My swimming lessons are always about so much more than just swimming. At the beginning of the class I always ask the children if they have any news. Yesterday for one group, their news was that they were studying the stone age at school. One little chap told me that they had read a story in which a stone age boy mentioned that he was living in the stone age. ‘But our teacher told us that is an anachronism.’ I had to go home and look it up. Turns out he is right. He is five. He’s also a very good swimmer.
I have read that back pain is often (some say always) caused by tension and stress. My work as a swimming teacher has demonstrated to me that this may be true. When I see non swimmers in the water for the first time I can see how they hold all the stress and fear of being in an unfamiliar environment in their neck and back muscles. In this case the tension comes from being in the water but I can imagine that if you walk around for months or years holding tension in your body in this way you would develop pain.
When my children were small I started to develop lower back pain. At times it was quite severe. A friend of mine who was a neurologist said to me ‘No one really understands backs. The best thing you can do for your back is swim every day.’ I had always been a swimmer but I started to swim more, not every day, but as often as possible. I learned to swim front crawl; until then I had always swum breaststroke; and gradually my back started to get better. I have been completely free from back pain for several years.
Swimming became so much a part of my life that I decided to train as a teacher. I especially liked the idea of teaching adults. I have taught many adults who are fearful of the water: either they are learning to swim for the first time, or although able to swim a bit they have never felt comfortable in the water.
It is easier to learn to swim if you put your face in the water. This is because if you lift your head out of the water the weight of your head will push the rest of your body downwards. If you either lie on your back (difficult for most new swimmers) or put your face in the water, and allow the water to support your head, your body will float naturally. However if you are lying rigidly in the water even with your face submerged unless you soften and relax your spine it is very difficult to lift your head out of the water to breathe. If you are lying on your back and you are very tense the tension in your back will cause you to lift your head a little bit in which case your legs will sink and your face will probably become submerged and you will get a nose full of water.
In order to learn to swim properly you have to learn how to let go of the tension in your body. But if you are in a fearful or stressful situation your body will hold on to the tension for you, no matter what you decide. This is why in order to learn to swim well have to learn to feel comfortable in the water. There is no way around this, and this is why I feel so many people find conventional swimming lessons don’t work for them. Teachers focus too much on technique and not enough on learning to let go. You simply can’t learn to swim well if you are afraid and it seems that your body, especially your neck and back, will hold the fear for you.
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.
I have been teaching a little six year old girl for several months now. She comes right across London to get to the lesson. I think it takes her parents about an hour and a half to get to me. It is a long drive for a swimming lesson but the parents were in despair of what to do as their daughter had developed a real phobia of water, a deep seated fear and although they had tried with many different swimming lessons, including one to one, the fear seemed to be getting worse.
At the first lesson her whole body was rigid with terror as she approached the water. She was caught in a dilemma: she wanted to be able to swim but her fear was so strong that she could not allow herself to relax and trust either the water, or the adults teaching her.
We started very, very slowly, just walking round the pool, playing with a few toys and talking about her cat. Gradually she was brave enough to walk to the centre of the pool and after a few lessons she could start to let herself float a little bit, with buoyancy aids. She absolutely did not want to put her face in the water, which is more or less a requirement for learning to swim. Just the thought of it was frightening for her.
She was a delightful little girl and did make great progress but the face in the water thing was a real stumbling block, the more I tried, gently, to persuade her to do it the more resistant she became. We had one very frustrating lesson where she seemed not be listening at all and would not engage in even the usual games.
I felt that the reason she was being less cooperative was that she could feel me trying to persuade her too much. I decided to back off completely, never to mention putting her face in the water again and just to play. I worried a bit that the parents would feel they were wasting their time and money on coming all the way across London but I knew it was the only way we were going to keep things moving forward.
‘She will do it eventually’ I thought to myself: almost certain I was right.
With my change of approach she was immediately back to her usual cheery self. She could sense I was not going to push her and she could relax and enjoy being in the water.
