Unbelievably, there is still a school of thought that says if you just throw children into the water they will figure out for themselves how to swim. I hate this view, and I know that it it is not true and it doesn’t work. I have taught too many adults who have been traumatised by this approach. Children can also be frightened of the water and you must deal with the fear respectfully and gently. The little girl in this photo had hated her swimming lessons and was not able to move forward because she felt frightened and uncomfortable in the water. In the first lesson we didn’t bother too much about technique instead we chatted about various things, including the Great Fire of London (her history topic at school), what you can do about difficult friends, her sister’s ballet exam and her cousin’s wedding. I sometimes worry that the parents will wonder why we are just chatting throughout the lessons but I sort of want the children to forget that they are in the water. Physical skills such as swimming take a long time to fully master. You have to enjoy the process of learning if you are going to get anywhere so the most important thing I can do is help whoever I am teaching to love swimming and to develop a sense of the deeply comforting and relaxing feeling that being in the water can bring. I think in this case I have succeeded.
I like to make my swimming lessons as relaxing as possible but the other day even I was surprised when a little girl fell asleep floating on her back. Her dad was supporting her under her head and she was so happy and calm floating on the water that she slept for about ten minutes.
It is a family lesson where Mum, Dad, the five year old, and the toddler are learning together. The five year old is of course the best swimmer but everyone is coming along at their own pace. The mum is at the moment the least proficient swimmer as she has mainly been looking after the baby and has spent the least time in the pool, but this week the five year old swam towing her Mum along on a float. The Dad is now confident to jump into the pool and even attempted a dive last week. The five year old has promised me that she will be awarding her Dad a sticker for being able to swim through a hoop although she hasn’t done it yet.
I really enjoy teaching parents and children in the same session, and I don’t really mind if I am teaching children of different abilities in the same lesson. I find that each swimmer learns from the others. So much of learning to swim can’t really be taught as such but has to be experienced. I think one of the things that makes it difficult for adults to learn to swim is that they don’t feel the same freedom to play in the water that children have. When parents and children learn together there is inevitably an element of play involved. This helps everyone.
I didn’t mind at all that the youngest member of the class felt so relaxed and at home that she took the opportunity to take a nap during the lesson.
My swimming lessons are always about so much more than just swimming. At the beginning of the class I always ask the children if they have any news. Yesterday for one group, their news was that they were studying the stone age at school. One little chap told me that they had read a story in which a stone age boy mentioned that he was living in the stone age. ‘But our teacher told us that is an anachronism.’ I had to go home and look it up. Turns out he is right. He is five. He’s also a very good swimmer.
Time to post this beautiful picture again. The artist is one of my pupils who was so terrified of the water when she first started lessons with me that she couldn’t even walk across the pool. She has been making steady if slow and careful progress. She developed a beautiful and elegant leg kick and was swimming well with a float. She lives on the other side of London and I have been touched by her parents belief in me. They have brought her to lessons every week for more than a year. At some point she told me that the reason she was frightened of the water was that she had gone under the water in her first lesson at school. I think this was an accident but interesting that she couldn’t even tell me about it until we had been working together for some time.
Then last week she finally swam across the pool completely unaided. We were all of us, me, her parents and the little girl herself so happy.
People often say to me that children learn quickly and of course they do, but even children can be held back a long time by fear.
Her mum told me that before she came to me they had tried lots of swimming lessons but were ‘getting nowhere’ and that her fear was getting worse.
I think this picture shows what a sensitive and talented child she is. She did it ages ago, before she could really swim properly but I love the way we both look so happy, with the sun and the rainbow and the bright blue water, and the skillful way she manages to show that I am upright and walking whilst she is swimming. I love my springy blonde hair standing out from my head and her beautiful long dark hair streaming out in the water behind her.
I wish her many happy swimming years ahead.
When you are under water and you look upwards, you see everything above the surface of the water through a round window of light. I think we are so used to this phenomenon, if not from experience then at least from films, that we don’t think about it. At least I didn’t until I saw Neil Gower’s beautiful drawing for the cover of the Watermarks anthology.
The round window of light is known as Snell’s Window and is to do with refraction of the light as it travels from the air to the water. The area outside of the cone of light that forms the window will be completely dark or will reflect objects within the water. It sounds complicated, and in terms of physics it is, but a photograph taken from under the water reminds us how familiar the effect is even if, like me, you don’t fully understand it.
Art work for Watermarks by Neil Gower, underwater photograph by Mark Tipple
I am always looking for ways to make my swimming lessons more fun so I try to include tricks and games. This is for several reasons: it makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved, including me; people learn more when they try new things; being a competent and confident swimmer involves more than just swimming from a to b.
So I was rather delighted to read that swimming star Annette Kellermann, aka the Diving Venus, was advocating swimming games one hundred years ago. In her 1918 book How to Swim she recommends various interesting activities including: The Steamboat, the Rolling Log, The Corkscrew, Mothers Old Charm, Spinning the Top, The Bicycle, The Wheel, Two Man Somersault, The Pendulum, The Submarine and one which I have to admit I have not tried called ‘Bound Hand and Foot.
I am completely with Kellermann when she says
‘Swimming must not be taken too seriously.’ but that it should be a joyful experience. although she does also warn that some of the tricks she describes are not for the ‘raw amateur‘.
Imagine my surprise when I looked closely at this photograph taken on Boxing Day and realised that there is someone executing what I imagine is a full blown ‘submarine‘ with leg as periscope.
I have read that back pain is often (some say always) caused by tension and stress. My work as a swimming teacher has demonstrated to me that this may be true. When I see non swimmers in the water for the first time I can see how they hold all the stress and fear of being in an unfamiliar environment in their neck and back muscles. In this case the tension comes from being in the water but I can imagine that if you walk around for months or years holding tension in your body in this way you would develop pain.
When my children were small I started to develop lower back pain. At times it was quite severe. A friend of mine who was a neurologist said to me ‘No one really understands backs. The best thing you can do for your back is swim every day.’ I had always been a swimmer but I started to swim more, not every day, but as often as possible. I learned to swim front crawl; until then I had always swum breaststroke; and gradually my back started to get better. I have been completely free from back pain for several years.
Swimming became so much a part of my life that I decided to train as a teacher. I especially liked the idea of teaching adults. I have taught many adults who are fearful of the water: either they are learning to swim for the first time, or although able to swim a bit they have never felt comfortable in the water.
It is easier to learn to swim if you put your face in the water. This is because if you lift your head out of the water the weight of your head will push the rest of your body downwards. If you either lie on your back (difficult for most new swimmers) or put your face in the water, and allow the water to support your head, your body will float naturally. However if you are lying rigidly in the water even with your face submerged unless you soften and relax your spine it is very difficult to lift your head out of the water to breathe. If you are lying on your back and you are very tense the tension in your back will cause you to lift your head a little bit in which case your legs will sink and your face will probably become submerged and you will get a nose full of water.
In order to learn to swim properly you have to learn how to let go of the tension in your body. But if you are in a fearful or stressful situation your body will hold on to the tension for you, no matter what you decide. This is why in order to learn to swim well have to learn to feel comfortable in the water. There is no way around this, and this is why I feel so many people find conventional swimming lessons don’t work for them. Teachers focus too much on technique and not enough on learning to let go. You simply can’t learn to swim well if you are afraid and it seems that your body, especially your neck and back, will hold the fear for you.