Using Focal Points

I have been getting some great inquiries by email lately and want to lay out some things in one place that should address a common thread of need-for-understanding I’ve seen in several inquiries.

How do we use drills in practice?

I will get to that in the next post. But first of all, I need to start with this:

Drills are virtually worthless – for skill-building – unless you do them using Focal Points.

Focal Points (FP) are single, clearly defined objectives we focus our attention upon while swimming. It is a technique used to train the brain to accurately execute a very specific motor skill, which may be part of a more complex interdependent set of motor skills. FP’s start as very simple, concrete (in contrast to abstract) actions or tasks that the swimmer’s attention can focus on in order to learn to control the action or complete the task.

A simple example of how this works: lift one of your hands and spread your fingers. Curl all of your fingers together at one time, into a fist. Good. Spread the fingers again. Now starting by focusing upon just one finger at a time, curl just that finger while keeping all the other finger perfectly straight. Do it with each finger. Easy? No, not yet. But in time, through using such singular concentration on a simple, objective focal point – isolating one finger at a time – eventually your brain will learn how to curl just one finger, any finger, independent of the other fingers- just like a fine pianist has to learn to do (and much more).

Surprisingly perhaps, much of your excellence in swimming will depend on this same kind of exercise covering each of the intricate parts of your stroke.

Focal Points are the first essential piece of neurological (and subsequently, neuro-muscular) development for a swimmer – or anyone deliberately learning just about anything complex.  The brain needs to start at ‘simple’ and work its way toward more ‘complex’. As skill for executing a set of simple Focal Points increases, the swimmer takes up gradually more complex, more abstract FPs to use. At some point we begin to call a more complex package of related Focal Points a Stroke Thought.

In the example of the Recovery Phase a simple, concrete FP would be “Drag Your Knuckles”, or “Swing Elbow Wide”. Your brain can easily understand what that means. You can picture it in your imagination. With minimal guidance or example in the beginning you can tell when you do it well or when something is not right.

An example of a more complex, abstract FP, or rather Stroke Thought  is “Compact Recovery”, or “Mailslot Entry”.

A “Compact Recovery” is quick, quiet, takes the path of least resistance/energy/injury. A “Mailslot Entry” is quiet, splash-less (because the fingers cut a hole which the forearm, elbow, and shoulder quietly slide through), relaxed yet powerful at the perfect moment.

You can see that most people would not be able to jump in the water with one of those Stroke Thoughts and just do it well. If we line up two swimmers (all things being equal between them) and give them both 2 hours to master a skill (like the Recovery) the one who breaks it down into FP pieces and builds the skill one FP at a time will master the skill many times faster than the swimmer who simply tries to do 2 hours of repetitions telling himself to make a “COMPACT RECOVERY!”, trying to hold all those ideas at once and continuously. As a matter of fact, we might expect that second swimmer to never quite achieve the fluency of the Recovery even after weeks with this approach, while we have come to expect a swimmer working with Focal Points to develop a marvelous Recovery in just 30 minutes in one of our workshops or private lessons.

Lastly, skill with a certain Focal Point is measured not just in precision but also in duration.  For example, at first you may be able to take make one  (nearly) perfect recovery swing. Next you need to work on doing 18 perfect recovery swings to get you across the pool. Then do it for 4 consecutive lengths. Then 1000 consecutive strokes, and so on.

[What I will point out, but not explain much here, is that this work on building duration, or en-durance, into that FP skill is exactly what builds the metabolic and muscular component that so many athletes are concerned about. In TI Training metabolic and muscular development are NEVER separated from skill work – because when you focus on skill in terms of both precision and duration, you get metabolic and muscular development as necessary effects. It’s a different and, as we demonstrate, a better way to get all three in one.]

Focal Points are not just for novices. Any skilled swimmer will encounter neurological limits (you can think of this like ‘endurance of the attention’) and therefore experience a drop in his technique under stress in the swim. Focal Points and Stroke Thoughts are tools that are NEVER to be left behind in a swim or training time. At any point the tiring or distracted swimmer practiced in using FPs will pick one or a few up and start using them to revive the stroke quality when things start to get tough. Some accomplished swimmers may never even swim a stroke without them.

Next Post: Using Drills

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3 responses to “Using Focal Points

  1. Pingback: Using Drills « Smooth Strokes·

  2. Pingback: The Drill Sequence « Smooth Strokes·

  3. Pingback: Definition Of A Drill « Smooth Strokes·

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