What role does trust play in our swimming?

I see it as the foundation to everything we are doing in the water.

Here are many of the ways trust plays a vital role…


Trust the Water

For those who have experienced fear of the water and want to learn to swim with total peace, a relationship of trust with the water is the first thing we begin building.

The water might be unfamiliar, it may even seem hostile to those who’ve been traumatized, but through a gentle process of getting acquainted you come to the point where your whole being finally believes that water will always behaves in predictable ways, with no ill intent. When you skillfully present your body to the water in certain ways, it will reliably support your swimming, without fail.

With more experience in different settings, you eventually come to trust that water will behave the same, no matter where that water is on the planet. Once you have established a trusting relationship with it (for all the conditions in which you intend to be in) you can feel at home wherever you are immersed.

Even with students who already know how to swim and consciously experience no fear or anxiety in water, we often see a great deal of tension in the body. The land-mammal brain is not inherently wired to be comfortable in water in such a vulnerable position (abdomen fully open to the deep below) and keeping the face submerged, so its instinct is to contract the body and try to hold the head way up above the surface to keep the airways clear. This instinct can cause otherwise quite capable swimmers to unconsciously break connections through the body while trying to hold their front end higher in the water, not fully resting on its support, while gravity shoves the rear end down. This reaction to contract and hold the head up and the sensation of lower body sinking triggers a mobilization response resulting in higher heart rate, heavier breathing and excessive muscle tension. Even a mild instinctive reaction will be costly to you. The remedy is to practice opening up, lengthening the body, letting the upper body rest fully on the sufficient support of the water. Skills are still necessary to internally connect that lower body to the upper and bring it parallel to the surface without holding it there by kicking, but trust in the water’s support is the first step.


Trust Your Body

The body is amazing at its ability to monitor your well-being, to send signals that tell you about even slight fluctuations, and it is absolutely dedicated to not only keep you alive and safe, but to seek out optimal functioning for the conditions you live in. Your body wants to perform at a high level, and is waiting for your conscious, aware mind to coordinate your actions with it.

For those who are working to build trust in the water, you must also build trust in the body, so that those two communicate well and constantly. Trust in water, trust in body, trust in skills all work together to convince your whole being that you are safe and competent and that you belong in this place.

There are two parts to this: 1) practicing awareness of the array of sensory information and feelings of the body, and 2) practicing accurate interpretation of that information. You may not yet know what all the feelings mean or you may have some faulty programs for how to interpret it. But you can learn to do it better and you can certainly find others who are skilled at this to learn from.


Trust Your Own Intuition

Kabat Zinn tells us, “In practicing mindfulness, you are practicing taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their goodness as well.” (2009, p.37)

As I noted above, the body has incredibly sensitive detection capabilities – it is monitoring internal conditions and the external conditions of your physical and social environment. The body produces an array of feelings to let you know what you should approach and what you should avoid. Learning to listen and interpret is a skill and a strength that you can develop. The more you practice listening and responding, with all the mistakes that come with learning, the more you will come to trust yourself to know which way to go.

Tragically, some people have had this trust damaged, but it is important for optimal functioning to try to rebuild it. The body is meant to be the primary guide (not the only, but primary) toward your better life experience. Your confidence in hearing and responding to the messages sent through your body’s sensations and feelings will pave the way.


Trust Your Coach

When you’ve found a skilled coach that resonates with you and have taken the time to build a good relationship, you form a partnership in your development that is more powerful than anything you could do on your own. There are now two minds and two sensing bodies observing, attuning to your needs, learning, and supporting your progress.

There is a strong emphasis in Western psychology about developing people’s self-regulation skills. But I see a strong argument in the inter-disciplinary field of interpersonal neurobiology that suggests we actually function at our best in co-regulation scenarios, while self-regulation skills are better applied on occasion when a safe, attuned other is not available. Self-regulation may be convenient, but co-regulation is much more economical for generating strength on a regular basis, and much better for the metabolic and immune system. Perhaps good co-regulation opportunities are hard to find in your culture, but your special coach-athlete or swim-partner relationship might provide one for you.

Badenoch writes, “[Co-regulation] begins with us receiving support for our own capacity to experience our inner world more deeply. When we are held in safety by another’s nonjudgmental receptivity, we naturally open up to more awareness of sensation, feelings, and the thoughts that arise from and accompany them.” (2018, p.193)

I don’t know if many coaches or swimmers view their training together as a therapeutic experience, but in fact, every inter-personal interaction that has positive co-regulation qualities becomes deeply nourishing to both participants, whether they are conscious of it or not. When you find a safe, trusting, need-supportive coach relationship that consistently makes you feel better, you have something quite precious.


Trust The Process

As I noted in my post about patience, your development toward being more competent, stronger, faster, wiser, more at peace, and more resilient, all involves going through development processes. Any process takes time and reveals its payouts periodically, not continuously. Once you have bought into a process, that means that there are stretches of time where you need to be faithful to keep doing the regular work while external results are not obvious. You need to apply trust in the process, or in other words, be full-of-faith that your persistent effort to follow the training protocol will be building unseen roots that eventually set the stage for the visible expansion of leaves and branches in due time. Like trees, when in process you are always growing, but not always visibly so.

Photo by David Talley on Unsplash


Trust Your Skills

Responsible training is all about doing the kind and amount of work that sinks those skills so deeply into your body that they become ‘second-nature’. Your former land-mammal body changes into an aquatic one. When you have trained so well that the skills necessary for your swimming event and conditions have become mostly autonomously controlled in your brain, your conscious mind is then freed up to give attention to other, higher-order cognitive things – like enjoying the scenery, navigating in open water, paying attention to competitors, confidently exploring rough conditions that would wreck the mood of others, and liberating things like that.

You develop trust in your skills by putting them to the test periodically – just as pro athletes, emergency response and medical professionals, martial artists, military personnel would. While accompanied and guided by your coach or skilled companions, put your skills to controlled but realistic tests. 

And when it is time to perform – when you are finally in the event or experience that you’ve been training for – you can trust your body to do exactly what it has been doing in countless practice sessions up to this point. Your positive experience from several tests builds the trust that you can do what this event requires of you.


Trust Your Team

Along with your coach, there may be many others whom you depend on to do what you do. ‘Team’ refers to those people formally or loosely connected to you, those who make it possible for you to keep going in your pursuit of swimming mastery and personal growth.

Who has agreed to let you go swim all the time?

Who is there with you when you swim?

Who supports you and inspires your vision?

Who is in the boat to make sure you stay safe and succeed?

Who cares that you are growing as an athlete and person?

Trust in others is not automatic. It takes time, it takes a great deal of clear communication of needs and intentions, of mutual respect and concern for each other’s well-being. It even takes several cycles of disruption and repair to gain trust that those are safe experiences to go through as well, since every meaningful relationship will have that.


Trust In Your Purpose

Why do you swim? Why do you train to swim better?

The more that your swim life is connected in a meaningful way to the rest of your life, the stronger your tie and persistence in this activity will be.

How does swimming help you become a better version of your self? And how does this enable you to turn and help others?

When your see that your swimming is directly supporting your ability to be involved in something greater than yourself it will add to your satisfaction in life, and the practice of swimming be more resilient because it feels more supportive of what really matters to you through the inevitable ups and downs. 


Badenoch, B. (2018). The heart of trauma: Healing the embodied brain in the context of relationships. W W Norton & Co.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Rev. and updated edition, Bantam Books trade paperback edition. New York: Bantam Books.


View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:


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