Never let it be said that I only teach fair weather swimmers. This is one of my brave pupils. There may have been frost on the ground but she was undeterred. Although a relative newcomer to swimming, she is planning to do the Serpentine Swim on Christmas day next year. She does not let a little bit of cold weather put her off her training.
‘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.
‘Swimming is hard work but it is also very relaxing’
This is what a six year old girl in my class said to me the other day, just after she had completed her a length of the pool. It was the first time she had swum a whole length without stopping.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
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.
I teach several children who are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are very different each one is delightful and I enjoy teaching them very much. Statistics show that there is an appallingly high incidence of drowning in autistic children. This terrible situation may be because they tend wander off by themselves and like most children they are often fascinated by water. It may also be because it is more difficult for them to be accepted into mainstream swimming lessons and so they are less likely to learn to swim although there is absolutely no reason on earth why these children shouldn’t swim as well as anyone else. In fact for a child who is usually extra sensitive to noise, environment, touch, everything, the water can be a deeply calming and relaxing environment. These children need to learn to swim more not less than other children. It may even save their lives.
One of the children I am teaching is an adorable, funny, charming, gentle five year old, who was actually turned away from mainstream swimming lessons (they gave his mum her money back). He was afraid of the water at first and his Mum told me that he didn’t like to have his hair washed or go in the shower. He doesn’t like to wear a swimming hat or goggles, which is completely fine, neither do I really, and we spend most of the lessons playing while his confidence in the water is increasing dramatically.
One of the games I get all the children I teach to play is ‘sea creatures’. They have to pretend to be a creature you might find in the sea and I or the other children have to guess what it is. This little boy liked the game but he wanted me to be the creature. He asked me to be a walrus, a blue whale, a white whale, a killer whale and finally and most challenging for me a wave.
I told him I didn’t really know how to be a wave so he showed me and for the first time and with no hesitation dived under the water and swam to me. His technique needs some refinement, but his mum could not believe that he happily submerged his whole body in the water and came up smiling.
It was raining that day and the pool was an outdoor one. After the rain the sky turned an unusual sandy yellow colour as evening approached.
My little swimmer looked up in wonder and said
I could see what he meant.
Another little girl who came to me during the summer saw a pigeon in a tree nearby and exclaimed.
Afterwards I wondered if she meant ‘seagull’ as we were by the water but I am not sure. She was delighted by it anyway.
Another little boy counts his lessons in the number of trains that pass on the nearby train track. Like many children on the autistic spectrum he loves trains. If he has had a really good lesson he sometimes asks if he can stay ‘for twenty trains’. But unfortunately the lesson only lasts for ten.
It is just wonderful for me to watch as the children grow in confidence in the water and the other day I had the greatest compliment when the mother of a twelve year old I teach told me that the boy himself had recommended me to his physiotherapist. I don’t think I could really ask for greater affirmation.
Some of my pupils are also very good artists and if I am lucky, from time to time they bring me pieces of their work. This is one of my favourite drawings. It is by Jessica who is six years old. I love the fact that she has captured both of us so well, her swimming and me standing in the water. We both look very happy and not only is the sun shining there is also a beautiful rainbow over the pool.
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.