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Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly

Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly

Looking ahead with no left and right turns

Without black lines on the pool floor to guide me, I swim front crawl in zig zags. If I lift my head to get a view in open water, my neck aches and if any tightness creeps into my neck when I turn to breathe, I get a headache.  Front crawl is so popular these days. Everybody’s doing it. Breaststroke is much less fashionable and butterfly is thought to be too elaborate, reserved for elite swimmers.

I was at the Hotel Costa Calero in Lanzarote last week with two friends from the Happy Swimming Boys’ Club, Ironman triathlete Simon and fit 53 year old Paul. They swam miles of front crawl in the cold saltwater pool, glowing like sunkissed kings with their evening cocktails (all inclusive).  I spent a lot of time in the heated leisure pool, exploring the possibility of turning to breathe without any stress in front crawl. For a sensitive creature like me, it’s a challenge, especially as I get older.  

‘Have you been enjoying the journey?’ my old mentor Steven Shaw asked me in a message exchange from the poolside.

‘Not always, because I’m prone to get a headache when I swim front crawl. I enjoy the journey better with breaststroke,’ I replied.

‘How about the fly? I enjoy the journey most when I am flying.’

And back into the water I went, armed with Steven’s top tip, ‘Lead with the head of course! And release the hips. Don’t worry about the arms.’

This was when everything changed. Rhythmically, meditatively, without stress, without worries, I alternated lengths of breaststroke with butterfly, looking where I was going, enjoying the view, easily coordinating top and bottom halves of the body. Diving, gliding, breathing, flowing. Undulating instead of turning.

Swimming for me must be enjoyed not endured. And I do like to see where I’m going and move forwards in a straight line. So it seems, for me, that both breaststroke and butterfly are more conducive to swimming without stress than front crawl.  I feel like a free - necked dolphin. And freeing my neck in the water is the best reason for getting in.

Also see: Why Don't I Just Stick My Neck Out? / Diving Into Breaststroke / Are You a Head Up Breaststroker? / A Timeless Swim / I Believe I Can Fly


15-Feb-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
All You Need Is Love

All You Need Is Love

Putting love of the water into practice

Swimmers often talk about their love of water. But one way or another we fight the thing we love.

With family members, for example,  if I work a bit harder at using the energy of love, I might be less selfish, more tolerant,  a better listener.  

I love the water for its consistent support. When I let it take me, it always helps me to release and expand. I just need to remember that this is what I want.

As in the home, we can use the energy of love in the water, as a way to direct ourselves.

When you're learning to swim,  you have to learn to trust the water to support you.  This is both an emotional and a physical thing but too often we emphasise the physical (What do I have to do?). If you go into the water with an attitude of love, give yourself to it, soften into its support, trust it, you'll make friends with it and have a friend for life.

An old Alexander Technique teacher told a trainee, ‘If you can't put hands on pupils with direction, do it with love.’ It's a useful message because it keeps things simple and prevents anxiety.

If you love water,  see if you can put your love to practical use, next time you go for a swim. Make sure you're not fighting the water, or yourself. Let it support you so you can breathe. Give yourself to the water and swim with love!

This kind of work might be useful preparation for increased contact with friends and relatives at Christmas.  But when human relationships are challenging,  the water may provide a refuge. Our relationship with the water is one we can always get right. 


15-Dec-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Helping Hands

Helping Hands

The importance of hands on guidance in teaching people to swim

Touch reaches parts of the brain that words and images can't.  Hands-on guidance may be as important for improvers as it is for non swimmers, who can't do without it. Learners of strokes don't always want too much - “... But you're pulling me along”/ “Can I have a go on my own now?” -  so we tend not to do enough of it.

We’re trained to trust our intellect. We feel we should be able to communicate to another person,  with words and demonstrations,  how to carry out some simple physical act. And we’d like to be able to produce a new coordination pattern that someone explains or demonstrates to us.  But something can get lost in translation.

Almost all breaststroke learners find it difficult to rest their arms and glide as their legs kick, then use their hands,  still out in front, to support the breathing position by sculling, instead of pulling them back against the water before their face comes out.

