"People wish to learn to swim and at the same keep one foot on the ground." — Marcel Proust
I teach swimming to nervous adults. Some of my pupils are so nervous that one could say they have a form of aquaphobia. One woman I taught was so fearful of water on her face that when she had her shower installed she had it fitted so that the water came from the side and not overhead. She is now, after a few batches of weekly lessons, swimming on her front and on her back, and is learning front crawl. She swims with her face in the water and is learning to flip over from her front to her back. We have not been to a pool with deep water yet, but we will soon and then I will encourage and help her to jump into the deep end, because it is so much fun. She told me that when she went swimming with her daughter and grandchildren recently, her daughter was so moved to see her swimming that she cried. She has just turned 70. She is still learning, but she is a natural swimmer and she is developing an elegant and graceful style.
I have taught people of all ages and from all walks of life. My oldest pupil was an 87-year-old lady who was also blind. She said she had always wanted to learn to swim but had never got round to it. At the end of one lesson I got her to swim through a hoop floating in the water. It was a lovely moment.
Many people I teach have had some kind of traumatic experience in the water: one man nearly drowned as a child in a badly supervised swimming lesson; another told me he had been dangled over a bridge as a child and the fear has stayed with him. People are often embarrassed, even ashamed, of the fact that they can't swim, and many non-swimmers are reluctant to admit it.
I have been asked before if there are stages that learners go through when they are learning to swim. Well, yes there are, but they don't all necessarily go through them in the same order. As well as traditional swim training, I have been trained in the Shaw Method of swimming teaching, which is based on the Alexander Technique and is developed specifically for adults, but it is the many different people who I have now taught to swim who have, in turn, taught me the most.
New swimmers often tell me that they can't put their faces in the water, but no one ever has a problem with this when it comes to the lesson. So far, I have not had anyone who hasn't been able to do it within about five minutes. There are simple techniques I use to overcome this fear and they always seem to work.
Once you can put your face in the water, you can float. More or less everyone floats. Occasionally you do come across someone who is less buoyant than most, but this just means they need a little bit more forward propulsion to actually swim or they may float a little lower down – more under the surface – than most. However, fear and tension mean that people hold themselves stiffly and, by hunching their heads or shoulders, they unintentionally push their feet towards the bottom of the pool.
When we are afraid, the natural reaction is to pull the legs up underneath the body – to curl up into a foetal position. This is not conducive to swimming. So the first thing I do is to get the person to lie flat on the water with their face in it and to let me pull them along gently, holding their hands.
The biggest fear for many people is taking their feet off the bottom when they have nothing to hold on to. One woman described it as a "fear of gaps" – like when you step from the platform to the train. Another said it was like the moment when you fall asleep and the feeling of falling jerks you awake. Letting go is the hardest part to teach because so much of it is in the mind. Many people are fine as long as they can hold my hands but, as soon as they try to let go, panic sets in and – even though I don't feel it myself – I can see that it is a real, deep-seated fear.
Teaching swimming has taught me so much about fear itself. Fear keeps us safe, but it also prevents us from moving forward. If you are frightened and try to hold on to the water, you can't swim. It is only by letting go and trusting that the water will hold you up that you can learn to swim. This is far more important than technique, but it takes time.
Occasionally I have an adult pupil who hasn't learned to swim simply because of circumstance. One woman I taught grew up in a war zone – there was no time for swimming. She was not afraid of the water, she had just never learned. She was swimming lengths of the pool easily after just a few lessons because she had no fear and the process was straightforward.
Sometimes lessons learned in the water seem to translate into real life. One man who was a total non-swimmer before he came to me told me that, once he conquered his fear of water and learned to swim, he found that he was no longer afraid of dogs.
Being with people and helping them to overcome fear that they may have had for their whole lives is a rewarding and humbling experience. For me, the water is a comforting and safe environment, but for many of the people I work with the water is a source of fear and panic. I am filled with admiration at their courage and determination. I feel privileged to watch as they set themselves free.
Photo Courtesy: Pawel Loj, Flickr
By Katie Lively, Swimming World College Intern
There are a small handful of swimmers who truly dream of a career in coaching. The majority of us cringe slightly when we find out we need to figure out a way to teach our sport to an outsider.
However, my own experience has shown me just how powerful the effects of teaching can be—both on your swimmers and on yourself. I’ve taught kids of just about every age at one time or another, through being an assistant pre-swim team coach, co-coaching voluntary practices for incoming high school freshmen, and teaching swim lessons. I was surprised after each to realize just how much I had taken away from it, and this is why I think every swimmer should try teaching the sport to someone else:
1. It makes you better, too.
Photo Courtesy: Peter Bick
I was once working with the pre-swim team on proper side breathing. A lot of kids threw their heads up and out rather than straight out. After struggling to correct this for a while, it suddenly hit me: It’s like the way our heads lie on a pillow. Not only has this explanation always worked to some degree since then, but it also gave me something to remind myself of when I catch myself bringing my head up in my own swimming. Just like a pillow.
2. It improves your communication with your coaches and teammates.
Photo Courtesy: IRSC Athletics
When I watch video of myself or help teammates with their technique, I can explain my thoughts so much more succinctly now than I could before I had ever coached, because I’ve learned through trial and plenty of error how to deliver advice with clarity. “You’re doing a little bicycle kick” makes so much more sense than “you’re kind of bending your knees and bringing them out of the water, but not in quite the way Coach told us to.”
3. It gives you an appreciation for how far you’ve come.
Photo Courtesy: Cathleen Pruden
We all have frustrating dry spells in which we just can’t seem to drop time no matter what we do. During those times (or any other time) it is incredibly helpful to reflect on why we’re here. Swim lessons in particular are motivating from that standpoint—as I spent two weeks carefully watching kids who could barely keep themselves afloat, I realized just how much I had grown in the 15 years since I failed my first swim lesson after refusing to leave my mom. Our day-to-day challenges in the sport feel so much smaller when put in perspective of how far we’ve come.
4. It also gives you an appreciation for how hard your coaches work.
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
Ever wonder why your coaches constantly seem stressed about something? After explaining the same thing to a child five times and getting nowhere, you’ll stop wondering. Coaches are passionate about what they do, but the reality is that teaching even the most attentive swimmers requires constant strength in communication and patience. Gaining some firsthand experience with what that entails will almost certainly lead to mutual appreciation between you and your coaches.
5. It’s just flat-out rewarding.
Photo Courtesy: Carlee McDonald
Seeing the joy in a child’s eyes when they finally master a concept and knowing you helped them get there is unlike anything you’ll ever experience as a swimmer. Reliving the experience of your first successful dive through the eyes of an adult is even better than it was when you did it yourself. As a bonus, some of the sweetest and most sincere compliments come from children. I will never forget the day a child I was coaching asked me, “So do you want to be a coach when you’re older or something? Because you’re really good at it.”
Teaching anything, particularly a sport that puts a great emphasis on technique, can be intimidating. I didn’t know how I felt about it when I first decided to try it five years ago. Not everyone falls in love with it, but everyone can gain something from it and come away feeling more connected to their sport than ever before.