A swimmer’s perspective on deliberate practice


Last week I wrote about how the Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s approach to swimming can teach us a lot about the power of staying in the present moment. What Thorpe described was a clear decision to treat every swim as a new experience, and to ‘listen’ to the water to find out how the present conditions would affect the way he would swim.


We left Mr Thorpe diving into the pool, and then gliding in the water, prior to beginning a stroke. This week we are going to look at what he does next, because I think it has a major lesson for how we can all stay in the present moment more.

Thorpe continues:

“As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body. I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke…”*

Thorpe doesn’t listen to the water once and then stop. He keeps doing it. As he swims, he is constantly receiving feedback from the water, and he uses that feedback to help him choose how to swim even better.

But how does he do that? How does Ian Thorpe have the time and the brain space to keep that sort of contact with the feedback he receives from the water, even when racing?

The answer is surprisingly simple.


Ian Thorpe loves swimming. And not just the racing and winning. He loves the practice. His autobiography is full of descriptions of the technical changes he is making to his strokes as he returns to competitive swimming. And towards the end of the book he says “I enjoy aspects of training that most people would think as drudgery; for me, it’s an exploration of what I can achieve.”**

Thorpe has a fascination with the technical aspects of his sport. This is no different to my musician students: the trombonist playing ‘the opens’, or the flautist playing long notes. By working on the most basic elements of their technique many times, they seek to attain a mastery that will inform and enhance the way they play more complex material.

This type of practice is a long way from ‘performance’. Even James Galway would stretch an audience’s goodwill by coming onstage and playing long notes at them! But it is an essential component of end-of-goal performance readiness.

FM Alexander talks about this too. When he was trying to solve his voice problems initially, he realised that he needed to practice the plan he had created to help him achieve his goal of speaking, but separate it from any sense of end-of-goal performance. And he needed to practice it a lot.

“I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to “do” them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice.” ***

Because Ian Thorpe has spent countless hours in the pool (and out of it) working on his technique, because he has thought, analysed and planned his swimming stroke – because, in short, he has spent his preparation time carefully – he has the space to ‘listen’ to the water consistently and make changes as he swims.

So if there is an activity that is troubling you, can you do this?

  • Can you break the activity down into some basic key elements, like the flautist’s long notes? (Eg for moving from sitting to standing, moving at the hip joint might be a key component)
  • Can you practice the key components by themselves, just for their own sake?
  • Can you find a fascination in attaining mastery of the key components?
  • And when you’ve done this and brought that knowledge back to the activity at hand, does it make a difference?

Email me and let me know. 🙂


* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xii.
** ibid., p.283.
*** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.424.
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