The latest installment in an ongoing series of newly-released material from Terry Laughlin’s unpublished profilearchives

The role of mindfulness is a primary theme that underpins the Total Immersion approach to practicing and teaching swimming, and was a significant influence on Terry’s work over the years. Even when Terry was not overtly highlighting mindfulness as the explicit focus, the importance of mindful attention was always implicit in his nuanced exploration of the minute details in stroke mechanics and the habits of deliberate practice (a topic discussed in last week’s blog). He recognized that the cultivation of mindfulness is a key element in the pursuit of mastery and excellence in any skill.

In addition to the obvious benefits of improved stroke efficiency and faster swimming with more graceful ease, Terry also grew to appreciate the salutary mental/emotional effects of practicing mindful movement. In May of 2017 he contributed a column entitled, How to Be Mindful While Swimming,” to the “Meditation for Real Life” series in the the N.Y. Times. A great read, that short column focused on swimming as a moving meditation, and gave pithy guidance for practicing present moment attention and sensory awareness in swimming. However, it was an abridged and tightly-edited version of a more expanded article. For clarity and brevity, much of his original draft had to be cut from the final edit, including a useful practice set with more details on technique points. This post, on swimming mindfully with specific “stroke thoughts” (aka: focal points) is the first publication of Terry’s original, unabridged article. Enjoy!

Swimming often devolves into autopilot behavior in which you focus only on getting in the distance you’ve planned, or “following the black line.” This is a lost opportunity. Swimming with a targeted mental focus can also be an immensely rewarding opportunity to practice mindfulness—and a proven way to improve your efficiency. The average swimmer has an almost limitless improvement upside. By swimming mindfully with specific Stroke Thoughts, we can transform routine lap sessions into an immersive form of moving meditation, and an unmatched method of continuous technique refinement.


Begin each practice with an intention to be fully present as you swim, consciously focused on improving your swimming, rather than just getting laps in. With this mindset of mastery, your goal is to be a better swimmer when you leave the pool.

Start with 4 x 25y/m freestyle repeats, swimming normally. Count strokes on each 25– which itself is an exercise in paying attention– and rate the overall quality of your experience on a scale from 1 to 5 (1= unfocused; 5= deeply focused).

Then, swim a series of 4 to 8 x 25y/m with each of the suggested Stroke Thoughts outlined below. As you begin swimming, tune your sensory awareness by focusing on each individual stroke. Notice the feeling of the wetness on your skin. Feel yourself — buoyant — moving through water. During rest breaks, take cleansing/centering breaths and continue “swimming mentally” by visualizing your Stroke Thought.

Photo courtesy of Bob Fagan and USIA Video.

Photo courtesy of Bob Fagan and USIA Video.

Stroke Thought #1: Focus on your breath. As you take breaths, shift your focus from a stroke rhythm to a breathing rhythm, noticing the unbroken alternation of in-breaths and out-breaths. How does your body accommodate to this rhythm? Notice details from inhalation to exhalation, such as: frequency of breath (e.g. bilateral breathing every 3 strokes vs. breathing every other stroke on the same side), volume and rate of air exchanged (long, slow breaths vs. short, fast breaths), and ratio of nose breathing to mouth breathing. Observe how sustainable your breath management is for the pace you’ve set. Do you exhale too fast and run out of air? Or conversely, hold your breath, creating a buildup of CO2 in your lungs and an unpleasant tightness in the chest? Experiment with different variables as you aim to find a sustainable, steady breathing rhythm that is comfortable for you.

Stroke Thought #2: Align head and spine. Completely release the weight of your head to be supported by the water. Head and spine should better align as a result. To reinforce, visualize being towed forward by a line attached to the top of your head, so your head-spine line is both lengthening and always moving in the direction you want to travel.

Stroke Thought #3: Cut a Letter Slot. As you continue with tuned sensory awareness of your stroke, focus on the feel of your arms entering and exiting the water. Feel cool, dry air on your arms briefly; then the wet thickness of the water for a longer period of submersion. Enter your hand (closer to your shoulder than normal) with fingers down to cut a slot (like the letter slot at the post office) in the surface. Forearm should follow hand through that slot. As you do this, observe the sound of your swimming– listen for noise, hearing any splashes or bubbles. Strive to eliminate both. How quietly can you swim?

Stroke Thought #4: Form Lines. After your hand slides through the slot, reach it fully forward, then line up that side of your body—fingertips to toes—behind the lead arm. Continue stroking, forming right-and-left-side lines with each stroke. Assess how long, straight, and sleek each line is. Notice how far your arms are reaching in front of you and strive to feel “taller” and more streamlined with each stroke.

Finish with 4 x 25. Choose your favorite Stroke Thought—or a blend of two or more. On your final 25, count strokes and rate the overall quality of your experience to compare with your initial series. On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate the quality and consistency of your focus during this set? In a sentence, can you articulate any change in the feel of your stroke?

As you complete your swim, be grateful for your ability to merge mind and body, moving like water.


Related blog posts on swimming and mindfulness: