Talent is Teachable By Terry Laughlin, Founder of Total Immersion Swimming (1999)


Published


 

“Why can the dolphin swim at 80 kilometers per hour? That should take the power of a small jet, but it has no power. So why? Their skill is natural: Dolphins do not create resistance and they use elasticity to generate speed. And so my way is to try to understand dolphins better.”

Coach Gennadi Touretski quoted in New York Times, Sunday, July 14, 1996.

Great swimmers — both dolphins and Olympic medalists — share one striking characteristic: the ability  to move with grace, flow, and economy whether swimming fast or slow. What distinguishes fish from humans is their “fishlike” flow. What distinguishes great human swimmers from average ones is the ability to stay smooth and fluid at top speed; that ability is what allows them to swim faster than anyone else. And what makes swimming so difficult for poor swimmers is that they cannot swim with fluency at any speed.

If you watch fish in an aquarium and then   watch humans in a pool — particularly from an underwater window

  • you see immediately apparent differences in movement quality: Fish leave barely a ripple no matter how fast they swim. Humans churn up the water Fish, at whatever speed, give no impression of “trying,” they just go! Humans have to “try” quite hard for even the tiniest increase in speed. Fish propel with effortless undulation of the core-body. Humans propel with a flurry of arm-and-leg churning.

And if you compare elite human swimmers with virtually any other human swimmer, you see similar contrasts. If you sit in the stands at any sub-elite meet and watch all the swimmers warming up at once — looking mainly for broad movement patterns, rather than for the style of any individual — you’ll see much more ragged than smooth movement. But sit in the stands at a national or international championship and the signature flow pattern you’ll see both at slow warmup pace and at full speed in races is far more smooth and economical. Clearly, fluency is the most noticeable difference between average human swimmers and great ones. Great swimmers are far more “fishlike.”

This is not a unique insight. Great athletes are always smoother and more effortless than lesser ones in sports ranging from skiing to basketball to hockey. The greatest players of all time (for example, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky) always manage to look as if they’re playing at half-speed even as they run circles around everyone else on the floor or ice. But the critical thing that distinguishes swimming from all other sports is that swimming happens in water. And water is a vastly different medium than air or land. It PENALIZES any movement that is rushed or rough and REWARDS any movement that is smooth, unhurried, and fluid. Any time you try too hard or too abruptly, you create a lot of turbulence, a lot of commotion, but not much locomotion. And you get a lot more tired just for trying. Considering this, it’s only logical that swimmers ought to make it a habit to PRACTICE movements that are smooth, unhurried, and fluent. And they should AVOID practicing movements that are rushed or rough.

Unfortunately, coaches often seem blind to this. Because the work ethic is so ingrained in swimming, most coaches are happiest when their swimmers are visibly “giving their all.” They want to see effort and are glad to tolerate ragged movement as the price of “getting through” a tough set or workout. A swimmer who looks too controlled and effortless — in the manner of Jordan or Gretzky (or Alexander Popov) — is likely to be criticized for “not trying.” But there is a clear and logical rationale for making flow and harmony a primary object of your coaching. There are also simple and practical means to do so. I’ll explain both. Let’s start with why!

The Rule of Two Percent

We have drawn several truly revealing insights from 10 years of teaching Total Immersion workshops. At the beginning and end of each workshop, we videotape all participants under water and study them in slow motion. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to do a detailed study of thousands of different swimmers. Most have been relatively unskilled and inexperienced; they’ve received little coaching. But at least 10 to 20 percent have achieved some level of accomplishment, up to and including several former Olympic swimmers and numerous Masters record holders. I’ve also had the opportunity to videotape about two dozen US National Team members in similar detail. The most important thing we have observed is that most of the movements people seem to make naturally and instinctively in the water — we call them “Human Swimming” — are awkward, inefficient, and energy-wasting.

Only a tiny fraction — perhaps two percent — of all swimmers we have videotaped are naturally fluent. Everyone else has significant “Human Swimming” habits. Even when videotaping highly accomplished and elite swimmers, I’ve seen surprising but unmistakable signs of the Human Swimming instincts they started out with. Quite a few national-caliber and even world-class swimmers had found ways of compensating for their Human Swimming habits and instincts, but still did easily correctable things that wasted energy.

