"For the past52 years I have led a satisfying double life, coaching collegians and Olympiansin the fine points of competitive swimming and teaching fundamentals tochildren. If I had to choose between the two, I would say I have derived moresatisfaction from working with the youngsters. When I teach a child, I feel Iam really helping him three ways at once. When he does his first lap in a pool,a child may be on his way to becoming a champion. But even if he never wins arace, he has learned a form of exercise he can enjoy all his life. Equallyimportant, by learning to swim well he takes the first safe step intoskin-diving, water skiing, sailing and the whole worthwhile world of watersports."—MATT MANN
The most pleasantof summer sounds, I think, is that of people—adults and children—laughing,shouting, busily enjoying themselves in the water. It's a happy sound that getslouder by the year, and with another summer upon us, I offer water-mindedadults this reminder: as we find more new and different ways to enjoy thewater, we are all the more obligated to see that the youngsters know how toswim well so they may safely join us. With this idea in mind, I offer here aguide on how to teach children to swim.
In this issue Ipresent the methods I use for teaching the crawl stroke. It is the stroke achild should first learn, because of the various strokes practiced today it isthe most efficient—the best combination of speed and ease in the water. Inlater issues I will take up the other two strokes—the back-andbreaststroke—that are practical for average swimmers.
Before I get intoparticulars, there are several general points you should consider. If you planto teach a child, you need first to examine yourself to determine if you arefit for the job. I will repeatedly stress the importance of ease and relaxationand rhythm. If you yourself are not at ease in the water, if you do not swimeasily, relaxed, with a reasonable respect for fundamentals, you will do betterto turn your pupil over to an experienced instructor.
June 26, 1960
You may alreadyhave taught children by some method of your own, or you may know professionalinstructors whose techniques differ from those shown on these pages. There iscertainly more than one route to competent swimming. No matter what theapproach, however, the goal for the beginner is a comfortable and efficientcrawl stroke; and the essence of my method is to keep the process simple,direct and enjoyable. I take the pupil on a very direct route to crawlswimming. I purposely avoid any interim stage such as the traditional,inefficient dog paddle that is not easy and relaxed and is apt to induce badthrashing habits or bad rhythm that will have to be corrected later.
You will notice inthe illustrations by Artist Ed Vebell that my pupil is a young girl. She isMarilyn Corson, age 9, unavoidably a favorite pupil of mine since she is mygranddaughter. Marilyn can swim a quarter mile with ease (she has gone wellover a mile), but we have not selected her because she is by any means aswimming prodigy. She is our sample pupil because she falls in the right agebracket, the years 5 through 9. There are children who have learned earlier,but usually a child progresses faster after the age of 5. In any event, thereis no rush. Even if your child learned earlier, you would scarcely turn yourback and give a toddler unsupervised access to the water. The age of 9 is aflexible upper limit; anyone in good health can learn at any age if he iswilling. But remember, for a child, swimming is a big new project, and you mustkeep it challenging and pleasurable if you want to have a willing pupil.
When you teach, donot hurry. Remember that the ability of your child to beat all the neighborhoodkids in a short thrash across the pool by the end of summer is no measure ofsuccess. Speed in the water lies well beyond the primary aim of easy swimming.How quickly your pupil learns will depend on his natural ability andenthusiasm, the frequency of the lessons and even on the sort of wateravailable. The best site for teaching, all told, is a lake or bay with agradually sloping, safe bottom. A swimming pool with a sloping shallows isabout as good, and in my method, where the child seldom touches bottom, a poolfour and a half or five feet deep—so the water level is high on the teacher'schest—will do. At most ocean beaches, of course, you have to choose yourday.
One further wordbefore we proceed to actual teaching: if you expect to find in my advice anymagic words that will make your pupil an easy swimmer overnight, don't botherto read further. I offer you what I have gathered over the years. You have towant to teach; your pupil has to want to swim. That's the only magic there isin it.
Good crawlswimming is essentially a harmony of three actions: the kick, the arm strokeand the breathing. Like most instructors, I begin with the kick, adding theother two actions to it. But first I make sure that the pupils are used to thefeel of water on the body. By the time they are old enough to learn to swimmost youngsters have frolicked in water and have ducked their heads of theirown accord. In my method, however, the pupil need not at the start beaccustomed to ducking the head.
