"backshaping" or backward chaining

Is anyone here with familiar with the backward chaining or “backshaping” methodology? I have a few questions, but I will wait and see if anyone is familiar with it first.

I’m not familiar with Wolforth’s “backshaping” or Nyman’s particular method of utilizing “reverse progressions” but here’s an article Nyman recommended a while back about the concept of reverse progressions.

[quote]Rushall, B. S. (1996). Some practical applications of psychology in physical activity settings. In K-W Kim (Ed.), The pursuit of sport excellence Vol. 2 (pp. 638-656). Seoul, Korea: Korean Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

A common characteristic of most physical activity instructors is the skill element progression taught to beginners. Textbooks frequently provide photo sequences starting at the initiation of the skill and ending at the “finish” position. This seems “logical” and is readily justified on the grounds that if a skill is not initiated properly, it will not be completed correctly. However, if the literature on instruction of non-verbal species is examined, it will be concluded that teaching progressions do not commence at the “start” and finish at the “end.” Rather, the first element instructed is the last aspect of the behavior, the “terminal” element. Progressions of instruction are called “backward chaining” when elementary movements are required in a sequence and “backward shaping” when a single two-phase motor behavior is taught.

The assumption that a logical start-to-finish instructional progression is the best can be debated. In forward progressions, students normally learn the early elements of a sequence reasonably well. However, as a chain grows longer, activities have to be performed before the new element can be acted. The imposition of behaving before attempting a new element eventually interferes with learning. When chains are long, the success of implementing new elements becomes quite difficult and errors increase, a result that needs to be avoided if efficient and effective learning is to occur. The interference caused by the activity prior to the attempted control of a new skill element is a major weakness with forward progression instruction.

Forward progressions also invoke other behaviors which, as skill complexity increases, become detrimental to both the learning process and eventual performance. Learners often construct “mental check-lists” of instructed skill elements to ensure proper technique, resulting in cognitive control becoming an established part of covert behavior in the skill execution. Even in a simple skill such as a golf swing, such thought intrusions interfere with learning and skill development. In the length of time before a new element is acted, performance of that which has already been instructed intervenes, which promotes forgetting of what needs to be done. The mounting difficulty of introducing new elements into behavior chains increases anxiety, the frequency of negative self-appraisals, and the execution of errors. These phenomena further hinder learning. Forward progressions usually produce skills which are executed well in the initial stages but deteriorate and exhibit weaknesses and faults as the sequence progresses.

In spite of shortcomings, forward progressions as a teaching structure have been perpetuated and rarely questioned as to whether or not there is a better alternative.

The more traditional and effective way of instructing non-verbal species should be considered for humans. Discussions about backward or reverse progressions have appeared periodically in exercise-oriented literature (Chelladurai, & Stothart, 1978; Dusault, 1986; Rushall, & Ford, 1982; Sherman, & Rushall, 1993; Spooner & Spooner, 1984; Spooner, Spooner, & Ulicny, 1986). In reverse progressions, chains or skills are learned by teaching the last element of the skill first, the next-to-last second, etc. The completion of the skill or chain is the most practiced element. As the activity is performed, skill does not diminish as it progresses. This results in the execution of very safe landings, good follow-throughs, total skills, etc. None of the problems typically associated with forward progressions emerge in backward sequencing. The following figure contains a schematic of the two progressions and compares their elements.

An example of backward shaping with a golf swing will demonstrate the differences in these two concepts of instructional progressions. The grip is the first element that is taught irrespective of the progression used. The student should be able to form a satisfactory grip and wield the club in a variety of actions. From then on, the forward and backward progressions differ. After the grip, backward shaping dictates that the final follow-through position be taught. The learner is instructed that it is the terminal position that should be attained at the end of every trial. Knowing the criteria for judging that position allows the learner to execute covert positive reinforcement at the end of each trial if the criteria are achieved. Thus, every trial ends with the learner appraising whether the skill progression has or has not been achieved correctly. Successive steps move the club progressively further back in the “ideal” swing. Each step has the new element executed first, followed by the remainder of the skill which has been successfully performed on previous trials. The size of the step progressions should be sufficiently easy to minimize performance errors. When done correctly, this contrasts with the forward progression, which produces errors primarily due to the interference phenomenon and the progressive weakening of the skill strength.

