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.
This little boy and his mum have been swimming with me for a few months now. He is not really a baby anymore, he is almost three. He loves being in the water and seems to feel very comfortable. I really admire the way his mum is with him. She is always in the water with him. She never pushes him to do more than he wants to but is gently encouraging when he decides it is time to venture a little bit further. I so often see adults trying to get children to do more in the water than they are comfortable with. It is always counterproductive. Children have great survival instincts that are stronger even than their desire to please. No amount of persuasion will get them to do things they don’t want to and if you force them you can put them off swimming for life. There is some kind of myth that if you just throw the kids in they will learn to swim. I have never, ever seen this work, although I suppose it must have done occasionally. Much more common in my experience are stories like the eighty nine year old woman who came to me. She had learned to swim as a child but then an unkind or impatient teacher pushed her in to the pool. She had hardly swum since. Eighty years of non or fearful swimming caused by one thoughtless adult. It was amazing to see that she had not forgotten how to swim and I think and hope that she enjoyed our lesson.
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.
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.