Reflections in the water: Conversations in the pool this week.

pink goggles

‘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.

 

 

 

Watermarks

I am honoured to have a short story included in this anthology. It is out on 8th May. Edited by Tanya Shadrick  and Rachel Playforth. Cover design by Neil Gower. Published by Pells Pool Lewes and Frogmore Press.

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Haruki Murakami on teaching swimming.

lindesimmetOne 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.

 

Be a wave. Autism and swimming.

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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

‘A desert!’

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.

‘An eagle!’

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.

 

 

 

 

Vimmii swimming

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.

 

Patience

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Courage

IMG_1792Last 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.

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