Total Immersion as a Learning Method

That only a third of American adults can complete a single pool length tells us that even the most basic skills of swimming are exceedingly difficult to learn.  Total Immersion has had more success in teaching these skills than anyone else because, from the start, our core purpose has been to make learning—not just swimming--easier.

In fact, we believe the difficulty of learning to swim well is a gift. In overcoming these challenges, you not only master a health-giving skill, you can also improve at analyzing and solving problems. Many TI students have told us that learning to swim well gave them the confidence to pursue other goals they’d previously thought out of reach.

Feedback like that helps us say with confidence that Total Immersion uses swimming as a vehicle for teaching people how to learn.

Here are the learning principles and habits we teach. Could you apply them to other problems you’ve faced?

Deconstruct the Problem. As the TI Technique page explains our central problem is that we waste so much energy (97 percent) fighting gravity and churning the water into a froth that almost none is left for locomotion. Common sense suggests we focus first on saving energy. The sleek and fluent form of aquatic mammals and elite humans gives us further clues.

Apply the 80/20 Rule. The Pareto Principle states that in many systems, 80% of improvement will result from just 20% of causes. Identifying those causes let you allocate resources efficiently. E.G. Microsoft found that fixing the 20% of most-reported bugs reduced software crashes by 80%.

In swimming, we cure 80% of our core problem—energy waste—by solving the problems of sinking and uncontrolled movement. Fortunately the fixes for those—Balance, Stability, and Body Alignment--are also the simplest skills. By applying the 80/20 Rule, we can swim much better within just a few hours.

Get a Small Win early. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that, to overcome the change-resistance of old habits, it’s critical to experience ‘small wins’ early.

‘Struggling habits’ in swimming are deeply ingrained because they’re emotional, not just physical. But even a small hint of encouragement can provide ‘emotional fuel’ for the long haul.

We start TI learning sequences with simple gliding exercises that show you how easily you can achieve weightlessness. While that feeling will eventually infuse every stroke, experiencing it for just a few seconds at the very start of their TI journey provides a ray of hope for long-time strugglers.

Avoid common pitfalls. A corollary of securing small wins early in the game is knowing the most likely failure points to avoid. For newer swimmers, it’s kicking and breathing that leave them feeling defeated.

We introduce breathing only when you’ve developed a foundation of body control and confidence. And because propulsion skills—the pull and kick--are more complex and prone to error, we introduce them only when foundation skills have become familiar and consistent.

Learn via Mini-Skills. Swimming is the Rubik’s Cube of movement skill-- highly complex with many interdependent parts. We’ve organized the critical building blocks of efficiency into a series of mini-skills that you can learn and internalize with far more speed and ease. And because certain mini-skills are subtler than others, we’ve divided those even more finely into micro-skills. Naturally all skill sequences follow the 80/20 rule.

Errors are essential. Many students fear error—or beat themselves up for ‘mistakes.’ But mistakes are not only inevitable—especially in an ‘alien’ activity like swimming. They’re also invaluable as a guide to course correction. You rarely notice when you do something right. Doing something wrong gets your attention!

At times, it’s even helpful to create challenges explicitly to cause ‘failure.’ Or rather, to reveal weak points in skill makeup. The only mistake is failing to learn from mistakes.

Cultivate Curiosity. A corollary to the principle that mistakes are valuable is that every experience in a learning process is information that may be useful.

Kids learn spontaneously because most experiences are still new and thus potentially interesting. Adults are far more focused on getting it right—and feel they’ve failed when they don’t.

Throughout your learning process, you’ll be fortunate if 10 percent of your ‘skill experiments’ are successful. Everything else has the potential to increase your depth of understanding and experience. Upon encountering any difficulty, react with curiosity rather than frustration.

Focus is the keystone skill.  A TI catchphrase is: Never leave the pool wall without a plan. I.E. Which mini-skill will you try to perform better than you ever have? The key to achieving this is focus—the ‘mental blueprint’ with which you start the lap, and the sensations you’ll use to assess it.

For every mini skill, there are several possible Focal Points. Each can aid learning in a distinct and complementary way. The ability to maintain focus on just one—and dismiss distractions that inevitably occur—is every bit as challenging as any of the physical skills. Thus it’s critical—especially in the early stages—to assess quality of attention as rigorously as movement quality. The stronger your focus, the farther you’ll go as a swimmer.