A Brief History of TI
After graduating from St. Johns University in 1972, Terry Laughlin had two job offers: night maintainance work at an elementary school for $6100 per year or head swim coach at the U.S. Merchant Marine Acadaemy for $1200. He chose love over money and has never regretted it.
My first year at Kings Point, I was only 21, the youngest head coach in the NCAA. I felt blessed to have discovered, so early in life, work for which I had a real love and for which I appeared to possess better instincts than I had enjoyed as an athlete. My main motivation as a coach was to find the answer to what had puzzled me as a swimmer — why I had never been able to rise above an average level of performance, despite a willingness to sacrifice and work extremely hard, and why some swimmers were much faster than me, despite always making it look easy.
From Day One, I had a suspicion that the answer was to be found more in the esthetics of swimming, than in "how much and how hard." Good swimmers simply looked better and I had the intuition that teaching less-gifted swimmers to look that way might succeed where sheer hard work had failed me. That approach proved more successful than I would have dared to hope it would. In my first season, I earned recognition as Coach of the Year in our league and knew I had found something I could do with distinction and real enthusiasm. Over the next 16 years, my athletes won 14 individual and relay titles at NCAA Division III, National YMCA, and U.S. Junior National Championships and every team I coached performed far better than they had before. I also qualified swimmers for Olympic Trials in 1980, 1984 and 1988 and produced a number of world-ranked swimmers.
Following Olympic Trials in 1988, I stopped coaching age group swimming, partly from swim-parent-fatigue and partly to find out what else I could do well. For the next four years I earned my living primarily as a writer. But because I loved teaching, I decided to keep my hand in swimming by offering camps for Masters swimmers the next summer at Colgate University in Hamilton NY. I adopted the name Total Immersion from some popular foreign language courses of the time, thinking it ideally suited to swimming.
How the TI Approach Developed
In 1988 I had the good fortune to meet Bill Boomer, who planted the intriguing idea that the "shape of the vessel" might have just as much influence as the "size of the engine" on a swimmer's performance. I had been teaching balance in an instinctive way — and with exciting results — to butterfliers and breaststrokers since 1978. Also in 1978, while watching my swimmers from an underwater window, I had realized that swimmers moved fastest while just gliding in streamline after pushoff. Once they began kicking and stroking, far more of their energy seemed to go into making bubbles than into effective propulsion.
Boomer's theories about "vessel-shaping" and balance supplied a name and rationale for both those insights and I became excited about experimenting with them. The early TI Masters camps provided the perfect laboratory for investigating why swimming efficiently was such a daunting challenge to most humans and for seeking solutions to "the human swimming problem."
TI camps provided a dramatically different set of coaching challenges than I had faced in coaching young people for 16 years: (1) Young people learn swimming skills almost spontaneously and (2) I had months or years of daily practices to work with them. Adults must apply themselves in a dedicated and focused way to overcome years of bad habits or self doubt. And we had only a few days to give them the tools for success in swimming. Those challenges turned into distinct advantages, as they influenced the nature of TI instruction in ways that helped differentiate us from all previous approaches:
- We had to make our presentation so simple and clear that anyone could understand it.
- We had to focus rigorously on outcomes, searching tirelessly for approaches that produced more improvement in less time.
- We had to refine every TI learning progression into a reliable and repeatable process so that, after just a few days, our students would be prepared to be "their own best swimming coach."
- We focused on teaching the person, not just the mechanics, seeking to turn swimming into a "flow activity" and a means of pursuing self-mastery.
The puzzle of how to make swimming easier and more enjoyable to master is still deeply fascinating to me and I consider myself incredibly fortunate that, over 30 years after I began coaching, I still wake up every morning excited about teaching and coaching swimmers. Fortunately our students have provided us with a constant stream of new questions and challenges for which the TI process always offers solutions. The essential lesson we've learned is that a human body moving through water always retains the same properties and is subject to the same physical laws, no matter whether your goal is basic learning, high level performance or wellness/therapy.
This means there can be a unified logical thread for every possible form of teaching or coaching. From a 5 year old child's first lesson, to the coaching that can help a swimmer win an Olympic medal, to guiding a 75-year old through a swimming-therapy program, the principles will all be the same. Total Immersion's mission today is to disseminate knowledge of those principles as widely as we can, so that all swimmers can have better experiences and outcomes.