Learning to swim: Aquaphobe to water baby at a few easy strokes

The Alexander Technique gets Matthew Collins swimming again on an Egyptian holiday

The first morning felt like a group therapy session. "Hello," said a tall and athletic-looking chap. "My name is Mike. I work in computers and basically I'm a non-swimmer."

The first morning felt like a group therapy session. "Hello," said a tall and athletic-looking chap. "My name is Mike. I work in computers and basically I'm a non-swimmer."

"Hello," said the next man. "My name is Jeff. I'm a tax lawyer and I've always had trouble with my breaststroke legs."

After Roberta (poor breathing) and Carmen (poor co-ordination) it was my turn. "Hello, my name is Matthew, I'm a journalist and I'm all splutter. I learnt to swim at four but never perfected the breaststroke. Now, no matter how much I try, I hardly seem to get anywhere."

This was the reason I'd brought my children, Charlie (seven) and Nicolai (six), to the Sinai's Nuweiba Hilton in Egypt where former competitive swimmer Steven Shaw was leading the Alexander Technique swimming course. Both Charlie and Nicolai have been swimming for two years but I wanted them to get into good, early habits while hoping to rid myself of bad ones. This was Steven's first organised programme for adults and children, so participants were an unusual mixture of families and child-free adults.

After being videoed and then analysing our strokes, we were split into three groups of four. The six children were in a separate group. Swimming was to consist of two, 90-minute daily group lessons, plus two one-to-ones. Steven's technique, the Shaw Method, aimed to improve our swimming by minimising neck and back strain.

Having spent much of his youth in water ("Two hours in the pool before school, two hours after school, weekends and holidays training and competing") Steven developed a neck injury. "Like many competitive breaststroke swimmers I used to scrunch up my shoulders and yank my head back hard to breathe. Apart from pain, it left me with bad posture, which was why I learnt the Alexander Technique. Once I'd mastered that, I developed an Alexander approach to swimming and this is what I now teach."

The often touted benefit of non-competitive swimming is that it's relaxing. But look around your local pool and you'll notice some swimmers doing themselves more harm than good.

When breaststroke swimmers keep their head out of the water, they have to bend their neck. And as the average human head weighs around 13 pounds, this puts it under needless strain. But the water will support your head by keeping your face in the water. It also keeps your neck and back aligned which minimises strain there too. It all sounds sensible in theory, but unlearning habits is more easily said than done.

At least we had a pool to ourselves. The Nuweiba Hilton, an oasis of calm, has two. Ours was the smaller one and Steven had flown in the day before to make sure the water temperature was right. Our first lesson was in breathing. "A gentle breaststroke should be no more demanding than a calm walk," said Steven. "Don't fight for breath. There's no need to gulp when you come up for air, and no need to blow hard when you breathe out. Keep your strokes gentle and soft."

What a contrast this was with instructions I'd heard days before. A swimming teacher in our local pool had been shouting from the side to a 10-year-old: "Come on, you're not working. Use your hands as paddles. And if your wrists aren't hurting after two lengths, you're not trying hard enough."

The children had lessons with Steve's wife, Limor. She immediately had them putting their faces in the water. "Breathe out when your face is in the water. Never hold your breath." Then they practised gliding. "I want you to be a torpedo, Charlie." And later they were on to the backstroke. "Take off your baseball cap, Nicolai. You don't need your baseball cap for backstroke."

To my surprise, backstroke was the first stroke she encouraged the kids to do. "Because they can see my face. And I can talk to them in the water. Also, as soon as they find they're comfortable on their back, they won't fear the water."

Unlike the teacher I had as a child (who screamed instructions from the side of the pool) Limor immerses herself with her students, not only demonstrating, but also physically guiding their arms and legs.

Thanks to present attitudes, this is not something you see often. Steven does the same with grown-up students. "It's the best way to teach," he said. "But we work with a psychotherapist when we train our teachers and alert them to risks of bodily contact. Students are dependent on the teacher and if you're teaching an adult with a deep-seated fear of water, this can be a cover for other fears. There's always the possibility that students can develop inappropriate feelings for the teacher so we have to be aware."

Yet Steven added that learning to swim as an adult can be such a confidence booster that it often has other benefits. "You find that someone learns to swim and becomes a more confident person. It's all about conquering fear and once you've done this in the water you can apply it to other areas of your life."

At the end of every lesson, a trolley laden with croissants, pastries, coffee, tea and juice appeared. Non-swimming hotel guests gravitated towards it, but the waiter put them off. "Only for the swimmers," he said. It made us feel very privileged.

By day three we were on to the crawl. The secret of this stroke is swivelling your body to cut through the water on your side which magically enhances your speed. "Poor Johnny Weissmuller," said Steven. "Because he swam square, his time is now bettered by nine-year-olds."

My breaststroke was beginning to improve - much less splutter. My arms were co-ordinated and my legs were starting to give me real power. But the biggest joy came when I mastered the breathing. By allowing my head to plunge into the water, all I had to do was let it find its own natural buoyancy so it could rise effortlessly in time to take in air. But the biggest hero was Mike the computer man. As he swam half a length, everyone applauded.

Although it had a great sense of purpose, there wasn't a great sense of place on this trip. For my children, the Nuweiba Hilton was Egypt and they loved it (as they loved the friendly staff). The only day we left the hotel grounds was to make a boat trip to a Bedouin village to swim with a local, friendly dolphin. This was fantastic for those of us who managed it but he was too far out for most children.

But in many ways it wouldn't have mattered much where we'd been; the biggest attraction was the activity itself. By the end of the week Jeff had sorted out his legs, Roberta was breathing and Carmen was completely co-ordinated. Mike could do almost a whole length, while my children had mastered the breaststroke and were on to bilateral front crawl breathing. I've improved but I'm not there yet.

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