After videotaping, we begin teaching. Since our students are unskilled and our time with them is limited — just a few hours over a weekend — we have worked ceaselessly to streamline the learning process. These countless experiments with trying to help swimmers quickly become more fluid and efficient have produced the most important insight of all: Virtually everything we teach that proves to make human swimmers markedly more fluid and graceful in the water is neither natural nor instinctive. So if you want to see fluency in your pool, your first step is to understand that it won’t happen automatically, and it won’t happen merely through training. You have to teach it. You have to make it happen. But, as we’ve learned in ten years and after working with thousands of swimmers, fluency is teachable.

We call the skills that increase fluency “Fishlike Swimming” because we quickly realized we were teaching people to think and swim like fish. Swimming “downhill,” swimming “taller,” slipping through the water rather than trying to thrash your way through it, learning to work with the water rather than try to overpower it. These are not things you would think of doing unless someone taught you how… or unless you were in that fortunate 2 percent of truly gifted swimmers who seem to naturally understand how to be more fishlike. And these gifted 2 percent, in too many cases, are swimming fluently in spite of, not because of, what teachers and coaches have told them. So the first critical insight in learning how to coach fluency is to understand that 98% of your swimmers will be limited in their potential to swim the way truly great swimmers do unless you teach them how.

And here’s the counterpart: The unmistakable conclusion we’ve reached after ten years of workshops is that whenever you let developing or learning swimmers “do what feels natural,” they will almost certainly practice clumsy, inefficient, exhausting, “human swimming.” And the more laps they do, the more likely it is that they will simply be making their “struggling skills” more permanent. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happens in nearly all swimming programs. Practice makes perfect whatever it is that you’re practicing. At one pool where I train, the Masters swim on one side of a bulkhead, age-groupers on the other. As I head to the locker room, I watch them train. I know the coaches are well-meaning they want their swimmers to be the best they can be but every night I see the youngest kids thrash through lap after lap with no resemblance to what good swimmers do. What they are doing so diligently night after night is practicing inefficiency and imprinting their nervous systems with “struggling skills.”

Looking across the lanes, I see a bit more fluency in the 10-year olds and a bit more in the 12s, and so on. But even among the most experienced and accomplished, only one or two swim with consistent fluency. It’s clear that it’s possible for kids to learn fluency on their own, but it takes years and most still retain too many of their strongly imprinted habits of inefficiency even after 5 or 6 years of swim training. There is nothing at all unique about this program. I have watched thousands of swimmers of all levels of development in training across the US. Virtually all look much like the program I’ve described.

Fishlike Swimming Is Simple

The question is: Why are so many swim coaches willing to watch so much struggle and inefficiency in the interest of “getting the work done.” And why are so many coaches inclined to train swimmers rather than teach them? I believe part of the reason is that “stroke mechanics” has too often been presented as rocket science — complicated and highly technical. But fluid swimming is an art, not a science, and any coach with eyes in her head is equipped to teach it.

Another reason why coaches may feel more inclined to improve their swimmers through training rather than teaching is that great swimming technique has often been presented as a prize with a staggering price. Either you must have been born with an almost mystical gift — “feel of the water” — or you must spend millions of yards acquiring it. Thus coaches are convinced that it takes years to become truly fluent and that young swimmers don’t have enough laps under their belts to “get it,” so it’s perfectly natural at that age to flail and struggle. Thus, they let them swim on and on, thinking that eventually — more laps will cure the problems.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our experience has demonstrated that what coaches often call “talent” is actually teachable. Every child in every program in America could be practicing the same habits that make elite swimmers special from their very first week in organized, competitive swimming. We know this to be true because we have found that, even when given just a few days to work with swimmers of average or below-average skill, we have been able to help nearly all of them reach a flow state very quickly.

At every Total Immersion weekend workshop we conduct about 80 each year — we can transform 20 or more inexperienced adults from struggle to flow in a matter of hours. Similarly, during the four weeks of youth camps we conducted this summer, at any moment from the second day on, if you looked across the pool from highly accomplished teens on one side to inexperienced 8 and 9-year olds on the other, you would have seen the same graceful, effortless flow patterns. The key to this rapid transformation has been critical decisions on what to teach and how to teach it.

As I watch the ragged-looking age groupers at the pool where I train, it’s clear to me that they struggle because they lack the skill and coordination for the training they’re given. The coaches are giving them swimming sets, including some repeats as long as 200 yards, when they can’t yet swim even one length of good whole-stroke. The coaches are encouraged by what they view as progress because, week by week, the kids can swim further and faster. What they are not considering is that they’re learning to struggle further and faster. And every lap of struggle will just imprint undesirable, unproductive muscle memory that they will only have to unlearn later, if they are ever to reach their fullest potential.

