Going Beyond Basics – Part 2

Here is a question for you…

If you faithfully follow the TI freestyle drill sequence, use focal points well, mix it in with your whole stroke swimming, and take your time to master every piece – will you eventually turn into a faster swimmer?

Or, in terms of our organized sequence of Level 1 and Level 2 skills, if you work a long time at Level 1 until you feel like you can perform every body position and stroke control detail well, will you automatically become a faster swimmer? (I suspect this disappointed swimmer practiced a lot at Level 1 and yet expected a Level 2 result.)

Short answer: No. You won’t necessarily get faster. Because Step 1 is about learning how to form and control the stroke. In this step you are just discovering how to align the body and adjust the stroke using all the various control points. Step 2 and 3 are showing you what to do with that stroke control to set up the conditions for increased speed – basic stroke length and tempo skills. Steps 4, 5 and 6 are where you learn to produce speed upon that foundation.

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Learning how to pull on levers, push buttons and turn dials on the dashboard of an race car will not qualify you to race that car, no matter how many months you sit there and tinker with the dashboard. You’ve got to take that car onto the track and learn how to make the vehicle do things (faster!) with those levers, buttons and dials. You need to drive the car on a real track, under real conditions.


This chart shows how we break down the skill progression. The swimmer only get to the results of Step 5 and 6 by first going through Steps 1 to 4.

So too, with your own stroke in Step 1, you’ve been learning how to notice and adjust little details in your body position and stroke control. This is just the beginning. You are going to need to take that skill and put it to practice on gradually increasing challenges using the variables of Stroke Length and Tempo and Distance to create that increase in challenge. By doing this, your fitness (ability to generate power) will develop in parallel with your technique (ability to apply power with precision, where it is needed).

Those two – fitness and technique – are inseparable in training because all movement patterns are training the neuro-muscular system –teaching the body where and how to deliver power while you generate it. So, if you are going to do any movement to build power for swimming, you need to train the precision of movement to go with it at the same time. That is a core principle in TI training.

Organic Training Plan Part 4

Follow Critical Path For Skill Development

It is easy now for me to have all this stuff in mind because I think and teach on it just about every day. But I am hoping you too will come to have this memorized by interacting with the concepts more often.

Hence, this is why I invited you into the Mediterra Swim Dojo, and why I continue to write to you about these things. It is essential to the organic practice plan to keep the critical path of skills in your mind – the more you have internalized the principles the less you need to live by rules. The more you integrate understanding and wisdom internally, the less you need external authority to push you to do what you need to do to reach your goal.

Level 1 Skills First

Advanced stroke skills are dependent on the strength of your fundamental skills. The more you’ve practiced and automated fundamental skills the easier it will be to improve advanced skills. Here is the order of stroke skills to master: Balance, Stability, Shape, Rotation Angle, Patient Arm, Recovery, Entry Path, Rhythmic Breathing, Catch, 2 Beat Kick, Synchronization

Level 2 Skills Second

Likewise, the advanced speed skills are best developed in order too:

  • Achieve Optimal Stroke Length
  • Achieve Consistent Stroke Length
  • Increase distance with SL control
  • Achieve Optimal Tempo (while protecting SL)
  • Achieve Consistent Tempo
  • Increase distance with Pace control (SL x Tempo)

You can mix/match, or blend these a bit if you like – it can be made as complex and interesting as you could ever want it to be. But this order is about as simple as we know how to make it for the way humans are physiologically and neurologically designed, within the boundaries physics imposes on anything moving through water.

Organic Training Plan Part 3

Structure Supports Spontaneity

It has worked well for me to moderate spontaneity with structure. I find that making a principled, organized plan does not restrict my freedom so much as it focuses my creativity.

Because I have an organized plan, I know what it may cost or gain if I deviate from it once in a while.

Within that thoughtful plan I feel more free to experiment and to follow my daily organic intuition within the context of pursuing the main goal. The better I plan the more I feel open to being spontaneous, because I have a sense of what I can afford to experiment with and what to ignore when it doesn’t have a productive purpose. I unleash my curiosity and creativity within the bounds of what I am trying to accomplish.

Having a plan also (perhaps counter-intuitively) allows me to be at peace more when I have an illness or threat of injury interrupting my normal training routine. Slowing down because of illness, exhaustion or injury has a cost on my schedule but I have a longer term vision (life-long, injury-free swimming!) that helps me push aside the pressure to achieve something this year by a certain deadline at an unacceptable cost.  When I get behind on my schedule, I have a more objective view of what skills are still lacking rather than a vague anxiety over being behind on a dogmatic training schedule.

