I’ve observed some differences between how one person can arrange their body to execute a skill in the water and create the desired effect – like forming the frame with their whole body and sliding it along the surface for meters –  and another attempting to execute the same skill cannot. 

Why, in some cases, can one person get their body to do this while another can’t? 

When present, trust, or its opposite, fear has an impact on the whole swimmer’s body, not just on their mind.   

Trust has a neurological and physiological effect on how the body will organize energy and muscle activation. Trust primes the body for certain kinds of physical, cognitive, and social activities that require a sense of safety. Fear, likewise, has a neurological and physiological effect and it primes the body for activities that require mobilization – it narrows the range of options for physical, cognitive, and social action down to those which support self-protection. Swimming is an activity that requires the body to be completely immersed in and supported by water in a way that makes the body feel quite vulnerable. Vulnerability plus trust equals freedom while vulnerability plus fear equals restriction. When the swimmer’s whole body is trusting, all those tissues and neural actions are free to do what the water requires for effective and efficient swimming. When even a part of the swimmer’s body is fearful, not all tissues and neural actions are free – some or many are held up in self-protection which is counter to what cooperation with the water requires. 

Let me bring that idea back around to my previous articles (Trust Supports Skill… and Relaxation Comes From… ).  Trust enables the swimmer to more easily find the optimal balance between softness and stiffness in their stroke at chosen intensity level. Fear distorts that balance.  A swimmer with a fully trusting body can execute the skill and produce the desired effect so much more easily than a fearful one can. 

Bodily-embedded fear creates a difficult situation: the swimmer needs to start to feel safe in the body before it releases all the tissues, but it needs to release all the tissues to be able to do the actions successfully and thus increase confidence and the sense of safety. The swimmer’s body is trying to protect itself from perceived danger in the water, and so, against the swimmer’s conscious desire to swim freely, it holds back parts of the body in defense and this leads to less cooperation with the water, and thus to more failure in trying to swim well. The swimmer’s deep fear is further confirmed and this provokes even more defense and leads to more failure. 

This fear can come from acute unresolved trauma – e.g., a person had a frightening experience in the water at some point in life. It can come from chronic stress – e.g., a person who had a miserable childhood experience in swim lessons. It can come by absorbing a parent’s or family’s or culture’s aversion to water or swimming.  It could come from some other form of trauma or fear of failure, not stemming directly from the water.

A person can have fear embedded somewhere in the body but not be aware of it in their conscious mind.  I sometimes observe see the signs in their body, in how they move or fail to move, even though they are not consciously aware of their defensive body. Then some are aware that there is fear in the body, but there is yet a disconnect: they don’t know how to step from awareness into control over it. I see both kinds of people try to follow the coach’s instructions; I see them get frustrated; I see their bodies continue to show signs of defensiveness despite their intentions.  But it is easier to work with the one who is at least aware that the body is feeling fear because we can then work together, using the feedback from their body, to break down or redesign the activities into more therapeutically effective pieces. This is how we go about defusing the fear and freeing up the body. It requires patience and persistence with a process.

What the swimmer’s body needs is more experiences of success and less of failure, so that the body receives enough positive experience that it begins to change its belief and perception of the danger and let go of holding those parts of the body in defense. We enter into a co-creative process between coach and swimmer. There is a foundation of science and an additional art in setting up a therapeutic relationship and together forming a sequence of activities and sessions to gradually unlock that swimmer’s freedom in the water, at the pace their body needs to go. 


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