“There was a video on his website of his own effortless crawl, but I knew I’d never be able to swim like that,” Gill told me, about another of her swimming teachers.
That form of advertising is something I’ve done a lot of myself, over the years.
As an ASA swimming teacher I was trained mainly to teach the four strokes. Back then, mid 90s, it wasn’t necessary for the teacher to be able to swim at all, which didn’t seem right. To have someone teaching competitive strokes without actually being able to swim was asking for trouble: a teacher with no trust in water hoping to impart potentially difficult, new movements to pupils with no swimming experience, from words on a page and demonstrations from poolside.
When I trained with Steven Shaw he emphasised the importance of the teacher being able to do what he or she was teaching others to do and this made a lot of sense. But the aim, to teach strokes to people learning to swim, was essentially the same.
The ASA model involved learning what to say, from the poolside, usually to kids to get them swimming the strokes ‘correctly’. I remember being strongly admonished during my training by a ‘chief instructor’ for taking a child’s arm, to show him a fingers first front crawl arm entry.
The Shaw Method approach involved learning first how to swim the strokes well yourself, from theory and practice, which included hands on guidance from Steven, then learning to guide pupils through these strokes, in the water, helping them to prevent unnecessary tension.
But after many years of teaching I began to believe that teaching the strokes to people seeking water confidence is not usually the best way forward, especially if what is being taught is the ‘correct’ way, which introduces a new kind of anxiety.
A beautiful stroke may be the ultimate destination on your swimming journey. But there are many basic, simple skills to develop so you can enjoy the water, first. Strokes, when they are introduced, can be modified to make things easier. For example, roll on to the back in front crawl to breathe. Do several breaststrokes underwater making big circular movements, so a sense of progress through the water can easily be experienced.
I’ve sometimes found myself thinking, ‘You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs’, as I’ve watched learners straining in an attempt to get their head out to breathe in breaststroke, or getting a noseful of water when trying to find a balanced front crawl breathing position. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid making an omelette!
An image of a swimming teacher powering along, slick forearm hanging loosely off nice high elbow, or taking an easy breaststroke breath with bottom lip resting on surface, palms up underwater, kind of suggests, ‘Look at me. I can teach you to swim like me.’ And this might be misleading.
Anyone can learn, without too much struggle, to be confident, relaxed, safe out of his/ her depth, able to enjoy weightlessness and freedom of movement. But if you learn to swim by learning the strokes, it probably won’t be plain sailing.
What I as a teacher feel I should be selling, if possible, is not the end product but the process.