Swimming – the learning of fear

Fear is all around us. We go through life being afraid, of people, events, death, the unknown, ourselves, and of fear itself. One effect of fear is that it stops us reaching our full potential, by getting in the way of our acquiring new knowledge and skills. This can result from those around us, even if they mean well, themselves being afraid of our growing, changing, and discovering our potential as individuals. Their fear on our behalf reflects their own fear of change. Life, however, is a constant process of change. While change can make us feel vulnerable, the alternative to embracing it is to live in a narrower world, surrounded by walls of fear and uncertainty. As this image suggests, by attempting to reject change we become restricted both in our bodies and our thinking. Fear disembowels us, making discovery of the new less appealing than repetition of the known. Whilst we may thus acquire a superficial sense of security, ultimately it leads to further insecurity, the consequence of stagnation and inflexibility. It stops us from thinking creatively, both in what we’re doing and about how we want to experience our lives. We restrict ourselves through fear of humiliation, ignorance, solitude, society, pain, disease, or dying. And confusingly, sometimes through fear of growth, success, freedom – even love. At least we need to understand more clearly what we’re afraid of if we wish to overcome the fear and move forward.

Systems of education and social and parental pressures insidiously encourage the development of fear. Trying to do something ‘right’ – that is, in a way pleasing to those in authority – is the flip side of the fear of making mistakes. E M. Alexander noted ‘If you could stop the tremendous effort of trying to be right, you might actually be able to achieve your desired end!’ Making mistakes is an inevitable and useful part of the learning process. When learning to speak a foreign language, if we’re concerned with speaking it correctly all the time we are likely to remain tongue-tied. When you catch yourself doing something incorrectly, you shouldn’t just be frustrated or annoyed with yourself – you should take credit for recognizing it. Even if criticism itself can be constructive, fear of criticism is likely to be unhelpful. To learn, we need to be able to accept advice in an open and uninhibited way. For this to be possible, we need to feel safe about making and noticing our mistakes. Children who are brought up in an environment where the response to making a mistake is ridicule or punishment are unlikely to allow themselves to think or act freely and creatively. A secure and supportive framework is essential for learning.

In dealing with fear, physical contact can be an important means of reassurance. Manual support and guidance is an effective teaching tool in swimming, but conventional teaching methods offer little constructive advice or training in such techniques. The usual environment for teaching swimming is one in which the teacher is an authority figure. Teachers and coaches have most commonly carried out swimming instruction standing outside the water, shouting orders to groups of pupils with whom they have limited or no physical contact. From a child’s perspective, the coach towers above, teaching by command rather than by example. The teacher’s apparent aloofness can seem unsupportive and intimidating. Children may also be swept along by competitive peer pressures, thereby missing out on valuable lessons of confidence and safety. Group dynamics can mean that individual children are forced to suppress their own fears and inadequacies so as not to be singled out.

Much depends on the teacher’s own skill and perceptiveness. There is no doubt that in many circumstances group teaching can be effective, as well as time-saving and cost-efficient. However, responsible one-to-one physical assistance in the water may be invaluable in imparting a feeling of confidence and safety both to children and adult learners. Traditional methods of swimming-teaching do not provide instructors with the rationale or explicit techniques for giving pupils constructive physical support in the water. Concerns about abuse of children in particular have led to a climate in which swimming-teachers are discouraged from any kind of physical contact with young pupils. In teaching the Alexander Technique (AT) (in or out of the water) the primary emphasis is on the head-neck-back relationship and the use of the teacher’s hands for guidance in this area means that swimming instruction with the AT is hands-on as well. The formulation of explicit guidelines on touch makes both teachers and pupils more aware of appropriate boundaries.

All teachers agree that a sense of confidence in water is essential to swimming. However, insufficient attention is paid to the specific issues that must be addressed if the learner is to acquire confidence. This neglect partly stems from thinking of swimming as a purely physical activity. It’s assumed that the development of swimming skills alone is enough for the learner to become confident about the water. This is rarely the case. When skills are acquired without first establishing a sound basis of confidence, a crucial aspect of swimming is bypassed. This omission is at the expense of a whole dimension of sensitivity to being in the water and a more profound enjoyment of swimming.

It’s true that acquiring competent motor skills leads to greater confidence in water, which in turn encourages the further development of such skills. The better you’re able to move through water, the more confident you’re bound to feel about being in the water. But your confidence will not be well grounded if it is treated merely as a by-product of skills, as the model illustrates. Supposing an unexpected situation arises – an attack of cramp or water splashing unexpectedly in your face. Well-practiced motor skills can become inadequate or irrelevant. In the face of such an occurrence the left-hand arrow swings round, and the pathway leads straight back to the initial situation, inability and fear. The fact that your swimming skills are based on inadequate foundations means there is a sense of precariousness and unease about the whole question of being in the water.

Far better, then, that teaching should include explicit instruction to establish confidence, both prior to and parallel with the development of motor skills in the water. This requires a shift of emphasis.

This model is a useful basis for thinking about the learning of any skill. The educationist John Dewey saw the AT in a similar light, as being an essential preliminary to the acquisition of learning. He wrote that the AT ‘bears the same relation to education that education bears to all other human activities’.

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