I've always been a mediocre swimmer. I could never swim more than a lap or two before I was exhausted and needed a break. Even more embarrassingly, I could never submerge my head. I always had a primal fear of getting water up the wrong way somehow, and mastering the mechanics of breathing in time to my stroking seemed beyond me.
In short, I always wanted to learn how to swim properly, but didn't know how to improve. Swimming more laps didn't seem to help, and I just wore myself out faster. I also didn't have the money to hire an instructor and wasn't thrilled by the idea of taking classes anyway. It was obvious I needed some major tutelage but I wasn't sure a class was the way to go.
I read about Total Immersion on Tim Ferriss' blog and always wanted to give it a try. It seemed to be exactly what I needed: a relatively inexpensive multi-media program that promised to decrease my swimming drag, allowing me to go farther with less effort and far more gracefully than before. The fact that it was recommended by Ferriss made me trust it and want to try it more than I would had I stumbled across it on my own, as Ferriss' whole schtick is accelerated learning. The only issue would be finding a swimming pool, as I didn't have access to one.
My opportunity finally came when I gained access to the American Club in Dhaka, which includes a swimming pool. The lifeguard said it was a 15m pool, though when I did a rough estimate it seemed closer to 20m. Anyway, I bought the $50 self-coaching program. This includes an e-book, picture references of each of the exercises, a video series, and a workbook. I never used the workbook, but I worked out a nice system for the other materials. I read the e-book once for context, which goes into a lot of the non-essential science and background of the method, which I'll touch on later. The video series breaks the method into a series of skills that build on one another, so you never feel over your head trying to do several new skills at once. The picture book includes screenshots from these videos that can be printed out and easily viewed while you're at the pool. Eventually I would watch a couple videos before I went to the swimming pool and bring my e-reader to view the screenshots to refresh myself on the specifics of the exercises and required forms.
Let me be clear: I am not a graceful person, even out of the swimming pool. I bump into tables constantly, my dancing is painful to watch, and sometimes I lose my balance even when I'm just standing in place. My point here is that I wasn't expecting miracles going in. I also have no idea how my results stack up to the average.
The first day of swimming, before I tried implementing any of the Total Immersion (TI) materials, I measured how many strokes it took me to make it across the pool: 25.
After 45 minutes of practice, my stroke count was down to 20. Not bad.
I had about six weeks total to use the swimming pool and learn as much as I could before I left Dhaka, and lose swimming pool access as well. That motivated me to practice regularly, despite how painful the process could be (lots of water down the wrong way). I put in hour-long practices three or four times a week, for a total of about 20 hours of practice. I struggled to put all the skills together, and conquering my fear of submerging my head and breathing between strokes wasn't easy. The TI exercise progression helped but wasn't perfect in that respect. The chemicals they used in the pool made my skin break out in rashes. And I swallowed gallons of water. I had to force myself on some days to practice; from boredom, a lack of progress, or frustration. All of this I expected considering I had never enjoyed swimming to begin with and was basically starting from zero.
At some point towards the end of the six weeks, however, something clicked. The last couple weeks I was swimming over a kilometer, non-stop, at each session. Swimming ceased to be fatiguing and became invigorating instead. And more surprisingly for me, I was enjoying it. A couple times I even got my stroke count down to 14 or 15 to cross the pool.
From what I can see there are three key reasons why TI works so well, two of which TI is well known for and the third which is a personal observation of mine.
First, TI focuses on swimming efficiently rather than swimming harder. The founder of the method, Terry Laughlin, makes the point that humans only convert about 2% of the energy we expend in swimming into forward motion- compared to about 70% for a dolphin! The harder we try and swim, the more energy we waste. But if we streamline and make ourselves more aerodynamic in the water, we go further for less effort. At a certain level of efficiency swimming ceases to be tiring and we speed along the water without much effort.
This only works because of the second key thing TI does really well: breaking the method down into concrete mini-skills that are learned in isolation to create good habits. Each of these mini-skills is combined in a progressive fashion with previously learned skills. Each new skill builds on the last one. For example, breathing isn't tackled until lesson five. By the time you reach lesson five, you've been slowly isolating, habitualizing, and combining an increasingly complex series of motions. But lesson one is just learning how to float. Then you learn how to stroke, how to streamline your body effectively to minimize drag, and more. Every time I noticed a certain "skill" of mine was lacking, I would return to the exercises the method details for isolating and habitualizing those skills before returning to put it all together in a swimming stroke. What this means is that TI can be readily (though perhaps not easily) taught to oneself because the individual skills are easy and are taught in isolation. They are put together and implemented in a slowly but steadily more difficult way, which kept me from getting too frustrated early on. Each new exercise felt like a surmountable challenge. Each new exercise was also psychologically motivating because I could see the progress I was making and how each exercise fit into the final stroke.
