Let me lay out the thinking behind how a TI Coach may set up the solution for a swimmer’s problem. This should be helpful to you who are self-coaching – afterall, it is our goal to help you think like a TI Coach thinks so you can improve your own swimming. At first this is going to sound a little technical as I quickly cover the concept but at the end I will give an example to show you how I applied this to a real swimmer recently.


First, we identify the problem and describe it in detail by how it makes the swimmer feel, what feedback he has used to identify this problem and measure its impact against his goal.

Second, we identify the skills that are lacking. A swimming problem = lack of swimming skill(s), not a lack of talent. (Yes, some seem to know more instinctively what to do, but science is already proving that though some seem to be born with it, the rest of us, set on the right learning path, can still discover the secrets and master them just the same – even surpassing those who do it well but don’t know why they can do it. )

We look at the relationship between those skills and identify what order of priority those need to be worked on. Some skills are dependent on others. So we need to work on the foundation skills which are missing first then work our way toward the dependent skills. It is common sense that certain skills will be a lot easier to learn when the foundation is in place.

For each skill then, we break it down into sub-skills, or even into micro-skills, depending on the level of refinement the student needs. Even these sub-skills have an order or priority in which to be addressed. Some come before others.

For each sub-skills (or micro-skill) we spend some time identifying up to 3 Focal Points (FP) that allow this swimmer to recognize, focus upon, and control the sub-skill. (Why just 3 Focal Points? The brain seems to do well in memorizing and holding onto things grouped in threes. It may not be a rule, but we want to use every neurologic advantage to master the complex movement patterns in swimming.)


Then we set up some drills to start moving, step-by-step, from simple to more complex, and ultimately to the full, smooth strokes.


Case Study

A swimmer came to me asking for help with his breathing problem. Upon examination I saw his head bobbying up-and-down and zigzaging to the side stroke by stroke. We also noticed his legs fishing sideways behind him in response to the head motion. I instantly recognized the chain-reaction of events.

Smooth rhythmic breathing is a skill that is totally dependent on Balance to achieve. In this swimmer’s case breathing problem was caused primarily by a balance problem, and secondly by  head position and timing. We could have attempted to tweak the breathing skills first, but unless the balance was corrected he would always have trouble getting the breath to feel full, relaxed and smooth.

What we want to see is his head cutting through the water stable and steady as a torpedo surging toward its target. No wobble, no bob, no zigzag – and it should be imperceptible when he turns to breathe – the head remains nearly underwater at the same depth the entire time.

So our absolute first priority in improving his breathing was to first improve his balance. We began to look for what was causing the imbalance.

We could see that he held great passive balance in Superman and in Skate Position. He could even make fairly smooth gentle SpearSwitches without disrupting the head position. We tested this by putting a flat stone on the back of his cap (we were in the sea) and had him do repeats without allowing that stone to be washed off his cap.  But the moment he added his normal Catch the bobbying and zigzag began, and the rock dropped right away. To be fair, I put the rock on my cap and showed him how it can be done with a stable head position.

Newton’s Third Law Of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When his head and shoulders were moving up then dropping back down that means he was applying some force downward in the water. When his head and shoulders were being shoved sideways that means he was applying some force in the opposite direction underwater as well.

His legs were responding to his head. His head was responding to something else happening underwater, that was not happening when he was laying in Superman or Skate Position, or even while doing Spear Switches underwater.

One way to find out what was causing it was for me to stand in front or to the side while he was stroking and gently hold his head- when he pushed up and sideways against my hand he could look for the force he was applying in the opposite direction. This lead us to his catch.

In the catch we want ALL forces applied along one axis – straight ahead to our destination or straight behind seeking leverage against the water. Any force in any other direction is wasted effort, and will cause a reciprocal effect somewhere else in the body. (See this essay to read about efficiency versus wasted energy). In his case, he was pressing down and to the side in the first half of his catch phase, as well as shoving suddenly instead of steadily and these were causing his head and shoulders to bob up and to the side on each catch.

However, we never lost sight of the goal of smoothing out the breathing.

In order to make the breathing easier, he needed to keep the head steady and stable in the neutral position. In order to do this, he needed to clean up the catch so that he only applies pressure straight back, not down or to the side in any way.

Do you see the order of priority for the skills?

We set the order of priority: Fix balance before we fix breathing. Thus, we needed to remove balance-disrupting features from the catch.

We broke the skill of The Catch down into sub-skills: Position, timing, and pressure.

We set at least one Focal Point for each one of those sub-skills in The Catch.

  1. Form the catch without pressing down
  2. Palm and forearm stay facing and pressing directly back
  3. Keep a steady pressure (not jerking) using the core rotation.

So then, how we we practice these?

A simple pattern to follow:

  • Drill with a single FP (stop and stand to breath, refocus)
  • Drill with double FP (stop and stand to breath, refocus)
  • Drill with single FP and then 4-6 strokes (stop and stand to breath, refocus)
  • Drill with double FP and then 4-6 strokes (stop and stand to breath, refocus)
  • Drill with single FP then whole stroke to other wall with breathing
  • Drill with double FP then whole stroke to other wall with breathing

Here is a way to order increasing complexity when designing a task or practice:

  • Single FP to grouping FP’s
  • Drill > Drill + A Few Strokes > Whole Stroke
  • Short repeats (10m) to longer repeats (25m)
  • Drills or Strokes Without-Breathing to With-Breathing.
  • Increase # repeats
  • Increase # lengths, and then vary the distance
  • Increase intensity per length, then vary the intensity

And, then we could go back to the Breathing, apply this same solution set-up pattern, now understanding what was making it so difficult to master before.


All this comes from principles for complex skill training: keep yourself challenged just enough, but not too much. Stay in that zone where things are just simple enough that you can repeat success many times to imprint it deeply then increase the challenge (i.e. complexity) in very small steps. Work on the edge of failure and don’t be afraid to fall over it. But stay in control, keep a positive attitude, and come back to work right there on the edge of it.

There are even more steps to increasing the challenge in TI training, but I will save those for your live advanced lesson with me sometime.

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