I keep my eye on the final goal, and set up a progression of sub-goals that need to be achieved to keep me on track to that final goal. Then I set some weekly tasks that keep me, as evenly as possible, developing all the areas of skill and fitness I need to help me achieve the sub-goal. This sets up my ‘practice menu’ for the week – and a menu implies choices, not rigid commands. By this I see that I have options for how I spend today’s time in the water – and those options are all in service of my final goal. I am free to follow my intuition to pick from the those options what I want to do today.

Organic Training Plan Part 2

Low Level Structure

A goal will, at least, have a specific skill definition to it.

Example: One day I am going to swim 3km, from this point on the beach to that point on the beach way down there. This is simply a distance achievement objective – no racing. You can keep it like that, with no deadline and no speed requirement. Set the skill goal with no deadline to allow you to go at the most life-flexible pace. You will know that you simply have to develop a certain set of skills in a certain order, no matter how long it takes.

Setting a simple skill goal allows your training to stay within the lowest level of productive structure. That is quite ok – simple, peaceful, open-ended. You may add a deadline: I am going to do this by the end of September. Set a deadline to help you determine the pace you must go for developing those skills. You may need advanced skills to reach that goal but you won’t be able to work on advanced skills until you’ve spent the time up front mastering the fundamental skills.

Because of the deadline you’ve got only so much time to imprint the full set, so this will give you motivation to stay productive early on in your training season. Your deadline will hold you even more accountable to justify how you spend your limited time each week.

High Level Goal

And you may add a speed goal: I am going to swim it in less than 80 minutes or less.

Set a speed goal to help you identify exactly what those stroke skills have to be capable of producing in terms of Stroke Length x Tempo. This now adds an element of quantitative accountability.This is a high level goal.

The stroke cannot simply be smooth and easy and adequate, it must be strong and productive also. Each subsequent detail in the goal adds more parameters that you have to design your training path by.

’Skill Goal + Speed Goal + Deadline’ puts your training into the highest level of productive structure. But the choice of what level of structure to use is totally up to you and your desired athletic lifestyle.

Organic Training Plan Part 1

What is an Organic Training Plan?

It is a plan which respects both the laws of physics and physiology, and your own unique person and conditions. 

How can you follow a rational plan for your training but leave it flexible enough to work with your real life and your spontaneous interests the moment you reach the pool?

The short answer is: you’ve got to first put out the effort to set up the rational plan, and then you can afford to be spontaneous within that plan.

If you have some solid principles to guide you, a specific skill goal in mind, and a thoughtful path to get there, then you don’t have to live by rigid training rules and oppressive daily discipline to keep progressing. When you internalize the training principles and have things organized in your mind (which is what TI does for us, and what the Mediterra Swim Dojo is meant to help us digest gradually), then you are more free to follow an organic path to training.

This is an art as much as a science and it takes time to get the hang of it.

Here are some first thoughts on the topic (though I would like to work this into a more detailed piece later).

A Goal Is A Tool

Let your goal be a servant of your needs, not a master.

Set a skill achievement goal – even if actually accomplishing the goal is not that important to you. Make it big or make it small, but just make one.

The goal is what gives you direction and helps you recognize the specific skills and fitness that you will need. By this you establish your priorities in how to spend your time, and how not to spend your time. It will help you distinguish between what is useful and what is not.

The goal does not have to be a master of your time. Let it be the servant, simply as a tool to give you something to plan your practices by. Whether or not you end up participating in the event, or accomplishing the goal does not need to be the measure of success, unless you want it to be. It can instead be something you use to give you direction and measure progress by, to keep you moving in a positive, productive direction.

The skills and fitness you develop will be useful to you in swimming in general and in maintaining overall satisfaction in training.

Super-charge Your Learning

Super-charge Your Learning

What will make you learn this swimming thing much faster, much deeper?

Teach it.

Teach someone else what you are trying to learn right now. This is a powerful Self-Coaching secret.

I can confess openly that my swimming feeds my teaching and my teaching feeds my swimming. It is a powerful combination. I am not sure which is motivating which any more. You think I am helping you (I hope), but you may not realize how much you are helping me by letting me teach you.


I’m not suggesting that you go out and start a coaching business (unless you want to), or coerce some miserable swimmer at the pool to submit to your instruction and promise them miracles. But if you have any friend or family member that is interested in what you are doing and would possibly like to join you, you have a chance to more quickly, more deeply organize and internalize the principles you are learning in TI and in this program.

