‘Curious’ Experimentation and Holistic Skill-Building
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on June 2nd, 2015

This week I take a temporary detour from the relatively narrow focus of the past few weeks on the history, purpose, and effective use of drills to look, through a wider lens, at the process for learning new swimming skills. Today’s post was prompted by an email from an attendee at a Smart Speed workshop I led in Windsor England on Sunday:

Yesterday, feedback I received from coaches pointed to several ‘issues’ I should iron out with my TI technique – control rotation to stabilize my core, enter more cleanly through the Mail Slot then my hand below my bodyline, and finally to relax my hands so my palm faces back to hold water.

When I got in the pool today, I wasn’t sure what to tackle first. Should I just concentrate on getting these right? Or should I be focused on getting more familiar with my Green Zone stroke counts, as we practiced during yesterday’s workshop sessions. Or try and combine the two?


There’s not a right/wrong answer to this question. The best approach to improving your swimming is ‘holistic’ and intuitive. Since my blog theme of late has been drills, where do they figure into the equation? The right drill can help you spotlight any technique goal and create significantly greater awareness of subtle differences in position or movement.

For instance, Total Immersion’s Skate drill can be used to highlight both degree of rotation and the position of your hand and arm when your body reaches full extension. It’s simply a matter of where you choose to direct your attention.

In the first few hours of practicing and familiarizing with the multiple efficiency foundations targeted by the Skate drill, you’ll have more success if you focus on only one ‘mini skill’ at a time. (There are five distinct mini-skills that can be honed with the Skate drill.)

For instance, do 4 to 8 short (about 6 meters) reps of Superman-to-Skate focused on extending hand below bodyline. Your primary takeaway is a distinct and clear sensation: How does it feel to extend at a slight downward angle, which brings your legs closer to the surface (reducing the need to kick) and greatly reduces exposure to shoulder injury.

Then swim 4 to 8 short whole stroke reps, striving to consistently replicate that sensation. Stop and reset when you don’t feel the same sensation you had during Skate.

After that mini-skill, starts to feel more natural and consistent, you could return to Skate, this time focused on rotating OFF your stomach—i.e. barely enough to clear one shoulder. Immediately bring that sensation into your whole stroke practice.

The common element of both drill and whole stroke is the Focal Point—and the newly-clear sensation connected with it.

You could devote certain practices mainly to a closely related group of, say, three mini-skills, spending some time on drills and some on whole-stroke with Focal Points. In most cases, you should be able to increase the proportion of whole stroke, and decrease the time spent on drills, fairly quickly, eventually spending just a few minutes at the start of a practice totaling 45 minutes or more, doing a select set of drill reps.

This will free up more time to do all of the following:

Work on Stroke Length/Count

Count strokes before, during, and after technique work to

  1. Practice the higher level mental skill of combining Focal Points and stroke counting; and
  2. Assess whether your skill work creates a measurable change in efficiency.

Introduce Tempo

You could alternately use a Tempo Trainer for two purposes:

  1. To use the calming sound of the beep to banish distraction and deepen focus and awareness; and
  2. To improve the rhythm and flow of your overall stroke as you integrate new skills.

Raise the Bar

As the new mini-skills become more second nature, devote other practices to testing your ability to stay fluent with these new mini-skills, while working through a sequence of, say three stroke counts—what we call Gears practice.

Or work at maintaining both the high quality feel of these new mini-skills and stroke count consistency while progressing through some short repeats (25 to 50 meters) at incrementally faster tempos, using the Tempo Trainer. This is an even more demanding mental/cognitive skill.

By practicing ‘curious experimentation’ such as this, you’ll both learn more and faster and strengthen confidence in your own intuition.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.