Can You “Learn Talent”? OR Do You Take the Same Stroke 100,000 Times?

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Average performers tend to feel they’re getting the job done if they grind out long sets of freestyle repeats. But too often that just means the same freestyle stroke imprinted thousands of times.

By TERRY LAUGHLIN

Swimming is unique among all sports in the opportunity it offers to compensate for physical “ordinariness” with superior mindfulness. Moving a human body through water requires so many subtle skills that the combination of time and clear focus can add more to your mastery than whatever age may subtract from your physical capacity.

In 1963, at age 12, I tried out for my elementary school swim team. Though this was as grassroots as swimming gets I didn't make the cut. In fact, my tryout lap prompted one coach to attempt a rescue. At 15 I tried out for my high school team and made it -- not because my swimming had progressed much; our first-year team was accepting all comers. I fell so deeply in love with swimming that I was undiscouraged when, as a senior, I qualified only for the "novice" championship, racing mostly against freshmen. As a college distance swimmer I managed to win a few races in dual meets against minor rivals, but nothing in first 10 years of swimming suggested any particular promise.

Yet last year, upon turning 55, I set three goals that can only be called audacious for someone with such an unremarkable history: (1) to win a National Masters Long Distance Championship, (2) to break a National Masters Long Distance record and, (3) to medal at the World Masters Championship. Last summer I accomplished all three – in fact winning two national titles (at 3K and 2-Miles) and breaking two national records (for the 1-Mile and 2-Mile Cable Swims) for good measure.

This raises two questions of relevance to virtually all triathletes: (1) What level of swimming achievement can we aspire to, and (2) What role does “talent” play? If someone as “average” as me can break a national record, what goals are realistic for others? These questions have intrigued researchers in the Expert Performance Movement. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and colleagues worldwide have studied expert performers in disciplines from sports to surgery, music, chess, and stock picking. They discovered that “talent” is highly overrated and masterful performers are nearly always self-made, not born.

Many of us limit our potential by believing we were born “ordinary.” While, it often appears to us that talented people make it look easy, Ericsson says “The best performers almost always practice the most.” For example, winners of piano competitions practiced over 10,000 hours by the age of 20, while also-rans only practiced 2,000 to 5,000 hours.

But sheer doggedness doesn’t explain why some people become better than others. Tiger Woods dominates the PGA Tour, but his rivals aren’t exactly slackers. Ericsson and his colleagues found that the best performers practice in purposeful and thoughtful ways, or “Deliberate Practice.” At TI, we call this “Mindful (or Examined) Swimming.”

Average performers tend to feel they’re getting the job done if they simply grind out long sets of freestyle repeats. But too often that just means the same freestyle stroke imprinted thousands of times. Expert performers tirelessly experiment or refine with every drive, swing, or stroke. They set specific goals, tirelessly self-check, stay in the moment, and never become complacent. Tiger Woods scrutinizes video or snapshots of his swing, analyzes each part, then drills subtle tweaks until they’re automated responses. Further, his swing is never “good enough.” Even when he was already winning more than anyone else, he took it apart, endured a year of adjustment (and – for him – mediocre results) then emerged more dominant than ever.

While average swimmers focus mainly on recording a certain yardage figure, satisfied to repeat the same unimproved stroke over-and-over, Alexandre Popov, the world’s fastest swimmer for an astonishing 11 years, constantly tinkered and polished. When asked why Popov sometimes trained six hours a day for races that lasted less than 50 seconds, his coach, Gennady Touretski said “More opportunities to imprint correct technique.”

The most relevant message in all of this for adult athletes is that we should tackle new challenges when “past our prime” -- especially those we thought required ‘talents’ we’re not sure we possess. Swimming is unique among all sports in the opportunity it offers to compensate for physical “ordinariness” with superior mindfulness. Moving a human body through water requires so many subtle skills that the combination of time and clear focus can add more to your mastery than whatever age may subtract from your physical capacity.

In this new series of “blogs,” I won’t be suggesting “three great sets” or “the drill that will transform your next race.” Instead I hope to pose questions and suggest a philosophy of excellence that will help you examine your own approach to swimming and arrive at an understanding that provides a context to answer nearly any question that arises and to be able to guide your own swimming progress with confidence and success.

 



This is the first installment of Terry Laughlin’s ongoing series of swim-training articles. Terry Laughlin is the founder and head coach of Total Immersion Swimming. To read more articles like this please visit www.totalimmersion.net. To comment on or discuss this article, please click here.

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date: February 19, 2007

Total Immersion

Terry Laughlin is Founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming.