Swimming lessons for life

Swimming has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. I grew up beside a river and could bomb above my weight receiving much mana from the locals. I’d like to see a push for it’s inclusion in the Olympic or Commonwealth games – fit right in with the diving schedule but maybe speedos could be optional. I’ve been hanging out at the pools for the last two weeks watching children learning to swim and observing tenacious, creative and patient instructors guide each one toward another level of skill acquisition. It is a beautiful thing to see goggled faces smiling and truly enjoying the process – and that was the instructors!

We are a small nation surrounded by a heck of a lot of water just ask Scott Donaldson. Not everyone likes swimming but what I’ve been particularly impressed with is the emphasis on survival and safety that has come through. Creating the next Olympic medallist isn’t the aim and nor should it be – these are 6-9 year olds. Even the great Michael Phelps who probably owns half the worlds gold by now, didn’t start swimming until he was 7.  I have a teaching background (there I said it – I’ve outed myself – stolen Ian Thorpe’s thunder) and with a passion in this area. Watching others explain concepts of biomechanics and physics is sometimes like watching reality TV, it’s cringe worthy but things work out in the end (usually). Which got me thinking about what good teaching really is at the end of the day. Because while I was muttering internally, correcting this brilliant young instructor (ego alert) with her explanation of gravity and body position – I observed absolute understanding and complete and utter ‘ahaaa’ moments wash over small faces. More important it translated into action – it was embodied – it worked! So did it matter that the explanation was inaccurate according to Newtons Laws of motion? Seeing the joy and sense of accomplishment radiate from the pool I’d say no. It might matter if those ideas are carried through to another context, sometimes simplifying can come at a cost. But one worth paying because knowledge is only valuable if it can be applied. And children get used to adults telling ‘half-truths’ they find ways to inform us of our gaps as they grow. I’d be interested to listen in on another lesson with older children to see what concepts might be adjusted, reworded or if any young minds find a way to question the instructors about there being ‘no gravity’ in the pool.

Perhaps that is why I feel strongly about the Maori concept of Ako and how it reflects what I believe to be a more authentic and balanced approach to teaching and learning;

“where the educator is also learning from the student and where educators’ practices are informed by the latest research and are both deliberate and reflective. Ako is grounded in the principle of reciprocity and also recognises that the learner and whānau cannot be separated.

Ka Hikitia, 2008, p.20

Learning from each other requires a significant shift but one I see technology will necessitate – to borrow from Darwin (just this once) adaptation is the key to survival. But there is another possibility in here and I would like to go back to Ian Thorpe. How might Ako relate here? Well I would suggest it might come in with supporting concepts such as Whanaungatanga , Awhi and Aroha. Some will know the literal translations of these into English but many wont – however it is not the literal meaning that is important it is the quality of connection that is invoked in these terms – an energetic and deeply spiritual honouring of being. Tamariki is frequently translated as ‘children’ – that is accurate, but in Maori Tamariki is the combination of two concepts – the central sun (Divine Spark) and a being of senior or sophisticated status in a small form – let that sit over your mind for a second or two to allow the significance to filter through. Growing up wrestling with his sexuality I suppose I wonder about the emphasis on his swimming performance at the cost of nurturing, supporting, encouraging and acknowledging his emerging identity as a gay man, no doubt coaches, mentors and others will have been aware. His Divine Spark was suffocated but thankfully not stuffed out.

So I’ll finish by throwing out a challenge. Let’s ensure that learning to swim isn’t simply about addressing our appalling drowning statistics because there are many other ways to sink below the surface of life.



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