Learning to let go

proust‘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.

Swallow dives

English: Seaside life. Man standing ready to catch a woman coming down with a swallow dive. Photograph from the Dutch illustrated magazine 'Het Leven' (bathing issue), 1937.

Photograph from the Dutch illustrated magazine ‘Het Leven’ (bathing issue), 1937.

You used to see a lot of swallow dives, but nowadays you hardly ever do. This is partly because most pools have got rid of their diving boards and many are not deep enough.

It is a shame, but I fear the swallow, or swan dive has had its day. It seemed to coincide with the era of the Lido, of Busby Berkeley swimming extravaganzas, of Esther Williams, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and sweeping art deco architecture.

I am just old enough to have benefitted from the end of the swallow dive era and remember seeing many beautiful dives executed from the high diving board at our local pool. I remember that moment when the diver seems to hang in the air, swooping upwards for a second with arms outstretched before bringing them together over the head and hopefully entering the water with the smallest of splashes. I even on one spectacular occasion saw someone do one of these dives off a bridge into the Thames at Twickenham.

I never did one myself. I didn’t have the courage or the skill. It seemed to be something that men and boys did to show off. I don’t know how they learned, I am quite sure most of them were never taught. They just plucked up their courage and copied one another.

Jumping in

Ivy jumping in

Ivy jumping in

A couple of weeks ago one of my adult pupils asked me about diving and jumping into the water. He had not done this before. As the pool where we were was in a modern health club the depth was just 1.2 metres throughout. I was not sure. Technically it should be fine but I was a bit worried, not about the water, but about him hurting himself if he landed too heavily on the bottom of the pool, so we didn’t do it.

His question made me realise that it is probably years since I have jumped in.  My regular swimming pool has a deep end, this is sadly quite rare these days. Modern pools are often all one depth. It is cheaper that way as there is less water to heat. I have a very good friend who campaigned not only to keep our local pool open, but also to keep the depth. The management wanted to fill it in and make it more shallow but she fought to keep the three metre depth at one end. She won, so we have the luxury of the deep water to swim in. The diving boards were taken away, so there is nowhere to practice diving anymore, but at least we can jump in. So why were we denying ourselves that pleasure? Foolish of us.

The next time I went to the pool I walked straight to the deep end and jumped in. it was such a joyful and even slightly surprising experience. The feeling of falling through the water and then being gently caught and sent back up towards the surface. I often ask the children I teach to feel for the sensation of tiny bubbles bursting on their bodies as they jump in but I was too overwhelmed by the unusual for me sensation of jumping into the water to do this.

As I came to the surface I found myself laughing. I understand now why the children in my lessons want to jump in all the time and I wondered why I had left it so long.

When my friend arrived we jumped in together. We didn’t hold hands but next time we might.

“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious” – Carl Jung

Water-802215“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that it is often referred to as the ‘subconscious,’ usually with the pejorative connotation of an inferior consciousness. Water is the ‘valley spirit,’ the water dragon of Tao, whose nature resembles water- a yang in the yin, therefore, water means spirit that has become unconscious.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para 40)


“To be weightless for the better part of a year, to never even have to lift my head
and then to have to be subjected again to my own inevitable weight having to
pick up my arm […..] It was an extremely unfair feeling”

Canadian astronaut Col chris-hadfieldChris Hadfield speaking on the Today programme, (BBC Radio 4 29th October 2013),  about how it felt to return to Earth and experience the heaviness of his own body .

Most of us will never go into space and will never experience the weightlessness Chris Hadfield is talking about here. Floating and swimming in the water is probably the closest we can get. That is why they train astronauts underwater in special zero gravity tanks.

Water, the key to life. Helen Keller’s story.

helen kellers water pumpHelen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author,  political activist and lecturer. Helen was born a perfectly normal healthy child but when she was 19 months old, she contracted an illness which left her unable to see or hear.

She did develop some ability to communicate with her family using signs but it was very limited.

When she was seven years old her family appointed a governess, Anne Sullivan, who immediately started to try to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words on to her hand. Anne Sullivan tried to teach her the to spell out words such as d o l l and m u g, but Helen could not understand that every object had its own unique word.  It was only when Anne took Helen outside to the pump and ran water over her hands spelling out the word w a t e r, that Helen began to understand what her teacher was trying to do.

“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.


I learned a great many new words that day.


Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of  Shakespeare”

Water and an inspired teacher, it seemed were the keys that unlocked her closed world. She went on to become a prolific speaker, writer, social activist and campaigner.

Where does water come from?

dreamstime_xs_1974167One of the children in my swimming class asked me this today. I had to think for a bit then I kind of remembered reading something about water being created as stars formed billions of years ago and I said water had been here about as long as the Earth has been here, hoping I was right. Then I talked vaguely about rain and clouds, ice and steam and how water can change from one thing to another but it doesn’t disappear and you can’t make it.

As we were off on this scientific, philosophical tack another little girl asked me why the water was blue, was it reflecting the sky. Then she thought for a bit and said

‘What colour is water ?’

I said it didn’t really have a colour but it looked blue because it was reflecting part of the light. Again I was sort of hoping I was right.

I knew my knowledge on both subjects was not really sufficient to explain things in a way they would understand. I had to just give them the words and let them see what they could make of it.  Some of them weren’t really listening anyway, they were too busy practising somersaults and handstands under the water, but the ones who were seemed satisfied.

Sometimes swimming lessons can be quite deep.

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


Fear of falling

Photo by Mark Tipple

Photo by Mark Tipple

One of my pupils told me that the reason she found it difficult to learn to swim was that she had a fear of gaps. She said she did not like stepping from the platform to the train, or even crossing bridges and that being in water made her feel the same way.  She told me she could float and was not afraid to put her face in the water but it was the moment of taking her feet off the bottom of the pool that scared her.  She said that the moment of launching herself into the water is like the moment when you are falling asleep and you feel yourself fall off the edge of something, the moment when you suddenly jerk back to wakefulness. One man told me that his father had dangled him over a bridge when he was a child and he had been afraid of water ever since. He is learning to swim now, fifty years later, and doing well.

I think for many people fear of water is like a fear of falling, of being unsupported and many  people are able to swim as long as they are touching me. Even if I just touch them lightly with the finger of one hand they can swim, but as soon as I move my hand they panic.  One lady could swim if we swam together, with both of us swimming and me holding her hand, but even though I was not supporting her at all, she could not swim if I let go of her.  And many people can swim if I help them to start off, if I manage to get them over the falling moment when the ground disappears from under their feet.

All this has shown me how deeply psychological the fear of water and fear of swimming can be. It is therefore not surprising that once people start to overcome their fear of water, they sometimes find that other fears become less too; like the man who told me that once he had stopped being afraid of the water he also found that he had stopped being afraid of dogs.

It is interesting to watch people lose their fear. It doesn’t happen immediately of course but as long as the person keeps coming to the lessons the fear always goes, it just sort of floats away. I believe this is because the fear sits in a very deep and instinctual part of the memory or experience and is not really connected to the present situation. In a heated swimming pool, where they are never out of their depth and where I am there to help and support them, most people learn to swim.

Watching people overcome this fear has got me thinking about the nature of fear itself and how many of us are limited by fears that are not based in reality.