Learning to swim is one of those fundamental skills that, as humans, we need to know. Not only because our safety is at stake, but also because water is so very much a part of who we are – we come from it in the womb, our bodies are on average 60% water & we depend upon it for our survival. However, the best part about learning to swim is that it offers us a vacation – a magical escape from our vertical, gravity-based existence. In water we can do things not possible on land: floating, endless horizontal movement, continuous flipping & twisting (no gymnastics required!). In my opinion, swimming is the closest thing to flying that we humans can experience!
So how does a person “learn to swim”?
If I’ve learned anything over the last 15+ years of working with adults in the water, it’s this: Humans can’t learn to swim until we learn to trust the water. Without trust, there is no relaxation…and without relaxation, there is no swimming…only survival…which is the opposite of efficient, effortless & enjoyable swimming. When a person doesn’t trust the water, no amount of technique coaching will help them. If they are tight & rigid because they haven’t yet developed trust, all my coaching tips (like “put your head in the water” & “kick less”) will do little to improve their swimming. Oh, they might be able to put their head in the water or kick less for 1-2 strokes, but as soon as they need air they’ll be right back to exhausting survival mode again!
Successfully learning to swim is a multi-step process…a process that takes time, repetition & hands-on help. How do we start? Well, it depends on the person & what their current relationship with the water looks like.
Step 1 – Evaluation
To begin, we have to know where we currently are. In my initial evaluation, we determine your water relationship through questions and an in-water session. What is your experience with swimming over your lifetime? Have you ever had lessons before? Can you put your head underwater? Can you blow bubbles through your mouth & nose? Can you comfortably be in deep water where you can’t touch the bottom? Can you go down to the bottom of the pool? Can you relax (i.e. no pulling or kicking) on your stomach & back? If you are swimming across the pool, how tired are you (on a scale of 1-5) when you’ve done 25yds, 100yds, 500yds? What is your average 100yd time? These answers tell us where to go from here.
Step 2 – Building Trust
I’ll say this again – developing trust in the water is the most important step in the “Learn to Swim” progression. Without trust, we really can’t make much headway on swimming technique. Understanding how our bodies move & function in water is the key component to developing trust. For most people, this process takes about 4 weeks during which we work on 5 critical concepts. 1. Having water on our face, in our mouth & in our nose does not equal inhaling water. 2. Every human body floats. 3. Getting to the bottom of the pool is REALLY difficult. 4. Because water is 800x denser than air things happen very slowly in water. 5. Working with the water (rather than fighting it) will make air easier to get to.
Step 3 – Swimming
When a person is relaxed & comfortable in the water (see Step #2), THEN AND ONLY THEN we can begin work on learning a swim stroke – freestyle being the most popular. The most common misconception about learning to swim is that it can be done in just a few lessons. I often get asked, “What are 3 things I can change to make my stroke better?” I will admit I have a very hard time answering this question. This is primarily because humans are land-based vertical beings & when we try to swim we do so in a vertical, land-based way…which DOES NOT work. We have to realize that our instinctual tendencies – head high, arms & legs as the prime movers, flat on our stomachs – make moving through the water VERY difficult. So, we have to change our ways. We have to work against our instincts for a bit. But when we understand how our bodies work in water (see Step #2) then the proper techniques of swimming – head down, on our sides, hips as the prime mover, arms & legs as accessories to the hips – start to make a lot more sense! Of course, understanding proper techniques & doing them in the water for any length of time are completely different issues. This is where the time factor comes in. I’ve found, for most people, this process takes about 9 months. Sure, I can teach you proper techniques in about 8-10 weeks. But for you to be able to hold those techniques in place over 500, 1000, 2000yds…it takes about 9 months of consistent work. I know…I know…9 months sounds like an eternity in our get-it-now, do-it-fast, instant gratification, take-a-pill-for-that society. But, we all know good things come to those who put effort & dedication into things. Swimming being no exception!