How not to learn deep water confidence…
“In those days, deep ends were deep. We were going all the way, just the two of us, to the other side of the foot bath. It was cold up there, and I could smell the toilets.”
I learned to swim aged 5, through the Birmingham Evening Mail Learn to Swim Campaign, at Sparkhill Baths. As an uncoordinated child, swimming was something I took to and, for a change, my body did what was being asked of it. As I progressed through lessons I met challenges, like retrieving a black brick from the bottom of the learner pool, slightly fearful but pleased to be successful.
I remember one of these challenges clearly. I must have been 6 or 7. The teacher wore flip flops, a gym skirt, a white polo shirt (Birmingham Mail Learn to Swim logo on the breast) and had a round, kind face. A whistle and stopwatch were hanging from her neck and she carried a clipboard and pen. I liked her but she was quite strict. “Ian, you’re coming with me, to the deep end (DEEP END DEEP END DEEP END)!” she said, curling her forefinger with authority, her words echoing around the Victorian walls. In those days, deep ends were deep. We were going all the way, just the two of us, to the other side of the foot bath. It was cold up there, and I could smell the toilets.
This was a test, to see if I was safe in deep water. I might be getting a badge.
“I am going to blow my whistle and set my stop watch for 30 seconds. You are going to jump in and tread water until you hear the whistle again!”
And just to make sure I got the point, in case the deep end at Sparkhill Baths wasn’t scary enough, I was given a scenario:
“This is a polluted canal. Once you’ve jumped in, you mustn’t let yourself go back under.” Something like that…
In I went, in a fizz of bubbles, all by myself, and up I bobbed. Thirty seconds seemed like an age. My legs were burning and my neck was tight as I gasped for oxygen to fuel the effort. But I did it. I’d really earned my Monster Munches.
This was, I can see now but sort of knew then, the wrong way either to test or teach deep water skills. Everything is the wrong way round. I wonder if this sort of thing ever happens now….
So what could have happened instead?
We could have started in water shallow enough for me to stand in. The teacher could have been in the water with me. Together we could have explored how it is to be underwater, calm, still and quiet. We could have learned to scull to stay in the same spot, vertically, under the water. And with this relaxed setting as a starting point, we could have worked out how to get ourselves up through the surface to take air in, without gasping, tensing up or panicking. Without forgetting that the water is our friend.