Consider this as an analogy: Some of these same kids are probably studying a musical instrument, too. As they learn to play piano, they are not asked to play an entire composition until they have spent many hours  practicing notes, scales, and chords. Playing notes and scales smoothly and easily will establish rhythm and “touch;” imprint eye, ear, and finger coordination; prepare them to play chords; and so on, before they will be asked to tackle their first simple piece.

Young swimmers could benefit from a similar learning system that gives them the equivalent of notes, scales, and chords to practice before tackling whole-stroke repeats, which is the equivalent of being asked to play an entire composition. That progression might look something like this:

  1. Notes: Learn and practice the simplest of drills and mini skills until they are performed fluently and nearly automatically.
  1. Scales: As they master the simplest drills (“notes”), combine them in different “keys” (i.e. different strokes) or in the two different “axes” (long axis and short axis). Drill sequences can also be compared to the “forms” practiced in martial arts, where students repeat certain series of precise moves to increase coordination and
  2. Chords: Introduce them to more advanced drills and alternate drills with short-distance whole-stroke repeats, swum mainly at super-slow speeds, quietly and
  3. Play a simple song: Increase the amount of whole-stroke swimming, and if they can still move fluently, let them swim a bit further and faster, but go back to simple stuff as soon as they show any hint of

 

Teach Your Whole Team to Swim Like Fish

The means to teach every swimmer on your team to be fishlike and fluent and to see their technique begin to improve almost overnight are surprisingly simple. If you are willing to make yardage and speed secondary for a while, you can soon have an entire pool full of swimmers who look incredibly smooth and fluent. You can do this by embracing three core principles for coaching fluency. We — and dozens of coaches who have been associated with Total Immersion have found that they work whether these swimmers are 7 or 17 or 67, or whether they’ve never swum before or are destined for the Olympics. This approach to teaching and coaching can make any swimmer more

 

  1. Before turning up the volume and intensity, before giving any thought to “getting ‘em in shape,” make it your sole focus to teach your swimmers to be in harmony with the There are countless ways to teach harmony and body awareness in the water. For less-coordinated or inexperienced swimmers, the biggest payoff will come if you help them master and I mean really master certain carefully chosen “starter drills.” Such drills teach the essential movements of whole-stroke through a series of mini skills that are so simple that any swimmer can quickly learn to do them fluently. With that as a foundation, you just work progressively to expand the range of movements they can do harmoniously, moving gradually and patiently toward whole-stroke swimming.

2. Teach swimming as if you were teaching martial arts or dance. Swimming well IS an art and MUST be  learned

with the same studied precision and exactness as any other movement art. Start every student — even National qualifiers! — with positions and movements that are simple and basic, as outlined above. Keep them practicing patiently and attentively until you observe a noticeable increase in their awareness of how to interact with the water. Trying to rush this process will almost inevitably lead to reduced progress for the “98%.” On the other hand, every swimmer who is given the time to first master the basic positions and then the entire “form” or sequence of moves, will always be able to swim with comfort, and will be able to advance through a whole range of more challenging swimming skills with almost ridiculous ease and speed.

  1. Keep stroke length and fluency a habit as they go farther and Be patient enough to increase the volume and intensity of your training only as you see your swimmers able to swim the greater distances and speeds with the same flow they exhibited in less-demanding sets. Make it your goal to have a complete team of swimmers that swim the same way elite swimmers do: with grace, economy, and flow at any distance and speed. You may think this is an impossible dream, but we see it happen every weekend at TI workshops, and there are dozens of TI coaches across the country who are seeing it happen with their age-group, high-school, college, and Masters teams.

