Can’t control life outside the pool? Pursue Flow in it and handle stress better.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 16th, 2011

In an email, Penny wrote: Swimming more regularly the last month has revealed significant variation in my day-to-day performance. Some days I have it. Other days little works well. Factors include sleep, nutrition, stress, time of day, recent illness, etc.

Penny acknowledged the potential for life stressors to impact the quality of her swimming. Which is why I recommend looking at the flip side: Using mindful swimming to improve the quality of your life-beyond-the-pool.

The best reason for pursuing this strategy is that most of us have little ability to control the things that cause stress outside the pool. In contrast, we can exert great control over activities and experiences in the pool that bring happiness and fulfillment.

Through practice I’ve developed a steadily-increasing ability to Experience Flow in Swimming. Experiencing Flow in swimming practice leaves me with a sense of energy and optimism that infects the rest of the day. This effect has been so pronounced and pleasurable that my main practice goal now is to Experience Flow. As you might guess, practice brings Mastery.

The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, who first documented and described Flow States, identified six conditions or requirements for creating Flow. Here are notes from the TI Coaches Manual on how to apply those requirements to swimming practice.

How to Encourage Flow in Swimming:
1. An intrinsically-rewarding activity. Many new TI students arrive with a basic need—to progress from struggling to swimming. Those a bit further along usually have a more holistic motivation—to improve their health. It should be our explicit goal to program their swimming with the conditions for flow . . . so practice becomes its own reward.

2. Clear (and Kaizen) goals. As our students progress beyond basic needs, we must help them incrementally elevate their goals: An example of Evolving Goals is:
1. Achieve comfort, balance, low-drag body positions and other foundation skills;
2. Progress to emerging skills—firm catch and effective propulsion, seamless breathing, kick-integrated-with-stroke, etc.;
3. Achieve an efficient Stroke Length — predicted by height or discovered through experimentation with Tempo Trainer
4. Effectively combine Stroke Length with Stroke Tempo (using Tempo Trainer) to increase pace.
5. Complete a 2.4-mile Ironman swim with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

3. Feedback. To practice effectively, you need a way to compare your performance (this lap, this practice, this stage of my development) to your goals. In our lessons, we provide verbal-and-visual feedback. As students progress from learning to practice, they must learn to create their own feedback. A key to doing so is measuring the right things in practice. Three essential ways to do so in whole-stroke repeats is to compare (i) Stroke Count with Time; (ii) Stroke Count with Tempo; and (iii) Tempo with Time. Effective feedback in swimming requires at least two ‘data points.’ Using only one factor (Time or Stroke Count or Tempo) is insufficient.

4. Strike a balance. It’s critical to balance your chosen challenge – the difficulty or complexity of your practice tasks — with your skills. Too difficult = frustration. Too easy = boredom. Carefully-calibrated challenges keep you in flow. As skill improves – and you should always be focused on improving some skill — so must your challenges. We teach that as well. We call it Kaizen.

5. Focus An activity that’s both meaningful and challenging leads naturally to keen focus. Mindfulness is a recognized hallmark of TI, but focus must become deep (resistant to distraction) and targeted (having a specific and strategic focus). Just as with motor skills, focus-strength is a product of disciplined, persistent neural imprinting.

The process starts with simple focus points as in Superman Glide (First focus only on Hanging the Head. Then focus only on Hanging the Hands on Wide Tracks.) As those details move from working to long-term memory (I.E. from Conscious to Unconscious Competence) they are replaced (months later) with a focus on “completing this lap in exactly 15 SPL.” Eventually their improved “concentration neurons” will enable them to maintain a cocoon of calm amidst the chaos of an open water or tri-swim.

6. Sense of control Another word for this is Empowerment. Most new TI students come to us out of frustration, caused by experiences ranging from “why do I feel like I’m sinking” to “why do I get so tired” to “why did I panic in that triathlon swim.” The TI Coach’s role is to explain the entirely natural causes for their difficulty, and the proven means of correction. Experience applying the corrections we prescribe creates hope based on the realization that:
• When I hang my head and cooperate with gravity I feel weightless.
• When I master Balance and Streamline I feel energized, not exhausted, after a long swim.
• Practicing deep focus in the pool helps me remain calm amidst a churning crowd far from shore.
Eventually they gain the confidence to control any aspect of their swimming.

Once you have your first Flow experience, these principles will act as proven strategies for being able to find Flow at will. You don’t have to paint a masterpiece or climb a mountain to find flow. Swimming offers incredibly accessible opportunities. Just apply the Kaizen spirit to each of them.

One Response to “Can’t control life outside the pool? Pursue Flow in it and handle stress better.”

  1. […] here: Can't control life outside the pool? Pursue Flow in it and handle … Share and […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.