Pulling the arms back (which is directly connected to tightening the neck)  is so deeply instinctive that people don't know they're doing it. If we don't know we’re doing something, we're going to keep on doing it, even though we know something isn't working. The more times the unhelpful thing with the arms has put paid to the essential thing, which is the the dive or glide, the harder people try, next time, and the cycle of frustration continues. Trying, as Alexander Technique teacher Patrick Macdonald said,  reinforces what is already there… If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try the same thing again!...So people get stuck, especially when learning breaststroke.

This can be avoided with hands on guidance. The hands of a teacher can

- impart a sense of calmness and rest,  preventing the learner’s rushed,  panicky movements.

-  give a sense of direction,  while keeping the learner moving forward through the water.  

-  set up the experience for the learner of the successful coordination and timing of a movement.  

Gently guiding a learner's hands forwards, it’s quite easy to convey a message that a breaststroke kick should happen ‘now', at the setup of the glide, for example.

Often the learner will produce and experience a decent stroke before they've properly understood what’s going on.  At this point,  they might say,  ‘But you're pulling me along’ or ‘Can I have a go on my own?’  This is where we have to be careful because it's where the good work may get lost and forgotten. Lots of guided repetition of the new pattern is needed in order to counter and overcome the deeply ingrained unhelpful patterns. The teacher needs to be resolute about this.

Hands-on guidance cuts through our tendency to overthink things and get in our own way. It gives us a new experience which our brain can process later.

It works,  better than words and demonstrations. As a learner you don't always want too much of it because you want to have a go and work it out for yourself. But it seems the best way of guaranteeing more positive than negative experiences at the learning stage.

Also see: Attention, Please / 3 Strokes And You're Out Knowing Your S**t / Diving Into Breaststroke / Fish Fingers / All You Need Is Love


02-Oct-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Stroke Rehabilitation

Stroke Rehabilitation

What The Physio Doesn’t Tell You

Swimming is frequently recommended by physiotherapists to people with any kind of injury.  Particular strokes are encouraged for specific problems.

But it never makes sense to advise anybody to do anything in water, without knowing what that person’s relationship with the water is like, and how that person swims.

Swimming is more likely to cause or exacerbate injuries than people think.  The water’s obvious advantages may be negated if you don't know how to interact with it properly.

“My physio told me I shouldn't do breaststroke...”

This may be good advice because most people who swim breaststroke aren’t doing themselves any favours, especially those who swim with the head out of the water. 

But really the whole picture of you in the water needs to be seen before meaningful advice can be given.  How are you getting your head out to breathe? How relaxed are your arms? How much force is in the preparation phase of your kick? How much tension is in your ankles?  These are the things that influence the quality of your kick and bring about either strain or freedom in the hips and knees.

“My physio told me I should swim front crawl to keep my fitness up as I have an injured hamstring from running.”

Whether front crawl will be good for your hamstring injury depends on the way you swim and especially on what your head, neck and back relationship is like in the water.

If you tighten your neck, hold your head too high and arch your lower back,  this makes your legs and hips tense. Your hamstrings need to be soft as they move backwards ready for the kick. Without being aware of this, heading for the pool with a hamstring injury won’t be a good plan. In other words, you may find yourself reproducing the harmful patterns of movement in water that caused your injury on dry land.

“My physio told me I should swim backstroke to open up my chest.”

Last week I worked with a lady with no feeling on one side of her body, after a serious stroke.  

She wanted to show me her one arm backstroke, recommended for opening her chest, which is critically important for her.

She launched into this with a tense neck and no thought of letting the water support her head. This, much more than the paralysis of one side of her body, unbalanced her and took away control of her good arm coming out of the water.  This wasn't going to help her open her chest.

So I put my hands under her head, to encourage her to enjoy the support of the water, and this produced a symmetry in floating she’d thought impossible.

Next I asked her to let me take her good arm. I moved it slowly backwards and swished it forwards, keeping it under the surface,  and she moved beautifully through the water. This did open her chest.  She thought it amazing that she could move like this but what was needed for it to happen was blindingly simple.

Unless we’re able to focus on the relationship between head, neck and back,  there's always a risk that we'll make things worse.

