With just about every movement art and sport I can think of artists and athletes are trying to bring their movement patterns closer to an ideal, whether that ideal is about beauty, power, or efficiency… or all of them together, as in our case with swimming.
Either by taking advice from a coach or by making a best guess on his own the swimmer works toward some image he has acquired of the ideal. He has something formed in his mind about what he is trying to accomplish but his understanding how to get there may or may not be lined up with how things really work. Furthermore, his feedback system may or may not be adequate to help him sense when he is getting closer or farther away from that ideal. A nifty tool and a good intention are not enough – low understanding of how the tool works, low understanding of what correct feels like compared to what incorrect feels like can lead to new problems in the stroke.That’s what a live coaching session is meant to help prevent, as much as possible.
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Focal Point Misunderstandings
One student wants to show me his ‘relaxation’ that TI taught him was so important, and then when I see him swim his body is like a wet noodle, going nowhere, unable to transfer force through it. Whoops. He misunderstood that ‘Relax!’ is a conditional command given to only some habitually tense parts of the body, while other parts of the body need to stay firm and working.
Another student wants to show me his ‘spearing entry arm’ and he proceeds to shoot his arm into the water abruptly, deep down, then I watch as he unavoidably over-rotates while extending to Skate Position. He took the idea of ‘spear gun‘ from what was suppose to be ‘spear shape‘ and created a problematic application of force.
Another says, “TI Coach So-And-So told me to use this focal point to correct this problem, but now you are telling me to use that one?” which implies, “Why am I getting conflicting messages?” The swimmer thinks its the exact same issue, but we have two coaches at two different times looking at the swimmer in two different contexts and giving separate prescriptions for the problem that was observed.
What’s going on?
A focal point is a tool for a correction-in-context. The context is set by the specific body part or section of the movement pattern, within the whole choreography of the stroke cycle. The context is looking at which side of the ideal is the error occurring in order to pick the best tool to move it back toward that ideal. The focal point is meant to move that body part from a problematic state to an ideal one, without creating new problems.
But one can ‘over-shoot’ the ideal-bullseye, to cause an opposite extreme, to cause a new problem while trying to solve the original one.
While working without an observing coach nearby the swimmer needs to understand the corrective purpose of the focal point – what it is meant to achieve, what it is not meant to achieve, what parts of the body it should affect, and which is should not. It is the coach’s job to improve this understanding so when the swimmer is on his own, he will use the tool to take him in the right direction.
Here are a couple other blog posts to improve understanding of focal points:
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Conflicting Focal Points?
A classic case of two focal points in seeming contradiction are the two focal points for the Recovery Arm: Focal Point A is ‘swing the elbow wide’, and Focal Point B is ‘paint a line with the fingers’.
Focal Point A is sending the elbow outward from the side of the body on an arching path, while Focal Point B is keeping the fingers to keep in contact with the surface of the water and move in a fairly straight line from exit point to entry point. How can those two work together?
They are not intended to – each are corrections for an isolated part of the arm.
Focal Point A corrects the problem of, upon exit from the water, pulling the elbow up above the body, behind the scapular plane (or pulling the body into a vertically rotated position). Focal Point B is meant to keep the fingernails in contact with the surface of the water, palm facing directly backward to form a swinging arm in an equilateral shape to the side of the body.
The recovery swing is a 3-dimensional movement pattern – from exit, to elbow lead, to final external rotation of forearm, to the entry position – and hard to train all at once. The arm has three joints which can articulate in all sorts of directions. Those can more easily be trained one section at a time, starting from closest to the spine and working outward.
Focal Point A is correcting an upper arm that wants to pull up and over the back of the body at the exit moment, which is one cause of over-rotation. Focal Point B is correcting a hand that wants to fly high over the water. It is teaching the forearm to swing low enough to keep the fingers in contact with the water – keeping the whole arm on the shortest, fastest, least heavy, least effortful pathway forward. Focal point A is giving a trajectory instruction to the shoulder, while focal point B is giving an instruction to the entire arm with feedback coming from the fingertips.
The two focal points might seem confusing when not understanding their separate contexts. They may not work well together, but they work great separately for correcting the problems each are intended for. Some people, once they ‘swing the elbow wider’ they seem to automatically get the fingers sliding near the surface of the water. Others have the elbow going wide but swing the hand high above, and need a reminder to send the easiest pathway forward.
A focal point is an analogy meant to guide a student toward an ideal. It is a tool that touches just one small piece of the stroke and takes that piece from one place to another. It’s like a set of directions given by Google Maps, giving the shortest route from one point on the globe to another. A focal point gives direction to a small part of the movement pattern to move it from a specific incorrect position to a correct one. Change the body part, or change the context and you may likely need to change the focal point instructions. One focal point does not work for all or even many problems. Each is a tool which is meant to correct only a limited set of problems – and if misunderstood and misapplied it can cause some new problems.