If I wereintroducing my granddaughter Marilyn to water for the first time I would holdher hand and wade around with her until she was at ease in water up to herwaist. If a shallows is available, I would have her kneel in foot-deep water,lean over and put her hands on the bottom. Then I would encourage her to lowerherself to a prone position, where she can walk around on her hands, trailingher legs or kicking them gently. This is not so much to teach her to kick as toget her used to water. At a pool where there is no shallows, I seat her on theedge so she can kick gently in the water. The correct kick action is not easyfrom such a position on the pool edge, but here again, my prime aim is to giveher a feel of the water.
Since Marilyn willhave almost all her lessons in water over her head, I next have her sit in myarms, kicking her feet gently and loosely while I walk back and forth in deepwater. As I carry her thus, with her arms around my neck, I joke and talk aboutanything distracting. From this point on, my sense of touch becomes animportant guide to Marilyn's progress. If she is tense, I can feel it as wellas see it.
After a fewinformal sessions like this, when I am sure that Marilyn is relaxed and readyfor actual kicking practice, I again carry her into water that comes high on mychest. While Marilyn holds one hand on either side of my neck, I slip my handsaround to the front of her hips and, by gently pressing up, help her to lieprone in the water (see above).
The crawl kick isessentially an alternating action of the legs—as one leg is lifting up in avertical plane, the other is dropping down. The action for this movementemanates from the hips. The feet should be limp, the legs essentially straightbut the knees relaxed so that each knee flexes slightly and naturally as eachleg is finishing the lift up.
When I explain themechanics to Marilyn in simple terms, above all I encourage her to take iteasy. Her kick should not be fast. She should not throw a shower of spray butonly ruffle the surface, the back half of her foot, at the most, breakingwater. On the down beat her feet should go about nine inches deep. But inteaching youngsters, I do not worry about micrometric precision. Rather, I tryto inculcate an efficient action, an easy, natural rhythm. She must practicethe kick until it is virtually automatic, so that when she starts using herarms she will continue kicking correctly without giving her legs a thought.
There are twoerrors—purposely exaggerated in the illustrations at right—beginners are apt tocommit when they kick. The most common is overkicking and bending the knee toomuch. In this case, the whole foot and part of the leg comes out and slaps backinto the water, an obvious waste. I correct it by having the pupil stiffen theknee and kick less vigorously. The other beginner's error is flexing each kneethrough the down beat, at the same time thrusting the thigh forward so that theleg, rather than moving up and down, pumps back and forth. Bicycling we callthis, and it is inefficient since each forward thrust of the thigh opposes theswimmer's forward progress. I correct this by having the child concentrate onstretching the legs back, trying to keep the whole body, toe to head, in ahorizontal plane while kicking.
When a pupil kickscorrectly, usually you can feel the gentle forward thrust. You should yield toit by backing up so the child progresses slowly through the water. Sometimesthe kick looks good, but you feel little or no thrust. If this is so with yourpupil, don't worry about it. Propulsion is truly secondary. The greatest valuesof the kick, for beginners particularly, are the stability and lift it affordsto the lower half of the body.
While Marilynpractices the kick, I instruct her to breathe through her mouth as well as hernose. For awhile yet she will hold her face above water; but by breathingthrough the mouth now she will be more relaxed and do it more instinctivelywhen she puts her face in the water, as she must in the finished crawlstroke.
When Marilyn hasacquired reasonable competence in kicking, I put an inflated tube around herwaist. The tube should be small so that it does not buoy her up unnaturallyhigh. It now serves in place of my hands to support Marilyn in mid-body. Atfirst, as she practices kicking with the tube on and her arms extended straightahead, I hold her with my hands high on her upper arms. Gradually I slide myhold down her arms until finally I am merely holding her hands in mine. As Ithus increase the distance between us, I do not have as good a sense of feel.Therefore, I must be careful to see that she does not get tense; and I mustwatch to be sure there is no excessive twisting of the torso. From the hips up,she should be almost totally relaxed.