The major advantages of backward shaping/chaining over forward progressions can be summarized as follows:

interference does not occur since each new element precedes all previously “learned” elements,

that is, the learner thinks of and executes a new technique element and follows it with what has been done successfully before,

each step progression does not increase in difficulty since undivided attention can be focused on new content,

attention is focused only on the new step and then established elements are performed to finish in the terminal position,

there is a lack of tension/anxiety in the learner because of the simplicity of the task and its steps, and

emotional problems are highly unlikely because step sizes are small, guarantee a high rate of success, and are typically understood clearly by the learner.

There are some skills that do not readily lend themselves to reverse progressions, for example, diving and jumping. In activities such as these, the total behavior should be executed with a moderate degree of proficiency. From then on, skill refinements should be emphasized in a reverse progression.

When refining established skills, corrections are more effective when they are introduced in reverse order (Sherman & Rushall, 1993). The backward shaping of rowing ergometer technique was shown to produce fewer errors in the learning experience than a forward progression (Rushall, 1984). All the elements of a golf game were performed more efficiently when they were taught in a reverse progression (Simek & O’Brien, 1981).

Comparisons of forward and backward chaining progressions in manual task instruction have shown the reverse procedure to be superior in developing speed, accuracy, fluency, and skill maintenance (Martin, Koop, Tumer, & Hanel, 1981). It was also shown to be superior when teaching response chains (Weiss, 1978) and instructing military tasks (Cox & Boren, 1965).

Reverse progressions are a viable alternative to traditional forward progressions in skill instruction. Teaching tackling would commence with the opponent and tackler lying on the ground in a firm hold position which would constitute “how the tackle should finish.” An equivalent backward progression starting position would occur for various wrestling take-downs and counter moves. A small child learning to throw would practice follow-throughs and release actions prior to first holding a ball. The sequence of steps has to be devised for each sporting action and then the size of the step progressions individualized for the learner’s capabilities.

Below are some personal claims about the efficacy of backward progressions. These statements can be readily assessed through appropriate research projects.

The rate of learning is much faster than for forward progressions. With mentally retarded subjects, the learning rate for a backward progression is approximately equal to the rate for normal subjects using forward progressions.

The fewer errors increases a learner’s self-concept and self-efficacy for physical activity pursuits.

The number of trials to criterion is significantly fewer when compared to forward progressions.

The resulting strength of the latter elements of skill performance leads to a higher level of skill performance than that which is generally achieved through forward progressions.

Backward progressions for shaping or chaining should be tried as an alternative instructional procedure in physical activity pursuits. The experience will be rewarding for both the learner and instructor.

In logic, back-chaining roughly expresses the idea of choosing a desired result and working backwards to understand the optimal steps required to get to that desired result.

So, for example, if you wanted to have a consistent release point for all of your pitches a back-chaining approach might be to first optimize the motion that occurs immediately before the release point, then step backwards from there, and again, and again, until you get to your starting position on the mound.

Pitching motion can be analyzed and understood that way, but I prefer House’s method of approaching the actual training of pitchers’ mechanics–that is, once all of the important variables of the pitching motion have been identified it is best to optimize the earliest ones first–before going on–because correct execution of downstream motions depends critically on getting the earliest variables correct.

So, athletic motions can be analytically understood in reverse, but they should be optimized in the proper real-world sequence.

There may be other meanings of “back-chaining” in sports training, but that’s my take on it. What’s yours?

P.S.—Wow! I didn’t see DM’s post until moments after submitting my essay. I think he gets extra credit for finding that discussion piece…


Thanks for posting that article. I had seen it before and it is one of the reasons I began looking into the teaching method and subsequently bought Ron Wolforth’s “backshaping” dvd. If you are at all interested in this idea, I would recommend the dvd.

I’ve seen it in action with my son and his first pitching coach, and my son has the Wolforth system now, too.



Let me preface this by saying I am, by no means, a motor learning guru or a biomechanical guru. This form of teaching just seems to make sense to me.

