Drills For Troubleshooting

To use the analogy of driving your own familiar automobile, consider how the owner who is in-tune with his car’s performance can tell when something is not right. There is objective feedback and there is subjective feedback that give you clues that something is wrong and where to look for it. You have gauges on the dash board that show information – you’ve come to know what values to expect on those gauges when all is working fine. And you’ve also got an intuitive sense for how the car ‘feels’ while you are driving.

When the auto is nearly out of fuel the engine sputters. When the tire pressure is low the steering responds in a sluggish or wavy manner.

If the engine is not responding with more power when you press on the accelerator you can feel that something is not quite right – it could be the engine is sluggish, or it could be that the engine is fine but the road is iced over and the wheels are slipping. In microseconds the brain is scanning for additional information to paint a more accurate picture of what is wrong.

So also, in the water while swimming, you come to know what your best slippery form feels like and what your best efficient stroke feels like (subjective) and what our metrics should show (objective: a certain pace or heart rate or stroke count, for instance) for the amount of effort you are putting out.

There are three main tasks for the swimmer (in this order of priority):

  1. Remove or reduce the natural forces working against you
  2. Recruit the available natural forces that can assist you in moving forward
  3. Apply your own power – just the amount needed, and in the precise location and timing

Here’s another secret (that TI does not want to remain a secret hidden from the masses!): 90% or more of the struggles faced by common swimmers are solved addressing those first two points above. However, it is easily observed that most swim programs seem to devote 90% of the time to #3, and getting far less improvement results than they could because they haven’t sufficiently resolved the first two first.

So you can jump well ahead of the competition by learning to use this checklist, and a combination of your subjective senses and your objective measuring tools to uncover the problem you face.

The fact that you know something is wrong is the first step! The next step is to get an idea of what you should look for, and in what order (The Diagnostic Grid). The next step is to set up a few activities that will test various parts of the stroke and help expose the weak spots. The TI Freestyle Drill Sequence is meant to do that.


The above three points examine the problem from a physics viewpoint. Then we overlay that physics viewpoint with physiological/neurological view point to build this Diagnostic Grid:

  1. First look for and solve Balance problems. Scan for front/back balance, then scan for rotational (side) balance.
  2. Then look for and solve Streamline problems. (Head and spine, arms, then legs)
  3. Only then do you look for and solve Propulsion problems.

Always start by testing for Balance problems. For instance, if you turn off the legs and let them stream behind the body do your hips start to sink immediately? If you slow down your stroke to exaggerated slow tempo do you find you can’t hold a patient front arm? Or do you fall flat or have to turn onto your side to hold that pause?

If you don’t find a Balance problem, then move on to Streamline. For instance, if you put a pause in your stroke right before you set the catch, do you lose velocity immediately (as if you are gliding in mud)? Does your extending arm cross toward your center line? Do your legs scissor while kicking? Do they spread sideways instead of vertical? Does the foot create a “thump” sound on each kick? Does it catch air and spread bubbles underwater?


The use of the objective tools is fairly easy to teach, and you’ll find many posts here on swimming metrics. The use of subjective tools, however, is both a science and an art and develops from lots of practice with regular testing (comparing to objective measurements) and exposure to others who use subjective tools skillfully in order to learn their tricks. (I am doing my best to pass on the tricks I know in writing!). This subjective skill is not optional. It is critical for excellent swimming. It is critical in enabling anyone to reach the ‘swimmer’s high’ of seemingly effortless swimming, or for you elite performance.

This subjective skill can be developed by anyone when the right path is laid out. (And I have not seen this path laid out thoroughly by any program outside of TI, hence one of my reasons for becoming a “TI” Coach and not another kind).  Although some people seem to be ‘born’ with it the rest of us have to work to acquire it… and we will!

Let’s keep studying and enjoying the learning process together.


8 responses to “Drills For Troubleshooting

  1. Mat edit as you please. This may not be a post for the masses. Most of my problems are solved by being in shape or power. Maybe because I am a sinker. My legs come up with more speed, my rotation to breathe is better with more power. I have better balance, my spine flattens with more core strength, and my streamline holds longer before fatigue with more core training. Are these symptoms or…

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Yes, as a sinker you’ve got to face the physics factor of density more than others. However, our first step in helping you get the most out of lift propulsion is to remove as much struggle against vertical forces as possible. Even a submarine cruises along under the sea in a balanced manner. So, I tell my sinkers, if you are going to sink, at least learn to sink evenly! Whether the body finds its neutral point 8 cm below the surface or 80 cm below, the first skill challenge is to align the body along that neutral line. It is a physics puzzle no doubt, and not easy, but generally a solvable one with patience and a problem-solving mindset.