The method isn't perfect here. There is little guidance given on how to do the proper kick the method recommends, and no exercise addresses this. The founder alludes that the kicking should take care of itself if the rest of the technique is fine, but after six weeks with the method, I still struggled with the right way to kick and it was the single component that most wore me out on my swims. That said, when I was kicking correctly I felt it. That's one of the strengths of the program that I'll touch on later, that it gives an intuitive feel for a correct stroke. I just couldn't figure out how to replicate that sweet spot with my kicks most of the time. Perhaps that's because there was enough off with my stroke that I wasn't able to find the sweet spot consistently- I admit that that's a strong possibility, and the lack of good feedback is one of the downsides of any self-teaching methods.
The other area where the method's pedagogy doesn't quite float the way it should is with breathing. To be clear, it does provide an excellent progression of exercises to accustom oneself to the motions of the breathing stroke. What I needed help on, and where the method provided no guidance, was on the mechanics of the actual act of breathing. When do you exhale to make room for the new breath? If half of your mouth is under-water, how do you breath to keep the water out? Do you exhale on the way back down to keep water out of the nose? Maybe these things are obvious but they took me a while to figure out on my own. In the end I figured most of it out, but it was a sputtering, painful process. The lifeguards were always refilling the pool from a hose every time I came and I think it was because they were replacing all the water I'd swallowed the day before.
Reading through the TI materials, the founder Terry Laughlin constantly refers to how an integral part of Total Immersion is Kaizen, the act of small, incremental improvements performed every day. After having used the method for a month and a half, I understand why Laughlin talks about Kaizen so much. It is built in to the method. He has created such a rich vocabulary for the TI swimmer that once familiarity is achieved with the method it's impossible not to analyze and improve with each session in the pool.
This brings me to the third thing TI does well. It gives the swimmer a pattern language for understanding, decomposing, and improving their swimming stroke. Before I began learning the method, all I really knew was that I was swimming inefficiently and wearing myself out. Now, as I swim, I'm able to explain why I'm swimming efficiently and tweak aspects of my stroke to improve it. It might be that I'm kicking too hard or kicking out of sync with my strokes, for example, or that I'm not engaging my core enough. Once I've identified the problem, I can work on improving it. All this happens incredibly naturally. I'm by no means an expert swimmer now, but I feel I have the tools and understanding to become one if I wanted to.
A pattern language is a hierarchical tree of gradually more specific, near-universal solutions to contextualized problems. By applying the pattern language in its logical, natural way (from general to specific, and in such a way that the application of later patterns doesn't undo or contradict earlier patterns), the user of the language can achieve a unique yet desirable outcome through its application and the resolution of the particular problems, in this case, the natural inefficiencies of the human body in water.
For example, the TI patterns are grouped into three meta skills. Laughlin advises that successive meta-skills cannot be improved until the previous ones have been adequately learned. First, swimmers must learn buoyancy. Easy yet instructive exercises and vivid imagery ("imagine a laser beam pointing out of the top of your head") make buoyancy a tangible, learnable skill. Then comes the actual stroking, accompanied by memorable mini-skills like "painting the line" and the "mail slot". Finally, breathing is added to the mix, with incremental skills like the Popeye and whale turn. These skills naturally unfold and build on one another, as learning to breath properly only multiplies the inefficiency of a poor stroke, and a stroke can never be executed properly if the basic posture in the water is wrong (buoyancy).
In the context of Alexander's architectural pattern language, the goal was to create buildings and towns that were comfortable, alive, vibrant, and unique to their particular cultural, social, and geographic context. It has the potential to radically democratize and decentralize the architectural and urban planning process. In the same vein, TI as a pattern language decentralizes the learning of an efficient and constantly improving swimming stroke. It equips its learners to discover a meditative stroke that is alive and constantly evolving as the user applies the patterns ever more expertly. Like Alexander's original pattern language, it empowers its users because the goal is on making each swimmer able to reliably learn and improve their stroke on their own. And I use the word empower consciously here. I feel empowered after learning the Total Immersion method. In part that's because I know I can trust myself as a swimmer now. But I'm also certain that it is also part of a beneficial side-effect of any good, democratizing, decentralized pattern language. It deflates the myth of the expert and bolsters our fundamental faith in ourselves and our ability to interact with the world on our own terms.
I would recommend Total Immersion to anyone looking to improve their swimming, and I can't wait to have access to a swimming pool again to continue improving my stroke. My next challenge will be getting comfortable with swimming in open water!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much