From First Principles to Core Principles
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 31st, 2015

In my last post I suggested you perform an exercise in meta-consciousness: Bring to a conscious level your belief system about swimming—the ideas (often unconscious) that guide nearly every choice you make—and consider where they originated and whether your experience confirms them as true . . . or calls them into question. I then listed the five First Principles that guide my personal practice and my teaching and coaching.

Choosing Core Principles

Before I proceed to the details of those principles, I’d like to suggest one more set of five principles to guide your swimming. These are Core Principles. What’s the difference between First and Core Principles?

First Principles represent a set of verifiable truths about how swimming works—the universal conditions and challenges the vast majority of swimmers encounter.

Core Principles are a set of enduring and essential tenets to guide thought and action. They help ensure that you always maintain absolute clarity on your reasons for swimming, and that you act in ways most likely to fulfill those reasons.

I have been a goal-oriented swimmer for 50 years, since I first joined my high school team in the fall of 1965. But I only realized the importance of, and clarified this set of core principles as I approached my mid-50s. My swimming experience has been far more consistently positive and satisfying; I’ve performed on a strikingly higher level in competition; and I’ve consistently achieved the goals I’ve set since then.

To be considered core, principles for anything should be few in number–three to five. A larger number increases the likelihood that they’re peripheral rather than core.

Core principles should also remain valid whether you’re a novice or an expert, and resonate as strongly decades from now as they do today.

Core principles should be effective as guidelines to evaluate possibilities; solve problems; assess information or advice; answer questions; and . . . most critically, to ensure that you align your actions with your intentions.

Five Core Principles for Swimming Well

Here are the five Core Principles that have guided my swimming and coaching for the past 10-plus years. Try them on yourself and see how they work for you.

  1. Focus on improvement.  Start every swimming session with the explicit intention to be a better swimmer when you finish. Or, as Total Immersion enthusiast Hadar Aviram said, “Never swim a lap in vain.” In particular, each time you push off the wall, do so with a conscious intention of honing a skill or enhancing a sensation or experience—and a clear plan for accomplishing that. The plan you form should be based on the First Principles.
  1. Practice economy and sustainability. Seek to do less, before doing more. Conserve–before generating or expending–energy. Reduce resistance before increasing force. Stroke more effectively, before stroking faster.
  1. Never practice struggle.Work with, not against, the water. Move like Align your efforts with existing (or natural) forces, like gravity.
  1. Swimming should make you feel good physically. During your swim. Immediately after swimming. And over the long term. If this isn’t the case, review the previous two principles.
  1. Swimming should make you feel better about yourself. If you experience prolonged frustration or a sense of failure, compare your actions to the first three principles.

In my next post I’ll write in detail about the first principle that should guide you as you set priorities, evaluate information—whether an on-line or printed article or an informal suggestion or ‘stroke tip;’ plan a practice or decide how to swim a set or race: Human Swimmers are Energy Wasting Machines.

Beijing Olympics Swimming Mens 50 Freestyle


13 Responses to “From First Principles to Core Principles”

  1. patrick Quinn says:

    These I learned before.
    Later I learned them again.
    Today in the 50 m outdoor pool I remembered them once more…and loved the feel of the water in the early morning.

    They Worked
    They Worked
    They Work!

    I am 84 and still learning to swim efficiently and to counter this ancient energy-wasting machine.

    There are more setbacks these days…more unexpected injuries, making it hard each time to get back in the water and start all over again.
    But Terry comes to mind and I restart once more….and once more…and once more.
    The first time back is slow, slow and tiring, even without trying too hard.
    It takes perhaps a dozen times before the real love of the flow sets back into the subconscious and
    eventually, the conscious mind.
    This time the body tells the mind “it’s OK, we’re fine, we’re back.

    One day….one day… day, at a time until it becomes a joy to swim again without wasting energy.

    Then always comes the resolution “This time I will keep it going, every other day, forever, because I hate having to start all over again”.

    But I know that something can happen outside of my control…a Fall on winter ice…a silly accident at home…an unexpected need for surgery…..the need to take time off to care for someone else in trouble….

    And I also know that if I re-read Terry’s principles or re-view his DVD of freestyle it will get the old blood pumping again. It will re-kindle the desire to feel the beauty of flowing with the water.
    It will restore the will to begin again at first principles.

  2. Vicki Ratermann says:

    Swimming has always been a part of my life and over the last 4 years or so, I have been swimming consistenty 3-4 times per week. I have been practicing total immersion for a while now and can see improvement however I would like to get better. I live in St. Louis but I never see any of your weekend clinics here in St. Louis. I was wondering if you have plans to expand to St. Louis in the future. In spite of the news, St. Louis is really a wonderful city to live and visit.

  3. Vekemans says:

    Hope to see the swimming techniques.

