By Terry Laughlin
Feb. 23, 2007 — In Can You Learn Talent, I explained why the makings of “overachievement” are in all of us. I’ve noticed that, while virtually all of my students made material improvement in stroke efficiency, some managed to progress much farther — and not because they had great physical gifts. It suggested to me that overachievement — like a smoother stroke — is a skill that can be learned. Thus my attention has increasingly turned to understanding the habits of mastery. Unlike endurance or power, for which we all experience declines over time, our capacity for mastery should only increase with age.
Because swimming occurs in a medium that is utterly uncooperative for unskilled movement, it offers almost limitless opportunities to improve through greater awareness of how your body behaves in that environment. But exploiting those opportunities may require a wholesale change in your concepts about training.
As I wrote previously, an almost universal habit of masterful performers in many fields is a tendency toward examined practice rather than unexamined high-volume repetition. I learned my first lessons about examined practice when I began to practice yoga in my early 40s, which led to a shift in how I spent my pool time from how-much/how-hard workouts to swimming as a practice in the spirit of yoga. Ever since, I’ve begun to understand the interaction of my body and the water — and see improvement — like never before.
I came to yoga initially because I hoped to regain the flexibility most of us lose between youth and middle age. I soon realized it worked as much on strength as on suppleness — but differently from weight training. Yoga strength, developed from working movements, not muscles, felt integrative and functional. And it felt remarkably like the way my muscles work while swimming.
It took longer — years in fact — to appreciate a more meaningful insight. That was the capacity to be present in my swimming. For 25 years, my training had been oriented to: 20 x 100 — Ready, Go, which often felt like “99 Bottles of Beer on the wall.” Count the repeats down. Add another few thousand yards — or strokes — to my totals, then on to the next set Who has time to think about the intricacies of each stroke?
But in yoga, we never bothered with totals. When doing a warrior pose, we might do one, or two, or four, but who’s counting. Turn your right foot out and left foot in. Are left ankle and right heel aligned? Bend your right knee. Is it over your ankle? Not quite? Sink a bit deeper. Has your left hip turned out? Draw it back. Has the outside of your rear foot pulled up? Press it down. Are you aligned from left hand to right — with shoulder blades drawing in? Now remember to deepen your breath. After you’ve taken inventory, then balance effort, relaxation and mindfulness so you can hold the pose without overexertion or fatigue. Because in a few weeks or months, you aspire to move seamlessly from down-dog to right-leg-lunge to warrior to extended side bend to . . . changing positions with each breath, automatically arriving in a relaxed strong position with ever-increasing ease and refinement. Completing 60 or 90 minutes with grace and flow takes as much mental as physical endurance.
I soon realized that every one of the 1200 to 1500 strokes I took in the course of a 1.5K race — possibly dealing with three-foot swells and/or jabbing elbows and flailing feet — was a metaphor for these yoga poses. Each stroke including countless details that matter — the moment-by-moment position of every body, balance and alignment, how I breathed or rotated or kicked or recovered. All of it happening at eye-blink speed in an unsupported, high-resistance environment, rather than with the firm floor, mirrored walls and deliberate pace of yoga practice.
How familiar are you with the details of your stroke? Do you have ways, in the middle of a training set, perhaps while trying to keep up in a lane-circle, to keep your awareness acute? If you can tune into such details, how finely — and acutely — can you adjust them? How can you bring the elements of yoga . . . or tai chi . . . or martial arts practice to your swim practice?