Struggle–the right kind– Can Be Good.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on June 29th, 2010

One of the earliest TI mantras was Never Practice Struggle.  We haven’t used it in some years, and now I believe it’s time we officially revised it to Never Practice Carelessly. Improvement is never effortless and the right kind of struggle can teach invaluable lessons.

Struggle is essential to improving your brain’s circuitry. In order to get a  skill circuit to fire optimally, you must first fire it sub-optimally. When you do it inefficiently, you become aware of your errors and have a chance to fix them. Mistakes increase your attention.

Even the swimming you practice after improving should still be effortful — a precisely calibrated kind of effort rather than brute force. Try smarter not harder.

Better skills happen not by trying harder indiscriminately, but by trying harder in thoughtful, purposeful, targeted ways. Here’s a typical sequence of an improvement-minded swimmer working with a new Stroke Thought:

1.    Choose a sensation to create or experience.

2.    Slightly miss the mark on your first try.

3.    Analyze what happened and adjust your intention.

4.    Try again.

5.   Compare the 2nd trial with the first.

6.   Try again, pursuing the more promising path.

Are we ever satisfied with our first effort at a new skill or tweak? Indeed are we ever satisfied with our 100th try?  Not if we’re seeking Continuous Improvement.

3 Responses to “Struggle–the right kind– Can Be Good.”

  1. Doug Alt says:


    The concept of three tries, ONLY, at any particular skill, or portion thereof, is a powerful one.

    Our brains do not just evaluate our learning attempts at the moment that a particular attempt is executed; it processes these experiences repeatedly during the next day or so.

    For example, I worked on the feeling of following my hand “through the hole” in the water earlier today. Now, several hours later, I have been consciously thinking about what worked and what didn’t.

    Subconsciously, as during sleeping and dreaming states, my brain will no doubt continue it’s review process, possibly even more intensely than during my conscious ruminations.

    When there have been just three skill attempts, the sub-conscious brain can remember that I tried something first, then made a correction, and then, based on the results of that, made another correction. Then, there can be an “Ah Ha!” moment in which it becomes clear that either attempt #2 or attempt #3 produced the most desirable results, thus providing a residual image of what it is I am going to attempt on my first try tomorrow.

    However, if there are 15, 20, 30 attempts at a skill, neither the conscious brain nor the sub-conscious one can, even a very short time later, sort through the experiences with any accuracy… “Let’s see, what exactly was it that I tried on attempt #12? Hmmm…. What exactly was the result when I extended my stroke farther down to the side of my thigh during attempts near the end of the session? It’s all such a blur…”

  2. Doug
    Well said. This is not to suggest that 10, 15 or 20 repetitions of a task aren’t worthwhile. When I do a larger number of reps, it’s usually because I feel I’ve begun to lay down a good circuit and am repeating the circuit in order to hone and deepen it. This intention keeps me keenly focused throughout. And indeed, on each, I’m striving to execute as well or better than the best sensation I’ve had previously.

  3. Doug Alt says:

    Yes, there is a difference between trying to learn a brand new skill or sensation and “honing” one that much of the work has already been accomplished on.
    In your book, “Total Immersion”, your philosophy of short attempts at NEW skills was very clear when you repeatedly encouraged 1 pool-length attempts of a particular drill, followed by some THOUGHT while paused at the end of the lane, followed by an attempt at concentrating on a DIFFERENT ASPECT of the drill for the next length.
    Much learning and little boredom occur with this approach!

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