Stepping Stone Solutions:
Breaking A Complex Problem into Solvable Parts, and Using Failure Points For Success
When trying to develop any one of several complex skills involved in swimming we need to break it down into the right size pieces so that we can successfully put it together in our whole stroke.
Consider this analogy: if you want to cross a stream, from your side to the other (without getting wet) you need to find or construct a path across out of stepping stones.
If the stepping stones are well-designed and well-spaced, and the steps are taken with care, one may cross the stream without mishap.
If they are not well-designed (slippery, unstable, or irregular) or not well-spaced, and steps are not taken with care, one risks losing footing or missing a step and falling in the water.
Some people, because of exceptional strength or talent can handle crossing on irregular or widely spaced stones that more common people cannot.
If we want to build a pathway that can be used by common humans we have to recognize that a stepping stone needs to be set up in a certain way for success. Those stepping stones need to be shaped within certain parameters and spaced at certain intervals in order for the general population of humans to use that pathway regularly without mishap.
Now to apply this to our swimming – whether learning to swim for the first time, or learning to break through the barriers to speed and endurance – a key to anyone’s success is about placing the right stones in the right spots – this enables the swimmer to build each necessary skill in sequence which then allows him to break through to a new level of ability and ease.
Now let’s work with this analogy a bit more to explain the TI skill training process.
Imagine a stream crossing from Point A to Point D with three choices of path:
Depending on how strong, skilled and how daring one is, he might choose to leap from boulder to boulder on that top path. He might make it. He might very well fall in.
The middle path offers a bit shorter step, but still the steps are irregularly spaced. Some steps may be short and easy to make, some are farther and more uncertain.
The bottom path has shorter, more stable, more consistent steps. It provides a path that more people can use for trouble-free crossing. This is the path we need to construct for every new skill we want to acquire – it will make success a consistent part of our practices.
Stepping Stones And Breathing
Now let’s use an example to show how stepping stones are used in a swimming skill set like Seamless Breathing.
There may be some people who immediately start breathing seamlessly (think relaxed, rhythmic breathing that does not interrupt smooth swimming one bit) when they hit the water, but maybe one in a many thousands. These ‘talented’ people seem to leap across the stream on that top path. They pick up all the skills they need without even realizing they are doing it.
But that doesn’t work for most people, as you and I know very well.
Seamless Breathing is a complex skill. Many people struggle with it because they don’t recognize it as an assembly of many micro-skills, each one necessary in order to create that seamless, smooth, effortless act of breathing. If we break down that complex assembly of skills into that orderly sequence of micro-skills any swimmer can go from step-to-step, more easily integrating the micro-skills at his own pace. Some will move quickly and even leap over a step (because they seem to know that micro-skill naturally already), but those micro-skill steps are there to help everyone else who cannot make big leaps in skill.
Here is how the Skill Set for Seamless Breathing can be broken down into Skills, and then into Micro-Skills, all in a critical order of learning.
If a swimmer tries learning to breathe without consideration of the micro-skills and their learning sequence, it is like trying to cross that stream on randomly spaced, poorly placed stepping stones. Failure – in the form of exhaustion, struggle and discouragement – will be common.
But if a swimmer understands that there is an orderly pathway, with micro-skills learned in proper order, he has a much better opportunity to steadily succeed in the training process. He can acquire the skill of Seamless Breathing in a relatively short amount of time.
Causes Of Failure
There are two main causes I observe in a swimmer’s failure during the learning process:
- Taking too big of a step (the stones placed too far apart), which means the swimmer has attempted to take on too many new skills at one moment.
- Stepping between stones too quickly, the foot slips (not stepping carefully), which means the swimmer has not taken enough time to imprint a new skill before adding more.
Swimming skills are built in order of priority – some skills are the foundation for other skills. If the foundational skills are not present or not integrated enough in the neuromuscular system, the swimmer cannot count on them when adding skills that are dependent on them.
This also leads to two kinds of distraction for the swimmer:
1) When working on Skill D, he can’t focus on it because Skill B keeps falling apart.
That is because Skill D is dependent on Skill B. This swimmer cannot practice Skill D very well until Skill B is integrated enough to support it.
