There are no shortcuts to long-term development. Sport like anything else in life is an amalgamation of skills. The way to proficiency must be long, winding and difficult. To take a straight path would be to cheat yourself of precious experience. While some things can be taught, the most valuable lessons are only learnt first hand; the hard way.
True wisdom has to be your own, it can’t be someone else’s. Much in the same way that the proverbial borrowed plume never grows. I will probably never know as much about anything else in my life as I do about competitive swimming. For what it’s worth, in this very narrow esoteric scope, I can claim to be an expert. Afloat, in this amniotic dream, I have swum along with the current of life that has flowed up and down, through countless competitive swimming races all over the globe for over 26 years.
In terms of distance swum, I am nearing the end of my second lap around the Earth. In my teenage years there were character building weeks, totalling over 100 km, comprised of ten pool practice sessions, each over ten kilometres plus gym work. It’s inconceivable to imagine just how much repetition there has been on my journey to mastery, and that’s exactly how it should be.
At first you learn by imitation, with years of practice required to learn the proper form. During this stage you seek to emulate the current masters. I can remember studying the form of the dominant older Caribbean athletes as I watched their races at the regional age group competitions. Back then, before I was winning medals, whatever insight I was able to garner was then brought home as my only souvenir, to be practiced for another year.
Coaches were also instrumental as I relied on their experience to further guide my development in these formative years. Naturally as I progressed, the level of athletes that I sought to emulate also improved until I was fixated on mirroring the very best. I studied Alex Popov’s style and for years practiced how he moved and what he did. I have since been faster than Popov, which goes to show that if you do it right, your idols will eventually become your rivals.
Assiduous emulation can only take you so far. Progress to the next level in any art form requires bold innovation. The imitated and borrowed skills of others must then be made your own through further careful practice and deliberate execution. The art form is then moulded by you to suit your own unique strengths and weaknesses.
This is where the sport becomes an art by embracing the infinite possibilities of subjective right ways to do things. In this way the limits are continually pushed as novel new techniques and skills are inevitably invented that others following behind will seek to emulate and then eventually surpass. The highest level of mastery is rarely known. This is where the art is transcended. At this level, you aren’t just doing it, it’s also doing you. It’s a difficult concept to comprehend, but hopefully this example will help to clarify things.
In baking, at first you follow a recipe, then eventually you adapt the recipe to suit your individual taste. However, there are bakers out there with so many years of experience that they no longer follow a recipe or measure anything anymore. The ingredients seem to be haphazardly thrown together and it comes out perfectly every time.
“How much yeast did you use? How many eggs? What about flour?” To which they might reply perplexingly, “I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly, I just sort of put about that much.” And sometimes to further baffle us, they may say something like, “well if it’s rainy or feels a bit humid I use this much.” At this highest level of expression, the activity is reflexive and is completely natural and unforced.
This is the state that is referred to when you hear great athletes and artists talk about being in “the zone”. It’s a thrilling, incomprehensible state where everything seems to be happening very quickly, with such precision, and yet somehow automatically. In the zone you’re just along for the ride, watching as everything unfolds by itself, exactly the way it’s supposed to be. I would describe it as a controlled accident, that you let happen, free from the conscious intention that brings tension with it.
“Wow! How did you do that?” You might ask. “Hmmm. I don’t know.” They might reply vaguely.
“How did it feel?”
“I can’t really remember. Easy, I guess.” :)