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A Time For Learning

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE This summer I have been giving lessons to some local kids. All of them are on, or have been part of, a competitive team. So I wasn’t doing a learn-to-swim program. It was a combination of working on technique and different skills. It was really a learn-to-swim-well program.

The thing that I have learned from this experience is that no matter who you are or what level you have reached as a swimmer, you can always learn something. Champions know this, and it is what makes them the best of the best. They know how to keep searching. For the rest of us, and especially for kids, a swim lesson gives us the time that we need to really learn a specific technique, drill, or skill.

Every lesson started with the same thing — a brief warm up to get loose. I tried to mix strokes in to keep it interesting. The number of lengths varied depending on the size and shape of the pool we were in, but yardage wasn’t the focus. Inevitably in the first weeks they would push off with a half-hearted or non-streamlined position. In a practice I would have to wait until the end of the warm up and tell everyone that they were going to have to do it again because not everyone did it right. With a lesson, there is a lot more freedom because it is one swimmer who gets all of your attention for the full 30 or 60 minutes. So rather than watch a swimmer repeat his or her mistake, I could stop the student right then and there and give feedback that related directly to the mistake.

For the rest of the lesson the swimmer was not allowed to repeat any mistake that we had stopped to correct. In swimming, it’s my opinion that there are only a few real mistakes, the rest is a matter of personal preference. Not streamlining off the walls is a mistake (unless you have the swimming speed of a Pankratov or Thorpe). The lessons would always progress from warm-up into a specific stroke for the duration of the lesson. The nice thing about the lessons was that I wasn’t concerned in the slightest with how much yardage the swimmer completed, just with how well. Not having to get in two hours of work was liberating for me and for the swimmers. With the lessons being as short as they were, there was really no time to do work. We put all of our focus on learning.

As the weeks went on we worked less and less on the things that we had done in the past. After the second week I didn’t have to mention that we were streamlining off the walls, it was assumed. Occasionally I had to issue a reminder, and whenever that happened, we started over with whatever we were doing. For the most part each lesson was a building block for the next lesson.

One of the young boys that I had in my lessons was a great example of what you can accomplish in a summer of lessons. At the start of the summer he was like most young boys. He wanted to get in and he wanted to race. He wanted to race so badly that he would push off the wall and start swimming right away. Over the course of the summer he started to understand why it is important to focus on what you are doing. One day, about half way through the summer, I asked him why he was pushing off in a so-so streamline. He told me that it was a "bad habit." Well, we are all creatures of habit, good and bad. So we made it a focus of our lessons to replace all of the bad habits with good habits. In each lesson we only had a half hour, so it became that much more important to replace the bad with the good. Replacing the bad with the good seemed to be a snap for him. Each point I would make he would hit on the ensuing length. He was an excellent student in this way, and by the end of his lesson sequence, we were really getting into some of the finer details of swimming.

I also gave lessons to this swimmer’s older sister. When it was her turn, we would go through the same focus points. For her it was somewhat less easy to pick up on all the details. It wasn’t that she was making mistakes, it was just that she was having difficulty with a range of swimming motions. A large portion of the her lessons were spent working on some of the major points of all four strokes. She worked hard; it’s just that she didn’t pick things up right away. Some lessons we would spend the whole half hour working on hand placement, or a small detail.

Today was the last lesson for both of these young swimmers. As far as last lessons go this one was pretty good. The young boy was able to breeze through a variety of recovery positions, hand positions, and pull width on his breaststroke. The girl had her best lesson of the summer. So much so that I jokingly asked her where she learned to swim, and if she was getting lessons from someone else. Both of them were able to accomplish what they needed while taking their time to do it.

Teaching lessons over this summer has taught me lessons. First, not every swimmer is going to get everything right away. It is my job to take the time with each kid to make sure that they get it. Secondly, swimmers always need to strive to replace bad habits with good habits, and it’s my job as a coach is to point out the bad ones and suggest the good ones. Lastly, I learned that swimming is a sport. It is supposed to be fun. My job as a coach is to have more fun with all of my swimmers.