Total Immersion Technique in The Endless Pool

Swimming guru Terry Laughlin had been a championship coach for 15 years when he developed his own Total Immersion swimming technique. He contributed this article about using the Endless Pool for his method.

When I first met the Endless Pools people, I realized that while they had every reason to be proud of the modern pool they designed, even they didn't fully appreciate what a marvelous swimming space they had created for learning to swim beautifully. What they thought of as a good solution to an intriguing engineering problem – how to create a recirculating smooth water flow in an enclosure – I found to be a swimming teacher's – and student's -- Nirvana.

Total Immersion (TI) has achieved an enthusiastic global following for a uniquely satisfying approach to swimming that we call "Fish-like." We've been teaching it to improvement-minded adults for 15 years, through private and group classes as well as with self-help tools – books, videos and DVD's. The Total Immersion method is the first to show humans how to swim much like fish – concentrating on balance, "slippery" positions and fluent propelling movements. More succinctly it's about learning to work with the water, rather than battling your way through it. Those who master it feel transformed by the experience of becoming one with the water and the mind-body connection created by focusing on the quality, fluency and subtlety of each movement…all of which I discovered could be markedly heightened in an Endless Pool.

Traditional swimming focuses mainly on laps and more laps, on going harder and longer, pushing yourself to build endurance. Total Immersion creates endurance effortlessly by eliminating the energy wasted in making waves and creating turbulence. I found it far easier to eliminate energy waste in an environment that eliminates such distractions as lap counts, the pace clock or artificial aids like buoys and kickboards – all the accoutrements of a regular lap pool. In the Endless Pool, all that's left are you, the water and the quality of your movements. It's the perfect sanctuary for practice of intelligent, purposeful, economical swimming.

Mastering Balance
The starting point for the Total Immersion learning process is a series of balance exercises. Once mastered, they help a swimmer become more comfortable and more self-aware than they've ever been before. The key to mastering balance is learning to position the head, torso and legs in rather exacting ways. Subtle departures from these positions usually result in the swimmer being noticeably less comfortable and somewhat more inhibited.

During my first experiences teaching Total Immersion balance basics in an Endless Pool I was in the pool, at my student's side, occasionally reaching to tweak the flow control. I immediately noticed two tremendous advantages for teacher and student:

1. Because of my constant proximity – i.e. the student remains in the current just inches away from me at all times – I was able to give my student a far greater sense of comfort and security than would be the case if they were moving away from me. They, in turn, would allow me to move them far more easily into the best position.

2. Also because of that proximity, I could manually position the head, shoulder, legs or extended hand exactly where I wanted it. I could also manually sense tension or inhibition and touch that spot with encouragement to let go. The best way I can describe the experience is that I felt like a chiropractor in the pool.

Learning Movement
The second stage of Total Immersion instruction, following mastery of the balance drills, is a thoughtfully choreographed sequence of linked movements –- called "Switch drills" -- that teach the swimmer how to rotate the body as a source of rhythm and power, and to connect carefully timed arm movements to that body rotation. Again, the Endless Pool offered unique advantages. Because these movements are non-instinctive, a major goal of the lesson series is to use repetition to imprint timing and consistency on muscle-memory. Repeating cycles of the Total Immersion Switch drills, without needing to stop and turn around every 25 yards, allowed my student to find the right rhythm and then continue repeating – and imprinting – for as long as they liked. Uninterrupted imprinting of the desired movement greatly accelerates the learning process. More cycles of correct movement, while eliminating practice of incorrect movements, has always been a key to successful skill acquisition.

Pure Practice
While at the Ironman World Championship last October in Kailua-Kona Hawaii, I spent an hour or more each day practicing Total Immersion drills and whole-stroke swimming in the Endless Pool. While I have long been in the habit of "mindful" swimming practice, I found I achieved a higher level of concentrated attention to what really matters than I ever had in a conventional lap pool. Both in repeating drill cycles and whole-stroke practice, all of the following were helpful to my focus:

1. The mirror.
The Endless Pool in Kona had two mirrors, one propped at an angle against the front wall, the other flat on the bottom under my head and torso. I ignored the front mirror and watched the floor mirror without distraction. Constant observation and feedback on my movements kept me riveted and allowed me to make my own tweaks "in real time." It was better than having a coach watching me because the feedback was constant and direct.