I really like the backshaping principles in pitching. To me, one of the most critical aspects of pitching is maintaining postural efficiency. If you simulate a productive posture at release (hips level, glove out front) you are learning first the most critical point in throwing. From what I have seen, you can fix a lot of problems with young pitchers just by getting them to control their glove side and maintain a productive and efficient posture towards the plate. As stated in the article that DM posted, the things that we have the most trouble learning are those that come late in a sequence and if you listen to Wolforth, the most dangerous action for a pitcher is a sudden posture change late in the delivery. That sudden change usually shows up when the front side flies open and the head often follows putting the player in a poor posture and putting loads of undue stress on the UCL. If we first learn what a productive posture feels like and to close that glove side elbow at release and then incorporate it into every link of the backward chain, we will be more likely to consistently repeat it going forward.


Do you have any feedback for me. Has it seemed to “smooth out” his delivery?


I don’t have any problem with the idea of using ‘back-chaining’ for analysis of biomechanical problems. In fact, understanding very complex problems “backwards and forwards” is a time-honored hallmark of the deepest kind of understanding.

I do have a problem, as a coach, with teaching athletes the elements of pitching motion in a backward sequence.

House’s approach to regression analysis of pitching deliveries suggests that not all variables equally affect the final outcome. In fact, he draws the opposite conclusion that I think you have come to–that is, I believe he would say that starting balance and posture is the most important variable and that any issues with starting balance and posture should be settled first. The essence of this argument is: If you choose to fix the glove-side (or some other downstream mechanical issue) first, that fix may need to change again once you get around to correcting the upstream issues in a pitcher’s delivery.

As a coach, that doesn’t mean you must absolutely change something in a pitcher’s balance and posture, if there are no issues. But, again, the assertion is that you should check that first and go on to the next variable, in sequence, until you come to a variable in the pitcher’s motion that does need to be corrected. I have also jumped right to a pitcher’s glove-side mechanics when it looked to me like there were no important issues in his balance & posture, leg lift, stride forward, opposite & equal arms, and so forth.

Summed up, House’s approach is: By the time a pitcher has optimized the early (proportionally more important) variables in his delivery, in the same sequence that they actually occur, there are smaller and smaller corrections to make as he goes through the remaining variables and finally there is nothing left to correct by the time he gets to the release point.

I wish I had thought of all that myself…but it’s just my characterization of what I have learned from House.

I personally think ‘reverse engineering’ or ‘back-chaining’, whatever you want to call it, is important for an intellectual understanding (which I am not demeaning, at all) but perhaps much less important for kinesthetic teaching.

After all, pitchers do not literally move from their release point back to their starting point–it’s one thing for a coach to understand the progression ‘backwards and forwards’ but it is quite another thing for an athlete to gain kinesthetic awareness of his motion in the correct direction.

It’s not clear to me what is really to be gained by kinesthetic awareness of the reverse chain of an athletic motion, even if it can be coached.

Long before the classification process of naming various training methods and ideology(s), instructing a pitcher took on many roles and aproaches. And I, like many of my contemporaries, found that what worked …WORKED! I didn’t tamper with new ideas regardless who was printing out what. But on the other hand I didn’t go sticking my head in the sand with complacency either…

Overall, laflippn seems to echo a lot of the real world and I will admit I like the concept of showing the end before the beginning… in some cases. Hence, I’ve used the straight forward, one foot in front of the other,to the method of start at the finished product and work backwards. And then when all else fails “so help me if you don’t get this right I’m gonna brain ya!”

Some pitchers have to be approached aggressively, while others less so. And still others have a preconceived idea of what’s-what and no matter what their shown or coached … stubbornness wins out in the end for these
guys. Unfortunately, so does a short lived career.