When it was time to get out the next little boy climbed down the steps to start his lesson. I focused all my attention on him as he is much younger and can’t put his feet down in the pool where we work.
I glanced very briefly over towards the little girl and to my amazement she had submerged her whole face including eyes nose and mouth into the water . She came up grinning, and did it again, and again.
‘I really like it!’ she said.
She must have been coming to me every week for at least six months nothing I could have done would have persuaded her to put her face in the water before, but when she was ready, she did it.
We were all delighted; me, her parents, the little girl herself. She will be a swimmer now, probably for the rest of her life. It took time and patience, more than even I would have believed, but we got there in the end.
It taught me once again to remember that sometimes, in life, progress is very slow, but that there are things that are worth the wait.
Last summer a young woman contacted me saying that although she could swim she had a fear of deep water. She longed to be able not only to swim out of her depth but also to jump and dive into deep water. We arranged to meet at the local pool that has a deep end, a luxury these days when the cost of heating a large body of water means that so many pools now are a uniform 1.2 metres deep.
She was nervous at first but she was brave and we did a little bit of work on treading water and finally after watching me do it, she plucked up the courage to jump into the three metre part of the pool.
Jumping into deep water is wonderful. After hitting the water, your body travels downwards until the water catches you and sends you back up to the surface with a surprising force. Thousands or maybe millions of tiny bubbles burst on your skin and you can watch them sparkling around you as you travel with them towards the air and the light.
We only had one session at the pool. She was off travelling and didn’t have time for more. I wished her a good journey and that was that I thought. Then a few weeks ago I had a message from her.
I just wanted to write and tell you that- thanks to you: I abseiled down waterfalls and canoed in Vietnam, snorkeled, scuba dived and dark cave swam in Thailand, and even went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia! I’ve included pictures for you below. Just wanted to thank you again. Without you I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these amazing things!
We only met once, so although she very sweetly says she wouldn’t have been able to do these things without me, in fact she was already brave and full of courage and I just helped her to see it. She has kindly given me permission to post the photos she sent me here.
Britain could become a nation of non-swimmers if action is not taken to dramatically improve school access to facilities and lessons.
The University of East Anglia have published research showing that fifty one per cent of children aged seven to eleven in the UK cannot swim twenty five metres. This is despite the fact that it is a requirement of the national curriculum.
Twenty five metres is not very far to be able to swim. In Sweden for example children are expected to be able to swim 200 metres of which at least fifty metres should be on the back.
The problem is most acute in rural areas where small schools face problems of time and cost of transporting children to pools.
These non-swimming children will grow up to be non-swimming adults who in turn are unlikely to take their own children swimming and so we could indeed become a nation of non-swimmers.
Me and BBC Radio 4’s JP Devlin about to hit the water. A total and somewhat fearful non-swimmer just a few months ago JP can now swim a length of the pool doing breaststroke and is working on front crawl and backstroke.
He has been a delight to teach and is very brave and determined. He is also always prepared to try out my sometimes slightly odd ideas including jumping in, sitting dives, mushroom floats and spinning round in the water.
One problem I have in my children’s swimming classes is that I always feel the parents want me to tell the children how to swim. They want me to tell them exactly what to do with their arms and legs. The children usually want to please so if you tell them to do something they will try to do it. But this means that they stop feeling the water, stop being aware of their own bodies moving through the water and the result is often that their swimming becomes laboured and uncomfortable. If you allow them to play and find their own movements, then just gently show them what to do the swimming is much more graceful. This is even more true of non-swimming adults. I have to get them to feel the water, to work out a little bit for themselves how to move their bodies through the water and then help them to refine the movements. Good swimming is all about feeling relaxed and confident in the water. This only comes with experiment, play and practice.
Here is Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talking about the difference in the way art and science are taught. He was learning to draw.
“I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.”
Especially when teaching adults who have spent a whole life not learning to swim and may be very fearful, it is important to teach the spirit rather than just the technique of swimming.