolutionizing SEAL swim training in the book, “The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228″, by NY Times bestselling author and former Navy SEAL Platoon Commander Dick Couch. It is this book which features commentary from SEAL Instructor Tim King on the effectiveness of T.I. methods. The book’s description reads:
“‘The Warrior Elite’ takes you into the toughest, longest, and most relentless military training in the world. What does it take to become a Navy SEAL? What makes talented, intelligent young men volunteer for physical punishment, cold water, and days without sleep? In ‘The Warrior Elite,’ former Navy SEAL Dick Couch documents the process that transforms young men into warriors. SEAL training is the distillation of the human spirit, a tradition-bound ordeal that seeks to find men with character, courage, and the burning desire to win at all costs, men who would rather die than quit.”
The article below is a brief excerpt from Chapter 1 of “The Warrior Elite,” which details Terry’s influence on SEAL swim training. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
The teaching begins in the pool. “You have to be good in the water,” Instructor Tim King tells Class 228. Like Reno, King is a short, powerful man. And like many enlisted SEALs, he has a college degree; Tim King’s is in criminal justice. “This is what separates us from all other special operations forces. For them, water is an obstacle; for us, it’s sanctuary.” I noted many changes at BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training] since Class 45 graduated, but the most dramatic are in the swimming curriculum. In the past, it was simply a matter of showing the trainees a basic stroke and making them swim laps; kick, stroke, and glide. Now it’s all about technique. The instructors begin with teaching buoyancy control and body position in the water. The basic stroke is a modified sidestroke that the trainees will later adapt to the use of fins. Much of what is taught is taken from the work of Terry Laughlin and his “Total Immersion” training technique. Laughlin is a noted civilian instructor who developed innovative long-distance swimming techniques for competitive and recreational swimmers. A few in Class 228 were competition swimmers before coming to BUD/S, but most are not. All will learn the Laughlin method. According to Laughlin, it’s all about swimming more like a fish and less like a human. The instructors say it’s like swimming downhill. It has to do with making one’s body physically longer in the water and reducing drag.
“Before Terry Laughlin,” King says, “it was just a matter of getting in the water and getting it done. When I was in BUD/S training, my instructors taught us the way they learned it from their instructors. Now, that’s all changed; technique is everything.”
The trainees do lengths in the pool using just their legs. Then they add a new method of breathing, rolling in the water to get a breath rather than lifting their heads. Arms are used for balance and to make the swimmer longer in the water. As the trainees practice, the instructors are right there, coaching and teaching.
“There’s not a lot we can do to make them run faster,” explains Instructor King. BUD/S instructors are addressed as “Instructor” unless they are a chief petty officer, in which case they are addressed by their title. “But if they can master these techniques in the water, we can dramatically get their swim times down. The staff here at BUD/S can be a very skeptical bunch. We tend to resist anything from the outside. But when our personal swim times came down using Laughlin’s methods, well, we knew this was good information. We try to do as much teaching as possible here in Indoc—help them improve their technique. The First Phase instructors can’t do this; they don’t have the time. They’ll just put them in the water and expect them to perform. They’ll have to make the minimum swim times or they’ll be dropped from the class. For some of them, this training will make the difference between making it to graduation or washing out. We’ve been able to cut swim drops by twenty-five percent,” he adds with a measure of pride. “This stuff really works.”
SEE A DEMO OF THE COMBAT SWIMMER STROKE!
Below is a clip is from Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL who partnered with Terry Laughlin to create T.I.’s video on the combat sidestroke. This is just a casual demo from Stew’s YouTube channel, but you can find our official video of “The Combat Swimmer Stroke,” complete with T.I. drills, HERE.