Some experiencedswimmers may object to the use of a tube, since it is a crutch which eventuallywill have to be removed. True, it is a crutch. But remember, when Marilynstarted I was her crutch. The tube, in effect, is only replacing me, allowingme to get farther away and in a better position when I start teaching her thearm action combined with the kick. As I increase the distance between us, ifneither the tube nor my hands supported her in mid-body Marilyn would startworking harder to stay up and would be obliged to put her feet down more oftenin the shallow water.
In each lesson Iwill often give her recess to rest and play around. But in the actual practicethe tube is a far better aid than constant reliance on the bottom. With a tubeshe gets accustomed to being at ease in the correct prone position, where shecan learn the kicking action slowly and easily and at the same time earn forherself the all-important sense of balance that is necessary when she startspracticing the arm action.
USING THE ARMS
Teaching the useof the arms in the crawl can be simple provided the teacher understands a fewsubtleties that are not apparent to the casual eye. A good crawl swimmer whoseems to be pulling himself with his arms is actually catching the water aseach hand enters straight ahead of him and then pressing straight down andback. In relation to the water, the hand holds one spot while the body movespast. During the press, the hand should be in line with the forearm, pressingflat against the water, the fingers preferably together.
A swimmer gets themost lift and power in the first part of the press, from the catch until thearm has traveled slightly past a position at right angles to the body.Throughout this power zone the whole arm, shoulder to fingertips, is straightbut not stiff, so that there will be a slight, natural bending at the elbow asthe swimmer starts to ease off pressure past the power zone. There are goodswimmers who continue pressing hard until the hand sweeps back up along thehip. But for average swimmers it is better to ease off pressure in the lastpart of the underwater press until the hand is virtually drifting as it comesup alongside the hip.
When the hand isalongside the hip the shoulder rises slightly and the arm begins to lift out ofthe water to start what we call the recovery. As a normal countermovement, atthis moment the opposite shoulder dips as the other arm begins to press. Duringthe first part of the recovery the elbow of the recovering arm is bent andrelaxed. The upper arm, swinging forward from the shoulder, serves as a leverto carry the rest of the arm forward until the whole arm straightens out ahead,ready to catch and press again.
When teaching achild as young as Marilyn, there is no reason to dwell on such technicalities.I explain the stroke in simple terms, and, more important, I show her byputting her through the motions, so that she learns by feeling the movements inher muscles. In the illustrations at the right, as Marilyn lies prone in waterover her head, supported in mid-body by the small tube, I am holding her wristsbetween thumb and fingers, almost as if taking her pulse. In this way her handsare free to feel the water, to press gently. When I first show her the stroke,I guide one arm through the cycle while holding the other on the surface. Whenshe has the feel of each arm separately, I then move her arms inalternation.
While shepractices the arm action, Marilyn is kicking. In the illustrations at the rightwe have deliberately excluded the leg action, because knowing where each leg isat each moment of the full arm cycle is no help in teaching the arm movementsor in coordinating arms and legs. Coordination will come naturally provided thechild continues kicking while learning to use the arms.
While not needingto know the precise relation of feet and arms through a whole cycle, you maywonder at this point how many beats of the feet a child should take for eachfull cycle of the arms. Two beats, four beats, six beats—it need not bother youtoo much. Usually a child who keeps kicking easily while practicing the armaction comes naturally into a six-beat kick, which, for those of you unfamiliarwith the term, means the feet, moving up and down, pass each other six timeswhile the arms complete a full cycle. You may also notice in the illustrationsthat Marilyn's arms are not always exactly a half cycle apart from each other.Even in easy swimming there is a tendency for each arm to catch up during therecovery, then lag behind during the press. Water is buoyant; air is not.Logically then, it is desirable to move the arm more slowly while it ispressing, propelling and lifting the swimmer, and to speed it up above waterwhere it is only a burden. This catching up, or overlapping as it is sometimescalled, is a subtlety of timing that also comes naturally if the child learnseasily and relaxed.