 

Teach the Right Skills First

Before you can begin training your swimmers, the first step is to teach them. We have found that all the “magic” mentioned above is far more likely to occur quickly when you follow a somewhat unconventional, but very logical, four-step teaching progression:

  1. Teach your swimmers to be balanced and comfortable in the The indispensable foundation for harmony and fluency is to master so completely that it becomes a no-brainer — balance and body awareness. Without it your swimmers will waste precious energy fighting the water. With it, they will learn every other swimming skill much faster.
  2. Teach them to rotate the core Teach them long axis-rotation as the basis for fluent free and back. Teach them rhythmic short-axis body dolphins for fluent breast and fly. This rhythmic rotation will later become the basis for both their rhythm and power. Continue teaching them until they do it fluently and effortlessly.
  3. Teach them to be The most slippery body position for long-axis swimming is long, sleek and side lying. The most slippery position for short-axis swimming is long, sleek, and just under the surface. Neither is natural or instinctive; both must be taught. But once you teach your swimmers to be slippery, they will always need far less power or effort to swim at any speed.
  4. Teach them to propel. Learning to pull and kick is often the first thing taught; we save it for last. When moving through the water in the ways described above has become habitual and natural, then teach them to link the propulsive actions of the arms and legs to a long, balanced,  slippery, and effortlessly rotating core body.  This provides effortless power and ensures that when they do whole-stroke, it  will be fluent and graceful.

 

At our workshops and camps, we have developed simple, sequential drill progressions that teach those four key skills in precisely that order and do it with remarkable speed. We teach one set of progressions for the two long-axis strokes and one set for the short-axis strokes. I’ll introduce those progressions in far more detail during my video presentation tomorrow.

 

The Transition to Training

I’ve emphasized the virtue of patience — of letting flow patterns and habits develop naturally and imprint thoroughly on the neuromuscular system. But this doesn’t mean you need to give your swimmers nothing but drills for weeks or months. In fact, a combination of drill/swim (roughly 80% drill to 20% swim) even while the swimmer is in the learning and imprinting stage, may be the most effective way to change stroke mechanics.

I say this because of what we have observed at  our weeklong kids’ camps. We’ve held nearly a dozen of these over the last three years, and have worked with nearly 500 swimmers from age 7 to 17. In the course of a 5-day technique camp, we have found that virtually every swimmer, 95% of whom had never practiced Fishlike Swimming before, is able to swim easy 25s with a dramatically more efficient and fluent stroke after as little as 200 yards of drill practice using our simplest drills. And they were able to do easy training sets short sets of short repeats, done fairly easily with awesome form that was completely different from their previous technique (and that required far fewer strokes per lap) after fewer than ten hours of instruction — the equivalent of less than a typical training week for most swimmers.

This dramatic and literally overnight transformation of 100% of a group of “average” swimmers of vastly different ages and abilities was produced by what we feel are several critical teaching strategies:

  1. “Muscle Amnesia”: A swimmer’s stroke is a habit pattern that has been memorized through millions of yards of repetition. The only way to effect rapid and dramatic change in “muscle memory” is by giving the swimmer “muscle ” If we had simply given them whole-stroke swimming sets and tried to tweak their whole-stroke patterns by instructing them to “think about their stroke,” we would have seen very little change. Drills, because the swimmer’s nervous system doesn’t recognize them as “swimming,” give us a blank slate on which to introduce new movement patterns.
  2. Heightened Kinesthetic Awareness: A second great feature of the drills we teach is that each has specific elements of “intentional exaggeration.” Whatever movement pattern we’re trying to teach — whether it’s body rotation or a relaxed, compact recovery, or Front Quadrant Swimming — is practiced in the drill in an exaggerated The swimmer won’t swim with this exaggerated form, but doing so in the drills heightens his kinesthetic awareness. That feeling, rather than a cognitive process, will be their primary guide as they begin to integrate the new movement into their whole-stroke swimming. They will do this far more successfully if you use drills that help heighten their awareness of how movements that produce fluency feel different from those that result in struggle.
  1. Mini Skills: As every teacher or educator knows, highly complex tasks are learned faster and more thoroughly if you break them down into a series of mini skills. The mini skill becomes the foundation for acquiring the whole Swimming is among the most complex of all movement skills, so it makes sense to master it by breaking it down into easily digestible parts.

Let’s take butterfly as an example. Many coaches, thinking that butterfly requires “discipline,” push their swimmers through whole-stroke repeats (with a command “not to break stroke”) after some rudimentary instruction. The result: They practice butterstruggle rather than butterfly. Yet the drill progression that teaches a fluent, efficient butterfly is extremely simple. The key is having swimmers practice forms of “butterfly-like movement,” and the most basic of these can be done fluently by anyone with even limited skill or coordination. This allows the rawest beginner to learn the essence of what world-class flyers do. They then progress to more advanced “butterfly-like movements” and eventually do the whole skill fluently without ever having their nervous system exposed to butterstruggle.

