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 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.
‘All the nice boys in my class like pink.’ Sarah, 7, reflecting on why none of the boys in the class want to use the pink goggles.
‘God didn’t make me able to sit still’ Alex 5, on the autistic spectrum trying to cope with ‘time out’ at school.
‘Ask him if it still hurts’ Marlon, 5, after seeing the scar on Frank the lifeguard’s foot. Frank had been off work for 5 months after being stung on the foot by a sting ray whilst on the beach in Equador. I did ask him. It didn’t.
‘I love swimming’ Eleanor, 6, having been terrified of water, suddenly finding she can put her face in the water.
‘I stay positive’ Max 7 when I asked him what he does when he is bullied at school, (he told me he had been bullied that day when I asked him if he had any news.)
‘It is going to be a surprise when my family find out I can swim.’ Jas, late sixties, learning to swim for the first time.
‘I love my life. I am also learning to do a headstand’ Elsie, 73, widowed, retired, also learning to swim for the first time.
Many people tell me before they come to their fist swimming lesson that they can’t put their face in the water. So far every single adult I have ever taught has been able to do it within about five minutes of arriving at the lesson. Some people have had a fear of this for years but for some reason, and with a little bit of guidance they are always able to do it. I am not sure exactly how many people I have taught but it is certainly in the hundreds.
Children are quite a different matter. They will not put their faces in the water until they are ready for it. This may take five minutes or it could take several months or longer. You absolutely cannot persuade a reluctant child to do it if they don’t want to. This is one of the main ways in which teaching children differs from teaching adults.
To learn to swim you do really need to be able to put your face in the water. This is a simple matter of physics. Our bodies are less dense than water, but only slightly. That means that most people float (there are some very rare exceptions). But any part of the body that is held out of the water is heavy. This means that you cannot float without doing something. If your head is out of the water you have to move your arms or legs to keep you afloat. If your face is in the water you don’t have to do anything.
It takes time to learn what the resistance of the water feels like, how to ‘catch’ the water, and how much effort you need to use to propel yourself forward, or to keep your head out of the water. Once you have learned to swim it is easy to swim with your face out of the water, but to learn to swim this way is not impossible, but quite difficult.
As I say I have never had any problem at all persuading any adult, however scared they are, to put their face in the water. This is never a stumbling block. But there is a point where many people get stuck and that is in allowing themselves to float. Many people find it very difficult to let go and allow the water to hold them.
This little boy and his mum have been swimming with me for a few months now. He is not really a baby anymore, he is almost three. He loves being in the water and seems to feel very comfortable. I really admire the way his mum is with him. She is always in the water with him. She never pushes him to do more than he wants to but is gently encouraging when he decides it is time to venture a little bit further. I so often see adults trying to get children to do more in the water than they are comfortable with. It is always counterproductive. Children have great survival instincts that are stronger even than their desire to please. No amount of persuasion will get them to do things they don’t want to and if you force them you can put them off swimming for life. There is some kind of myth that if you just throw the kids in they will learn to swim. I have never, ever seen this work, although I suppose it must have done occasionally. Much more common in my experience are stories like the eighty nine year old woman who came to me. She had learned to swim as a child but then an unkind or impatient teacher pushed her in to the pool. She had hardly swum since. Eighty years of non or fearful swimming caused by one thoughtless adult. It was amazing to see that she had not forgotten how to swim and I think and hope that she enjoyed our lesson.
Many of the adults (and some of the children) I teach to swim are very afraid of the water. Because of this I have become something of an expert at recognising and dealing with fear. People often say to me something along the lines of ‘I will be the most terrified person you have ever taught’ They sometimes tell me just the thought, or perhaps the smell of a swimming pool makes them feel sick with fear. Many people I teach have had a traumatic experience around water. Some have almost drowned.
I think people tell me how frightened they are because they want me to understand the depth of their fear and take it seriously. It is true that many people I teach really are terrified before the lesson. But I think the most scary part is signing up to the lesson in the first place. I am fairly sure that no one goes away from the first lesson still feeling frightened. Many people manage to swim a little bit in the first session.
I am not at all afraid of the water, in fact if anything at some level I feel safest when in the water. But of course there are many things in life that I am afraid of. I can completely relate to the feeling of fear but not to the context.
Fear is there to keep us safe. In the case of water it is there to stop us from drowning. Once I tell people that I will make sure that they always feel in control and that I am not going to expect them to do anything that will increase their fear they seem to relax.
For most of the people I teach, the fear disappears almost immediately they step into the water. They say ‘It is because you are here’. But really I am not doing anything except standing next to them. I think the most scary part if you have always been afraid of water and swimming must be coming to the lesson in the first place. I think if I have any special quality at all as far as teaching them is concerned it is that I understand and respect the fact that their fear is real and deep and abiding. It seems once you have accepted that the fear itself can just float away and you can get on with learning to swim.
One of my pupils recently told me how much he loved the writing of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I have just started running regularly and so, with my pupil in mind, when I saw Murakami’s memoir and treatise on running ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, I was curious to read it. I loved the book and read it in one sitting.
As well as running, Murakami has competed in several triathlons. For many people the swimming section of a triathlon is most difficult. With swimming it is not enough just to swim a lot in order to train. It is not just a matter of putting in the hours, to swim efficiently and well you also have to understand and work on your technique. In this short book Murakami talks about the difficulty of finding a good swimming coach. He says
‘Lots of people know how to swim, but those who can efficiently teach how to swim are few and far between. That’s the feeling I get. It’s difficult to teach how to write novels (at least I know I couldn’t), but teaching swimming is just as hard. And this isn’t just confined to swimming and novels. Of course there are teachers who can teach a set subject, in a set order, using predetermined phrases, but there aren’t many who can adjust their teaching to the abilities and tendencies of their pupils and explain things in their own individual way. Maybe hardly any at all.’
I completely agree with Murakami. Teaching swimming is difficult. The problem is not the subject matter, the technique, the strokes; these don’t change. But every person is different and reaching each one and helping them to learn or improve on a skill that can either save your life, or, in the worst case, cause you to lose it, is very difficult indeed. You have to understand what the person needs and wants, and to find ways of helping them to achieve their goals. Because of this my work is endlessly fascinating and I learn something new from each person I teach.