You don’t know ‘what you know’ and ‘what you don’t know‘ until you try to teach it. Under the demands of communicating to someone else your brain will respond well to the frequent requests to pull up information and use it through explanations and demonstrations to others.

You don’t need to take the coach title either. You can simply tell the person you are practicing your understanding of TI swimming by trying to teach it to another, so you’re both going to be in a learning position. Hopefully, your ‘student’ will benefit as much as you will from the exercise. You can even tell them that your coach gave you this assignment and they are just helping you complete it.

I was reading an article on the Mindhacks blog about improving memory when it connected some dots from a few other things I’ve studied. The quote that caught my attention: “It seems the effective way to learn is to practice retrieving items from memory, not trying to cement them in there by further study.”

That’s the key – getting your brain to frequently pull up these images and information so that the brain starts arranging things in a more efficient manner for that frequent retrieval.

I realize that when people hear me speak about swimming they may be impressed with how fluently I can explain difficult topics, how simple I can make these complex concepts. I think a great deal of my fluency comes from constantly interacting with other people on these topics and developing better ways to communicate my understanding. My brain has had to get it organized and the pathways to this information are short and quick. If I can’t explain it or demonstrate it to someone else, then I know I have not mastered it myself yet. But by trying to explain it or demonstrate it to someone else, I get closer to mastery with every effort.

Even my teaching-failure is a swimming gain. You are reading information I give you in the program, and in other TI materials. You may be watching some TI videos too. You are thinking about these things. But ‘studying’ (= just thinking about it) is not the most effective way by itself to get it to sink in. If you can engage more learning modalities into your study process you can super-charge your brain’s mastery of this information.

Some suggestions:

  • Write about it to me and write to yourself in a training journal.
  • Blog about it.
  • Talk about it to anyone else who will listen to you.
  • Draw your own diagrams to explain (even to yourself) how this stuff works.
  • Design your own small ‘elevator pitch’ presentation on how you are practicing a ‘Patient Front Arm’ and why this is so critical for your swimming ease (for example).
  • Find any desperate (and friendly) swimmer in your local pool and offer to share some of the things you’ve been learning.
  • Demonstrate the difference between your old ‘bad’ technique and your new ‘better’ technique and point out the key features and underlying physics principles that make it better.
  • Give a talk about your TI learning experience to a business group gathering.

I give you permission to go out and pass on to someone else something that you are learning here in this program. If you need more persuasive power to get someone to listen you may let your friend know that you need his help to finish an ‘assignment from your swim coach’ and he expects a report back on the experience!

Improvement Requires Faith

Improvement Requires Patience x Persistence

Patience requires trust that good things will come in time.

Persistence requires that you keep working on the tasks that promise to produce those results.

Both of those words include the concept of faith. Referring to our previous post on Progress’s Requirements I don’t think you are in great danger of losing Concentration and Effort so much. You are obviously devoted to practicing mindfully and regularly. But I do see some risk for misunderstanding How Improvement Works and for losing Faith in the hidden, silent processes that take time to bear fruit. And, when you lose faith for a moment, out of insecurity, or out of misunderstanding of the development season you are in, you might go try some test of skill ‘out of season’ and get an injury, or just get discouraged that something you expect is not happening yet, and start condemning yourself.

I am here to help you learn to avoid these dangers. I realize that when you submit to a coach you are placing faith in what he tells you. That is necessary at many times and in many areas of life because none of us can be the masters of all knowledge and skill. So we rely on someone else to persuade us ‘How Improvement Works’ and then to guide us in the Organization of concepts, to show us where to Concentrate, and to keep us putting in the Effort when we lose sight or motivation.

I thank you, with great humility and sense of responsibility, that you have put some faith in me and in this TI Improvement Process that I teach and practice.

I know that you have to exercise some faith because you are not going to see all the pay-off for your effort right away that I have told you are coming in due time. You’ve experienced some initial progress that got you excited about your new potential (spring time!), and now many of you are into a different season where results come not always as expected (summer, fall or winter).

Of course, I am continually focused on teaching you the TI Organization of skills and Self-Coaching concepts so you know those seasons. But I also want to encourage you in Faith. Not because I need you to trust me more, but in whatever higher thing you pursue you must trust some person and some process, even if it is not this one. None of us can grasp it all alone. You’ll need faith, because you’ll need patience and persistence to keep going through the improvement cycle, knowing the seasons and setting your expectations accordingly. In this way, by consciously applying intelligent faith, you will have a satisfying life-time of improvement with, I hope, fewer injuries along the way.

