Guardian swimming blog – How to overcome your fear of swimming

I am excited because The Guardian have published my article about fear of the water on their swimming blog. Thank you to my students who gave me permission to use their stories.


Photo by Mark Tipple

The secret to learning anything

einstein-laughingSometimes parents say to me that they are worried that all the children are doing in my lessons is playing. I am not sure that these parents always appreciate that, especially in the water, it is through playing that the children learn. When I teach non-swimming adults the main difference between them and the children is that they don’t play in the water. It is true that sometimes the children can enjoy the lessons so much that things get very lively. Then I have to remind them of two basic rules

  • don’t jump in without asking me
  • don’t hold onto each other in the water.

These have to do with safety and are not too difficult to remember, although we do have to over them quite often. I believe that to learn any new skill properly, at any age, you have to enjoy the process. Here is a letter from Albert Einstein to his eleven year old son. It was written in 1915.

“I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. . . .”

He wrote this letter just after having completed his General Theory of Relativity.

My thanks to Maria Popova for drawing my attention to this quote in her blog

At last

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This song has nothing to do with swimming but it is a beautiful song sung, beautifully, by my beautiful niece Ruby. The song was written by Mack Gordon and Henry Warren in 1941.  Blues singer Etta James covered the song in 1961 and it became her signature song.

Swimming and mindfulness

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Mindfulness means being consciously, deliberately aware of each moment as it passes. To me swimming and mindfulness go together. To swim well you need to use your whole body and to feel at one with the water. A good swimmer listens to the water, judging the water’s response to each movement. Swimming is a solitary activity; although you may be in the pool, lake, river or sea with many others, essentially you are alone when you swim. You are in your own private world, alone with your thoughts and feelings; your body is as close to weightless as it is possible for most of us to experience. (NASA astronauts train in deep water to simulate the experience of weightlessness) To swim well you need to regulate your breathing so that your breath is in time with your stroke; you can become aware of the breath entering and leaving your lungs. Swimming is a rhythmic activity, a kind of dance with the water and it can be a meditative experience. I have take many troubles to the water and without consciously searching for a solution, have found new ways of coping with problems that seemed insurmountable.

Riff Raff the swimming dog

riff raffMany dogs of my acquaintance love to swim. They seem to understand the pure joy of being in the water. Unlike humans, dogs, and most mammals it seems, don’t need to learn to swim. They can just do it, in fact most dogs are better swimmers than humans. Their heads are above water, their fur keeps them warm, many have waterproof undercoats, they have a low centre of gravity, their lungs have a higher capacity than most human’s and some breeds even have webbed feet.

The beautiful, kind and radiant, Riff Raff, who sadly died yesterday was an exuberant and enthusiastic swimmer. Watching her leaping into the water reminded you what joyfulness, hope and optimism was.

I mostly saw her swimming in the Thames but here she is on one of her Scottish holidays, deep in canine meditation, immediately pre-dip.

‘The water always tells me a new story’ – Annette Kellermann 1918

‘I have been asked a thousand times why I like to swim and I have given a different answer every time. You see the water always tells me a new story.’

‘Swimming cultivates imagination; the man with the most is he who can swim his solitary course night or day and forget a black Earth full of people who push.’

Annette Kellermann 1918

‘In the water I am free’ – Swimming and rheumatoid arthritis

Bus to the pool

Bus to the pool

woman swimmingI have a good friend who is a keen swimmer and also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body reacts to some of its own cells as is they were foreign and so attacks them as it would a virus or bacteria. RA can affect many tissues and organs but it mainly attacks flexible (synovial) joints. It can be very painful and disabling and it can lead to loss of mobility and loss of function. It is not the same as osteoarthritis which tends to affect people as they get older, however both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis cause inflammation of the joints.  This can result in pain, stiffness, swelling, a decreased range of motion and fatigue. Swimming is an excellent exercise for arthritis sufferers because it provides an aerobic workout without putting strain on the joints.

There are treatments for RA but at the moment there is no cure. Scientists do not know exactly what causes it. There may be a slight genetic predisposition to getting the disease and there are a few factors that can slightly increase the risk but on the whole the onset seems fairly random.

My friend is a very active and lively person, she was fit and healthy, always out walking or riding her bike and the last person you might expect to be hit by such a disease.

We have become good friends partly through our mutual love of swimming, she swims every day, and I decided to ask her about what swimming means to her and how it has helped her deal with the RA.

I’ve always been a keen swimmer. When I was a child I had a book called ‘My Little House’. It was about a lovely house in the country and there were some children living in the house who used to swim in the river nearby, or skate on the pond in the winter. Then gradually the house became hidden under a mass of buildings and roadways and flyovers until eventually it was completely hemmed in. So they decided to move the house on the back of a truck, it was an American book, and they took it to a perfect place in the country, but I remember thinking ‘but there’s no river, no stream, no pond’. I thought ‘where is the water?’. And I’ve always had that sense that to be happy you need to be near the water.

When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid, swimming was my salvation. I said to the doctor, for whom I have a great deal of respect, ‘Will I still be able to swim properly? Will I still be able to swim a mile?’ and he said ‘We just don’t know’. But I can, I swim about a mile most days. It takes me forty minutes.

Swimming is my mental and physical escape. It is not just about the exercise, although that is important, it is cleansing and relaxing too in the deepest sense. I always go to the same pool, the local one, that I fought very hard to save from closure, before I was ill, before I knew I would need it so desperately.

The council was allowing the pool to fall in to disrepair, they wanted to sell off the land, and we had to fight long and hard to keep it open. I spent eight years campaigning against its closure and for re-investment and refurbishment and we won in the end. I am still on the safeguarding committee. We had the indoor, outdoor and learning pool re-tiled and I had to fight hard to keep the depth of the pool, it is three metres deep in some places and it would obviously been cheaper to make it a bit shallower, but I really wanted to keep the depth.

