2010 TI Coaches Manual Excerpt #7
This is the seventh in a series of excerpts I promised to post here for critique and feedback of the ideas and manner of expressing it. I was extremely pleased with the quality of input on the 1st excerpt and know the final document will benefit from your contributions.
Flow: Transforming Motivation to Passion
George Leonard tells us the key to excellence is committed and loving practice–particularly while on a plateau. As Zen masters say, “Chop wood and carry water.” As Educators in Excellence we need to teach our students how to convert a pre-TI swimming routine into engaged practice--something they love so much their practice time flies and they spend the time between practices eagerly anticipating their next swim. That process begins, as Leonard suggested, by viewing challenging circumstances as opportunity, not impediment.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (published 1990) Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly (MC) a Ph.D. psychologist says our world is designed, not to make us happy, but, to help us grow by confronting challenge. Life’s most fulfilling moments occur when we welcome challenges and focus thoughts, intentions, and senses on a meaningful-and-exacting goal.
MC conducted 250,000 surveys, interviewing artists and others involved in "creating meaning." They described an experience of becoming so utterly absorbed in creating their art that they lost all sense of externals . . . like the passage of time. A pianist described being conscious only of "being one with the music and expressing emotion." Prior to age 40, I had one accidental flow-state experience. Since age 50, I’ve been able to access that transformative state in virtually every swim practice. Each time it leaves me feeling energized and with an all-embracing sense of well-being. Wanting to experience this again, more than any external goal, has transformed purposeful-swimming into passionate-swimming.
The runner’s high is familiar to any regular runner. It results from a combination of the “aerobic buzz” (endorphins) with rhythmic movement. But the skills required to run reasonably well are so elementary, that the buzz produced is far milder than the flow state made possible by the challenging problem-solving inherent in improvement-oriented swimming. This offers the potential to raise the runner’s pleasant experience to a nearly-euphoric one. Here are the ingredients that provide a Passport to Flow:
1. An intrinsically-rewarding activity. Many new TI students arrive with a basic need—to progress from not-drowning, to swimming. Those who are a bit further along usually have a more “holistic” motivation—to improve their health. It is our explicit goal to “program” their swimming with the conditions for flow—so practice becomes its own reward.
2. Clear goals and expectations. As our students progress beyond basic needs, we help them incrementally elevate their goals: I.E. (i) Achieve comfort, balance, low-drag body positions and other foundation skills; (ii) progress to emerging skills—2BK, seamless breathing, etc.; (iii) achieve an efficient SPL—individually determined by height; (iv) effectively combine SPL with tempo to increase pace . . .(vii) “complete a 2.4-mile Ironman swim with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.”
3. Feedback. To practice effectively, you need a way to compare your performance (this lap, this practice, this stage of my development) to your goals. Sometimes we provide verbal-and-visual feedback. We also teach them how to create their own feedback.
4. Just-enough difficulty. It’s critical to balance your chosen challenge with your skills. Too difficult = frustration. Too easy = boredom. Just enough difficulty keeps you in flow. As skill improves, so must your challenges. We teach that as well. We call it Kaizen.
5. Focus A challenging-and-meaningful activity leads naturally to keen focus. Mindfulness is a recognized hallmark of TI, but focus must become deep (resistant to distraction) and targeted. Just as with motor skills, this results from disciplined, persistent neural imprinting. The process starts with Superman Glide (First focus only on Wide Tracks . . . then only on Hanging the Head.) As those details move from working to long-term memory (or from Conscious to Unconscious Competence) they are replaced (months later) with a focus on “completing this lap in exactly 15 SPL.” Eventually their improved “concentration neurons” will enable them to maintain a cocoon of calm amidst the chaos of a tri-swim.
6. Sense of control. Most new TI students come to us out of frustration, caused by experiences ranging from “why do I feel like I’m drowning” to “why do I get so tired” to “why did I panic in that triathlon swim.” Our first service is to explain the entirely natural causes for their difficulty, and the proven means of correction. This creates hope based on the realization that “If I ‘hang my head’ I’ll stop sinking” which gives them a sense of control over the most fundamental issues. Later we’ll teach them to control fatigue with Perpetual Motion Freestyle techniques. Or to choose their speed by effectively combining SPL and tempo. Eventually they realize they can control any aspect of their swimming—even how they react to unpleasant surprises.
Once you have your first positive swimming experience, these principles will act as proven strategies for making the experience longer, stronger, deeper, more meaningful. You don't have to paint a masterpiece or climb a mountain to find flow. Swimming offers incredibly accessible opportunities. All you need to do is apply the Kaizen spirit to each of them.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
My TI Story