Coach B’s Theory of Relativity – Or… What I Learned from My Students This Semester

This week marks the end of the fall "semester" of swim classes that I teach at a community pool in Lebanon, NH. At the end of each semester I have to fill out a bunch of evaluation forms, and this exercise always makes me realize that I learn far more from my students than I can ever hope to impart to THEM. And it never fails that I learn the most from those who know the least about swimming.

Here are some of the things I learned this semester and that they never ask about on the evaluation forms.

This is a 21-session class for kids who want to join swim team, but first need to develop their strokes. This semester I had two seven-year olds, a nine-year old, and a ten-year old. What did they teach me?

That you can’t EXPECT perfection from kids this age, but you can gently DEMAND perfection (or a close proximity to it) and they thrive on the challenge.
How cool is it to be practicing streamline pushoffs and have a 7-year old pop up just instants after her feet leave the wall and say, "Oops. I messed up. Can I start again?" It got to the point that when they finished a length of drilling or kicking, I’d say, "That was GREAT," and they’d say, "Yes, but how can I do it better next time?"

If you ask for perfection, be sure to reward it with lots of praise when you get it  (or when you see effort and progress toward the goal of perfection). For some strange reason, praise makes kids want to try harder.

The more specific you can be in telling kids what you want to see in terms of a certain movement or body position, the more likely they are to achieve it.
  It helps to put it in fish terms or very visual terms.

Don’t give up.  Sometimes you have to teach something — like how to turn out your ankles on breaststroke kick — over and over and over again until young kids even START to get it. On something like breaststroke kick, you may see absolutely no progress at a particular session, but as soon as they try the skill at the NEXT session, they can do it better. Somehow, they learn in their sleep. But you won’t know this if you give up after the first session.

Don’t teach too much. Less is always more.
  Young kids can learn really complicated things, but you have to start with the basics first. The best way to teach the basics is to use drills. We didn’t swim a single full stroke of fly, back, breast, or free in this 21-session class, but I know that when these kids join swim team, they will have the fundamental body-movement skills to eventually swim fast in all four strokes.

Kids love to be under water. Don’t fight this…go with it.  Think of stuff to do with them under the surface, like pushoffs or underwater body dolphin or seeing who can swim the farthest under water without taking a breath. Next semester, I think I will make cue cards to hold under water.

USE FINS!  Fins are FUN for kids and they prevent them from struggling. This is especially important in the learning/drilling stage, when they’re not using their arms very much. Fins give them some momentum when they’re working on rotation and timing. Fins help them feel fluent and relaxed. Fins help them master the right moves without having to flounder.

HAVE FUN!  We follow a routine at each lesson, but I’ve noticed that the more I can exaggerate and ham it up and be goofy while still teaching, the more they laugh and the harder they try.

This was a new offering at the pool, and my time slot wasn’t the best — 5:45 to 6:30 am on Thursday mornings, — but I DID expect that the class would draw some runners seeking an alternative to running through New Hampshire snowdrifts. I had envisioned giving them some really tough water-running workouts that I’d developed over 15 years of training for marathons by running in the water. Well, I didn’t get what I expected, but something truly wonderful happened. I had two students, and they showed up religiously, snow or shine — a 78-year old man who’s had three hip replacements, and his womanfriend, who’s the one who convinced him to sign up for the class. What did they teach me?

That you should always look beneath the surface.
 Turns out this 78-year old man was a track star in high school and college. His knees and hips gave out over the years, and he’s been devastated at his inability to run…or even walk without pain. After just one class he felt LIBERATED. The water had set him free to do something he’d not done in years. After two classes he reported that he’d been to the weight room to sign up for some instruction. After three classes he reported that he was walking better and standing taller than he had in years, and that his goal was to once more go on walks with his friend and to eventually run again.

Effort and achievement are relative.   Over the course of the class, we progressed from doing a few 20-second "pickups" to doing a few 35-second pickups. This might not sound like much to a young triathlete or competitive swimmer, but to this couple it was HUGE. To them, this was a really tough water-running workout, so I guess my vision of the class was fulfilled right along with theirs.

Water sets us free. Water can help you feel good about yourself, regardless of age or ability.

