What makes a parent look up from their phone? My new life as a swim coach

By Alan Attwood

This summer I went swimming; this summer I might have drowned. But I held my breath and I kicked my feet and I moved my arms around.

From The Swimming Song by Loudon Wainwright III.

I was daunted by the discovery thatfellow instructor students were all considerably younger; reassured by a tutor who said you don’t have to be a great swimmer to be a good teacher.Credit:Miguel Manich/illustrationroom.com.au

Swimming lessons. My first morning as an instructor. Three students, all aged four or less. Three students who, while I’m momentarily distracted, are all quietly disappearing underwater. Three students with three lots of parents rushing to the side of the pool to hoist their kids up to the surface. This first morning may well be my last.

But nothing much happens. Neither kids nor parents seems overly distressed. Perhaps they believe me when I mutter “immersion exercise”. Then we all get on with it after I’ve swapped their kick-boards (too ambitious, apparently) for noodles, pink floaty foam sausages tucked under their arms. Kick, I say, kick those legs. Keep them straight. And blow, blow coloured plastic balls down to the platform I’ve placed 15 metres away in the lane.

I bounce along in the water with them, doing periodic head-counts and wondering: what am I doing here? To which the simple answer is, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. All those times I’d spot news stories reporting deaths by drowning and a drastic shortage of swimming instructors; times when I’d see pictures of teachers with reassuring smiles and kiddies paying rapt attention, Emma McKeons in the making. Times when I’d suggest to others who love swimming: hey, perhaps this would suit you? Until I realised the real question was: what about me? After all, I’m at a stage in life when I’ve been trying different things.

And so, early last year, I took the leap into online modules and in-person courses. A day at a regional swimming centre for form-filling and drills on rescues and resuscitation reminded me that I prefer the sea to noisy indoor pools with unknown nasties lurking on damp change-room floors. I was daunted by the discovery that fellow students were all considerably younger; reassured by a tutor who said you don’t have to be a great swimmer to be a good teacher.

In one session, I wrote down just three words: Fun. Friendly. Flexible. Useful words, as it turned out. Yet all along – until I’d done all my observation hours, then got my shirt with INSTRUCTOR on the back, a certificate confirming I was qualified and, heavens, a job – I was reminded of attending prenatal classes, which I always likened to lectures on bicycle-riding. Useful in theory, but only when you’re pedalling do you really start learning.

Even on bad days – hmm, is Lenny trying to drown Darren? – I remind myself that I’m doing something useful.

Those sinking students in Lesson One taught me never to overestimate ability. I also learnt the difference between expectations and reality. I had thought I’d focus on kids and infants. I had completed a special unit on teaching babies and later took some classes which involved mums or dads or a stoic grandparent getting in the pool with their nonplussed little ones as we splashed and sang Wheels on the Bus and Humpty Dumpty (with Humpty falling into water, of course). More like kiddie playtime than a lesson. Besides, I’ve never been much of a singer. Especially when dripping wet and fearful that someone I know might wander past and ask, incredulously, is that you?

I learnt that both babies and kids soon size you up. There’s always a moment of assessment early on, an appraising gaze when the youngster is deciding whether you’re: A) scary; B) harmless; C) fun; D) best ignored. I figured I was doing okay if I copped just a few As and Ds. I would still be better than a bloke I recall from long-ago compulsory school swimming lessons who liked to rest his foot on half-submerged heads to keep faces in the water.

Meanwhile, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed teaching adults. I admire anyone who tackles a new skill later than most people pick it up. Relax, I tell them, relax. (Not what you feel like doing if you’re convinced you’re sinking.) There’s Martin, whose enthusiasm and reliability are matched by a remarkable lack of buoyancy; Tran, with whom I shared a high-five the day she kept swimming through one, then two and finally (for the first time) three breaths; the remarkable Cathy, whose determination far outweighs her disabilities.

And the kids are all right, too. Most of them. I have my favourites, of course, though there are others Who. Will. Not. Listen. But even with them, there are moments when we all seem surprised: first time floating on the back without assistance; self-propulsion for all of two metres; anything that causes a parent on the sidelines to put down their phone and look vaguely impressed.

These breakthroughs help explain why, into another summer, my Instructor shirt is still getting wet. Even on bad days – hmm, is Lenny trying to drown Darren? – I remind myself that I’m doing something useful. I doubt any of my students will ever emulate Emma and make the Olympics. But maybe they’ll learn to glide down, down, down.

And then resurface. Smiling.

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