What Terry Laughlin Taught me about Swimming and Mastery

A month ago, at the age of 66, Terry Laughlin died of prostate cancer. I’ve never met Terry, but I feel like I know him through his books and videos. Terry is the founder of Total Immersion swimming, the revolutionary approach to swimming that can turn anyone (even me), into a relaxed, successful swimmer.

Terry Laughlin demonstrating freestyle in 2013. Photo by Robert Fagan
Swimming is a funny thing: on a planet covered by water, more than 37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25 yard pool. I was nearly part of those numbers. Though I’m a lifelong athlete, from the age of 6 swim lessons terrified me, and as recently as three years ago, while I could swim 25 yards of freestyle, I’d grab at the end of the pool, panting, looking incredulously around me at the people of all ages, shapes and sizes swimming lap after lap without needing a breather.

In 2015 an arm injury finally got me back into the pool. Over the course of a year, I willed my way to swimming a mile. But there was always a sense of lurking panic, always a survival instinct kept at bay that could kick in at any moment—never mind that air is literally an inch away and all I need to do is turn my head to breathe.

I finally decided that muscling my way through the water wasn’t my goal, and, urged on by a friend who can swim across the Long Island Sound, I bought some of Terry’s books and videos.

The funny thing about these books and videos is that they don’t start with swimming. They start with floating.

Terry’s entire philosophy is based on the notion that all of swimming is taught the wrong way. In Terry’s view, we spend most of our energy in the water trying not to drown, which is why we get so tired and why we move forward so little. If we could learn to float and balance, we could swim effectively, efficiently, and with joy. As Terry famously states, “it’s not the size of the motor [how hard you stroke and kick] that matters, it’s the shape of the vessel.”

That may be, but “vessel shaping,” Terry Laughlin-style, can feel like a pretty silly activity.

Having read much of Terry’s Ultra Efficient Freestyle book, I eventually find myself in my local pool trying out Lessons One and Two from the book. They are titled “Torpedo” and “Superman,” and both involve pushing off the bottom of the pool and just floating with arms at your side (Torpedo) and extended (Superman). Over and over again.

Imagine, if you will, those same swimmers speeding past me, cranking lap after lap, and I’m just trying to float the right way. Funny, right?

But eventually I learn how to float face down and not sink.

And then I learn how to float on my back and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side and not sink, and to extend one arm and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side, with one arm extended, and face my head down and kick. And then I’m supposed to effortlessly rotate up to breathe. 

But I can’t. 

Whenever I try, I start to struggle, and then strain, and then panic. After a few tries, and lots of water up my nose, I stop. A few weeks after that, I skip to the next lesson and tell myself that this step probably wasn’t all that important after all. I work my way to the end of the book. I’m a bit of a better swimmer. But in my heart I know that I skipped the most important parts.

When Terry passed away, I had a sense of loss, and, in honor of him, I went all the way back to the beginning of the book to start again. A year later after I’d given up, I find myself back at lesson two, trying to learn to breathe on my side without panicking.

And it still doesn’t come easily to me. But I’m keeping at it. And this time, with a bit more perspective and appreciation, I’m also using it as a chance to learn about how I learn: to observe how committed I really am; and to notice the gap between the narrative I tell myself about what I’d like to learn (the videos I’m happy to watch, the book I’m happy to read) and how many hours I’m willing to spend in the pool—when I have lots of other priorities and lots of other ways to exercise that come more easily.

Most of all, it’s a chance to watch my own narrative of failure, because mostly I feel like I’m failing. Each time I fail, after blowing up water out of my nose and cursing a bit, I ask myself: do I really, truly, believe that I will fail at this forever? Is it possible that if I put in time and concerted effort, that I am the one person in the world who simply cannot accomplish this?

Yes, it’s possible. But it’s unlikely. And since  each next “thing” that Terry has me do is such a tiny increment on the last thing, failing this time means I never really mastered the last step, or I’m not willing to master the next one.

The frustrating, amazing thing is, it’s never Terry’s fault, and it’s never a lesson that doesn’t work. It’s really about what I’m willing to do: the time I am willing to put in, how deliberately I am willing to practice, how well I deal with the plateaus.

And while part of this endeavor is about my interest in learning how to swim, beyond that, I am interested in what Terry has to teach me, and teach all of us, about mastery. Because what Terry has done is to take his passion for swimming and create a program for self-taught mastery that literally anyone can accomplish. Each step is so clear, so well thought through, and broken into such small pieces that each can be digested and practiced if you have the will and the persistence and the capacity for reflection and self-observation. 

And what Terry’s done with swimming could be applied to just about anything. It’s a question of our willingness to take the time to deconstruct something, to deeply understand its component parts, and to commit ourselves to the often repetitive, focused, intentional work of rewiring our nervous system or our limbic system or our musculoskeletal system or our habitual thoughts and feelings, until they, slowly but surely, change.

This is how we can learn anything, without all the false stories about our own limits and the talent we do and don’t have.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s joy, insight, and wisdom, I’d encourage you to listen to this podcast he recorded with Tim Ferris less than two weeks before he passed away. I found it deeply moving.

In the meantime, I’ll keep going to the pool, less than I’d like to think I would, but more than not at all. I believe that one day I will become an effortless swimmer, and I commit that until then, I will keep walking the path.

Here’s to you, Terry.

3 thoughts on “What Terry Laughlin Taught me about Swimming and Mastery

  1. You know what will make you learn it fully? Teaching your children to swim using his methods. I learned to swim by floating first as a very small child, I’ve taught all my children and nieces and nephews that same way. It’s a critical beginning and you’re never too young to learn to love the water. When we teach something to our children it not only cements it in our brains, but we have to be the brave, superhero so that they won’t be scared. It changes the way you approach things, and it makes it more natural and easier to let go. Take your kids to the pool this summer and you’ll be amazed how fast it sinks in.

  2. I myself love swimming and aqua therapy, but I am like you described yourself, in that I never feel like a super strong swimmer. I’m excited to read some of Terry’s books now that I have heard you describe your success. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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