"Outside the Box", A Total Immersion Program for Success in Open Water by Terry Laughlin
Part One: Why Swim Outside the Box?
Interest in open water swimming is probably greater now than ever before. Triathlon has a lot to do with it, but appreciation for nature, and a desire to experience it close-up, is probably a close second. Many people will swim only in open (or perhaps fresh) water, because of an aversion to either pool chemicals or pool confines. But many others haven’t yet experienced the joy of open water swimming, either because they’re accustomed to the structure of lap counts (72 lengths equals a mile) and lap times or for the security of lane lines and a bottom you can see.
If you’re in the former group, you need no convincing to swim in open water. For you, this section explains the ways in which your passion can be, not only rewarding, but also advantageous to your progress toward swimming better than ever. For those who have been reluctant to leave the pool and perhaps have felt you could swim your best only with the structure it offers, this section details why open water offers unique opportunities to develop higher level skills—indeed skills you may not have even realized were possible—and to instill greater passion for swimming at the same time. Perhaps it will even tempt you to enter an open water race.
Living on Planet Water At 5:30 on a cool June morning, with the sun still below the trees, my training partner, Dave Barra, and I wade into a mountaintop lake in upstate New York. Unlike most lakes, this one has an aqua tint and clarity reminiscent of tropic seas, but a temperature range (60s and 70s in summer) familiar to anyone who has swum in the “north country.” After pedaling to the lake on a challenging, 4-mile uphill mountain trail, our first dip in the bracingly cold water feels refreshing.
As we stroke a mile to the far end past evergreens, mountain laurel, and cliffs, we synchronize our strokes and swim noiselessly to preserve the predawn peace. About halfway down the lake, the sun breaks over the treeline behind us enveloping us in a golden glow. At the
far end, we pause and take in our surroundings before swimming back to where we started.
Six months later, at 7:00 on a December morning, I set off across mile-wide High Rock Bay on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas accompanied by Dave, Greg Sautner, Willie Miller, and Justin Dimmel (all featured on the Outside the Box DVD). As we swim south, glimpsing the rising sun each time we breathe left, we match strokes, concentrating so intently on synchronizing them that a mile passes before we know it. As we return, hugging sheer rock walls that line the bay we relax our formation to study the coral reef twelve feet below and its marine
life that included rays, barracuda, and the occasional nurse shark.
My good friend and TI enthusiast, Steve Leveen (co-founder, with his wife Lori of Levenger, Inc.) recently said that he finds it ironic that we refer to Planet Earth when fully 70 percent is water. “Shouldn’t we call it Planet Water?” he asked. And so we will, at least here. This book is dedicated to the idea of fully inhabiting Planet Water, via the knowledge, skill, and confidence to explore and enjoy the best of its wet parts.
As an inhabitant of Planet Water, I’ve swum in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, the Caribbean Sea and countless ponds, lakes, sounds, bays, and rivers. I’ve swum in that mountain lake at dawn and by the light of a full moon. On two occasions I’ve swum completely around Manhattan Island—28.5 miles, under the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and 12 other spans, through three rivers (East, Harlem, and Hudson), past South Street Seaport, the Empire State Building, and Yankee Stadium, as well as a West Side sewage treatment plant that handles the effluent for 1.6 million people, and through both Hell Gate, which is rumored to swallow small boats in its vortexes, and Spuyten Duyvil (Dutch for “spittin’ devil”)—all of this past hundreds, perhaps thousands, of curious
onlookers, many of whom probably considered me crazy.
I’ve swum solo on occasion but far more often with friends, sometimes just enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company, often “cooperating” in various ways, such as swimming inches apart side-by-side or in single file, matching stroke rates, or swimming in a pass-the-leader paceline. Often, we’re rehearsing open water racing tactics, but our greater motivation is that the skill and concentration required to do these well makes this the most
pleasurable swimming any of us can imagine.
About those races: Many of you who read this book or study the video it complements will be interested mainly in improving your performance in races, but the most rewarding outcome, as it has been for me, will be to increase your enjoyment of races. In the pool, you swim against the clock. In open water, you swim the course . . . the conditions . . . and the
competition. It takes resourcefulness and focus to do that well.
Last Words: Learned Talent
I will conclude this book with thoughts that I might just as well have included in the Introduction. But I began writing Outside the Box about six months ago and these ideas have only crystallized as I wrote the final chapters, while also reading two books. While I write on swimming, I seem to have learned far more about how to practice
and teach swimming from reading about other topics.