This season, I’ve been giving private lessons to three kids. Two of them are young girls on the swim team. They’re good swimmers, but need help with their starts and turns. We also talk a lot about the need to FOCUS during practice. The third student is an eleven-year old boy who’d never learned to swim because of a fear of putting his face in the water. His parents were desperate to have him learn, because they have a pool in their backyard. This young man teaches me something new every week.

Fear of putting the face in the water doesn’t equal fear of the WATER.  It was clear from the first minute of the first class that this kid wasn’t going to put his face in the water (at least during the first session), so we explored all the stuff he COULD DO short of putting his face in. I towed him on his back. I talked about balance and head/eye position. I had him kick on his back while holding a dumbbell flotation device. We did vertical kicking in the deep end with the dumbbell (for some reason he had no fear of the deep end and could paddle around OK as long as his head was above water). We put on fins and did all of this stuff again. Fins were a revelation for him.

Sometimes, when you think you’re getting NOWHERE, you’re making progress on an entirely different level.
 This kid didn’t say more than three words during our first lesson. I didn’t think I’d gotten through to him at all. But his mother called and said he came home totally excited and wanted another lesson. Go figure. Sometimes less is more. I think part of it was that I didn’t push him to put his face in the water. He didn’t feel threatened.

Fear of putting the face in the water is usually caused by a lack of breath control.
 At lesson #2, we started to blow bubbles with eyes and nose out of the water. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled, so I let it go and we went back to doing all the stuff he COULD DO. More kicking. More balance. More FINS. More progress. Toward the end of the lesson I tried the breathing thing again. We got to nose in, then goggles in while blowing bubbles. Then, I asked him to take a deep breath and see how long he could take to exhale all his air — with just his nose under water. We turned it into a contest — 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, then 16 seconds. Then we kept the contest going with goggles under the surface. Sixteen seconds again. He was gaining confidence and breath control.

Go slow. Make sure there’s something that the student can master and feel good about at each lesson.   End the lesson with it if you can. And it doesn’t take much. This kid went home from lesson #2 elated and charged up to come back to the pool. On the 4th lesson, he even brought his older sister so she could see him doing 6-Count Backstroke.

Everything is relative.  If you’re one of the lucky people for whom swimming came naturally, it might seem like this young man was making very slow progress. But to him, every lesson brought HUGE gains in self confidence and aquatic skill.

HAVE FUN!  Keep the teaching progression going, but if you sense someone is feeling threatened or frustrated, stop and go to something that’s manageable and fun.

This is a weekly class, usually composed of women who have kids in our swim-lesson program and who want to learn to swim, despite years of fears. I love teaching them because EVERYTHING about the water is new for them, and I get to be there when they discover how wonderful it is and how wonderful it can make them feel about themselves. They make me look at swimming and at the pool with totally fresh eyes. Here are some of the things they’ve taught me:

That every move we make in the water is worth studying.  Think it’s easy or obvious how to get in and out of the pool…or how to stand up after floating on your back or your stomach…or how to keep water from going up your nose…or how to hold your feet when you kick? Try each of these things next time you’re at the pool and really OBSERVE how you do them. Think about how you’d explain them to someone who’s never been in a swimming pool. You’ll get an instant physics and anatomy lesson. You’ll begin to understand sculling and power angles and why it’s so important to point your toes.

That we too often take our abilities for granted…and complain way too much.  If you’re reading this article, chances are good that swimming came easily to you and that you jump in the pool and GO without too much thought. What if things were different? What if you were the slowest person in the pool? Would you still come and try to learn? My learn-to-swim ladies inspire me just by showing up!

That everyone needs to have a goal…and that goals are relative.  AH (one of the women in my learn-to-swim class) had a goal of swimming unaided to the other end of the pool. She’d been in a pool just once in her life. She’d never felt was it was like to float. She shrieked and then started to cry from joy when she made it on her own to the other end. I cried. The whole class cried. That’s how powerful it is to reach your goal.

And that’s the power of this wonderful thing called water. What a bounty of gifts and lessons it provides to all of us, no matter how young or old, no matter whether we’re seeking Olympic Gold or simple release for mind and body. It’s enough to make you want to GO SWIM!