2. The current.
This allowed me not only to continue repeating good movement over and over; it also gave me a heightened sense of the real problem swimmers must solve to improve their endurance or speed – how to avoid drag. Total Immersion puts great emphasis on achieving "slippery" positions by fitting the body through the smallest possible hole in the water. In a still-water pool, the swimmers concentrate to be more aware of drag on body surfaces.

But when the current is coming directly at you, as in the Endless Pool, it's far easier to sense. In essence, you focus on "parting the water" and on exposing less surface area to the current. As soon as you do, you feel your effort decrease.

3. The combination.
The combination of floor mirror with oncoming current provides a really powerful learning tool. Watching your own face in the mirror is the easiest way to tell how effectively you're swimming. If the current begins to overpower your stroking efforts, you drift backward until you no longer see yourself. As soon as you make a stroke correction – i.e. getting your head in line with your spine, slicing your hand in more cleanly, rotating your body more, swimming more quietly -- you instantly know if it's a good one because you see yourself move effortlessly forward in the mirror. Read on to discover how I used this combination in more advanced coaching.

Stroke "Tweaking"
While at the Ironman in Hawaii, I spent the final two days prior to the race coaching athletes who were entered in the race. My main concern in working with them was to avoid doing anything to upset their delicate state of race-readiness. Thus, using Total Immersion drills to "remake" their stroke would be out of the question. Instead I decided to work with their own stroke, using the current and mirror to help them become a bit more efficient, using a process that would help them crystallize the new efficiency into a feeling that could easily be captured and accessed on race day. Standing at poolside (I only teach from inside the pool while introducing balance drills) I instructed each athlete to begin by taking 20 strokes so I could observe their stroke. Virtually all swam with head too high and arm stroke too rapid and rough. I was able, in five minutes, to achieve stunning gains in smoothness and efficiency with the following set of instructions:

1. First I told the swimmer to look directly into the floor mirror. "Just take 20 strokes while you get used to looking at your own face," I would say. In virtually every case, their head would soon be aligned with the spine, just as we teach at Total Immersion. If not, I could easily reach over and tip it further down. And as soon as they repositioned the head, I would also see their body position become more horizontal and balanced. When they finished 20 strokes I'd ask what felt different when they looked down.

Most would reply that they felt as if they were in better position.

2. With their body position improved, I would then tell them to swim another 20 strokes, still looking in the mirror. "Now," I'd say, "observe your arms going forward and see how slowly you can extend your hand without letting yourself drift back." Again there would be an almost instantaneous improvement in form. As they solved the puzzle of stroking more slowly with no loss of "speed" (i.e. keeping constant position in the current), they would, without even thinking about it, improve their stroke length and body rotation.

3. Finally, I would have them take 20 further strokes with the following focal point: "Without changing anything you're doing already, just swim as quietly as you possibly can – if there's any noise or splash in your stroke, do whatever it takes to eliminate it." And once again there would be a further improvement in their swimming. More flow, more economy, less roughness. At that point, I'd suggest they take another 20 to 30 strokes simply to consolidate the new sensation so they could recapture it on race day.

During these sessions, there were usually 4 to 10 people watching. They couldn't help but comment on how immediate and striking were the improvements in each swimmer's form. It was easily noticeable even to casual onlookers. Though most were untutored in the formalities of swimming technique, I asked how they'd describe the change they had observed. "Easier," "smoother," and "longer" were the most common observations. From my coach's perspective what was stunning was how ideally suited the Endless Pool was to using "self-discovery exercises" for improvement in technique. The combination of self-observation in the mirror, the adjustability of the current and the absence of distractions like the pace clock and lap count allowed me to design problem-solving exercises that led to more improvement, more quickly than I have ever been able to realize in a conventional pool in 30 years of coaching.

The Bottom Line
The Total Immersion method, as demonstrated in our videos/DVD's and books, is ideally suited for learning to swim for fitness, pleasure or speed and the Endless Pool is ideally suited for both learning and practice of the Total Immersion method. I will soon be installing an Endless Pool at my own house for teaching and practice and have already begun recommending them to Total Immersion Teaching Professionals as their first option for a teaching pool. Total Immersion will shortly launch a program we call Swim School in a Box, which will provide a Total Immersion teaching curriculum specifically adapted for use with an Endless Pool and will make Total Immersion instruction more accessible for all who wish to learn or improve their swimming, or Teach Total Immersion's fish-like method in an Endless Pool. I look forward to a lifetime of Happy Laps in my Endless Pool.

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