For some people floating is quite frightening. This may seem strange to a confident swimmer but the thing about being in the water is that although it holds you up, it does not hold you still. So that even when you are floating, you are moving a little bit all the time. You can stop yourself from moving but you can’t stay still in one place. For a novice this can feel odd. I like to teach my pupils this way of relaxing in the water. By anchoring themselves to the side of the pool by the lower leg, they can allow themselves to float without floating away.
It is a bit tricky to get into the position but once there it is a lovely way to relax. When I am teaching a class of children they often decide to relax in this way in between activities. I see them suspended along the side of the pool like a row of little fruit bats.
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 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.
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 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.
I am very excited and just a little bit nervous to be going on a one day workshop with Adam Walker next Saturday.
This is from his website
‘Adam Walker is the first British person to swim the Oceans 7, the toughest 7 channel swims in the World. He is the 5th person in the World to complete this incredible feat. It is the ultimate endurance challenge, the Oceans equivalent to the “Seven Summits” and he is the 2nd person in history to complete all seven on first attempt.’
Interesting to see that the chimpanzees here swim with their faces both in and out of the water. I find with many people I teach that it is the fear or reluctance to put the face in the water that stops them from swimming efficiently and effectively.
‘People wish to learn to swim and at the same keep one foot on the ground.’
From A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922
In this quotation Proust is talking metaphorically but the more I teach swimming the more I understand that letting go and trusting the water is the most important aspect of learning to swim. However it is probably also the most difficult thing to learn. It is certainly the most difficult thing to teach because it has to come from inside. It takes experience and understanding of the body in the water to be able to allow oneself to float and glide freely. You have to let the water support you, if you try to hold on to the water, even a little bit, it won’t work. And this I have realised is the biggest difference between a swimmer and a non-swimmer. A swimmer knows, instinctively and through practice, how to let the water support them, a non-swimmer doesn’t. Fear makes us try to hold on, and so fear of the water can stop someone being able to swim, even if, as is sometimes the case, they understand the technique perfectly.