The most important thing about swimming is just to learn how to swim so that you are less likely to drown. I learned to swim when I was six, but I immediately realised that I could have learned to swim years earlier if I had only been taught properly. The method of teaching used with me was simply to make me stand in the shallow end of the pool a couple of metres out from the edge, and then people would encourage me to try to swim that short distance back to the edge. That was the method! It was all down to whether I could find the courage to go for it, not knowing if I would make it back or sink half way. I was held back by the fear of breathing in water: I'd breathed in a little water before and it wasn't nice. After many weeks of not daring to try it, I was teamed up with a really nice lady who crouched on the edge of the pool and repeatedly encouraged me to give it a go. I liked her so much that I eventually trusted her judgement and went for it: luckily it turned out to be really easy. indentI don't think that's a very good way to teach children to swim. What happens if you go for it and find that you can't swim? You might need to be rescued after breathing in water, and that could put you off trying again for years. It doesn't make any sense either to make children wait until they are big enough to be able to stand at the shallow end with their head out of the water either. There must be a better way. I am going to tell you how I would like to have been taught.
I think the first step ought to be that children should learn to hold their breath first, starting at home in the bath and just putting their face in the water for longer and longer lengths of time. Once you know that you don't need to breathe all the time, it takes away a lot of your worries about swimming.
Step two is to get the child comfortable with going a tiny distance underwater in a swimming pool: it's enough for the child just to go under an arm that's held out along the surface and then to come back up on the other side: this can be done without him letting go of the side of the pool or the person whose arm is being used.
Step three is to do the same thing again, but with the arm held out under the surface of the water so that the child has to go deeper. The arm would get deeper each time, so long as the child is happy that it isn't too far. Eventually the child will be able to go right down and between someone's legs before coming back up. He doesn't need to be able to swim at all at this stage: he can hold onto and climb up the person who is teaching him.
Step four is to get the child to take a deep breath and try to sit on the bottom of the pool. He will soon realise that it is impossible: he will just float back up to the surface every time. He will learn from this how hard it is to sink. You can tell him that it is possible to sit on the bottom of the pool, but that it only works if you breathe out first. It doesn't matter whether he wants to try this or not. The important thing is that he learns that he cannot sink if he breathes in and holds his breath: he will always come back up to the surface.
Step five is to get the child to swim a very short distance between two people while holding his breath. He will find that he naturally floats at the surface. Because he is not trying to breathe, he is not in any danger of breathing in water, so all he has to do is travel from one person to another, knowing that the person he is swimming to will help him get his head back above the surface again when he arrives so that he can breathe. The distance can be increased in little chunks until the child is forced to find ways to propel himself along and to do a little steering.
The final step is to get the child to try taking a breath half way between the two people, in mid swim: as soon as he has managed that, he will know that he can swim.
If you are an older child reading this and you can't swim, you may be able to teach yourself how to swim using the same method. The key to it is learning to be comfortable under water so that you aren't scared of not being able to breathe: you will find that you always float back up to the surface where you can breathe again. So long as you breathe out and in again quickly and then hold your breath for a moment when your lungs are full, you won't sink. The big mistake is to breathe out and in slowly, because you can sink while your lungs have no air in them. Breathe out fast, and then breathe in again straight away before you can start to sink: it's the air in your lungs that makes you float, so keep them full as much of the time as you can.
Cold water is a killer
You may feel safe near water once you have learned how to swim, but your confidence can sometimes put you in greater danger: if you fall into a canal you may have to swim a long way before you can find a place to climb out, and the water is often so cold that you may find it hard to breathe within just a few seconds of falling in. Even if you can swim a mile in a swimming pool, you may find you can't manage more than ten metres in a cold canal, and then you'll start to panic and inhale water. Children often drown in canals, and any child who plays at the side of one is in very real danger of adding their name to the list. Quite often there are cycle paths along the side of canals and people of all ages are encouraged to use them, but I think that's crazy: I never cycle by canals, but I often cycle on rough tracks at the edge of rivers, something that is looked on as much more dangerous. It's true that those rivers are dangerous, but I know that I could climb out if I fell in. Canals are a very different matter: you may only be able to get out if someone else happens to come along with a rope. I simply wouldn't chance it. Whenever you are near deep water, always ask yourself how easy would it be to get out if you fell in, and if the answer isn't "easy", be extremely careful, and walk. indentCold water always feels much colder than cold air of the same temperature: it strips heat away from you at a very high rate, whereas air carries your heat away much more slowly: the reason for this is simply that many more molecules are touching you at a time when you're in water, so there are more of them there to steal the heat energy from you. It is possible to train yourself to be able to cope with swimming in very cold water, but you have to do a lot of swimming in increasingly cold water to build up your resistance to it, or else have lots of icy baths and showers. It may be worth doing if you're going to spend a lot of time at sea in small boats, but it's not a lot of fun. I never go out to sea in any kind of small boat without wearing the same kind of clothing I would wear in a sailing dinghy: a full wetsuit. Boats have a nasty habit of sinking and people then die because of the cold.
How to swim faster
Once you've learned to swim, you probably find that no one ever bothers to teach you how to do it better. I'm going to give you a few tips which will give you a little extra speed for free. ... (yet to be written - come back later).
How fast should you aim to be at different ages?
I don't know yet, but when I find out I'll put all the information here. It will be a list of times and distances taking into account age, size and gender. There will be record times (so that you can see how you compare with the best), slower personal-best times from people who went on to be top swimmers later in life (so that you can tell if it's reasonable for you to think you can get to the top), recommended target times (to give you an idea of how fit you ought to be), and slowest acceptable times (so that you can see if you're seriously unfit).