I really can’t speak on the youth game, but it would seem logical to me that a youngster that has a sincere interest in learning this skill has to be approached with a personal itinerary that fits his/her personality, comprehension, tolerance and attention span. I know the guys that I’ve coached have had everything from college degrees to a lot less in the brain bucket department. I mean a lot less. Also, temperaments varied greatly from very sober to the Saturday night standup comic. I’ve also found that showing the end product and working backwards with some … can lead to a lot of questions that move the training more off top dead center that a coach would like. On the other hand, this backward approach can start the ole gears a whirling by a guy … then you’ll hear…”OH…I GOT IT NOW

Coach B

Wolforth’s basic backwards chaining progression involves:

2 Knee throw with shoulders facing target
Standing throw with shoulders facing target
Sideways stance with shoulders and hips facing target: rock back and throw
Sideways stance, jump back on back foot and throw
Sideways stance, shuffle back and forth landing on back foot and throw (Strommy Shuffles)
Back to the target, backpedal turn crow hop and throw
Sideways to target, shuffle (crow hop) and throw
Step intos: Facing target, walk into a pitch (like an old school wind up)

Nyman’s sequence is more detailed and more closely resembles the true way of teaching the throwing/pitching sequence:

Facing Target:
Arm Action
Scap Load
Shoulder Rotation
Sideways to target:
Hip Rotation
Add posture, use momentum from hand break into throw
Pelvic Load
Step Over
Ferris Wheel

That may be, but it is a matter of opinion. I personally subscribe to the Wolforth idea that every “teach” should be based on athleticism and not on set or rigid “moments in time”.



Do you have any feedback for me. Has it seemed to “smooth out” his delivery?[/quote]

Nolan has always been “smooth”. He’s one of those kids that even when he’s throwing crappy he looks good doing it.

Remember, this is all subjective. What I have noticed is that backward chaining has given him an idea of what it “should” feel like if he’s pitching well. This makes it easier for him to self-correct on the mound. Just MHO.

Backshaping is a tough workout, requiring a discipline that many young kids (under the age of 14…maybe a mature 13) may not be ready for. Again, subjective, but Nolan was unable to maintain his top velocity much past the 4th inning prior to the backshaping workout, whereas now he can go 6 or 7 strong (he was 15u last season). He also added a bunch of velocity, sitting at 80-81 and hitting 84-85 on one occasion. He was gunned in the 6th inning of a late season game throwing 81 mph, so his velo was still good late in the game. The velocity gain was no doubt caused in part by his maturing, but I am convinced that the Wolforth program was a significant factor in his improvement.

Some of the more important aspects of any muscle-building training for pitchers is to assure that they stretch well before and after any weight or weighted ball training, do a regular routine of running and throwing (long toss and bull pens), and learn their craft as well as learning to throw. Even throwing 85 mph won’t get a good hitter out if every pitch is in the same spot right down the middle. That’s what differentiates a pitching coach from a pitching trainer.



Nyman’s sequence is more detailed and more closely resembles the true way of teaching the throwing/pitching sequence:


That may be, but it is a matter of opinion. I personally subscribe to the Wolforth idea that every “teach” should be based on athleticism and not on set or rigid “moments in time”.


Never said I had a preference either way, just that Nyman’s method is more specific to the pitching motion. I would say that Wolforth’s method helps with momentum and athleticism while Nyman’s teaches more specific things like the pelvic load and step over move.


…That’s what differentiates a pitching coach from a pitching trainer. [/color]


I can’t help but wonder if ‘back-chaining’ is a concept that has spilled over from some other sports, where it might be more appropriately applied.

That is, boxing or any Eastern martial art that involves kicking and/or punching has a type of symmetry in the motions that might lend itself very well to ‘back-chaining’ kinesthetic training. Gymnastics and weight-lifting might also be particularly suited to this approach.

The reason for suggesting this is: Highly symmetric motions, a boxer throwing a right jab and then bringing his arm/torso back to original position, a weight-lifter doing arm-curl reps, or a gymnast doing splits, involve patterns that look spatially the same both forward-and-reverse and these patterns of movement likely involve essentially mirror image sequences of muscle agonist/antagonist action in the forward and reverse directions.

Aside from a better intellectual understanding of the mechanics involved, I still don’t get how back-chaining has truly practical benefits for kinesthetic training of inherently unsymmetrical motions like pitching deliveries, bat swings, or golf club swings. In each of these, the athlete starts in one bodily configuration and ends the motion in quite a different configuration.

