A Brief History of TI: Part 1 of 5
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 3rd, 2011

Total Immersion, though its origins were somewhat conventional, is recognized today as a swimming program unlike any other. A core value we teach is the Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) Spirit. Initially that referred to improving skills, but Kaizen has truly become woven into our DNA. Two key influences in our continuing evolution are the students we teach and the expansion of knowledge about human consciousness since our founding in 1989.

Pre-TI, nearly all swimming coaches and teachers worked with children and young adults.  TI was the first swimming-improvement program to specialize in adults. Adults bring a lifetime of experiences, perspectives and interests that immeasurably enrich the learning process. Consequently we’ve learned as much from our students as we’ve taught them.

Also, during the last 30 years, researchers in many fields have studied the ‘inner life’ of humans as never before. During the 1980s and ‘90s, Positive Psychology earned acceptance as a valid field of study. Where psychology traditionally focused on dysfunctional behavior, positive psychology catalogued the characteristics of happy, thriving, high-functioning people. Becoming such a person has become the higher purpose of TI Practice.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, new brain-scanning tools allowed an unprecedented understanding of how the human brain functions in real time. What had been educated guesses became solid knowledge. The most compelling new insights linked highly desirable adaptations in the middle aged brain to behaviors associated with high performance, They also revealed the central role of the brain in learning challenging skills like swimming.

Prompted by the challenges, interests – and sometimes the surprising successes — of our students, and our own curiosity, TI methods have increasingly reflected these developments. Though the TI Program started with a focus on an external – how to stroke – it has evolved steadily to integrate the inner and outer lives of humans. TI is alone among swimming programs in having followed that path.

This document charts the evolution of TI through five distinct phases.

1989-92     Connecting with Adults

In the summer of 1988, I swam in my first National Masters Championship.  A few weeks later I met Bill Boomer and became intrigued by his unconventional ideas about swimming technique. Both events influenced my decision to offer a camp for Masters swimmers in the summer of 1989.  I had coached competitive swimming for 17 years – always with an unusually keen focus on technique. During the summers of 1989-92, my teaching methods at TI camps were very similar to those I’d used successfully with younger swimmers since 1972.

While our drills were similar to those other coaches used, we did them in a studied and structured way that was highly unusual.  During these years TI was a seasonal program, not a business. We put on four to six camps each summer, and a few clinics for Masters teams the rest of the year.

Key influences from this phase:

I had not previously coached adults, but was immediately excited by two aspects:

  • Improvement potential. Nearly all of our students were excited to discover that , by focusing on technique,  they could improve dramatically in just a few days, even after years of stagnation in Masters workouts.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Adults learned skills more slowly and arduously than kids. But they compensated by being totally immersed.  Coaching highly engaged students in a collaborative partnership proved to be enormously rewarding.

Vessel-Shaping Bill Boomer was the source of two influences that are still reflected in how we teach today:

1) His maxim (which I first heard in 1988): “The shape of the vessel matters more than the size of the engine” asserted that avoiding drag was more important than pulling, kicking, power and conditioning. I’d felt that intuitively since 1978 (when I watched my swimmers from an underwater window for the first time), but Bill’s phrase became a call to action for exciting new ways to help swimmers improve. It also summarized in pithy terms how TI differed from other programs.

2) Bill introduced us to Balance drills, especially “Press the Buoy.”  Our understanding of Balance and how to teach it have evolved hugely since, but Bill’s influence was truly seminal.


3 Responses to “A Brief History of TI: Part 1 of 5”

  1. Rob Polley says:


    This is a great summary of the birth of TI. It certainly is an exciting time for those of us interested in the way people learn and improve. I also teach elementary school, and I spend time every day with every class talking in age-appropriate ways about the value of correct practice. The great thing is, students in grades K-4 really get this, and are eager for it.

    Thanks for all you have done and continue to do!

    –Rob Polley

  2. Fantastic article, I love it. I start to love teaching adults much more than teaching kids. They are so happy that they can achieve so much more than they can. Every one gain happiness after the class including the coaches.

  3. Carlos simquewitz says:

    I follow all your tips and they help me so much to improve my teaching skills . I can see how my students improve their swimming and happiness . Of course their confidence too and mines that TI , is a reall fantastic way to improve our lives !!!!

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