Breathing is theNo. 1 problem for incompetent swimmers. Most poor swimmers thrash around toomuch or are too tense in the water. As a result they need more air than theycan easily get; and usually, in trying to get more air, they work still harder,among other things raising the head too high, creating a need for still moreair. But when a good swimmer is traveling slowly, the more he keeps all partsof his body, including his head, in the water, the higher he will ride and theless effort he will need to move. It follows, then, that such a swimmer needsless air. Thus, for a model pupil like Marilyn, who has learned to kick and useher arms competently, the final problem is essentially a simple one of learningto take each breath by lifting the head out of the water as little and aseasily as possible.
The sequence ofdrawings opposite shows the breathing action in the crawl stroke. When she isnot taking a breath, the swimmer keeps her face submerged, the water breakingabout at the hairline. When one arm catches and presses—let's say the leftarm—the swimmer rolls slightly to the left side. The opposite shoulder—theright shoulder, in this case—is riding higher, facilitating recovery of theright arm out of water. This is an opportune moment to take a breath on theright side, since the swimmer need only turn her face slightly more to theright to bring mouth and nose above the water level. The breath is takenquickly, and as the right arm—the arm on the breathing side—comes forward inthe recovery, the face turns back until it is again under. An accomplishedswimmer holds the breath until the face is again straight down, exhalingthrough pursed lips as the head starts to turn back up at the end of thestroke. Although I have picked the right side here for purposes ofdemonstration, I have found beginners can be taught to breathe on eitherside.
With the correctbreathing action in mind, let us go back and pick up our novice. When teachingMarilyn to kick, you recall, I had her practice breathing through both mouthand nose at the same time. Now I ask her to start kicking again. At the sametime I take her wrists and start guiding her through the arm stroke. As shecatches the water with the left hand I tell her to turn her face (still abovewater) to the right side and exhale, inhale through nose and mouth. Then, asshe brings her right arm forward, I tell her to turn her face to the frontagain. While she practices this, I guide her vocally: "Turn, exhale,inhale, front." When Marilyn gets the rhythm, I will gradually remove myhands from her wrists, leaving only the small tube to support her.
Her next projectis to get used to putting her face underwater, at the same time holding herbreath and opening her eyes. For this I take her into shallower water where shecan stand, still wearing the tube. While I hold her hands, I have her push offthe bottom and kick up to the surface and keep kicking as she floats face down,holding her breath. When she can hold this position for five seconds I have herkick up to the surface again, in exactly the same manner. But now, when shereaches the surface, she uses her arms and also practices the breathing action,turning her face up to exhale and inhale. I still hold her hands as she kicksup, then let go and gently place one hand on either side of her face to guideher in coordinating head with stroke, as shown in the illustration (above).When her coordination is good I remove my hands from her face and let herpractice supported only by the tube. For the present, to give her betterbuoyancy, she continues to hold her breath underwater, both exhaling andinhaling when the mouth is above water. As she improves she will, of her ownaccord, start exhaling sooner, while the face is still under.
We now go back andstart over without the tube. At first she does the kick with my handssupporting her hips, as we did at the very start. In supporting her now,however, I reach way out, keeping my arms very close together so she will haveclearance on either side to carry out the arm action and to rotate the face forbreathing. If necessary—it depends on the size of the child—I will slide myhands forward to her abdomen or lower chest.
For a while afterthe tube is removed she will have the feeling of being heavier in the water. Iam careful to see that she stays relaxed and does not fight to offset thesinking feeling. Gradually, as she picks up the proper slow rhythm, I feel hergetting lighter. Accordingly, I lessen the pressure of my hands, until I cannotfeel her weight at all. Then I drop my hands away so she is actually going astroke or two on her own. When I remove my hands, I back away ahead of her,keeping my hands just below her body, ready to apply pressure again if I noticeher struggling too much.
When she can dosix or eight strokes in this manner she is swimming. But she is not a swimmer.I must still watch to see that she does not develop bad thrashing habits. Andwithout becoming a big bore, I must, by every sort of challenge that appeals toa child, see that she keeps practicing, swimming a little farther day by day,and always swimming easily and relaxed.
TWO OTHER STROKES
In forthcoming issues Matt Mann will round out hislessons in basic swimming with detailed instructions, again illustrated byArtist Ed Vebell, on how you can teach your child to master the backstroke andthe breaststroke.