When I was listening to the radio recently, I heard a discussion with a Sudanese-American musician who mentioned the French word “dépaysé” which he defined as: “feeling out of one’s element or displaced”. It is a great word to apply to how some people feel when they come to us for swimming lessons. If you are used to spending time enveloped in one element (air), then immersing yourself in another element (water) can lead to an overwhelming feeling of displacement which can lead to acute anxiety. To help people feel less displaced we begin lessons with familiar movements. We start with walking.
When we walk in a swimming pool the feeling of our feet being in contact with the ground is familiar, but the force of buoyancy coming from the water makes us feel less heavy and the resistance from the water slows our movements down. We also make use of our arms in a different way, parting the water or pushing against it to aid propulsion or balance. Once we are comfortable and confident walking around, the next step is to submerge our faces in the water.
Breathing on land occurs naturally and automatically, without thought. Transitioning our faces between air and water requires us to consciously control the inhalation and exhalation of our breath. When our faces are out of the water, we need to take in the right amount of air in order to sustain us and maintain comfort while our faces are in the water and we are exhaling gently. At first, to keep hold of the familiar, we keep the breathing pattern the same as we would do on land: one or two seconds in, one or two seconds out. We have to remind ourselves not to hold our breath. Once we are comfortable with this, we can start to alter the breathing pattern to fit our intended activity in the water. Often this will involve a shorter inhalation in combination with a longer exhalation.
In the early 1900’s Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Swimming has its educational value – mental, moral, and physical – in giving you a sense of mastery over an element…”. I think to it is better to paraphrase this quote as: “Swimming has its educational value – mental, moral, and physical – in giving you a sense of belonging to an element.” With our swimming lessons that is what we want to help learners achieve: a gradual familiarity and sense of belonging in an environment that is elementally different.