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In the Total Immersion stroke-shaping and training method…

…a Focal Point is a tool, not a rule.

This comes as a response to a discussion one of our coach colleagues brought up regarding a student who seemed to carry his use of a Focal Point to an unintended extreme, and couldn’t easily be talked out of it. It stirred up my thoughts about what a Focal Point is and how we might more appropriately understand how to use them (in swimming and in any other area we intend to form habits in).

What Is A Focal Point?

A Focal Point is an image or idea we hold in our mind that gives us a more powerful way to send specific signals to our muscles to control them in an intended way.

A Focal Point (or a series of them) will create and improve…

  1. An objective effect – something that can be measured externally like SPL, Tempo, Time, and/or
  2. An internal sensation – something you feel inside your body and mind.

If you use a Focal Point over and over and it does not bring about one or both of these improvements, then…

  • You are using the wrong Focal Point tool, or
  • You have an inaccurate understanding for how to use that Focal Point in your case.

How To Use Focal Points

Mindless repetition of a Focal Point will not produce better swimming. Mindful use, but with inaccurate understanding, or misapplication will also not produce improvement as expected.

Your understanding of the Focal Point, how to use it, and when not to use it, must closely match what the coach (or the book or the video voice) intended when assigning that certain Focal Point to a particular stroke-adjustment need.

Here in lies the limitation of the self-coaching educational materials. Yes, they give the full range of drills and common Focal Points that will help you build your entire stroke, but only you (with understanding of the principles and of the Focal Point tool) or a live coach can give the personalization that your stroke correction step requires. You have got to put some additional thinking and common sense into the use of your Focal Points.

I don’t want to suggest you can’t do it by yourself. You can go far and you should try to. Many of us went very far on our own with TI self-coaching materials, yet I acknowledge that there may have been a lot of other factors involved in that success. You will only know how far you can go by going. Yet, I think, no one can argue with the value of seeking out a live coach to teach us through relationship (over a few days or many) what words in a book or video will never be able to do.

Here is the thing about Focal Points: Every Focal Point has a possible range of applications. Again, they are tools, like a screwdriver, a blender, or scissors. They can be used in several useful ways and they can be misused as well. So, the manner of using that tool has to fit the job to be accomplished. For each stroke-improvement job you need to use the Focal Point tool correctly, or get a different tool.

So, if you’ve been holding faithfully to a Focal Point (or a few of them) given to you once by a coach or a book/video, but it is not producing an improvement that can be both measured (outside of you) and felt (inside of you), you need to adjust something. If you’ve been challenged by a coach to change your Focal Point because it is not having the desired effect you need to go back and consider the gaps in your understanding for how that Focal Point should be used in your case.

More on Focal Points in my blog archive:

I want to stress – as a key value in TI kaizen training atmosphere – this realization that you might have been doing something ‘wrong’ is to be regarded strictly as information, not condemnation. You need to stay out of the emotional storm. Guess what? You’re a human and you’ve got something to learn (until you die – there is a saying, “when you quit learning you quit living”). The learning-to-swim-well process is supported by the learning-to-think-well process. The Mastery of Focal Points will precede the Mastery of Stroke Control itself, and allow you to automate it to a marvelous state. So, if your interaction with a TI Coach reveals a misunderstanding of how to use some important Focal Point, then you should rejoice that one of your biggest obstacles to improvement is about to be removed!

Advertisement Alert: This is the reason I have set up my Online Coaching Program centered around the weekly personal discussion with me, the coach, so I can impart this more intuitive understanding of how to use Focal Points and feedback to build your own personalized training plan. It is costs me time to give that attention and I’ve only got so much, so this is why the number of students is limited to 12 at any one time. But what I intend to give you requires that personal attention that impersonal programs can’t, so I don’t intend to ‘scale it’ and destroy that essential component.

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Analogy, Not Reality

A Focal Point is also an analogy, a metaphorical image in your mind that is intended to approximate the correct control or movement, and get it closer to the ideal pattern. But the Focal Point image is not the actual pattern. It will get you close (like a jet-ski towing a surfer onto a wave) but then you’ve got to open your  eyes (i.e nervous system) to recognize and grasp onto the real pattern repeatedly, and gradually internalize that into your neuro-muscular system.

The Focal Point is your tow in the right direction, but it is not the ideal or complete pattern itself. You’ve still got to tap into it. And, once you find the actual pattern, the Focal Point is your tool for reminding you and getting you back into it at any point you’ve noticed you’ve slipped away.

If you carry the Focal Point metaphor to a literal or extreme interpretation, to something beyond its very limited intention, it will begin to take you away from the ideal rather than closer to it. A Focal Point is an approximation to the ideal sensation, but as you get close you have to get in there and feel around for the real thing. And that is where the live interaction with a coach can really help – the coach is your guide, from his/her own personal experience, to help you recognize the data coming from your body and the water and learn to interpret it. The live coach can really cut down on the learning curve time, which is quite well-understood by anyone in a skilled or professional career who has been coached in it.

An Example

Let’s look at a list of 11 Focal Points I use for just the Recovery Arm, from start to finish:

  • Quiet Exit
  • Swing Elbow Wide
  • Slide The Shoulder*
  • Lazy Forearm and Fingers
  • Drag The Fingers
  • Equilateral Triangle
  • Draw A Line (from exit to entry point)
  • Elbow Lead
  • Ear Hop
  • Roof Over Head*
  • Mailslot Entry

(Note: I use some naming flexibility from standard TI because of how often I need to make translation of these terms in cross-cultural, bi-lingual teaching settings).

Those are only eleven commonly used ones that I have bothered to list. I could put several more on there. If I find that a swimmer is still not getting in touch with the sensation intended, I will check his understanding of it, then give a correction or quickly invent a new one to get him closer to the intended result. Obviously, this immediate correction can only happen in a live lesson setting.

But if you, like other students, have noticed that some of these Focal Points seem to be in conflict with one another – like Swing Elbow Wide (arc path) and Draw A Line (straight path). They are in conflict if you interpret them literally, as the ideal itself, rather than an approximation to it. Each one is addressing just a limited range of detail in the stroke, and carried to any extreme it will begin to conflict with a literal interpretation of another Focal Point. The list of Focal Points are not a literal whole, they are analogous parts, each which point to the same principles, but from a different direction.

* I give a couple examples of additional Focal Points I have created to further isolate or break down small details of the stroke, and increase awareness of them in the swimmer’s consciousness so they can control them – only what she is aware of can she control and improve. This is a demonstration of the art of TI Coaching (and Self-Coaching), exactly what this article is talking about.


Mindless or misguided use of a Focal Point, dogmatic adherence to the external image rather than the internal principle will turn you into an awkward (and slow) robotic-like swimmer. Be loyal to the intended product, not the tool. Remain mindful, curious, and teachable.

So, remember that a Focal Point is a tool, not a rule. It is meant to introduce you to features of a principle – each Focal Point allows you to touch and handle a principle from a different direction. Once you feel the real thing, you don’t hold onto the Focal Point rope, you let go and go ever deeper. It is meant to guide you up close to an ideal, close enough to see it and grab on to it. The use of a Focal Point will get you very close to the skill you need but it won’t replace it.

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