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Balance in the Water

balance in the water

We’re all familiar with those dreams where you feel like you’re falling and you wake up with a sudden lurch forward. The lurch is uncontrollable and is your body’s natural reaction to the sensation of falling. It is bracing you for a heavy landing. Understanding this important natural reflex may be the key to unlocking your ability to swim…

The protective reflex

Think about what happens when you slip or trip on something. Whether you actually end up on the floor or not, so many things happen in your body that you can’t control. Muscles tense, arms and legs move to try and prevent a fall, your heart races and adrenaline floods your body. This is all completely normal, natural and very understandable. Your body is trained to try and save itself in these moments of peril. You can’t override it, and nor should you because on dry land a fall is likely to hurt.

looking up at a high springboard as a diver performs a reverse dive

The swimming pool is a wonderfully unique environment where you are almost weightless, falling happens in slow motion and many things that would normally hurt you on dry land feel fantastic in water. Falling headlong from a diving board into the pool can be exhilarating and fun. However, the body’s ability to recognise it is falling is triggered regardless of whether it is landing on water or concrete and the subconscious mind reacts in the same way. If you are new to swimming, it is important to recognise that your body needs time to learn that certain sensations in the pool are actually safe.

The fundamentals of learning to swim:

Many beginner swimmers focus on understanding the arm and leg movements of each stroke but struggle to get going in the pool because they have not considered the basics of feeling the water and getting the subconscious mind used to recognising how it feels to tip and wobble in a liquid environment. When your body feels like it is falling, you feel an automatic surge of adrenaline and your muscles tense. These are similar reactions to how you feel when you are scared and this can feel confusing to a swimmer who doesn’t consciously feel afraid of the water.

It can be really worthwhile dedicating time in the early stages of learning to swim to exploring these sensations.

Basic survival:

Leaning forward or backward and rotating back to a standing position are important basic survival skills for being able to practice safely in the pool. After all, you need to be able to stand up again, but if trying to stand up triggers a tipping sensation that your body fights against, it can be tricky to do something even that simple.

Front crawl is a naturally rolling stroke. As each arm pulls, the body rotates to get a long reach and streamlined plane of motion. The body rolls even further in order to breathe in an efficient way. Rolling in the water where there is little resistance can feel like you’re falling over, so your body either resists the feeling or it reacts to feeling like it is already falling. Either way, the stroke efficiency suffers and swimmers may not get very far very easily.

When your body feels comfortable and confident with all these sensations of being off-balance, you can really start to feel “like a natural” in the pool. Instead of tensing and fighting against the water, you become able to go with the flow and use those movements to your advantage.

How do you get used to it?

  1. With patience. Your body has spent a lifetime learning how to keep you safe. It needs time to relax and recognise the signals and triggers and learn how to react in the water. This is not something you can consciously think about, much like assimilating any skill, it is repetition that you need. Take the mental pressure off learning any of the technical aspects of swimming and dedicate time to feeling the water.
  2. Swimming lessons don’t always have to be about following instructions. Children learn by exploring the water and inventing challenges for themselves. Allow yourself time to explore every movement and feeling.
  3. See what happens when… If your body feels like it is falling when you roll over in the pool, why not let it go all the way and see where you end up. You might end up on your back, or sinking to the pool floor. It might help your body recognise that there is no danger in that falling sensation.
  4. Learn with a competent buddy or a qualified instructor. When it comes to your body’s natural reflexes, you may find that in the process of getting used to these sensations, your body might react in strange ways. It might go into panic, or it might freeze up and render you incapable of getting yourself upright. This can be dangerous in water, so as always until you feel strong and able in all the key aspects of swimming, you should not practice without someone to help you stay safe.
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