Overachiever's Diary, a new book for triathletes and swimmers by Louis Tharp with Laurie Ferguson, Ph.D., is composed mainly of emails Tharp sent to West Point Triathlon Club members during the 2006 and 2007 season. Tharp, the team's swim coach, doesn't merely present practice outlines; these emails detail the how's and why's of each workout's focus.
Tharp, an "unabashed disciple of Total Immersion principles," breaks the book into three sections: Mechanics (which takes up most of the book), Math and Motivation. The book's greatest strength is how Tharp's emails challenge the swimmers to experiment when finding their balance within the water while providing simple explanations of the complexities of freestyle. (Note: Because Tharp was working with triathletes, only freestyle is covered in the book. However, some of the methods and strategies of swimming can be applied to all strokes.)
Topics such as balance, body management and zen stroke are intermingled with others on speed, drills and pacing.
Experienced swimmers will appreciate how Tharp breaks down freestyle as he builds the workouts over the course of a season. Rather than devolve into presenting harder and harder workouts, Tharp constantly challenges his swimmers to maintain an efficient stroke, even when their endurance is slipping.
And the book's chronology is perfect for novices working to tame their own technique as they increase speed. The practices are fleshed out with physical and psychological cues to maximize each workout. Rather than merely listing the workout, Tharp details body position, heart rate, speed and things to notice for each set.
Triathlon and swimming coaches can also benefit from Overachiever's Diary's ability to add context to drills, sets and seasonal improvements. The Math section deals entirely with the swimming assessment Tharp applied to his athletes. It's a detailed look at how Tharp used splits for 750-, 500- and 250-yard swims to deduce a swimmer's ability to sustain a consistent stroke rate. Additionally, he answers questions on variables that might occur within a reader's own swimming.
Interspersed throughout the book are short chapters by Laurie Ferguson, a motivational speaker with a Ph.D. in psychology. Her sections deal with the mental aspect of swimming, racing, motivation and goal setting. It's a good compliment to Tharp's emails and provides focused looks on how important the mind is to achieving athletic success.
While the substance of Overachiever's Diary is strong, it was lacking in a few areas. The emails provided an intimate look at the West Point team, but there were a lot of inside jokes. They might have been useful if so-and-so's curious technique was explained, which would in turn help others recognize faults in their own stroke.
The book is filled with dozens of candid team photos that put faces to the names and provided inspiration. Additional photos or illustrations of some of the drills and concepts described would have been useful. That wasn't part of the original emails, but then again readers won't have a coach on deck with them. And though being directed to the Total Immersion website for explanations and video adds to the total package, it takes away from the book's inherent portability and ease of use.
Each time I picked up Overachiever's Diary, I was left with something new I was eager to try in the pool. "Our team was a place where people were encouraged to try and fail—and try again" Tharp writes, alluding to the underlining themes of discovery and untapped potential that the emails to his swimmers—and now to us—use to improve one's swimming.