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Travails of a Non-Swimmer

January 2013 Wrap-up: The Perils of Group Lessons


To get on with my goal of finally learning how to swim at 35, I enrolled at the swimming school of a local gym. It was a few minutes away from the nearest train station and about 10 minutes away on foot from my house. The gym had two pools: a 25m and an 18m.

It was a pretty convenient location but unfortunately, they only offered group classes. That being better than no classes at all, I decided to join in the middle of January and signed up for 3 months of twice a week classes. There were 3 to 7 per class on any given day; we used one 25m lane for our beginner class while the other lanes were used by the intermediate, advanced intermediate and master classes.

That Blasted Kickboard

The first thing I was taught was how to float on the water by gliding on my stomach with both hands extended, exhaling through my nose with my face in the water. Okay, that was easy and quite comfortable. Next was how to stroke. That was less comfortable and puzzling because of: that blasted kickboard.

While I knew nothing about swimming, from the very beginning I was uncomfortable with the coach’s method of getting me used to the water. Many of the drills involved using a kickboard. This resulted with me being able to inhale with one hand stroking while the other hand rested on the kickboard. But take it away and I would end up drinking pool water.

Oh So Kickstatic

The coach also had the tendency to make us kick as hard and as fast as we can. I found this incredibly taxing and uncomfortable. Were we supposed to rely on our kick to keep us in balance as well as for propulsion? With my lack of ability to multitask I found myself concentrating so hard on kicking that I forgot all about my arm movement and breathing.

“Kick harder, harder, harder!” the coach would scream when one of us was getting out of balance. Her “star pupil” was a large-boned, tall, muscular woman in her 40s who would work up a storm each time she swam, making a huge splash and churning up water. She’s been taking this coach’s classes for a year, it turns out. While powerful, she looked to be struggling when swimming. And with all that water churned, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

“I don’t want to swim like that,” I said to myself. I wanted to swim smoothly and gracefully. Would that ever be possible?

My Classmate Taught Me to Float

While learning the crawl we were also to learn the backstroke at the same time. But there was no progress for me because for some reason, I simply couldn’t float on my back. My legs would sink like pieces of bricks.

“Kick, kick, kick!” the coach yelled, adding “Straighten your back! Tuck your chin! Look up at the ceiling!”

When she let go of supporting my back with her hand I was able to float on my own for a few seconds, but soon became scared and stood up.

Afterward I talked to one of my classmates who seemed to instantly “get” the art of floating, and she agreed to help me out during the 20 minutes of practice time we had after each session.

“I pretend to go to sleep, and just lay my head on the water first followed by my relaxed body,” she explained. I tried that. It worked! At first I would stand up after a few seconds thinking I would sink, but after getting used to the floating-on-my-back feeling I finally got the hang of it.

In the end, it was my classmate who taught me how to float on my back.

Unable to Breath

After eight sessions, I am still unable to swim. While I learned how to float steadily on my stomach and rather precariously on my back, I still could not do a lap with the crawl.

While I could do three to five strokes in crawl, I couldn’t breathe properly and therefore had to stand. There was no problem constantly exhaling from my nose while my face was in the water: the problem came when I had to inhale through my mouth. I don’t know how many cupfuls of lousy pool water I drank trying to look to the side and inhale through that elusive “pocket of air” found in the bow wave created on the sides of my moving head.

The Pros and Cons of Group Sessions

I felt that one of the biggest cons of group sessions was that each student’s level was different and thus it was difficult to synchronize our drills. While it was dubbed a “Beginner’s” class I was actually the only complete novice in the group. All the others, while not being smooth, proficient swimmers, could already swim but had different levels of skill. All of them could float for prolonged periods and do a 25m crawl. It seemed that they were in the class to “perfect” their technique. So I was actually slowing them down because I had to be taught the basics. But there was no other class for “Real Beginners” so they were stuck with me.

Another con is that since there were anywhere between 3 to 7 students per session, there was little time for personalized instruction. A lot of time was wasted standing in line waiting for our turn with the coach, who would watch each of us swim (or in my case, tow me) and give pointers and corrections. Since it was an hourly session and half of it was already spent doing walking exercises in the water and beating around with a kickboard, the time for actual swimming was at most 10 minutes per person.

The only pro I could think of is that you could make friends in a class. I met a sweet, very friendly lady in her 60s who could “swim a bit” but not for extended periods. Her eight-year old granddaughter, she said, was already proficient with the backstroke, and she wanted to be able to swim with the little girl in the pool, thus the classes. It was this lovely grandmother who taught me how to float, and encouraged me to keep attending classes despite my frustration with my lack of progress.

Looking for Answers

By the end of January, after eight frustrating sessions, I decided that I needed to teach myself other methods of learning to swim because obviously the class wasn’t working for me. That was when I found out, through internet search, about Total Immersion and Swim Smooth. I purchased some materials and had gone the pool to practice. I’ll be posting about my practices with these methods in the coming days.

I also enrolled for individual lessons at another club, but that would be another article altogether.

That wraps up my progress summary for January 2013. Still unable to swim and extremely frustrated, but with the new materials and coach very much looking forward to the coming months.

Notes to Self: Do

  • Believe that there is such a thing as a bow wave with a pocket of air for breathing. Try to look at it next practice.
  • Clench your butt cheeks lightly and suck in your stomach while in a horizontal, face-down position. This will help you float better.
  • Always breathe out or exhale from your nose and breathe in or inhale through your mouth. It just makes things much easier! This breathing pattern is the same for all strokes.
  • To get up from a horizontal, face-down position, move arms in a downward push, while at the same time bending your knees and lowering your butt. Kick downward and you’ll be able to stand.
  • To get up from a back float, take a breath, lower your butt, move upper body forward and bend knees, while at the same time moving your arms like your are about to hug someone in front of you. You’ll sink for a few seconds but will be on your feet and be able to surface.
  • Relax! The water is there to support you, not strangle and kill you.

Notes to Self: Don’t

  • Push downward with your lead arm in order to crane your head to breathe. That will just make you sink.
  • Kick so hard and fast. It’s a waste of movement and energy. Never mind what the group lessons coach says. You don’t want to become a kickstatic type of swimmer.
  • Clench your neck and shoulder muscles while floating on your back.
  • Raise your head to breathe during crawl. You’ll disturb the bow wave, strain your neck, and cause lots of drag.

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