The Mental Side of Swimming — Types of Focal Points

So what do you think about when you are doing your swim training or lap swimming?  If it’s not about how you are actually moving through the water and the quality of your movement, you are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to improve and to enjoy your swimming.  Total Immersion coaches like me call these thoughts, “focal points.”  Terry Laughlin, head coach of Total Immersion Swimming, gave a amazing webinar yesterday for Total Immersion Academy members on this topic.  I wanted to pass along my thoughts on a big take-away that I got from the seminar:  the different types of focal points.

Most of you reading this article are successful and confident people who want to do things well, deepen your enjoyment, and want to apply a system that makes “adult sense” (read:  logical).  Swimming can be such a challenging thing to improve and simply going out and going longer or swimming harder like most youth program do is not the quickest way from starting point A to success point B.  Getting to B involves training your mind as much as your body.

Elite athletes stay mentally on task, have expert level self-perception, and practice delivering precise instructions to their muscles.  Most of us don’t have the time to invest like the elites, but we do want to learn from their success and bring those lessons into our amateur world.  Simply put, what they do well is staying focused on what they are doing.  The only way you can get to that level of mental fitness is by practicing it every day.  But what do you focus on?  I wanted to write this blog article to introduce you to different ways of staying engaged when you swim.

Focal points fall largely into three categories.  You can think about:

1.  How well you are practicing a particular skill (e.g., a stroke drill or focused swimming)?  You can focus on one of the following when practicing a skill:

  • Body Comfort and Control, Balance and Stability
  • Body Shape, Alignment, and Streamlining
  • Body Movement such as timing, propulsion, and breathing, stroke counts, tempo

2.  What is each part or area of your body doing when practicing a skill?  He describes doing a “nose-to-tail” pilots checklist where you do a body scan and see what each part of your body is doing at a time:

  • Head/Spine
  • Hands/Arms
  • Torso
  • Legs

You can focus on one area for a period of time or move from one area to another on a single repeat.

3.  Can you shift between different types of thoughts?

  • Internal Thoughts — How are you communicating to your muscles what they should do?
  • External Thoughts — What feedback are you getting from your environment?  Are you getting kinesthetic feedback on how easily you are flowing through the water?  What sounds or other auditory feedback are you making when you swim (note:  the quieter the better)?  What visual feedback are you getting (e.g., passing tiles on the bottom, what the arm and hand extension looks like, what you look like in a mirror if you are fortunate to have it)?
  • Visualization — Can you visualize in your mind prior to executing the skill or set what it should look, feel, and sound like?

You can get a list of focal points and skill drills at the Total Immersion website, in the Perpetual Motion Freestyle and other TI DVDs, and in books like Triathlon Swimming Made Easy.

So why is this important?  The way to get better is being able to observe what you are doing well, where you are coming up short, and adjust what you are doing to get more of the former and less of the latter.  While counting laps and either tracking elapsed time or intervals does give you feedback, they give such broad feedback on your swimming that you are missing out on so much extra input.  It’s the proverbial use of an elephant gun to shoot a fly.

The big thing is to never do a lap without having some type of mental focus for what you are doing.  The first step is setting your mental goal and seeing how you do.

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