Swimming is now compulsory at key stage 2 of the PE national curriculum. The aim of being able to swim for 25 metres has had the word "competently" added and "to develop confidence" is now a specific objective. These are steps in the right direction.
Little is currently written about how swimming should be taught and what should be priorities in its development. Competence in swimming is vitally important, but we need to ask if it should rightly be the first aim and how it should be best achieved.
In water, the changed position of the centre of buoyancy creates problems with stability; a much greater amount of force is required to overcome resistance and initiate movement. It is not surprising that beginners have difficulties with orientation and may require time and a range of different experiences in order to adjust properly and progress to more complex skills.
Water can also cause discomfort in the eyes, nose and throat, causing or adding to anxiety or real fear of going in. Many beginners exhibit specific fear of water or varying degrees of anxiety. High levels of anxiety are usually reflected in rapid pulse rates and in facial and muscular tension and "tight" breathing.
Such responses impede the learning of complex skills such as swimming. Anxious people have reduced attention capacity. Important aspects of control and information, such as instructions from the teacher, are not attended to. Swimming becomes difficult.
Unwillingness to immerse the face links to inability to maintain a relaxed horizontal position, and in turn leads to jerky movements. Confident learners who show no signs of tension make better progress.
What can be done to promote confidence? Research has produced some suggestions.
In Tasmania, a swimming teacher called J W Brain, despairing of the poor results obtained from singlemulti-stroke methods in the one visit per week for one term available to him, switched to a three-stage approach with what he called water adjustment (including walking and jumping, group support activities for lifting and replacing the feet, getting through hoops, blowing bubbles in various ways, solving problems with large coloured numbers and letters on the bottom of the pool) and water orientation (more advanced immersion work, including getting through hoops under water, and flotation) before learning any strokes. All children had to be fully capable of each activity at each stage before moving on to the next and, therefore, totally confident in immersion and surface breathing, before attempting swimming. He claimed a success rate of 95 per cent swimming.
Elsewhere, two primary-school teachers, H V Howard and D P Grainger, developed a system stressing the need for total relaxation, with immersion being crucial. Timid pupils were helped with bowls of warm water and mirrors; fun activities before starting strokes; no aids for artificial buoyancy, only for play; and drownproofing - a technique combining floating face-down with controlled breathing - to be developed concurrently with swimming. Eventually, every child leaving the school could perform two strokes proficiently, swim 400 metres in a style classed as good to excellent and was expert at drownproofing. They said: "Children confident and nervous, strong and frail, all became water borne. "
So why is this approach not universal? Most swimming teachers use confidence practices for a short time at the outset. Only rarely is there a systematic and tested programme before beginning strokes.
Yet though progress made through "adjustment" is on a mental and emotional level and not always obvious, children who are thoroughly adjusted will find the learning process more enjoyable and, particularly with the ability to immerse the face without fear, many will produce better strokes. Far fewer will thrash through the water with tense muscles and head too high to avoid putting the face in. Artificial aids, which actively counter the need to immerse and adjust to the medium, producing incorrect body positions and actions, need not be used.
The first aim of the national curriculum should be to enable all children to move in, under and out of the water with full control and without stress before beginning stroke work, with the second aim being to swim for a minimum distance of 25 metres in a confident and competent manner.
John Severs is a consultant in physical education.