Whatever the split of opinion here, it’s a very interesting topic, HasBeen. Definitely worthy of more thought and discussion…


I’m not talking to you anymore until you see Wolforth’s video :smiley: . Just kidding. I do suggest you watch it though. When you see the drills he uses it may make better sense.

Neither of us is likely to switch sides of the track on this but I will tell you this. I never advocate for anything unless I have tried it myself and this method of training sure seemed to register with me. The beuaty of having my own academy is that I get to learn about different things, go to my video analysis software and see how the pros do it, and then take it out into the bullpen and actually implement it. My college coaches never once mentioned things like torque, seperation, or scap loading. When I started playing pro ball I heard these terms but never had a great understanding of what they meant. Now that I am the teacher/coach/trainer I have dedicated myself to learning as much as I can and then deciding where I stand on different issues.

All this to say that I was having a hard time introducing the afore mentioned skills into my delivery because, IMO, they were so far down sequence. After doing Wolforth’s 6 backshaping drills for a couple of weeks, those skills seemed to become second nature.

At any rate, I am preparing to take some students through the program for free (don’t feel right charging until I can measure results) over the coming months and I will certainly keep everyone posted on the results.

FYI, Some of my interest here is derived from the fact that this has proven to be an effective teaching method for individuals cognitive delays. I happen to have an 18 month old son with Down syndrome so he will get to be my test subject for teaching methods his entire life :smiley:

I actually think there is great benefit to back chaining and am an advocate of Nymans approach. I purchased his stuff to study a few years back, have purchased and studied older…2002…Mills stuff as well (not his new momentum to the nth degree stuff) but we do subscribe to DM’s and Rogers momentum philosophy to a great degree.

I believe somewhere there is a perfect mix of rotation (Nyman) and momentum…(many) which when working together reduces the stress on the arm but also allows the whip action and efficency of physics to take over as you throw the H out of the ball.

I can attest to incorporating Nymans backwards chaining…the first 4 steps or so into every warmup my son does now. It really gets him to subconciously develop the leading with the elbow and scap loading without even thinking about it. With that, however, we beleive momentum is extremely important to velocity and his hips move forward before he gets to his knee reaching it’s apex…and thus he appears somewhat different than the other kids and it must help him. Since incorporating both rotation and momentum I’ve seen a world of difference in him.

Looking forward to him filling out now and seeing if we can get into the mid 80’s this year consistently as Junior. He was sitting about 81 mph last summer…only 5’ 9" though and 160…I’m 6’ 4" poor kid…took after his mother too much :roll:

I also noticed the momentum really helped his control that much more because you have to be so efficient in your mechanics because you don’t have much time screwing around with the arm action.

laflippin, I agree with your characterization of House’s approach. But I would point out to you the knee drill, the rocker drill, and the rocker and stack & track versions of the towel drill. These drills reprsent the latter parts of the delivery so are a form of backward chaining (maybe depending on the sequence in which they are use). Yes?

In general, I think backward chaining certainly has its place - just as any drill does - in working on making specific adjustments. However, I do think one has to be selective in what is worked on using backward chaining. Some things that happen late in the delivery are performed under certain conditions that can’t be replicated using backward chaining. (DM, where are you?) For example, it’s difficult - if not impossible - to perform things like trunk flexion or shoulder under the forces stemming from momentum down the hill when you’re not moving down the hill. Furthermore, certain things late in the delivery are really a result of things that happen earlier in the delivery. Practice them as you will but you may not make the adustment to them until you correct the earlier things. (This is what laflippin mentioned earlier.)

Ultimately, of course, a pitcher has to be able to put it all together going forward so start to finish practice will always be necessary.


[quote=“laflippin”]Aside from a better intellectual understanding of the mechanics involved, I still don’t get how back-chaining has truly practical benefits for kinesthetic training of inherently unsymmetrical motions like pitching deliveries, bat swings, or golf club swings. In each of these, the athlete starts in one bodily configuration and ends the motion in quite a different configuration.


It’s not about symmetry or literally performing a motion backward and forward over and over. It’s more about teaching arm action before lower body action. If you read palo’s list, you can see this in the “drills” he posted.

Basically the goal is to first create an efficient arm action. Then the lower body action learns to “support” the arm action.