Often, beginning swimmers are in a hurry to learn how to move the arms and legs. How do I get this whole locomotion thing going? But I believe there’s a more primary step – which is how tension and contraction are registering in the body. Am I struggling and fighting through the water or am I relaxed, giving myself to be held by the water?
Like a Chinese finger trap, the more we struggle against water, the more it becomes obstructive and like cement. When we give up our frantic efforts to not sink, then the water parts before us and we are surprised by the ease of our progress.
This, of course, begs the question: so how can the apprehensive swimmer change their response to water?
This is the most satisfying aspect of my teaching. How to work with fear. Almost all frightened swimmers have tried with various degrees of trauma and failure “to get over” their fear.’ In my experience, most homegrown strategies to dealing with fear tend to suffer from a lack of gentleness and follow through. The student (adult) often tries to face off against their fear in a now-or-never moment (i.e. I’m going to swim in the deep end or in the ocean), usually scaring the crap out of themselves. The child swimmer often stays away from swimming altogether. Or, on the other hand, tries to control the situation so that risk and spontaneity are eliminated – “I will only go in with floaties and don’t let anyone splash near me! Don’t make any waves either!”
Dealing with x years of fear around swimming takes time and usually a person isn’t “cured” of it right away. Rather, it takes some time to unlearn our instinctual anti-drowning responses. It’s like getting bit by a dog as a child – you’ll be quite scared of canines for a while. In fact, your interactions around dogs will continue to be fraught unless some kind of reeducation occurs.
I create a setting of trust. I NEVER dunk students or let go unexpectedly. I take students through a gradual process of developing new responses to being in water. With gentle guidance, we take a journey and try placing the mouth near the water surface, breathing, actually seeing underwater, gliding, kicking, etc.
It reminds me of when I first learned to ride a horse. They don’t throw you on top of the animal and expect you to start riding right away. First, you learn to approach and respect the animal. You overcome your fear enough to pet the horse and let it lick your hand. This introduction, this meeting, changes everything. You go from riding an unpredictable, scary beast to a sensitive animal that has certain likes and fears. That initiation to water and swimming changes everything thereafter as well.