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Correcting Opposite Problems
Here are some other common extremes that we might use focal points to correct toward an ideal from one stroke error extreme or another:
Note: below I am going to reference some of my focal points (they are designed on the TI principles but are not standard TI focal points). Unfortunately, I won’t bother to explain them – that’s something reserved for live lessons or the Online Coaching Program where I can explain and prescribe them for you in context.
An under-gliding stroke versus an over-gliding stroke. (I see far more under-gliding problems than over-gliding).
Focal point Corrections:
- Under-glide focal point might be: extend your body line into Skate (and will likely need windmill arms to be corrected at the same time)
- Over-glide focal point might be: faster recovery swing without speeding up catch (and over-rotation needs to be corrected at same time, in this example above)
The head looking forward versus pushing head down deep.(I see far more forward-looking heads than heads pushed-down).
Focal point corrections:
- Head-looking-forward focal point might be: aim your torpedo (I touch the crown of the head to show the tip of torpedo)
- Head-pushing down focal point might be: lengthen the neck (like a puppet’s head being pulled up by a string)
Hand on Recovery
Bent wrist versus straight-but-rigid hand on recovery and entry and extension. (I see about equal numbers of both).
Focal point corrections:
- Bent wrist focal point might be: slide arm out of the sleeve in back, and ready to slide into the sleeve in front (keep wrist aligned with forearm)
- Rigid hand focal point might be: keep fingers loose like catfish whiskers, or like soft bristles on a paint brush
Arm Switch Timing
Too-much overlap at arm switch point versus too-little overlap. (I see far more swimmers with too-little overlap (a.k.a. windmill arms)).
Focal point corrections:
- Too much overlap focal point might be: ‘rabbit ears’ (image used to help find the entry point closer to and inline with shoulders)
- Too little overlap focal point might be: ‘tripwire’ across from the opposite elbow of lead arm (learned this one from my Swedish TI Coach friends)
Extension target too-shallow versus angled downward too deep (I see a bit more with target too close to surface)
- Too-shallow target focal point might be: ‘rabbit ears’ entry, and ‘ski-jump’ shaped path path to target (I would usually use a combo of two focal points for this)
- Too-deep target focal point might be: ski-jump’ shaped entry path, (which creates a finished extension reaching forward, not downward
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Better Focal Point Assignments
There are some stroke corrections that will be clear and easy to make. While others will involve a longer process of trial and error. It may take quite a few repetitions for the brain to feel complex patterns (how many? Read my answer). It requires a process of adjustment and then testing things out to measure how well the brain is adapting to it – this is how proprioception is trained** – a little adjustment and then a little test and a little adjustment, over and over again. On major or complicated changes we may actually move away from the ideal at first in our initial disorientation, but gradually, through the feedback loop we will start to get a better feel for what is leading toward the idea and a better amount of control.
When a TI Coach gives a focal point to the swimmer she has a very distinct intention in mind for that focal point. That focal point is suppose to affect one part of the stroke but not affect another part. It is a tool with strict limitations. It is supposed to guide the body part toward the ideal, but not past it. The intention for the tool in the coach’s mind needs to be transmitted to the swimmer’s mind as clearly as possible so they both have the same idea imagined. If unsure the swimmer needs to ask for clarity and ask for a live demonstration of what it’s supposed to do and what it’s not supposed to do so that there is less room for misunderstanding and over-correction.
This is why it is hard, perhaps even inappropriate, to offer critique for drill or focal point advice one has heard about second-hand. It was given by a coach to a swimmer when the critic was not there to see the context in which it was given, what it was intended to help with and what it was not. And, though we hope the coach knew what she was talking about, we might not count on the swimmer to know clearly what was intended by the coach and what was not. But, that is the challenge before us as coaches – to make sure our swimmers understand how to use the tool we assign to them, and how not to use it, to know what it feels like when it is taking the swimmer closer to the ideal and what it feels like when it is getting farther away.
Every focal point is extremely limited in scope by its very nature and function. It focuses attention on one small part for a precise correction. We zoom in with a focal point, do a little surgery and then zoom out to check that the adjustment works smoothly with the whole system of the stroke. Two major training errors a swimmer can make are 1) staying zoomed in too much (too much detail without big whole stroke picture in mind), or 2) staying zoomed out too much (with low concern for individual details). One needs both, some zoom-in, and some zoom-out at regular intervals to make sure his swimming is improving toward the ideal.
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** By the way – ‘proprioception’ is the brains ability to control body movements without looking at them – technically speaking, if you look then it is not proprioception that is being activated and trained. We obviously need strong proprioception in order to swim well because the body needs to move automatically. One cannot watch most of their body parts in the action of swimming without contorting the body out of alignment to do so. Don’t look – discipline yourself to feel it! That’s exactly what the nervous system is there for.