Also see:  Posture and Alignment?  / Learn Not to Swim  /   Are You a Head Up Breaststroker? / Attention, Please / Drift and Swish / Feet Notes / Floating Foundations / Floating is a Feeling / Front Crawl's Simple  - So What's the Catch?   / Positions and Decisions


22-Jun-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Attention, Please

Attention, Please

Why One to One Work in Water Works

Learning to swim is all about trust.  You've got to trust the water to support you, which really means trusting yourself to let the water support you.  But first you have to trust the person helping you. If the pupil - teacher relationship is the bridge, to build it we need a quiet setting, where we can can hear ourselves think.

Group lessons can be great for more confident swimmers. There’s potential for an atmosphere of fun and mutual support, with people learning from each other.  Groups make sense for a teacher who wants to earn decent money and for pupils, tuition should cost less per hour.

But while appearing to offer value for money, group lessons are often unsuccessful for learners because no two non-swimmers are the same.  If you're the most anxious person in a group, you’re unlikely to have a positive experience because you won’t get the time, attention and direction you need. If you’re fearful, you need to quieten down.  Being in a group may not be conducive to you finding the calmness in yourself that you need to approach the water with.

“Just a quick note of thanks to you both for your help , understanding and endless patience this week. I really can't express how anxious I was but I guess you could see it!  The thought of putting my head under water etc freaked me out but with your help I could and did and I'm forever grateful. I came with no expectations but I'm proud that I coped with it and it will be the springboard to greater things.” (John from Merseyside,  here last week).

On the subject of decent money, I remember buying a new motorbike from a local dealer and hoping for a generous trade-in price for the one I’d bought there a year before. More than once the shop owner told me,  'We're in business to make money'.  I accepted the deal he was offering and screamed away on my shiny new Suzuki. But I never went back. The shop isn’t there any more.

If you teach swimming primarily to make money,  you're not going to last long as a teacher.  ‘Less is more’. Most teachers do too many hours of teaching and too much with pupils.

The process of learning to swim properly requires brain work and redirection of energy, from both teacher and pupil.  As a teacher, you can only do so much of it and as a pupil, you need the right setting.

In 20 years our business model has stayed pretty much the same. We offer one to one lessons (or shared lessons for couples and friends),  at what we feel is a fair price for our time and experience, and we limit our teaching hours.

One of my best educational experiences was an advanced motorcycle riding course with an excellent instructor, now retired, called Terry Dodd. He was king of the road but calm and kind. Just Terry and me for 3 days on the roads of North Wales was a transforming experience, worth every penny of the £500 fee.  Being in a group of riders wouldn't have worked for me. I'd have felt under pressure not to be the worst.

Other positive learning experiences of mine include private lessons with a few Alexander Technique teachers, in their own homes. Each of them in their own way patiently encouraged me to find for myself a new direction and a calmer state. A quiet environment with few distractions is conducive to that kind of work.

People learning to swim need a calm, quiet aquatic space. If this doesn’t sound too pretentious, teachers and pupils need to absorb the calmness and quietness of the still pool water, transmit these qualities to each other and then back to the water again. This is what seems to happen, when 1:1 work in the water works.


11-Jun-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
1/3 Adults Not Competent in Water - BBC Radio Oxford Discussion on Learning to Swim

1/3 Adults Not Competent in Water - BBC Radio Oxford Discussion on Learning to Swim

Pupil Lynn (studio guest) talks about her learning to swim story and Ian discusses how our lessons can help people with fear of water.

According to a survey from the Swimming Teachers' Association (STA) over 1/3 adults in UK are not competent swimmers, or can't swim. 

One member of the public interviewed describes unsuccessful lessons, with the teacher on the side of the pool ''telling me to 'do this, do that' while I sank to the bottom of the pool!" 

Studio guest Lynn Mathieson tells her story of learning to swim, a significant part being a trip to Wales to overcome her fear of water. She could 'swim' a bit when she arrived for a course of 6 lessons but she was unable to float or glide. She didn't trust the water to support her and had never attempted to float on her back. 

Ian discusses the problem of teaching and learning to swim based on the misconception that you've got to learn what to 'do'.  He says the key is to learn to do nothing; just to enjoy the support of the water. Before the interview Al, the travel guy, said that learning to swim for him was like trying to stand in a hammock. Ian says you just have to learn to lie in the hammock, which is much easier. 

"Once you've learned to trust the water to support you, you can learn to do anything, as Lynn's shown." 

Also see: Radio London, Interview with Vanessa on why kids aren't learning to swim


07-Jun-2016 /  written by Ian Cross