If at the age of 17 when I was already feeling burnt out from the hard slog of competitive swimming, you’d said to me that one-day teaching people how to swim would be at the heart of my life I would have never believed you. But life has a way of taking unexpected turns and here I am over 30 years later, having developed the Shaw Method and spending most of my time in the water – either working with others or refining my stroke, and gaining immense joy and satisfaction from both.
When I started training as an Alexander Technique teacher back in 1987 I remember a conversation with another trainee who asked me what I was looking for in the technique. I said I was looking to feel the sense of ease of movement I feel in the water on land. Looking back I realise that only recent recently have I started to experience that sense of freedom on land that I experienced in the water in my youth. That gift has grown out of thousands of hours of teaching the Shaw Method. I feel immensely grateful to the thousands of people of all ages backgrounds abilities that I have taught. I appreciate that in the process of helping others to transform their relationship with the water I have continued to transform my own.
The process of overcoming habitual patterns in order to improve swimming intrigues me. For me, each person I work with is like a fascinating puzzle. It’s through a combination of words, demonstration, hands-on guidance and space that we figure out the best way to work together and move forward. Sometimes it can be finding the right word at the right time. For others who are more visual in their way of learning it’s about giving a clear demonstration. Others who are more kinaesthetic learn through hands-on guidance.
Through working with others I have learned a great deal about myself. It is an understanding that I can take with me wherever I go and whatever I do. These principles not only inform how I swim and how I teach but how I approach the rest of my life particularly when I am facing a challenging situation which requires resilience.
Let me tell you about two of those principles…
The first is to do with alignment. Water is a magical medium It brings to my awareness subtleties that I would not notice out of the water. The relationship between my head neck back affects my performance in the water more than any other singular factor. When I am able to let go and really free my neck in the water everything feels incredibly light and easy in my body and I feel a sense of calm and stillness which enables me to really be in the moment so that I can see and feel what to do with my pupils. When I am able to free my own neck, I stop trying to fix them, or get them to do the right thing and instead start to explore moving from the realms of the known to the unknown. And this is where true freedom exists.
As a swimmer when I free my neck I perform better as a teacher. When I free my neck I communicate more effectively. And in my day to day life when my neck is free, I function better and move with greater ease
The second principle known as smart swimming relates to efficiency movement.
Smart swimming is the discovery that to achieve a sense of flow and harmony there is a non-propulsive movement before every propulsive action. To put it another way, I organise my movements in such a way that I release before I apply effort. As a teacher, I guide my clients to move gently before moving more actively. In fact, it’s only in the non-propulsive action that I make contact with a student’s limbs as in in the propulsive I need to give space and get out of the way.
As with the first principle, the concept of smart swimming has revolutionised how I approach a whole manner of physical activities at home, from work in the kitchen to dealing with my family. As a parent, the best results are achieved when I give clear preparatory guidance, then give space and get out of the way. This applies equally when I am applying myself to a physical activity. Even in an action like chopping vegetables, I can discover the optimal level of effort that transforms the experience!