Have any of us gotten so serious in our swim training that we have forgotten to play?

Good swimming involves having a relationship with water. To swim well and swim long a swimmer needs to know the water intimately, to know its ways and how it likes to move and carry us and how it will not, so that we work with the water, not against it. Otherwise it will exhaust and threaten us.

How do we get this kind of a relationship? How do we turn water into our friend instead of an enemy?

We play.

I was helping a new TI swimmer this week overcome her anxiety in the deep end of the pool. She was doing great with balance and movement in the shallow end, but when she approached where her feet would not touch she would stop. She confessed that she rarely ever played in the water as a child. Now as an adult I realized she simply needed to learn how to play in the water, to learn to do what children do so naturally. I introduced her to ways she could explore and build a relationsihp with water so that she would begin to associate floating and submersing freely with peace and pleasure, rather than fear and tension.

What do I mean by having a relationship with water? Healthy relationships are built on trust. To swim well we must learn to trust the water. (Water is perhaps much easier to build a relationship with than people, no?) We learn how faithful water is to always treat us the same way. It will always eventually lift a person who plunges in, but it will lift a person who works with it much easier than one who works against it. So by playing we learn what it likes and learn to present ourselves to it in this way.

Want one of the secrets? Tighten your core muscles, making a ‘frame’ out of your torso, so the water has something firm and still to lift, then gently assist with relaxed arms and legs. Practice putting your head underwater so that gravity’s downward push against your body is neutralized. Once you get the head underwater and rest the body in neurtral position, build a new interpretation of the sensations water is making on your body: the pressure against the lungs and sinuses, the water filling in your ears, and the flow of water over your skin. Realize then that you are not sinking! You are floating, as if in outerspace!

While in the pool with this new swimmer I saw myself as one who was mediating a new relationship, a new friendship between her and the water. I was there to help her become familiar with water and learn to trust it like I trust it. I absolutely trust the water and started to pass that confidence on to her. I am certain it will treat her the same way. So I simply began transferring to her, little skill by little skill, my deep knowledge of how to present the body to the water so that her body also will be carried, rather than threatened by it. Only by trusting the water will she and any other swimmer be able to enjoy its support and move effortlessly through it.

With her consent we worked along the edge where we could stand, then toward deeper water where we could not. We practiced putting the head under, then moved away from the wall with a kick board, lifting legs off the bottom, etc. Then we went to the ladder, and after demonstrating, as she carefully pulled her body down, I and a couple other coaches plunged down around her and started gently twirling and sitting and laying down, or whatever we felt like- simply showing her how play with weightlessness underwater. It was obvious we were having fun. She was smiling. She was trying it. She was getting it.

Don’t get so consumed with training for speed, or distance, or getting in a workout- or even just getting so caught up in learning how move your body across the water for the first time- to neglect your relationship with the water. The more you build a trust for how it will carry you, a feel for how to align your body with it, the faster you will learn to swim and to develop more advanced skills.

Slow down, feel it, try new movements in it. Go to the pool when you can be there without being compelled to train (after practice, during injury/illness, on rest days, etc) and just spend the time floating, diving, holding your breath and practicing balance in various fun ways. Twirl, summersault, float with toys, go down the slide, jump off the deck or dock or rocks…

If you don’t know how, take some kids along, or a friend who isn’t so serious about training and they will likely be able to show you how to play again.

If you only go to the water to get your workout in, if you only swim to get fast, I feel sorry for you. You may not only be missing out on the pleasure of the relationship, you may very well be hindering your progress toward peak performance. No doubt the best swimmers have the best feel for the water. I suspect many of the best swimmers (or at least those I would admire) know how to play even while they are training ‘hard’, or take time to do so. It is possible that many young elite swimmers who ‘retired’ from swimming after they made their big accomplishments may have neglected their relationship with the water too long, and lost their love for it. Speed is a not a suitable passion for a life-long swimmer, but pleasure is.

Do you love swimming only because of what you accomplish in the water, or because you simply love being in it?

I posed a question to myself one time… would I still go swimming if I didn’t need to swim in order to maintain my fitness and health?

Yes. I would. If I lost an arm I would still swim. If I was dying and weak I would still want to spend some of my last moments in the water just enjoying the sensations, being still, being alive. I love being in the water. When I am in the water it is one of the easiest places for me to simply ‘be present’ in the moment, just living and enjoying it. It brings me great pleasure to just float, to glide, to dive down and be surrounded by its embrace. And when I am cutting across the surface so smoothly, my finely honed rhythm in place, adding some speed can often increase the pleasure. But speed is by no means the master- it is merely a servant of this pleasure, there to increase or decrease as needed to keep me in that state of Flow.

Keep nurturing your relationship with the water. Take time to move slow, and it will very likely help you move a lot faster, if that is your goal.

Don’t forget to play.

I dedicate this essay to you, Lidia. May you continue to play and develop a fond friendship with the water. It is a very faithful friend, always ready to have some fun with you, or lay there quietly with you when that is what you need more. And there are days when it will urge you to swim a little faster too. A good friend like this is hard to resist.

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