  4. steffi says:

    It is amazing how timely this is for me. The core principals resonate for me but my most difficult one to follow is the last one. Most of the time if feel good about myself but I realized after training for 10k the last few months that most of the time I did not feel good about myself. Finally,2 weeks from the event I decided to not do it. All I could think about was that it would take me 7 hours to do it and it just did not seem worthwhile. I stopped enjoying the rest of my life while swimming became a hyper focus for me. It is not that I did not enjoy my time in the water……I just could not beating myself up over not being faster. I feel great about not doing it. I will kayak for my friend instead and bring my friend home on the final mile or 2.

  5. Jerry says:

    Fantastic article –

    core principles for everything in life – sustainability/economy; seeking improvement; feeling better in doing activity and in results from activity.

  6. Jun says:

    Terry, thank you for sharing your thoughts to an avid fan of yours. I experimented on 6 beat kick and your 2 beat kick. The latter seem to be heavenly. Yes the former creates invitation for the lactic acid as mentioned by you on the internet. Now that you have drop the bomb again on the 5 core principles, this will enable every swimmer to find out their sweet spot. Some of the people I shared were able to swim one mile at 75yrs old. Thanks Terry for making this a better world of Swimming

  7. Barbara shepler says:

    Dear Terry, I had a great swim in Lake Champlain over the weekend. Swam .3 miles from the dock to a buoy, with a short rest treading water, and then back to the dock. Moderate choppy waves, slight current. Love the feel of fresh water, and the open sky. I wear my wetsuit for open water swims. I always feel good about myself, and am always thinking of the balance between efficiency and a more powerful stroke. The one skill I need to improve is the kick. I rarely kick at all.

  8. Barbara shepler says:

    By the way, I’m 65 years old.

  9. Matt swain says:

    I took the ti course 6 months ago and have been practising the core principles since then. I had not swam for 30 years having found swimming too difficult, I have just completed a 4 km Sea swim and intend on a 10k. The hardest thing I have found is the mental endurance. Thanks again TI team.

  10. Fintan says:

    Very admirable sentiments indeed.
    I can’t help thinking there is also quite a bit of hyperbole in the ti camp though. I must first thank you for being responsible for turning this swimmer from someone who the life guards worried would not reach the other end of a 25m pool (shallow to deep) to someone who swims a mile a day.

    It’s this illusion that your hands/arms account for only about 10% of propulsion and that a little flick of the feet is enough to set in motion this cold water fusion in the torso that will propel the swimmer through the water at a fast clip that I have an issue with. There is no evidence of this in the utube clips of you and your instructors swimming at pace. The splash from your hand as it exits the water(an aspect of your swimming that was not present in your instructional video) implies a significant pull as you kept up with Dave and Shinji doing the paced tempo training . Video of Dave Cameron ( we are a similar build) shows a swimmer who is obviously pulling quite hard. Shinji is an enigma as his legs must be hollow!
    For an enjoyable stroll through the water this adjudication of power output will do it of course but how many swimmers who have devoted hours apon hours of time, mental and physical energy want to just stroll.
    On one talk you did say if you want to sprint or race you do have to kick and pull but many of us or at least I just want to get in to the fast lane at our local y and look graceful doing it!

    The elephant in the ti room is that if u want to go fast be prepared to get tired. The idea of just flying down the lane passing splashers like you are ringing a bell is, in my opinion, the snake oil that ti is selling. Is that in your company manifesto maybe not. But it would be hard to deny that it is strongly implied and I wish it wasn’t because I see in blogs and posts and in the pool people frustrated that they are not blasting down the pool while employing the ti technique. Could they and should they get more streamlined? Of course they should, that will always be the main tenant but let’s stop them from believing they are going to go fast without breaking a sweat.

    Your steadfast insistence on streamlining and balance has revolutionized the art of swimming and millions literally (and not least me) owe you a debt of gratitude. I thank you

  11. Fintan
    These are valid points–and I think the questions you raise merit a post devoted to answering them, which I promise to do. In fact I’m writing an article today for the UK open-water swimming magazine H2Open on that very topic. So I can easily digest the main points of the article for a near-future blog post. Maybe even this week.
    In brief here I can clarify that we don’t mean to suggest that one can swim at or near one’s *maximum* potential, speed-wise, without a fair degree of exertion. But the vast majority of the swimmer’s I’ve met are still quite far from their maximum potential. And most of the gains between where they are at present and where they might one day be are far more likely to be gained by taking care to control effort, not maximize it. Undoing that legacy as energy-wasting machines is a long-term exercise in patient and thoughtful application of sound principles.

  12. Sam lyakhovetskyh says:

    Very useful info in all terry’s mails and tapes. In a week I will be 77 and. I could hardly finish
    1000 m with a lot of leg kiking not realizing hom much energy wastet in wain using large leg
    Musles and not realizing how importent streamlining is.
    Now i do a mile easy in 50 min nonstop without being tired thanks to Terry.

    Sam lyakhovetsky.

  13. Sam
    I’m delighted to hear of your progress. My next post will give you insights on how to improve on your current 50 minute mile–and probably feel even easier doing it.

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