Sports regimens can fall stagnant, with coaches recycling stale training tactics developed decades ago. Then an innovator comes along challenging past assumptions with a radical new design. In the world of swimming that person is Terry Laughlin. As a coach and competitive distance swimmer Laughlin began observing limitations of advancing through traditional “kick and pull” harder swim routines. He embarked on his own 360-degree study of all aspects of humans in water, creating the Total Immersion Swimming (TI) program. Water is 900 times thicker than air and in it humans are generally only 3 percent efficient. Based on that TI teaches swimming through better balance, efficiency, and technique that translates more energy into forward movement with less energy diverted into moving the water around. TI’s grown into a business and global instruction program for both beginning and competitive swimmers. It’s gained considerable traction with the rapidly growing sport of open water distance swimming, where athletes navigate miles through large bodies of water. Terry’s become professor, practitioner, and Zen master of TI. He’s consulted The US Navy SEALs and leads seminars globally on faster, more efficient swimming. At 61 years old Terry also continues to compete, applying his own methods to regularly finish in the top 10-15 percent of races, often ahead of competitive swimmers less than half his age.
ArchetypeMe: How did you develop TI and formalize into a global business and program?
Terry Laughlin: I offered the first TI program in 1989, but our most formative period was between 1992 and 1995, when triathlon moved toward being a mainstream sport. Very quickly ‘adult-onset’ swimmers began coming to us in large numbers, eventually accounting for 70 percent of all workshop attendees. Though I’d coached since 1972, they presented challenges I’d never encountered. Mainly they were so uncomfortable, and lacking in ‘water awareness’ that traditional coaching methods–which heavily emphasized the pull and kick–weren’t working. We began to experiment with drills designed to increase comfort and improve body control. The drills we used were relatively primitive versions of the balance drills we teach today, yet they had an immediate and dramatic effect. And not only on the late-starters, but even more experienced swimmers. My fellow coaches and I saw all our students progress far more rapidly–becoming transformed from strugglers into reasonable facsimiles of swimmers literally overnight. I felt this was something people who couldn’t attend a TI workshop would want to know about, so I wrote the original TI book, published in 1996. Within a year it had become the best-selling swim book in the world and has remained so ever since. The exposure and credibility provided by the book transformed something that had been a kind of pastime, into a business and brought TI to the attention of people all over the world.
How is TI being applied globally today?
There are about 400 certified TI coaches in 20 countries today, and enthusiasts in many more. We haven’t yet trained coaches in China (though we have quite a few in Taiwan and Hong Kong), but two of my books have been published in Chinese and I understand there’s robust discussion of TI on swim websites there. They call it “swim like a ‘spirit’ (ghost).” I like that so much I’ve begun telling people in our open water camps to filter through crowded packs like ghosts. As for military applications, besides the Navy Seals, the Army Rangers, Air Force Parajumpers, Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers and the U.S. Border Patrol have all sent officers and instructors to us for training. And TI-Israel has worked with their naval special forces units. There may be others I’m not aware of.
What do you consider TI’s greatest contribution to swimming so far?
I believe we’ve made two significant contributions. One, the form of freestyle we teach was an evolutionary leap in a form that had remained relatively static for nearly 90 years after Charlie Daniels introduced the American crawl in 1904. Before TI, average people who wanted to swim more than a few lengths had two choices — swim breaststroke, or — if they wanted to swim distance freestyle — get serious coaching and training. When we introduced balance and streamlining as the foundational skills, freestyle became an ‘Everyman’s Endurance’ stroke for people who were self-coached, and even not young, fit, or athletic. Our second significant contribution was to advocate that swimming should be done as a practice, in the spirit of yoga, ta’i chi or meditation, rather than a workout. By practice I mean a set of studied activities and thinking patterns done to produce enduring positive change in body, mind and spirit. TI students came to us for the former, but express far more gratitude for the latter.
Have there been any surprise applications to your TI approach to swimming to other sports or activities?
In the early 90s, many of our students noted similarities between TI methods and those of martial and performing arts. I began to study those, and a bit of eastern philosophy, and saw common patterns. I intuited there were universal principles for learning and practicing movement, or most anything. Traditional teaching and coaching in swimming violated most of them, but I thought there was likely more wisdom to be found in disciplines that had been taught and practiced for thousands of years. In the late 90s, after seeing some TI workshop alum who made utterly stunning transformation, I began to study Mastery (George Leonard), Flow (Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly) and Dr Anders Ericsson’s Excellence Project. I found that cognitive and behavioral psychologists had catalogued a set of behaviors and mindsets (Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in Outliers) in people who achieved eminence in a wide range of endeavors. So we began explicitly teaching those behaviors alongside instruction in movement.
What’s should we look to see in the future from TI?
I’ve written that “The purpose of swimming is the pursuit of happiness.” Since the Dalai Lama wrote that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, I feel I’m on solid ground in asserting this. I expect we will give even more emphasis in our teaching to helping people understand the nature of happiness, what produces it, as well as what doesn’t, and to helping them trust their intuition more; to align their core values with their actions.
You often speak of swimming as more than a sport or competitive endeavor. Do you see it taking spiritual qualities?
A couple of years ago, while being interviewed by a writer for a fitness magazine, I felt unable to connect my answers to her questions. I realized the problem was her questions were based on an implicit assumption of swimming as exercise, while I’d shifted to viewing it as a movement art – and that exercise benefits were simply something that ‘happened’, or icing on the cake for the psychic rewards I was getting. As for having spiritual qualities, I try to be concrete and empirical. I don’t want it to become like the Hindu/Sanskrit chanting in yoga class, which feels somewhat alien to me. When I refer to aspects of spirit I describe in terms like being able to make choices with confidence, to experience a sense of boundless possibility and self-determination. Nearly anyone can relate to that, and it’s wholly realistic.
How has development of TI squared with your own swimming and staying competitive as you get older? Until what age do you think you can continue to improve competitively using your own evolving TI method?
First of all, despite the fact that I’ve given such emphasis to mindful, holistic practice, I always have been, and remain, an intensely competitive person. I love to race, particularly in open water, and get real joy from racing well. I don’t measure this by how many people I beat, but by how well I stay calm, focused, resourceful, adaptable, and enjoy every moment. I also race to demonstrate that swimming the TI Way doesn’t infer any complacency about competitive success. And yes, I do expect to keep improving as I age. Being able to define ‘better’ flexibly is essential to remaining Kaizen with age. If I’m fortunate to swim for another 30 years I do believe I’ll be a better swimmer at 91 than I am today. But more importantly the commitment to practice with clear purpose will enrich every day from now to then.