In the end I think we won the fight against closure because I managed to convince a local councillor who subsequently became the local MP and who was also a doctor, that we had to have a children’s teaching pool in the borough, that our children had to have somewhere they could learn to swim.

I go to the pool almost every day. It is crucial to me and so I fit my work around it. It is a beautiful light, long airy pool with big windows to the ground,  on three sides and an outdoor pool that is open in the summer. It is a public pool and I prefer that to exclusive private clubs. I meet like-minded people there, other swimmers, but they are from all walks of life, all ages, varying degrees of fitness. As I have said the pool has a proper deep end, also it is nice and long, thirty-three metres. I am afraid I am a bit lengthist when it comes to swimming pools.

My condition means that I can’t do much walking and no cycling, which I used to love, so the swimming is a very important exercise for me. It keeps the muscle tone, and exercises the joints, it also helps me to stretch. I have to be careful not to overdo it. My favourite stroke is front crawl but I have to limit the amount I do. I can swim on my back if I don’t push myself too hard but unfortunately breaststroke is out for me these days apart from in the sea.

There was no bus running to the pool and although I do have a car I felt that it was important that people should be able to get to the pool by bus, especially children, and I am pleased to say that after eight years of my campaigning we now also have a bus that goes directly to the pool.

I have watched children with all sorts of disabilities being taken swimming and you can see how they relax in the water. The carers and teachers have told me that the children are calmer and happier after they have been in the water.

My condition has limited my mobility in many ways but I am equal in the water, and I am free.’

Swimming, mindfulness and the Eureka moment

The story goes that Archimedes was in the bath when he shouted Eureka (I have found (it)). He realised that the volume of water he displaced getting in to the bath must be equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. So, after long reflection, he had  discovered a way that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision. I have read that he was so delighted that he got out of the bath and rushed through the streets of Syracuse naked.

Most people recognise the phenomenon of a sudden flash of insight, the solution to a problem that you may have spent days, weeks, months or even years puzzling over.

Daniel Goleman’s book The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is beginning to reveal what goes on in that Aha momeeurekant.

Here is Goleman in his own words.

Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on at that “Aha!” moment when we get a sudden insight. If you measure EEG brain waves during a creative moment, it turns out there is very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. Gamma activity indicates the binding together of neurons, as far-flung brain cells connect in a new neural network – as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters our consciousness.

This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and “gets” jokes. It understands the language of the unconscious what Freud called the “primary process”: the language of poems, of art, of myth. It’s the logic of dreams where anything goes and the impossible is possible.

That high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization.

What’s the best way to mobilize this brain ability?  It’s first to concentrate intently on the goal or problem, and then relax into stage three: let go. The converse of letting go – trying to force an insight – can inadvertently stifle creative breakthrough. If you’re thinking and thinking about it, you may just be getting tenser and not coming up with fresh ways of seeing things, let alone a truly creative insight.

So to get to the next stage, you just let go. Unlike the intense focus of grappling with a problem head-on, the third stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, of daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for the novel connections that occur during the gamma spike.

Those moments of out-of-the-blue, spontaneous creative insights may seem to come out of nowhere. But we can assume that the same process has gone on, where there was some degree of engagement in a creative problem, and then during “down time” neural circuits make novel associations and connections. Even when creative insights seem to arise on their own, the brain may be going through the same moves as during the three classical stages.

On the other hand, I would guess that the three or four classical stages of creativity are somewhat of a useful fiction – the creative spirit is more freewheeling than that. I think the main neural action is between intense focus on the problem and then relaxing about it. And when that creative idea arrives, it’s almost certain that the brain has gone through that same heightened pitch of gamma activity that was found in the lab.

Is there a way to create the conditions whereby the gamma spike is more likely to occur? Gamma spikes normally come at random – they can’t be forced. But the mental stage can be set. The pre-work for the gamma spike includes defining the problem, then immersing yourself in it. And then you let it all go – and it’s during the let-go period that gamma spike is most likely to arise, along with that “Aha!” moment, the light bulb over the head of a cartoon figure.

There’s a physical marker we sometimes feel during a gamma spike: pleasure. With the “Aha!” comes joy. Then there’s that fourth stage, implementation, where a good idea will either sink or swim. I remember talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told me, “We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down – which happens all too often in organizational life – the next person who speaks must be an ‘angel’s advocate,’ someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.’”

Creative ideas are like a fragile bud – they’ve got to be nurtured so they can blossom.

Daniel Goleman

As a swimmer I have for a long time counselled friends and family, and myself, to take their problems to the water. I have said before that swimming helps with all troubles. I had no real explanation for this but perhaps science is now beginning to show that if you can induce a state of mindful meditation, you can free your brain to do its own work, undisturbed by conscious, controlling thoughts. I also believe that being submerged in water adds something extra. I think it was more than a happy accident that Archimdedes was in the bath when he made his discovery.

You can’t hide in the water.

I get a sense of a personality when I watch someone swim. I don’t know if the way you are in the water translates into the way you are in life but I think it must be true to some extent.

Some of the children I teach are reckless and daredevil, throwing themselves into the water and just trusting I will be there to catch them. Some of them are cautious and fearful, refusing to do anything I ask until they are sure it is safe. Some are not very co-ordinated and struggle with moving themselves through the water, some are natural movers and are like little seals from the first moment. Some are shy and don’t say anything above a whisper, others would shout excitedly through the whole lesson if I didn’t occasionally ask them to let me get a word in.

The adults are more hidden, but still you can get a sense of a person in the water although its not always something you can put into words.