As an acknowledged novice in butterfly,
thought nothing of devoting an entire month
to fundamentals. But I zipped through the
backstroke drills because I already "knew" backstroke.
I wondered what would happen if I did them
as if I were trying to learn backstroke from
scratch. And, as I did, I discovered that
my prior "knowledge" actually made
backstroke harder to improve because of faulty
you'd asked me two years ago what my worst
stroke was, I would, without hesitation,
have replied "Backstroke." I was
fastest in freestyle, with butterfly a close
second, but my backstroke was no faster than
my breaststroke (not that my breaststroke
set a lofty standard). In fact, when I was
working on starts during the summer of 2001,
I didn't even bother with backstroke starts
because I didn't see any possibility of swimming
it in competition.
I found this puzzling because backstroke
was one of the two strokes I’d
been doing longest. I learned freestyle at the Y at age
7 and backstroke two
years later, but only began doing butterfly and breaststroke in the last five
years, with only the TI
Butterfly and Breaststroke video for guidance.
Of course, the backstroke training I
as a kid wasn’t remotely like TI.
instructors just told us to float
backs, kick, and move our arms alternately.
No mention of head position, balance, stream-lining,
or body roll. So I spent years “practicing
struggle” on my back.
When I attended a TI freestyle workshop in
February 1999, Terry showed several of us
a drill that he said would help our backstroke.
I experienced no epiphanies when I tried
it, so I decided I'd wait for the TI Freestyle
and Backstroke video, which was coming soon.
When the video arrived, I eagerly began doing
the backstroke drills, hoping for dramatic
improvements in my times. But my improvements
were just incremental. Later that year, the
Butterfly and Breaststroke video (now combined
with the Freestyle and Backstroke video in
the Four Strokes Made Easy DVD) arrived,
and I largely ignored backstroke while learning
these new strokes.
It was a bit of a shock when, early in 2001,
I realized that my butterfly was nearly as
fast as my freestyle, and a lot faster than
my backstroke. I wondered how this could
be, since I was a butterfly novice with only
the TI video to guide me. Because the TI
Butterfly and Breaststroke video had been
so helpful, I wondered why the Freestyle
and Backstroke video hadn't done much for
my backstroke, where I felt I had much less
And then it occurred to me – perhaps
that was the difference. I’d been
trying to learn butterfly, but had only been trying
to improve my backstroke. As an
acknowledged novice in butterfly, I’d thought nothing
of devoting an entire month to body dolphins
and similar fundamentals. But I zipped through
the backstroke drills rapidly because I already "knew" backstroke.
I wondered what would happen if I did the
backstroke drills as if I were trying to
learn it from scratch. And, as I did, I discovered
that my prior "knowledge" actually
made backstroke harder to improve upon because
of faulty muscle memory.
Muscles Have Memories?
Ponder, for a moment, some of your familiar
daily routines, like using a fork to move
food to your mouth. If you consider the
coordination required for multiple muscle
groups to work
together, it's pretty staggering! If you
attempted to consciously control all of
these movements with each mouthful, you’d
be overwhelmed. It would be like the president
of a Fortune 500 corporation trying to
issue detailed individual instructions
of several thousand underlings.
Instead, large companies employ a hierarchy
of managers. The CEO gives broad direction – “increase
widget production by 10 percent” – to
several vice presidents, who pass appropriate
instructions to department heads, and so
on down with each level providing ever
more specific direction to a manageable
Your nervous system works similarly. Whenever
brain recognizes you doing
set of motor functions, it encodes them
into a neural subroutine called
a muscle memory.
Muscle memories allow
your conscious mind
to operate like a CEO, giving a general
instruction like "stab that carrot" without
having to think about all of the individual
movements of arm, wrist, hand, and fingers.
Muscle memories allow us to conduct routine
activities without conscious thought,
freeing brain cells for things like dinner
The downside to such encoding is that
oft-repeated flawed routine becomes resistant
to change – precisely because it no
longer occurs at the conscious level. Suppose
our CEO gave an order to increase widget
production by 10%, but the manufacturing
process was so flawed that production went
up by only 2%. It’s unlikely he’d
have personal knowledge of where the
breakdown occurred, since production
familiar only to subordinates. That's
more or less
what happens when we try to correct faulty
Why “Muscle Amnesia” can
be a Virtue
In teaching hundreds of workshops, Terry
and the other TI coaches discovered that
their toughest challenge was not in identifying
their students’ stroke errors, but
helping them to break habits developed through
years, sometimes decades, of flawed practice.