      Once you have a balanced body line (even if it is deep) then you work on using horizontally directed force to draw the body up toward the surface – the planing effect – as you are already aware of needing to do. Managing the amount of air in the lungs, and the timing of exhale is critical for the sinker to master because you need to use this buoyancy to help you to the surface (instead of generating more force from the body- air in your lungs provides ‘free’ vertical force you can leverage).

      Then the next step is even more artful – as the body approaches the surface, you want to push up against gravity as little as possible, because every degree of push upward is going to create a reactionary push on the body downward and drive your dense body back into the deep – if we trace the path of the swimmer in this situation we’ll see a nice curvy amplitude- as if you are swimming butterfly. Then, when you increase tempo to create more lift, instead of the amplitude getting smaller and the body planing nicely at the surface, the body actually angles (you can see it in the line of the spine and thighs)to keep the head closer to the surface, the knees bend more to allow the lower leg and foot to grab some water to push up on. Instead, we want a minimal amplitude path from the beginning, then hold that as the tempo increases. It should actually get easier as the tempo increases to a certain point – but only if the balance is there in the slowest speeds to begin with.

      Sinkers have to be EXTREMELY sensitive to minimizing vertical force vectors in the stroke cycle because their body density makes these have an exaggerated effect on their up/down oscillation. Unfortunately, sinkers generally have to develop this balance underwater at first, in short segments between breaths. Most people give up and use a buoy or buy a wetsuit to cover it up – but that is not necessary, in our experience.

      Developing the core muscle strength and fine control is the key to distributing the forces of the body, to getting the body to balance on the neutral plane. If the core is not doing the work, then the legs have to.

      You certainly need the strength components that you are developing. But I am guessing that you still have a lot of room to insert balance for strength and save yourself a great deal of premature fatigue. You’ve got what you’ve got in your body composition type. It is your unique puzzle to work on. The solution is there. Physics shows us what needs to be solved, and the body is the device you need to train to solve it. I enjoy helping you think through it and brainstorm for those solutions.

  2. Hi mat, great post again, full of information and ideas to help me “think” more about my stroke.

    One thing I am interested in your latest post is when you mention front/back balance and rotational balance. My rotational balance is not great especially when I breath to my right, it needs work !!

    You have made me think about my stroke in a different way…., being self coached at times I need to think outside the normal Ti box…. Thanks !!!

    • Glad to help expand the thinking skills!

      It’s like we are learning to pick up different lenses to examine the swimming problem with. Each one provides a different way of understanding the pieces and reveal important details. We want to expand the selection of lenses in our tool box as well as our understanding of how to use each lens. Physics is one lens (perhaps a few). Physiology Lens. Energy Systems Lens. Neurological Lens. Beauty is a lens. Etc.

      Your (all of you) comments and emails are helping me so much gain a better understanding of the needs that self-coaching swimmers have and how coaches (like me) can improve our service to you. Better explanations, better tools, and more of them.

  3. Hi mat,

    Today I took to the pool full of ideas from your recent blogs, visions in breaking down my stroke. Now I feel like stopping TI altogether.

    My drills went ok, but breathing was suspect as usual. Then done a set of 100m and everything fell apart. Balance, breathing, relaxation was awful.

    Self coaching is very difficult, I’m tired of doing balance drills, breathing drills when I can not get this right. One of the problems is that triathlon season is not far away and I can not swim 4 lengths without being out of breath. Totally lost confidence.

    • Ah, Russ. I am sorry. I know it is frustrating. I really wish I was near to help in person. I would have walked you through those 100’s in a certain way to pull the best out of you. It just takes experience to know how to do these things. At least, after practice, it would be time to chat over a nice English beer.

      And if, in your mind “TI = doing drills” then I can totally understand wanting to give up. Maybe certain kinds of people or certain cultures love the idea of endless drill work. With a deadline looming all the more pressure to get to ‘real’ swimming. I wish I was near because there is just so much I can’t communicate effectively in typing. Having someone else right there who’s been through it saves so much guess-work and stress. To have someone see what you can’t see, and pull out tricks you hadn’t thought of before. This is what makes it hard to train on our own.

      You’ll reach limits with your knowledge in how to use any tool or program – TI or any other. No need to chuck out the tools or the path. There’s a time when some part of us will urge us to take a different direction in our practice time and although it is not on the scheduled agenda, it may often lead us somewhere we need to go, at least for that day.

      You can send me an email if/when you want to talk through the breakdown point.

      • Hi mat

        Many thanks for your reply – I will email you tonight, and I promise it will be the last one asking for your help !!!!!!


      • No promises like that. We all need help. You’re helping my mind stay fresh while I do A LOT of writing these days. I’ll ignore you if I get too busy (or send a short polite reply 🙂

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