Example: The Skill Set of Seamless Breathing is dependent on Front/Back Balance – the head must be weightless and aligned with the spine, then rotate on that axis. (There are several other critical skill dependencies, but this is just an example of one of them). If the swimmer has not practiced and integrated head and spine alignment deeply enough, practicing Seamless Breathing steps will likely be frustrating.
2) When focusing on Skill D, he notices that Skill F is falling apart and gets worried that he is ‘practicing struggle’ or other ‘bad habits’.
That is because Skill F is dependent on Skill D, or complementary to it. In fact, he cannot work on Skill F until he integrates Skill D – so he must learn to trust the process and set aside the concern about Skill F until he reaches that stage in his learning process, or use drill positions to turn off the need for Skill F for a while.
Example: The Skill Set of Seamless Breathing is not dependent on having a Synchronized 2-Beat Kick. However, a swimmer may notice that when he is concentrating so heavily on Breathing, his kick synchronization falls apart. That is normal – the brain cannot hold control over two new, un-integrated skills at the same time. They are complementary skills, but not interdependent ones. So the swimmer can set aside concern for the 2-Beat Kick while practicing Seamless Breathing and vice versa, set aside Seamless Breathing while practicing 2-Beat Kick.
The fact that he is aware that something is not right is itself a sign that his brain is prepared to work on correcting that problem when he finally gets to focus on it. Awareness of other problems is a very good sign and he need not fear making his bad habits worse when this awareness is present. He just needs to recognize which problems are priority to work on now and which can wait until later. He cannot work on everything at once – so TI will help him recognize and work on first-things-first.
New Skills Need Time To Become Integrated Skills
A drill is an activity that allows you to isolate a movement pattern (turning off or slowing down other movements) and simplify your focus so you can integrate that skill more easily. Whole Stroke swimming is the activity of putting all the skills together to test how well they can work. A drill may load you with two or three new skills to focus on. But whole stroke swimming is like instantly demanding the brain to handle 20 skills at once.
Also, keep in mind the Awareness Gap and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Why are some drills successful while others cause you to fail?
It is a matter of how many new skills you are trying to consciously control at once. Integrated skills are no longer new skills – they are skills you have practiced enough to now be controlled somewhat automatically by other parts of the subconscious brain. You don’t have to think about them as much unless you want to. New skills are not integrated – they must be controlled by a some part of the conscious mind, and that part has very limited capacity for attention. You cannot perform these new skills unless you concentrate on them – that is the definition of being ‘new’. Add too many new skills at once and the circuits in the brain trip and things fall apart.
In order to be more successful take time to integrate some of those skills so you have the option of letting the subconscious brain control them for you while you concentrate on newer skills.
Solving Complex Problems
There are two main techniques we use to solve the problem of failure between Drill and Whole Stroke:
1) Break the Skill Set down into component Skills and further, break down each Skill further into Micro-Skills. Work on each one, in sequence.
2) Take time to imprint the micro-skill then test it with small steps of increased challenge.
Increase challenge slightly by one of the following:
- Blending with another Focal Point (‘focal points’ can be another name for ‘micro-skills’)
- Increasing the number of strokes in the repeat
- Increasing distance gradually
- Adding tempo control (using a Tempo Trainer) within comfortable tempo range
Finding Precise Failure Points
When following the integration process (taking the time to turn new skills into integrated ones) we may find places where it gets hard to move forward. That is not a bad thing – it is actually a very important opportunity. ‘Failure’ provides valuable information, especially when it is planned into the process. We actually want to design our practices to reveal failure points.
The stepping stones of drill work needs to be set up in such a way that we can see exactly when and how failure occurs. This puts us in position, with clear facts, to solve it.
So we use drills with certain constraints on them to set up a series of progressively challenging steps that will cause us to find our precise break-down point, if there are any. This is a scientific way of deconstructing failure to find out how to fix it. If we try to jump too far too soon, like from a simple drill into complex whole stroke, and notice failure on several areas, we cannot clearly see where or how failure occurred – we added too many things at once so the culprit is obscured. Instead, we can set up a series of stepping stones, a sequence of adding micro-skills or challenges, one-by-one, until we can clearly identify which one initiates the failure.
