How can this sense of discovery be applied to swimming? Most swimmers are locked into unthinking patterns of behavior in the water. These range from swimming with the head pulled back regardless of the strain and pain it produces, to ploughing through the water for long periods in a mindless fashion. Such patterns often stem from fears or persistent misapprehensions which have never been properly articulated or questioned. They serve as a block to achieving a sense of true freedom in the water, and lead to feelings of boredom and apathy about swimming. Tackling these patterns at their root releases a spirit of exploration which enlivens the whole process of swimming. Every stroke becomes an opportunity for discovery and self-exploration, expanding our horizon and opening up a new realm of possibility. Recognizing the consistent interconnection between mental and physical habits, and becoming aware of mindless patterns, are the first steps towards acquiring the ability to approach the water without anxiety or strain.
Traditional swimming-teaching underestimates the way the force of habit gets in the way of learning. The assumption is that if learners are told or shown how to do something, they will be able to do it. The problem is that habits dictate our whole pattern of action. Although they can sometimes offer a short cut to building up our skills, they can also impede the optimum development of those skills. Once they have become fixed, they can be very hard to dislodge. These habits of both thought and action are observable in swimmers at all levels.
Whether it’s the beginner pulling back his head in response to water splashing in his face, or the Olympic swimmer developing an unexpected stroke fault in her effort to win a race, their problems can be traced to an inability to overcome their unthinking habit.
Most swimming environments are likely to present greater distractions than an Alexander Technique (AT) teaching room. On top of external distractions, swimmers have to contend with private anxieties about being lightly-clad, getting wet, submerging their face in water, swimming in public, and numerous other more-or-less unexpressed concerns. It’s quite a challenge to retain one’s awareness under such conditions. Anxiety often has the apparent effect of heightening awareness because it intensifies certain sensations. You will have noticed how under intimidating conditions lights can seem brighter, distances larger, and noises louder. In fact, these very perceptions shift your awareness away from your self and your relationship to the immediate surroundings. What is required under these circumstances is to quieten your mind. The AT encourages this by directing attention, in the first instance, to the most fundamental aspect of use – the relationship between head, neck and back (the primary control).
The other side of the coin is that water can be an extremely liberating, reflective, and sensual medium for exploration. It has exciting and unusual properties. For instance, buoyancy allows us to get as close to weightlessness as we are likely to experience short of traveling in space. Liquidity offers the possibility of uniquely pleasurable sensations. It is well known that being submerged in water has calming and uplifting effects. Water challenges us to discover how to use our whole body to maneuver through it successfully. It magnifies the effects of good and bad use. For example, the effect of pulling the head backwards and down can be more noticeable in the water than outside: it causes the lower body to sink down, creating greater resistance to our attempts at propulsion. Factors of this kind can waken in us a greater awareness of our immediate experience.
Even when we are sufficiently used to our surroundings for them not to be unduly distracting, another familiar habitual tendency comes into play: the desire to make active efforts to achieve our ends. At this stage it should be reiterated that the first steps to awareness involve precisely the opposite of making active efforts. Before any benefit can arise, first you have to stop and do nothing. Just by dropping the habit of being more active than you need, you allow yourself to remain constantly aware of your habitual reactions and your use.
This applies to each- and every stage of your approach to the water: the efforts you make when changing into swim-wear, when walking to the pool, when getting into the water, when comes to acquiring new skills, swimmers of all levels are inclined to apply excessive effort. Trying to hold ourselves up in the water has exactly the opposite effect to what is intended. What we must learn is to let go and allow the water to support the body. Being constantly on guard and learning to stop is the way to unlearn the habit of doing too much. As the unnecessary obstacles posed by our efforts are stripped away, a virtuous cycle arises in which natural and effective water skills are allowed to emerge and flourish. These bring about the quiet confidence that allows us to maintain our awareness and enjoy the experience of being in the water.