When learners first
attempt to breathe out into water, nervous tension gets in the way.
But relaxation and enjoyment are more easily experienced than they
expect. And a surprisingly helpful resource can be a pupil's own
Where to start?
Breathing out, face
underwater, is the first skill learners need. A relaxed neck and
head will always result in improved breathing so it's vital for
everyone to learn this. But novices can't explore head buoyancy
until they're comfortable breathing out with their face submerged. So
I tend to start there, usually at the wall.
Taming the beast
New pupils learning to
breathe into the water are likely to be hindered by a sudden,
involuntary tightening in the chest and throat. Momentarily they
can't breathe out and inadvertently they may inhale underwater. This
is the panic reflex at work and we usually manage to subdue it, like
a beast, in the first lesson. Being able to breathe out steadily is
the thing which keeps it at bay. But initially it's the dominance of
the reflex that stops this from happening. After a bit of time, it
gets the point that it isn't needed in this situation and skulks off
with its tail between its legs. Then we know we're winning.
To show people how to
make friends with water, I open my mouth and put my whole face in the
water, without breathing out. This demonstrates that nothing happens
if we don't do anything; it's just our reaction that causes a
problem. When learners try this and nothing goes wrong for them,
exhalation becomes more relaxed because they're no longer doing it as
a kind of defence against drowning.
'Blowing bubbles' is a
commonly used term which may be better avoided as it gives the idea
that air needs to be pushed out. Blowing shifts air explosively, from
the top of the chest, so it runs out more quickly. 'Making bubbles'
seems a better instruction.
For a deeper, calmer
out-breath, singing often
works well for learners. Using the voice is something
everyone's familiar with. Singing is a useful way to combat
nervousness, engender confidence and get a bit of energy flowing.
Pupils can practise
singing Ahhhh out of the water then think of doing exactly the
same with the face in the water. Although the experience is
different, what we're actually doing is the same, so just focusing on
making the sound is helpful.
I tell pupils that, on
bringing our face out of the water, we should keep singing as our
lips break the surface so that we breathe a little air into the
atmosphere, which stimulates an in-breath. Closing the mouth before
it breaks the surface tends to cause gasping. The in-breath should be
passive. If we can hear it, it's probably too strong.
In it together
Sometimes, with my hand
on the back of their neck or the middle of their back, I sing into
the water, together with my pupil. The sound of our two voices inspires
confidence and helps tame the panic reflex. My own ease with the breathing, as someone who is comfortable in water, may transmit itself
from my nervous system to theirs, via my hand.
This whole process can
be seen in the above video clip of myself with Gill from ITV's The Test in
2003. Where do the years go?
With a bit of time and
attention, anyone can learn to breathe into water, just as anyone can
sing. So it's sad that so many people learn to swim with their head
out of the water, which precludes relaxation.