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.
Vimmii came to me a few weeks ago. She told me that she could not swim at all and that she was very frightened of the water. Here she is during our third lesson. She is continuing to make fantastic progress.
She told me that she had taken I think six different courses of lessons at various different pools in London and abroad. She was in despair of ever learning to swim although it was something she very much wanted to do. One teacher had even told her that she was a hopeless case and would never learn to swim.
I often have new pupils who tell me that they have tried to learn to swim but have given up. Some like Vimmii have tried many times and had lots of lessons with little or no success. I don’t really know what the teachers are doing in these lessons but whatever it is not working. I think that the main barrier for adult learners is fear and it seems that this is the one issue that many teachers do not or cannot address. Learning to swim is not a matter of moving your arms and legs in a particular way, it is about learning how to let go and feel comfortable and in control in the water.
This video is of Vimmii’s third lesson with me. She is 49. It turns out she could swim after all, just no-one had shown her how.
Last summer a young woman contacted me saying that although she could swim she had a fear of deep water. She longed to be able not only to swim out of her depth but also to jump and dive into deep water. We arranged to meet at the local pool that has a deep end, a luxury these days when the cost of heating a large body of water means that so many pools now are a uniform 1.2 metres deep.
She was nervous at first but she was brave and we did a little bit of work on treading water and finally after watching me do it, she plucked up the courage to jump into the three metre part of the pool.
Jumping into deep water is wonderful. After hitting the water, your body travels downwards until the water catches you and sends you back up to the surface with a surprising force. Thousands or maybe millions of tiny bubbles burst on your skin and you can watch them sparkling around you as you travel with them towards the air and the light.
We only had one session at the pool. She was off travelling and didn’t have time for more. I wished her a good journey and that was that I thought. Then a few weeks ago I had a message from her.
I just wanted to write and tell you that- thanks to you: I abseiled down waterfalls and canoed in Vietnam, snorkeled, scuba dived and dark cave swam in Thailand, and even went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia! I’ve included pictures for you below. Just wanted to thank you again. Without you I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these amazing things!
We only met once, so although she very sweetly says she wouldn’t have been able to do these things without me, in fact she was already brave and full of courage and I just helped her to see it. She has kindly given me permission to post the photos she sent me here.
Today has been a good day. Two of my pupils, both of whom, for different reasons, have been very fearful of the water, swam a few strokes unaided. Separately each one has asked me if I think they will ever be able to swim. Both desperately want to be able to feel happy and free in the water but it is fear that is holding them both back. I know that if they continue they will be able to swim but it is not always easy to convince them of this. Both of them can propel themselves through the water but only if they are holding on to either a float or another person. This is quite common. It is swimming alone with nothing to hold on to that is frightening for many people.
It is so great to see them start to overcome their irrational but very deep seated fear. Although I am not afraid of the water at all, I am afraid of lots of other, more nameless things, but when I see their fear gently leaving them I realise that maybe I can overcome my own.
I often teach people who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s even 80s and are learning to swim for the first time. It has made me re-examine my own ideas about learning things or discovering things later in life and also what it is possible to acheive. Learning to swim can open up a whole new world and just because you haven’t done it earlier, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. It is so easy to close down options and believe it is too late, but I have seen that this is just not true. Some people learn so quickly that I feel there was a swimmer lurking inside them all along, they just didn’t know it.
The interesting thing is that every person I teach seems to teach me something. For example I often tell people that it is impossible to flip from floating on your front to floating on your back without using either hands or feet to roll you over. You can’t do it by just rolling because there is nothing to push against. I usually tell people this because they are afraid of rolling over so I tell them it is impossible. But the other day met a woman who astounded me by doing it. But she could only roll one way. Turned out she has spina bifida. She compensated so well that I could hardly tell, but one side is shorter than the other. Her disability allows her to do something that no-one else I have met can do, that I thought was impossible.
I’m very pleased to have another article published in Swimming Times. This one is about teaching adult learners. It is quite timely as a report has come out this week showing that 9 million adults in Britain can’t swim. That is about one in five people.
My newest, oldest pupil Margaret, who is 89, had her second swimming lesson with me today. I usually get people to put their faces in the water at the very beginning of working with them as being able to do this is key to good swimming. Last week Margaret told me that she didn’t like to put her face in the water. A teacher pushed her into deep water as a child and she has never forgotten the fear she felt as she was under the water. I decided that perhaps at 89 she was too old to overcome this fear and so I decided not to ask her to put her face in the water. I thought we would just gently swim up and down for a few minutes with Margaret swimming on her back, as she prefers, and me walking along beside her in the water, to offer reassurance. I thought that would be enough.
I had underestimated her.
About 15 minutes into the lesson Margaret told me that in fact she used to be able to put her face in the water and had even taken part in the school swimming gala. I said to her ‘Why don’t you try putting just your nose and mouth into the water?’ She did that with no trouble. Then I suggested she close her eyes and submerge her whole head. She did it without a murmur. ‘Well I didn’t expect you to do that.’ I said. ‘You told me to!’ ‘Yes but I didn’t think you would actually do it.’ The lesson was more or less at an end and so I guided Margaret towards the steps. I was about to lift up the lane rope for her to walk under it. ‘Don’t do that.’ She said ‘I’ll go under’ and she dipped down and swooped under the rope with her whole head submerged.
After that she wanted to try to glide into the side with her head in the water as she had done as a child. In fact she lost her nerve and couldn’t quite do it. ‘But next week’ she told me.