Saturday, December 17, 2011
Lessons From Teaching Swimming
The best way to learn something is to teach it. As a part-time swimming instructor, I know how to swim, but in teaching swimming there are certain principles that I must relearn for life out of the water. Principles that make me a better person.
1. Prioritize breathing. A woman I was teaching once would swim a few strokes, then stand up – swim a few more strokes, then stand up again. Each time she stood she’d be panting and wiping the water from her face even before her feet touched the bottom of the shallow pool. My first assumption was that she tired easily. But when I talked with her, I found that she was actually out of breath. During those few precious strokes before standing, I saw her breath, but she wasn’t getting enough air with each breath she took. Keeping her brief swimming rhythm was more important to her than breathing. I told her that it’s more important to breath than it is to stroke. I told her that eventually she will be able to do both well, but for now, she should prioritize breathing. If she needed more time to breath, she should take the time, even if it meant her rhythm was uneven. Take the time. When she did, she swam longer.
Every day I sit in front of my computer screen and bang my way through email. Sometimes I skim through and deal with the more important items first. But I easily get a sense of urgency and just jump in and slash away – first come first served. Invariably I get myself bogged down in one task or another, one email request or another, one remote emergency or another. I stop thinking and just go. And when I do that, I forget to breath. I stand up and cease effective work, complain about fatigue, and all too often avail myself of any number of distractions on my screen. But if I remember to breath through my tasks, breath through my email strokes, breath through my day, I won’t have to stop nearly as often.
2. There’s no rush. Another woman I was teaching was performing swimming strokes as if she was being chased – a little frantic and clearly faster than was comfortable. Then when she stopped at the other end of the pool, she would gasp for air. Some people think that if they don’t swim as fast as they can, they’ll sink. But swimming isn’t a race, it’s a dance. You flow through the dance with the water. And when you flow nice and easy, the water will support you. It’ll hold you up and keep you going with little effort. You can swim fast or you can swim long, but you can’t swim fast for long.* Let the water support you.
When I was a young parent, I worked all the time – at my job, at home with family duties, at home with take-home work, then as a parent in grad school, plus grad school homework. I can’t keep that frantic pace anymore. But I know that there’s a balance to find in my life now where I can be more efficient and effective with less overall effort, relying a little more on experience. No doubt hard work is important. But it’s also important to understand that one can work hard or long, but no one can work hard for long. Unless you’re being chased, don’t rush through life.
3. No drowning. On the first day of a series of private lessons with a 6 year old who loved being in the water, I found that he especially liked swimming under water. I know this because he showed me at every possible opportunity. This was fine, but there were a few surface skills that he needed to master first in order to move up to the next swimming level. One of those skills was treading water. The problem was that this kid’s little legs and hands where not yet efficient at keeping his body up and head above water. Which for him was fine, since he was comfortable just sinking under water. But what his instructor saw when he attempted to tread was the waterline start at his neck, then rise to his chin, then move up to the back of his ears. Standing in 4 and a half feet of water, I was able to calmly reach out to him, grab him under his arm and guide him over to the wall. “First rule in my class,” I said, “is no drowning.” His puppy dog eyes looked up at me. “OK” he said.
I am now the parent of adults who are all out on their own. I have no pets I have to walk, feed or groom. While I value my day job, it’s not one that has me developing products or services that are vital to life. There is in fact no other place in my life where I get to say, no drowning and actively mean it. My day job pays the bills, but teaching swimming teaches me that I can still make a difference.
* Adapted from a common saying of cycling trainer Bobby Mac of Quad Cycles.
** All images taken from the American Red Cross "Swimming and Water Safety" manual.