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Alexander Technique and Swimming

by Steven Shaw(more info)

listed in alexander technique, originally published in issue 31 - August 1998

Throughout the world swimming is one of the most popular forms of exercise, yet only a tiny proportion of swimmers are able to improve their health and fitness from their time in the water. Research from the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) found that less than 5% of swimmers have the ability to swim far enough or fast enough to improve their aerobic capacity. Our experience in the UK has been more distressing where the majority of swimmers have poor technique. An awkward style, which is often the result of anxiety in the water, can mean that swimming actually does more harm than good. In particular, swimming with the face held out of the water puts undue strain on the muscles of the neck and back which can lead to damage of the spine's interior facet joints.

Swimming with good technique can be of enormous value to our mind, body and spirit offering the perfect antidote to the stresses and strains of modern life. Swimming can improve mobility, ease back pain, arthritis, reduce high blood pressure and hypertension. However, the majority of health practitioners are reluctant to prescribe it as a form of remedial exercise. Their experience tells them that swimming is more likely to aggravate instead of help their patients condition. This is a terrible shame as it means that thousands, if not millions, are missing out on an activity that could significantly improve their health and sense of well-being. It is within this environment that we began developing the Shaw Method of Swimming.

As a young child I enjoyed swimming. At the age of 8 I joined my local club to be with others who also enjoyed swimming, however, the focus there was not on having fun but on winning races. As I grew older I was put under increasing pressure to train harder and longer, culminating in up to four hours a day. At the age of seventeen, I gave up with neck and back pain, and a feeling that I never wanted to go back to the sport.

I began conventional Alexander Technique lessons a couple of years later which helped my back and neck condition and opened my mind to a new way of combining thought and movement. After University in Manchester, where I studied Philosophy and Politics, I travelled to Israel to begin training as an Alexander Technique Teacher. I was attracted by the dynamic Israeli atmosphere where there are more Alexander Technique Teachers per capita than any other country in the world. In Israel the Technique is not regarded as a form of complementary medicine but as an essential form of body reeducation. The Alexander Technique has even been established in the military and lessons form part of a pilot's basic training. The Alexander Technique School in Tel-Aviv where I trained, was directed by Zeev Tadmore who also came from a sporting background. He had studied the Feldenkrais Method and then, in the 1960s, travelled to London to learn the Alexander Technique with Patrick MacDonald. It was there that he became interested in the writings of Khrisnamurti. My training reflected all these influences.

During my 3 year training I worked as a lifeguard at a tranquil swimming pool in Herzelia. This gave me the chance to spend a lot of time in the water. Having been a competitive swimmer, I always considered myself as having good style. Zeev, however, despite the fact that he had never actually seen me swim, led me to question this assumption. He suspected my postural habits were the result of my years as a competitive swimmer. This was confirmed by my wife Limor, also an Alexander Technique trainee, who pointed out that I swam with a massive amount of tension, causing me to strain my neck and back. This is not surprising, given the fact that many of the techniques that I had adopted were designed to increase speed rather than promote good body use. What was more surprising at the time, was my own inability to notice the fact that I was straining myself when I swam. However, from my lessons in the Alexander Technique I learned that the biggest obstacle to change is that habitual patterns of behaviour normally feel right to us and changing them often feels wrong. For me, swimming with tension felt comfortable and swimming with less effort felt uncomfortable and wrong. Gradually through my lessons in the Alexander Technique and the guidance of Limor my body awareness in the water improved and I began to move through the water in different way.

Through this increased awareness, I began to examine my whole approach to swimming. From years of ploughing up and down the pool aiming to increase my speed, it was difficult to get into the water without working towards a series of preset goals, such as completing a certain number of lengths in a given time. I realised that my relationship to swimming was one of an extreme end-gainer. Through controlling this tendency in my daily life, I began instead to discover that the water offered me a wonderful opportunity to free myself. For the first time since I was a young child, I actually began to enjoy being in the water. At a recent reunion of my swimming club it was sad to see that most of my team mates no longer swim or enjoy swimming any more.

The Alexander Technique and Teaching

Apart from improving our own relationship with the water, Limor and I had the opportunity to observe the habits of other swimmers. Our whole way of looking at swimming began to change, we were no longer impressed by the fastest swimmers who raced down the pool by thrashing their way through the water. Instead, we began to look out for those who moved through the water in a graceful almost effortless way. The latter were clearly much more uncommon than the former, who we nicknamed the lane range merchants. We became increasingly aware that the principal elements which set good swimmers apart from the rest lay in the relationship between head, neck and back. We noticed that poor swimmers all tend to pull their heads back and fix the muscles of the neck, whereas more smooth and elegant swimmers allow their heads and necks to move freely in and out of the water. The challenge was how to teach this freedom of grace. We evolved a new teaching model based on core principles of the Alexander Technique:

Recognition of habit

The first step in changing a habit lies in its recognition. Each lesson begins with a swimming assessment in which the pupil's way of swimming is analysed. Due to their faulty sensory appreciation, pupils may initially distrust this feedback and we have found video cameras a useful tool.