Progress Requires A Few Things

Progress Requires A Few Things

Do you wonder if or how you are going to get better at your swimming?

Here is an equation:

Progress = Organization + Concentration + Effort

You understand that this is going to take effort. And, if you’ve been working with TI for a while, or especially been training under my coaching, you realize that your concentration, your quality of attention is key to making any improvement that you can control and replicate. And, you may appreciate by now how important having an organized approach to skill-building is. Total Immersion specializes in providing this organized and highly-refined approach to building your skill and higher performance.

But I need to add one more variable to this equation:

Progress = Organization + Concentration + Effort + Faith

Yes, Faith.

Faith = Trust (in this context, so we’ll use the words interchangeably).

If you really stop to think about it, you need to trust the explanations given to you for how the human body builds skill and fitness. After all, you cannot see the changes taking place inside your brain and inside your bodily systems when you practice. After some time, with understanding to interpret it, you may feel changes indirectly from bio-feedback, but a lot of the ‘roots’ for what makes you get better are quiet, hidden constructions happening in microscopic amounts as you practice and as you rest. Then one spring day, the tree has reached a tipping-point in those internal changes and bursts forth in new greenery and fruit. One day you slip in the pool and discover a capability that was not there the day before.


A lot of your improvement can be explained in that tree-and-season analogy. It is cyclical. There is a silent, hidden season of improvement when your roots are working their way deeper, and then periodically, there is a season of visible fruit = performance improvement (in terms of easier, farther, faster). And, there is a season of shedding old, insufficient habits and getting ready to build new ones.

And let’s develop that further – let’s aim for intelligent faith, which means we’ve got solid, convincing, well-supported explanations for how things works, though we cannot prove it to ourselves immediately. We’re going to trust someone to tell us this, but we’ve used some critical thinking and what he says makes good sense and resonates with other knowledge and experience we’ve already got. You’ve got to have this intelligent faith that this is really going to work in order to devote yourself to it, because… (continued in the next post).

Two Conflicting Training Goals?

Traditionally, there are two goals for training that have sometimes been viewed as being in conflict with each other:

A) To achieve higher performance (a certain distance or time or speed).

B) To achieve a certain state of enjoyment (bliss, peace, injury-freedom, pain-freedom) in swimming.

If you have not encountered this truth already I would like to tell you that, in fact, these two go together perfectly. They do not need to be in conflict with each other. It is based on this idea – the human body wants to do awesome things, and the body is really smart and will guide you in how you should go about this, if only you will learn to listen and cooperate. More than ever, science and crazy experimenting humans are proving that you have not even come close to tapping your injury-free potential with your own body.

You don’t have decide between one or the other in your training. Actually, you need both. If your main goal is to simply achieve a more wonderful state of experience while exercising (what we call ‘Flow State’) then measuring with distance, time and speed are important parts of improving your ability to reach that state, improve the quality, and sustain it over longer distances and in a wider range of conditions.

If your main goal is to achieve a much higher level of performance then you need to read the signs up pain which indicate you are heading in the wrong direction – and read the signs of pleasure which indicate you are heading in the right direction.

If you are truly using your body better to generate power and move with more efficiency, you will feel it and it will feel good.

Note: We make a careful distinction between ‘good’ pain signals of a body working well under intensity and ‘bad’ pain signals of a body breaking down under intensity.

Sandwiched between both of these concepts is an INJURY-FREE swimming zone. And when I talk of injury I am referring to both physical injury (hurt the body) and psychic injury (hurt the mind). Both of those goals work together to keep you in this zone.

One of my physio-therapy heroes, Dr. Kelly Starrett, said this in a presentation on Youtube (at minute 11:56)

What we’re finding is that this is really not a conversation about performance or maintenance and pain-free. What we find, and this is an important concept is that (I’m a clinical doctor in physical therapy), and there is never a compromise between being in the safest position and being in the best position and having the best joint congruency, and the best tissue loading and tissue health, and going the fastest.

In my view, both performance and pleasure can be boiled down to this physics and biology (and even spirituality) concept – it is a matter of how well you are using energy in your mind and body. When you use energy well you get both performance and pleasure. When you use energy poorly you feel terrible and get injured eventually. A truly more efficient, higher performing body will feel more awesome. A truly blissful body will simply swim with more energy available (which translates into distance and speed).

So, no matter which one seems to be more important to you, you need to train for both of them together. Allow one to support the other in your training and things will go better than ever.