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Expert Advice

The importance of swimming lessons

Here's why swimming lessons have to be borne by the young, and it's not all to do with survival!

They may not love 'em, but they've got to do 'em. Here's why swimming lessons have to be borne by the young, and it's not all to do with survival!As my kids raced each other in a friend's backyard pool recently, I was suddenly struck by the huge investment that had gone into their backstrokes, butterfly attempts, breast strokes and various freestyles. The result of thousands of dollars worth of swimming lessons was thrashing up and down that pool and I wasn't sure it was showing such a good return!
At a conservative estimate, we could have bought a small car with the money I'd spent on my three kids' weekly pool sessions over the past six years. Not to mention the cash on lost goggles and the energy spent debating with them about why they go to lessons.
"But why do we have to go, mummy?" is the standard gambit, by my youngest, the eight year old. "Because you live on a massive island. All Aussie kids have to learn to swim," I reply.
"But I can swim already."
"Well then, you're going to lessons to learn to swim better."
"But I can swim better already."
She does have a point. Now that all three have completed, without the aid of any flotation device or pool attendant, a 50 metre freestyle race at their school carnival, they would argue they'd arrived at the swim lesson terminus. In fact, my 11-year-old clocked 44.75 seconds for the 50 metres, which surprised, and later that day, slightly worried me when I realised I was now fighting off a challenge to my own modest swim times.
Big fish
For I too, do my own swimming squad sessions. There's a group of us, and a coach, who churn up and down the pool together for over an hour a couple of times a week. Our three lanes are divided into top, middle and bottom. Middle and top are almost exclusively occupied by those who used to do squad as kids, and they glide and power their way through the laps. Bottom lane is taken up by people like me, whose swimming education began and ended with Saturday morning lessons over the school summer holidays.
All I recall doing in those classes was a lot of holding onto the pool wall and kicking and blowing bubbles; no torpedoes, or big arms or Popov moves in those lessons.
We in the bottom lane get through all the drills and the sprints and the longer sets, but don't necessarily look very pretty while we do them. And the last time we did some timed 50 metres, coincidentally on the same day as my son's swimming carnival, I did my lap in 44 seconds. Admittedly it wasn't my best performance, but it still put less than a second between me and my second son, who's not even a teenager.
Which is why my kids are all staying in the pool! Winter and summer! Nobody gets out until they can pay for their own swimming lessons!
Little fish
Swimming isn't a natural state for humans, and that's partly why it's such a tough skill to master: you're trying to learn something which is highly technical in an environment filled with water, rather than air. Some kids can dive in and take off like little wind-up toy boats, while the scream of others can start in the car park.
Head swim coach at Thompson Swimming, John Thompson, says it's even harder to pick up the skill as an adult, as all those fears and phobias about being immersed face down in water become even more entrenched.
"When you are smaller, your body has not yet fallen into certain habits, it's still malleable and flexible and developing, so you can develop good movements easily," says John, who coaches kids, adults and elite young swimmers at Lane Cove on Sydney's north shore.
"When you are older, your body becomes set in its ways and loses its flexibility, so it just becomes harder to learn to swim. If you get in early, if you can get all those neuromuscular patterns bedded down early, and then you've got it for life."
John says even though it's crucial to start swimming lessons as early as possible for safety and survival, it's also important to keep going past lessons and into the squad years if you want the skill to last you a lifetime.
"Half hour swimming lessons once a week over summer aren't going to be enough. If you want that skill as an adult, you've probably got to get to squad and keep going for a couple of years."
It's that lap after lap consolidation which hardwires the skill, even if you're not going to swim for Australia, another reason kids are better designed to learn to swim well.
Quick off the blocks
When we sign up our kids for swimming lessons, usually around the age of three or four, it's a level playing field. The classes are similar, (bubble, bubble, breathe!) and aside from having a backyard pool, there's little anyone can do to accelerate learning in the pool. So why do some kids charge from Starfish through to Marlin, barely stopping on the blocks for Swordfish, before landing in Dolphin squad, years ahead of their peers who are still splashing around in Goldfish?
Matthew Sutton and Reece Aquilina, are normal bright 11-year-olds in all sorts of ways, apart from an exceptional ability of being able to swim 50 metres in 32 seconds. The two, from Lane Cove, on Sydney's north shore, started lessons aged four, were in squad when they were seven, and now train three to four times a week, five kilometres a session.
They're the swimmers you watch with envy, carving through the water with an arch in their back, rather than a dip in their tummies, like most of us. Matt and Reece are great mates and have been pushing each other for years, training together and racing in carnivals, where they do similar times. Their brothers and sisters are great swimmers too, so their genes must have something to do with it.
"I think it's probably like anything in life. Some kids have that special gift of spatial awareness, of knowing exactly where their legs and arms are, of an innate sense of the water," says their coach, John Thompson, who's been pacing the pool deck, watching kids go up and down the pool for years.

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