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.
I am always very happy when someone who has come to me for swimming lessons, especially someone who has felt fearful or nervous in the water, finds the time and the motivation to swim outdoors.
Personally I love swimming in rivers more than any other kind of outdoor swimming (maybe it is the sense of actually being able to go somewhere rather than just swimming about that appeals) so I was very happy to receive this photo from one of my pupils.
When we started working together he told me he couldn’t really float, but as you can see here he really can. I don’t know that this is exactly ‘wild swimming’, I would say it is fairly sedate but how glorious it looks.
‘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.
One little girl arrived at her swimming lesson last week, jumped into the water and when she had surfaced said with a huge smile
‘I love swimming because in the water you can MOVE.’
She then executed a series of balletic turns and dives under the water. She is quite a new swimmer and her stamina for long swims is still developing but she is learning the kind of freedom of movement in the water that I want for all my swimmers whatever their age.
I believe that swimming is the closest a non dancer can get to the freedom, grace and elegance of a professional dancer. In the water you can forget about gravity so you can move in way that would take years and years of training to be able to achieve on land.
I never want to give my pupils too much instruction, especially children, because if you let them they will find a natural, fluid way of moving in the water. This can so easily be interrupted if you give them instructions like ‘kick your legs.’ Just as (I imagine) with dance, swimming is often about stillness in the water. You don’t have to move all the time. A good swimmer knows how to glide and flow with the water.
Just as with dancer a swimmer can exist in the moment.
I will never ever be able to feel the magic of dancing like Sergei Polunin in this video but swimming gives me a tiny glimpse into what it must feel like to be him.
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.