One of my favorite scenarios in coaching is to guide a non-swimmer from a tense and fearful relationship with water to a relaxed and confident relationship as a capable swimmer.

With an understanding of what’s happening deep in the body’s autonomic nervous system and protective brain systems, we know that in swim lessons, while we are focused upon building new skills, we are using the same activities of gradually increasing complexity to provide repetitively positive experiences in the water that gradually help the student’s body become convinced that they are truly safe and in control. 

Some of the main forms of trust a new swimmer needs to develop, that experienced swimmers may be taking for granted are…

  • Trust in the properties and consistent behavior of water.
  • Trust in your body’s capabilities and resources.
  • Trust in your own senses and judgment. 
  • Trust in your skills. 
  • Trust in your control over your experience. 

Through the experience of therapeutically-informed skill-building activities, the change of the student’s autonomic physiological state from defensive to ‘safe and open’ shifts their whole body and mind into a much better position for paying attention, for exercising creative motor control, for generating more positive emotional responses to challenge, and generally frees up more positive motivational energy. With this foundation getting stronger, skill and fitness development accelerate. 

In this new-swimmer scenario, it seems obvious that trust needs to be established in order to make skill acquisition go easier. But it is actually the same equation for an advanced swimmer pushing their capabilities at any level of performance above that. Any time you take on a challenge that really pushes your capabilities or confidence, your foundation of trust is also being challenged.  Another way of looking at it is that, unless your foundation of trust is being challenged, you haven’t started challenging your capabilities. Higher levels of performance require cultivating greater depths of trust. And, while you who are advanced and capable swimmers may not feel like you need ‘therapy’ to get to that new level, your nervous system responds positively to the same kind of treatment. We just do it with more complex therapeutically-informed training activities that are suited to the level of challenge you are working on.

When you consider an upgrade in your personal goals and you feel a bit anxious or afraid, that could be a good sign. That’s your opportunity to ask the question, “What is it that my mind or body is most afraid of?” The answer to that question point you toward the specific understanding, experience or skills you need to develop to bring your mind and body to a place of feeling competent for this challenge.

Then you get to work – possibly with the support of professional coaching – to build the trust, the skills, and the fitness you need to reach that goal in a way that leaves you feeling great along the way.  


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