SWIMMERS, especially keen ones, tend to treat water as the enemy. Pound it with your arms and thrash it with your legs; to go farther and faster, try harder. Another adversary is bodily weakness, signalled by pain and tiredness.

That effort-intensive approach can work well in land-based sports. But it fails in water, which is 800 times denser than air. Friction is the human swimmer’s true foe, particularly as drag increases roughly proportional to the square of your speed. Evolution is partly to blame, for putting breathing holes and muscles in the wrong place. But much of the effort expended in propulsion is wasted too: nobbly limbs tend to create extra commotion. The harder you try, the worse it gets.

The surest sign of such failure, Terry Laughlin reckoned, was bubbles, though he found the froth created by other swimmers a useful guide when overtaking them. A far better approach was total immersion. Not staying in the water for ever, much as he might have liked to had he been born with gills or a blowhole, but mental immersion in the art (more than a science, he said) of slipping through it.

Since he coined the term in 1989, “Total Immersion” has become a bestselling book, a much-watched series of videos, a coaching business and a catchphrase among hydrophiles the world over. It turned even the most timid novices into smooth, confident strokemakers, and honed the technique of champions. Armed with its breathing and concentration techniques, swimmers could leave their heated pools and, like him, embark on even the most daunting open-water swims, in cold, choppy seas across long distances.

Strokes and folks

The idea was easily expressed. Swim silently. Worry less about the power of your engine, and more about the sleekness of your fuselage. Reducing friction is a far more efficient way of increasing speed and endurance than increasing muscle-power. Aim to glide through the water, concentrating on balance, fluidity and relaxation, delaying exhaustion by using just the muscles you need, and only when you need them. Thread your hand through an imaginary slot in the water, he said, treating it like the prow of a ship. Once in the right position a finely judged flick of arm and leg sends you sliding forward, rotating your body for the next stroke in a motion as fluid as the water itself. And each stroke, whether the first or the ten thousandth, should be the same.

Putting it into practice, though, was hard, with the job mostly done by the mind not the body. It was a lifetime’s work. Before prostate cancer claimed him, Mr Laughlin was swimming better than he had ever done before, winning championships and setting records. The secret, he reckoned, was the Kaizen principles at the heart of Japanese manufacturing: continuous incremental improvement “through cleverness, patience and diligence”.

The starting point is unconscious incompetence—when a swimmer does not even realise what is amiss. Next comes conscious incompetence, when you spot what is wrong and try to stop doing it. Then comes conscious competence, when you do the right thing but only with effort, and finally unconscious competence: the mental equivalent of automatic pilot. An added bonus of this stage is that the brain switches from the energy-thirsty cerebral cortex to the much thriftier cerebellum.

Mr Laughlin spent the first half of his life in unconscious incompetence, which he initially blamed on his physique. He was just born with heavy legs, he reckoned. They dragged behind him, low in the water, slowing him down unless he made prodigious, exhausting kicks. It did not stop him being an acclaimed swimming coach, but he was under no illusions about his own prowess: “terminal mediocrity”, he called it later. As a swimming-mad teenager on Long Island, he had been too slow to win a place even in his undistinguished high-school team. He was never going to be the best swimmer in the pool, he reckoned, so would have to settle for being the hardest-working.

It was only in mid-career that the light began to dawn. Balance came first: swimming “downhill”, with his head low, shifted the body’s centre of gravity, lifting the legs. After that, the insights mushroomed.

He did not run his business for money (his wife Alice struggled to keep the books in order) but his unselfconscious enthusiasm drew a cultlike following. Some other swimming gurus were sniffy, or even jealous. Total Immersion might suit beginners or dilettantes, but it lacked oomph. Success at the highest level demands raw effort, not pretty wiggles. His advice was indeed easy to caricature, but he disarmed his critics by agreeing with them. More muscle and faster propulsion were great. For most swimmers, though, the biggest gains would come not from extreme fitness but intense concentration.

The real gulf was that his approach’s mental focus and discipline owed more to dance, tai chi and yoga than to the sweaty world of weights and circuits. It might sound “airy-fairy”, but the ultimate aim was to achieve “communion” with the water, he said. Humans will never be able to swim as efficiently as dolphins, but at least they can try.