An Example Stepping Stone Process
Let’s use a recent real-life example of Seamless Breathing in Drill moving to Seamless Breathing in Whole Stroke as an example again. The swimmer says he can breathe well during certain drills but when he starts to do whole stroke his breathing and a few other things seem to fall apart.
For this swimmer we will set up a couple of drills that will incrementally take him into whole stroke. By using Skate, Spear Switch and Swing Switch we can create these tightly spaced stepping stone (removing massive skill leaps) to help find the specific skill problem he needs to work on.
In each drill we will incrementally increase complexity for the brain. Specifically, we incrementally increase challenge on his balance and his timing, and gradually increase the number of micro-skills his brain must control at one time. Then, when he hits a ‘failure point’ he can more clearly determine what caused his circuits to overload.
Here is the incrementally-stepped sequence:
- Skate to Spear Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear. Pause At Hip.
- Skate to Spear Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear.
- Skate to Spear Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion.
- Skate to Spear Switch. No Breath.
- Skate to Spear Switch. Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear. Pause At Hip.
- Skate to Spear Switch. Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear.
- Skate to Spear Switch. Breath. Slow Motion.
- Skate to Spear Switch. Breath.
- Skate to Swing Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear. Pause At Hip.
- Skate to Swing Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear.
- Skate to Swing Switch. No Breath. Slow Motion.
- Skate to Swing Switch. No Breath.
- Skate to Swing Switch. Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear. Pause At Hip.
- Skate to Swing Switch. Breath. Slow Motion. Pause At Spear.
- Skate to Swing Switch. Breath. Slow Motion.
- Skate to Swing Switch. Breath.
Swing Switch, without Pause, in Full Motion is essentially Whole Stroke.
- Do these in SLOW MOTION.
- Do each drills on each side of the body. Give extra attention to the weaker side.
- In the drills always start in Perfect Skate Position and finish in Perfect Skate Position.
- Use PAUSES when the catch hand reaches the hip, and again, when the recovery hand reaches the spearing position in front of the head. Those pauses may need to be “One Thousand One, One Thousand Two” seconds long.
- Remember that PAUSES are there to give you time to think – plan the very next move during that pause. As the movement becomes more familiar, your brain’s perception of time will slow down, and you can gradually decrease and then remove the pause altogether and the brain will still feel like it has ample time to think and prepare that move.
- Do these at first without breathing (short repeats, of course), then try adding a single seamless breath – again, short repeats. Work both sides.
- Go through once doing single switches. Go through a second time and do 3 to 5 multi-switches.
- If failure occurs, assess, and either repeat the drill or go back through the set again to strengthen foundational skills.
As he moves through the stepping stones when he reaches a failure point he can clearly identify the cause by comparing the features of the successful step before, and the additional feature of the current step that has caused him to fail. Now he knows exactly what to work on.
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Brilliant article. Thank you. I especially liked the analogy of stepping stones to cross the river and the contrast among the three options.
In a way, I may have really fast forwarded learning freestyle as I did not do any TI drills at all nor did I have an instructor or any instructional material to learn micro skills.
When I first tried to and learnt to swim freestyle (yes, the very first time I had ever swum freestyle!! ) I only knew how to swim breaststroke. My only exposure to TI freestyle were a few TI whole stroke demos I watched on YouTube several times. I had, at that stage, neither read any of Terry’s books nor seen any of his self coaching videos. That image of Terry holding his hand out (patient hands) and moving effortlessly forward stuck in my mind and one fine day, when I was in the glide phase of breaststroke, in mid glide, with no deliberation, I stuck my hand out as I had seen Terry do and then switched a few times. Maybe in the same session or the next, I added the overarm recovery and then side breathing. A few sessions later (having got Terry’s book by then), I moved to counting strokes and trying to reduce my stroke count and did in fact manage to reduce my stroke count from 11 to 7 for 10 m (very consistent, even for 10-15 repeats).
As I now realize, my rapid learning of whole stroke (self taught entirely by what I had seen in a few whole stroke videos) was not altogether without cost. My incorrect left arm recovery which I now have to unlearn and work on is the unstable or uneven stone in the path 🙂 I seemed to find so easy.