Years ago, Terry intuited that drills could
break down this resistance because they’re
sufficiently different from regular swimming
that our minds don’t interpret them
as a memorized routine. In effect, drills
produce “muscle amnesia” allowing
us to replace flawed patterns with better
As I worked through the TI backstroke
drills with this recognition, all went
until I reached the advanced drills that
more closely resembled whole-stroke swimming.
The "Slide & Glide" (S&G)
drill, for instance, is essentially
a slow-motion backstroke in which you
balance in a sleekly
balanced position for a number of “yoga
breaths” on one side, then stroke/recover
and try to rotate directly to sleek balance
on the other side; remove that pause and
you’re swimming backstroke. When
I paused for three breaths between strokes,
I could maintain effective strokes and
bodylines, but when I cut the pause to
two breaths, my stroke length dropped
that, though I was stroking faster,
I was traveling slower!
The problem was that the 2-breath pause
brought me close enough to whole-stroke
that my brain
reactivated deep-seated bad habits. I
tried repeatedly to transition from a
delay to a two-count delay, but lost
control each time. So I accepted that,
moment, I could swim efficient backstroke
pausing for three breaths between strokes.
It was slow, but no matter; my backstroke
wasn’t race-ready in any case.
After several months of practicing
S&G" I noticed that my stroke
length was starting to get consistently
I decided to once again try it with a
2-breath pause. This time, I gained speed!
I tried it with a 1-breath pause, I lost
efficiency again. So I stayed with a
two-count delay, happy to be a little
Three months later, I noticed that my
stroke length was increasing again. But
than reducing the pause, I did a fistglove
published in Total Swim, followed by
a test set of 50-yard backstroke repeats
in my next
practice. During that test set, I set
new personal record for 50 backstroke!
later, I repeated the same sequence – fistglove
practice at one session, backstroke test
set the next. My 50-yard backstroke time
improved a second from the previous week.
Two weeks later, I tried it again. This
time, I was stunned to improve by another
The Drill Sequence
So what was this transforming practice?
Before I describe it, let me reiterate
months of patient consolidation of simple
movements preceded it. Other swimmers
may find that consolidation happens more
quickly – your
personal learning curve can be influenced
both by how long you’ve been practicing
it and how adaptable your nervous system
is. The test for proceeding to the next step
is that an increase in stroke rate produces
more speed with no more effort. My standard
practice was five repeats of 100 yards (25
drill, 25 backstroke, 25 drill, and 25 backstroke)
all with fistgloves. The drills –illustrated
on the Four Strokes Made Easy DVD – are
Drill for 1st 100:
Active balance Rhythmically rotate
from your head-lead sweet spot on one side
head-lead sweet spot on the other side.
Your rhythm should never exceed your ability
maintain a feeling of stability and control.
Drill for 2nd 100:
3-count S&G Maintain sleek
balance on one side for three breaths,
your sleek balance on the other side,
pause for three breaths, and so on. Your
should not be on "swimming backstroke," but
on hitting your best balance as soon
as you rotate.
Drill for 3rd 100:
2-count S&G Same as above, with
two breaths between each stroke.
Drill for 4th 100:
1-arm backstroke Do backstroke,
but stroke with one arm, while the other
your side. Stroke with your left arm on
the first 25, and with your right on the
25. Concentrate on a stable head position,
and rotating until the shoulder on your
stroking arm clears the water.
Drill for 5th 100:
Alternating 1-arm backstroke As
above, but alternate two rotations with
your left arm,
then two with your right arm, and so on.
After you completing the five 100s, do
3x50 backstroke (still wearing fistgloves)
3x50 backstroke (without fistgloves)
Minimize delay between the gloved and ungloved
sets. The benefit of fistgloves is the
flood of sensory input your brain gets
from your “naked
hands” immediately after removing them.
What formerly felt ordinary now feels remarkable – as
if you’d exchanged your hands for
those of Aaron Peirsol or Natalie Coughlin.
may not realize the stunning increases
in speed that I did, but I promise your
of small inefficiencies will be strikingly