  1. Super-Slow Swimming: If you look at true masters of any movement discipline, including martial arts, music or dance, gymnastics or tennis — you’ll notice that they can perform with grace and control at any speed, from super slow to nearly speed of light. You’ll also notice that when they perform at a rapid pace, they look One of their secrets is that they spend an inordinate amount of time practicing the basic skills of their discipline at super-slow speeds. Total Immersion coaches use this same principle. We spend far more time telling our swimmers to slow down in both drilling and whole-stroke repeats than we do telling them to go faster. If you are willing to tell your swimmers that it’s okay to swim slowly, you’ll find a speed at which they can do the assigned activity fluently. At that point, they understand (through new kinesthetic awareness) how it’s supposed to really feel. And remember: Slow doesn’t mean lazy. The slower the speed, the more intense the concentration and focus and the more rigorous the skill level.
  2. Silent Swimming: Fish make no noise when they swim, and humans instantly become far more fishlike when they focus on swimming or drilling more I think of sound energy released in swimming as a form of wasted energy. After we have taught the basics of any drill, we instruct the swimmers to see how quietly they can perform it. This simple instruction always has the magic of instantly producing more flow and less wasted energy, The same occurs in whole-stroke swimming. Once they have enhanced flow through super-slow and silent swimming, they can begin to gradually increase their speed again, but this time with  far more control.

 

  1. The fistglove R stroke trainer: At our summer kids’ camps we outfit each swimmer on Day 1, Lap 1 with fistgloves. They wear them for both drilling and swimming, and keep them on until the last 10 to 15 minutes of each pool session. The fistgloves help us achieve dramatic transformation quickly because:

They take away the option of muscling through or overpowering the water. With this option gone, the swimmers are forced to find ways to work with the water. It takes only a few lengths to see their movement quality become far more fluid.

They take away the option of using the arms for balance. Most swimmers because they were never allowed to truly master balance — use their arms as much for leverage as for propulsion. With fistgloves on, they can’t lean on or use their arms for leverage, and must learn to achieve balance with their whole body. At the same time, that gloved hand automatically learns the most effective path through the water. The gloves lead swimmers intuitively to a better, more efficient and economical stroke.

When, after many lengths of basic body-awareness drills, we finally turn our attention to propulsion, the fistgloves have magically taught a “genius” for anchoring the hands the way truly talented swimmers do. We call it “having Biondi hands.”

 

Begin with the End in Mind

As coaches, we share the same dilemma: We want our swimmers to be the best they can be, but we also suffer from a little uncertainty about the best way to make that happen. The point that I want to make today is that the horizon for improvement for every single member of your team is almost limitless. But to reach this end goal (and it’s the dream of every coach) of having every lane filled with talented, fluent swimmers who are a joy to watch and a joy to coach, we as coaches need to do more than train. We must first teach. We must teach them the same skills that the world’s best swimmers know intuitively and practice religiously: great stroke length and stunning stroke economy

If we try to match the yardage or intensity of the world’s best swimmers, without first matching their level of stroke mechanics and stroke efficiency, we are wasting our time and holding our swimmers back from reaching their full potential. And if we try to match their yardage without matching the level of focus and thought that truly elite swimmers bring to every single lap of their training, then we are again wasting our time and holding back our swimmers. We can model our training programs after those used by the world’s best athletes, but until we have taught our swimmers how to move through the water with the same grace and efficiency as the world’s best swimmers, this kind of high-yardage training does little more than imprint inefficiency and struggle. Too often, coaches think training will do the teaching for them that surviving impossible sets and mega yardage will somehow force swimmers to become more efficient.  This may be true for the gifted 2%, but  for the majority of swimmers it simply makes their  struggling skills more permanent.

If you want your swimmers to look like the elite members of their sport, and to have a chance of performing at their level, you must first teach them to look and move through the water like elite athletes. Then you can train them like elites by building practices and season programs that emphasize stroke length and stroke economy on every single lap. Here’s the good news: Any coach can do this. It’s a claim that is supported by ten years of experience teaching thousands of fitness swimmers and triathletes how to swim better. But, more specifically, it’s supported by our success with more than 500 age-group swimmers and the reports that we receive from dozens of coaches using TI techniques with their age-group, high school, and college teams. Kids are achieving eye-opening PRs and winning major championships using our techniques.

 

It all comes down to what should be an incredibly exciting conviction for any coach: swimming talent is teachable. 

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news