Demonstration

Next, the pupil needs a clear understanding of what is required of them. We questioned the traditional practice of instructing from the side, and found it much more effective to demonstrate from the pool.

Guidance

Physical contact with a teacher helps pupils to unlearn postural patterns and habits of movement. It is much easier to guide the pupil from the water, as it allows us to use our hands to aid them to release tension and improve their
orientation.

Breaking down the Stroke

The force of habit is often so strong, that even after following the above stages pupils still find it very difficult to change. Breaking the stroke down into a series of separate stages that can be practised in isolation and then integrated with the whole is the key.

This teaching model, which we have called the Shaw Method of Swimming, has succeeded in helping thousands of people improve their swimming style and enjoyment of the water. It is being put to use with swimmers of all abilities, ranging from those who lack confidence in the water to Olympic competitors. The ideas and principles of this approach are contained in my book The Art of Swimming in a new direction with the Alexander Technique published by Ashgrove press, co-written with Armand D'Angour.

The hallmark of our method is that we teach people to be at home in the water so that they can use the water to their advantage instead of struggling against it. Pupils learn to surrender to the water and allow it to support them. This may sound obvious, yet most swimmers, even those who might be considered advanced usually find it hard to let go and trust the waters buoyancy. The ability to let go and move forward completely transforms the process of swimming.

Breathing is also a major problem faced by our pupils. The whole process of respiration is often a puzzle to them. Many pupils are surprised at how easy it is when they simply breath out under water and breath in on the surface. We advise pupils to make the breathing process continuous, so that they are either breathing in or breathing out, but never holding their breath. Holding the breath under the water reduces your capacity to breath in.

Most swimmers tend to over strain where they should be relaxing, and ease off when they should be using more force. In the crawl for example, many apply effort above the water when they should be working harder under the water. In the breast stroke they tend to rely on their arms instead of gaining their main propulsion from their legs. We help pupils to improve their body awareness and learn to apply the appropriate amount of effort to each phase of the stroke. The result is that they move through the water much more efficiently.

Looking around at municipal pools and private health clubs we found very little quality teaching available for the average swimmer. Teaching is generally directed at the complete non-swimmer, or at the so called Master swimmer whose objective is competition. We recognised the necessity for trained teachers and therapists with a deeper understanding of how to promote healthy and enjoyable ways of swimming.

Through the direction of Gillian Jordan, a Physiotherapist and Lecturer from The School of Health at Greenwich University, we established a diploma course in Aqua Development and Health. This one year diploma, accredited by the University of Greenwich, is the first course to employ principles of the Alexander Technique to the teaching of swimming. It is currently the highest swimming teaching qualification in the UK and has been officially endorsed by BUPA.

Both the content of the course and the schedule of the different units reflect our overall educational philosophy. Firstly, the students develop their own kinaesthetic sense and heighten their observation skills of others with the Alexander Technique. In Unit 2, they develop communication in an aquatic environment and examine the psychology of fear. In Unit 3, students learn about the bio-mechanical basis of aquatic movement and the therapeutic properties of water. They also look at how poor swimming techniques can aggravate injuries and cause new ones.

The second term starts with body awareness in the water. Students learn the fundamental principles and skills involved in the Shaw Method of Swimming. This is followed by the teaching of swimming which incorporates core elements from all of the preceding units, along with the ASA's swimming teachers qualification. The course is rounded off with a series of workshops encompassing a wide variety of aquatic therapies and exercise. These include Ai Chi from Japan and the Healing properties of Dolphins. After students have gained the diploma they undergo a 6 month traineeship and receive ongoing training and support from our organisation.

Our mission is to fundamentally change the teaching of swimming and peoples' approach to the water. As part of that process we have recently produced an instructional video on our method "Art of Swimming" which is now available on mail order at £14.95 plus £1 postage. To place an order or to receive an information pack on Shaw Method of Swimming courses call 0181-446 9442 or visit our Web site www.art-of-swimming.com


The Teaching of Fear: No false moves! Unfortunately, still a familiar scenario.
The Teaching of Fear: No false moves! Unfortunately, still a familiar scenario.

Swimming with the head back, the vertebrae are compressed.
Swimming with the head back, the vertebrae are compressed.

Comments:

  1. Tamra Miller said..

    Hello, I've taken Alexander lessons for about 15 years and swam competitively for years as well. Now I live near the ocean and do 1-3 mile ocean swims. I adore the idea of teaching swimming in a non-competitive atmosphere and of imparting FM Alexanders body awareness. How might I learn the method for teaching here in Southern California?

    Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Tamra Miller
    619 607 1182


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About Steven Shaw

Steven Shaw is a teacher of the Alexander Technique and a former competitive swimmer. He is acknowledged as one of Britain's foremost swimming teachers and the originator of a radically important new approach to teaching swimming, The Shaw Method. His book The Art of Swimming in A New Direction with the Alexander Technique co-written with a former pupil Armand D'Angour was published in July 1996. It has been widely praised by swimmers, health practitioners and spokesmen from sporting and therapeutic organisations. He is based in London.

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