Although I have since obtained and have watched (several times) the self coaching videos and the demo of micro skills including recovery, my plunge into whole stroke and repeated practice the way I first did it has made my incorrect right arm recovery a default (automatic) pattern that I now have to unlearn and relearn. This shows how important it is to learn correctly, in the first place.
Even if one’s ability for self learning is excellent, my experience also demonstrates how important the underwater video analysis is, (it is required at the earliest stage perhaps and then many times at various stages of progress to discover one’s erroneous zones), especially if one is not under the direct guidance of a TI certified instructor. Thankfully, I have access to required instructional material now and more importantly, I have realized, recognized and acknowledged my shortcoming and need for correction.
I have now identified the unstable stone and with the benefit of your invaluable help and guidance, Mat, I will slowly but surely replace it with a smooth and stable one 🙂
Thank you for all your insight, Mat. For a knowledgeable person, sharing that knowledge selflessly with others is, perhaps the greatest act of generosity and perhaps the greatest source of joy and satisfaction. It also becomes the springboard to one’s own growth and development to the next level. “Use it or lose it” is nature’s law and sharing knowledge is the best way of using it 🙂 Hats off to you, Mat. All the very best and and more strength to you and your writing.
I have read this article before, however after re-reading it, I realize it answers a host of questions that I just recently posted on the TI forum. Those questions were about planning a practice session. If you read any of the TI forum “My Favorite Practices and Sets”, you will notice that most of posts on that are by coaches or very talented TI swimmers. I do believe that before going to the pool, we should have some sort of plan before we jump in. This is proving to be very hard for me. My planning comes just before I go swimming and have either read some of your articles or going through the TI forum. Not so bad in itself, but I am flitting from one thing to another.
Anyway, what you are describing makes a lot of sense. I am talking about identifying the skill you want to work on (breathing) easy enough, identifying the skills needed (and in the order they are needed?), and then the micro skills. For me the problem gets tougher as I move from the skill and way down to the micro skill. Even more complicated is the order in which they s/b done. All of this really takes a whole lot of thought, at least for me. Your breathing example gives me a start, as this is one of my problems. I have just read your most recent post about Breathing better—on land. I think Coach David Shen, if he reads it, will love it. BTW are you familiar with his views on diaphragm breathing and also intra abdominal pressure?
There are definitely times to get in the water and just swim for enjoyment without a plan. I do that often in open water. But if we want to get something accomplished, a thoughtful plan can make that happen.
This Stepping Stone Solutions is one of the primary ‘secrets’ of the mastery process.
I suggest you practice your practice design skills on something like breathing, where you have some resources (like my blog) to help you break it down into smaller, sequential pieces, and apply various training principles to imprint those skills over several weeks. Then, when you experience the process once, it is easier to use the approach the next time, and then you’ll start to view challenges with this break-it-down-into-sequential-microskills mindset. Ask a few questions of someone who seems to know and you can find some organization to the sequence of skills.
As far as identifying what are micro-skills and in what sequence, you can experiment on your own to see which details are dependent on other details, and that points to the sequence. And, for other things that are not clear in their sequence, you’ve got your TI community to ask – and those who ask questions about dependencies and sequence will reveal they are thinking in a mastery-minded way.
I am familiar with Coach David’s points. We talk behind the scenes about many things. He’s one of those wonderful swim geeks too. 🙂 I should add links to his articles.
Like your comment:
“I suggest you practice your practice design skills on something like breathing, where you have some resources (like my blog) to help you break it down into smaller, sequential pieces, and apply various training principles to imprint those skills over several weeks. ”
Once I saw how you outlined breathing and the skills and micro skills, I knew right then you had provided a fantastic model. I am not a very observant person, but when I saw how you pieced these things together, it was a great format to implement.
I am so glad you’ve noticed and appreciated it. I only know if someone found the jewel (that I left in plain sight) if they leave a comment like this. Thank you!
If only all the problems in life could be approached in such a way… but at least, in some areas it really is an effective method for making the impossible possible.