The two books are The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Both investigate whether excellent achievement is a product of inborn/innate traits, or of learned behaviors. It will come as no surprise when I say “talent” can be learned,
as that message has been repeated on nearly every page herein.
Coyle’s book begins by describing what he calls “talent hotbeds” around the world. These are areas that consistently produce a stunningly disproportionate number of individuals who reach elite status in their field. I first read of talent hotbeds two years ago in Coyle’s New York Times article How to Grow a Super Athlete. He described a visit to Spartak tennis club in Moscow, which boasts a single, dilapidated, often-freezing indoor court that has produced more top-20-ranked women’s tennis players over the last three years
than the entire United States!
In visiting other talent hotbeds — Brazil for soccer, the Dominican Republic for baseball, South Korea for women’s golf, as well as nonsports hotbeds, such as a classical music camp based in a cluster of rustic cabins in the Adirondacks, and a storefront pop music academy in Dallas, which rolls out pop music stars as if from an assembly line –
Coyle observed strikingly similar teaching methods in each.
In each place, though novices show no special aptitude at first, they quickly blossom via what is called deep — or deliberate – practice. Each hotbed has found a way to motivate and teach that results in practice that is thoughtful, analytical and rigorously
focused on improvement.
Deep practice requires you to consistently leave your comfort zone for a discomfort zone – tirelessly seeking out skills or tasks just beyond your reach and patiently breaking them down until you can master them. Mistakes make you “smarter” by forcing you to slow down, understand your difficulty and fix it. Experiences that initially feel like failure or obstacles become advantageous in the long haul. Psychology – specifically self-perception – plays a central role in sparking the motivation that finding and fixing errors requires. A fascinating anecdote in Colvin’s book related a study which followed a group of young public school music students from the first days of elementary school through high school. One factor correlated more than any other with how proficient they became after 10
years of practice.
As they chose an instrument, even before beginning lessons, the kids were asked how long they expected to play – the current year, throughout their school years, or for life. Those who voiced a lifelong commitment progressed 400 percent more than those who committed for one year. Thinking of themselves as musicians, not temporary students of an instrument, led them to practice with the purposefulness and focus described above. Even when their practice time was just 20 minutes a week, they still learned more than the less committed group
learned in 90 minutes of practice.
I mention this because, ever since becoming aware of myelin and the behaviors and attitudes that produce excellence, I’ve thought of swimming as the ideal “laboratory” for proving these theories. As I’ve noted several times, man has been poorly equipped by evolution to swim. And as you’ve probably already learned, open water raises the challenges of pool swimming to the nth power. But, to the resourceful and opportunistic open water swimmer, every problem or obstacle perceived by the less venturesome is an opportunity for learning, empowerment
By making the time to read this book, you – like those young musicians – are saying “I am an open water swimmer.” Congratulations on
making that declaration and welcome to Planet Water. Enjoy it.
New Paltz NY
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Safety First Swimming in a pool is predictable and unchanging; it may be confining but it’s safe. Open water is less familiar and less predictable. Consequently your exposure to risk can be considerable: One friend was nearly scalped by a personal watercraft in Cozumel, Mexico, where English singer Kirsty MacColl was killed by a speedboat while swimming with her sons. Another friend, Laura Lopez-Bonilla, broke her nose in an encounter with a sculler while training in Dover Harbor for an English Channel swim. Avoid swimming near watercraft if you can.
If you must swim in such places, stay near shore and ask someone to escort you on a paddleboard, kayak, or canoe for visibility.
Never dive into water where you cannot see, or are unfamiliar with, the bottom. Enter carefully, even when going in feet first.Be familiar with currents, sweeps, and tides. If you are swimming where one of these is present, swim against the flow first so that, if you tire, the current can help return you to your starting point. And be aware that currents can change while you swim.
Know the hazards that marine life may present, from jellyfish to sharks. Swim with at least one buddy whenever possible, and, if you must swim alone, swim parallel to shore at a depth in which you can stand at any time. Take care and always use good judgment.
About Terry Laughlin Terry is the founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion. At age 12 in 8th grade, he was the only person cut during tryouts for his grade school swim team. At 16 as a high school senior, he failed to qualify for the NYC Catholic High School championship. At 20 as a college senior, he didn’t make a single championship final in the Met College Conference in NYC. Yet, since turning 55 in 2006, he has won four National Masters Long Distance championships, broken national age group records for the 1- and 2-Mile Cable Swims on three occasions, medaled in the World Masters Open Water Championship, been the top-ranked 55-59 open water swimmer in the U.S., and completed his second 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. This book explains how Terry became a open-water overachiever in midlife.
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