An exclusive excerpt from Terry’s forthcoming final book: Total Immersion: Swimming That Changes Your Life    


Terry was nearing completion of the draft for his final book when he passed away in October of 2017, but we’re fortunate that he left behind a considerable body of unreleased material for the team at Total Immersion to publish posthumously. Terry worked steadily on the new book for several years and was eager to release a text that reflected the evolution of his approach to swimming since the revised edition of his bestseller– “the blue and yellow book”– was published in 2004. Reflecting the spirit of “kaizen” (continuous improvement) that Terry embraced, the core principles in the new book remain the same, but his philosophy and methodology about swimming were continuously refined in the 14 years since the original book was updated.

The following post on the topic of “deliberate practice” is a selected excerpt from the unpublished draft of Terry’s final book. This particular excerpt was from a section of the book he entitled “Be Your Own Best Coach”; he wrote this piece last summer, so it’s among the most recent material he worked on before his passing. For his new book, he had chosen the working title, Total Immersion: Swimming That Changes Your Life, after years of hearing swimmers say, “Learning to swim with Total Immersion changed my life!” Receiving this type of enthusiastic feedback prompted him to explore deeper aspects of how transforming one’s swimming can transform other aspects of one’s life. His stated intention with this final book was: “A path for achieving meaningful swimming goals and using swimming as a vehicle for learning, growth,and creating enduring positive change in body, mind, and spirit…”

10,000 Hours: A ‘Brand,’ not a Rule

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

The most talked about idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 blockbuster book, Outliers, was the “10,000 Hour Rule.” Gladwell, citing research by K. Anders Ericsson, explained that the key to becoming world-class in any field was to practice a specific task for at least 10,000 hours.

As you might expect, people quickly latched onto the number 10,000 and forgot the details of the argument.

Obviously, there is no magic in the 10,000th hour, but it is true that you need to put in a lot of work to become world-class in any task. However, the important question is this, “What should that work look like? If you want to become great at your craft, what exactly should you do with your 10,000 hours?”

You can’t simply put in time. You have to practice deliberately on a specific skill.

But what, exactly, does deliberate practice look like?

Deliberate practice is when you work on a skill that requires one to three hours of practice to master. If it takes longer than that, then you are working on something that is too complex.

Once you master this tiny behavior, move on to the next micro-skill that takes one to three hours. Continue repeating this process indefinitely.

At age 55, I estimated that I’d accumulated 10,000 lifetime hours of swim training or practice. But relatively little of that was deliberate.

Deliberate practice also ties in quite nicely with the idea of getting 1 percent better each day. Each practice session should be focused on mastering a tiny skill that makes you slightly better at your craft.

The Idea in Practice

This basic method of deliberate practice applies to nearly any behavior, but let’s use head position as an example.

Notice that each practice session focuses on one micro skill– for example, relaxing the neck and releasing the weight of your head into the water– and that each session builds upon the prior skill. Your energy and effort are directed toward something small enough– like imprinting proper head position– that you could at least become sufficiently familiar with it to better recognize when you are off-target.

The self-awareness you achieve in early sessions of deliberate practice is required for succeeding in later sessions as well.

Get the foundation skills right and they help you in every subsequent task or practice. Neglect them and subsequent tasks suffer because of it.

This is what deliberate practice looks like. In swimming, the 10,000 Hour ‘Rule’ is really a way of saying you intend to continue this for life. But again, you can’t just put in the time. You must be obsessed with refining or building upon your current skill set in small ways.

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Photo Credit: Bob Fagan, USIA Video

3 Questions for More Deliberate Practice

From what I can tell, the experts who embrace the idea of deliberate practice continually ask themselves three questions…

  1. Do I understand the fundamentals?No matter how advanced they become, experts never lose sight of the fundamentals. In many ways, they are advanced for that very reason: they understand the fundamentals better than anyone else.
  2. Am I working on the next step?There are a lot of smart people who know what the next step is, but never do it. Similarly, there are many people who take action, but waste time working on skills that don’t build upon each other. Experts build knowledge and skills that are cumulative.
  3. What am I missing?One of the greatest pitfalls of the 10,000 Hour Rule is that it makes expertise seems like a finish line that can be crossed. It can’t. Expertise is not a race that can be won– it is simply a process that can be embraced. Experts are constantly asking themselves, “What am I missing? Where are my weaknesses? What new information can help me?”

Expertise is a process, not an outcome.