Swimming without that sinking feeling

By Lianne Kolirin, January 7, 2010
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Teacher Steven Shaw demonstrates effective swimming technique

Teacher Steven Shaw demonstrates effective swimming technique

Instead of focusing on resolutions for 2010, I am basking in the glory of a last year’s achievement.

In 2009 I learned to swim front crawl — a big deal for someone who consistently thrashed around in the shallow end during school swimming lessons.

Rebecca Adlington I am not, but at 37 this old(ish) dog has just learnt a pretty nifty new trick. And I am happier and fitter for it.

I owe my achievement to Steven Shaw, a 47-year-old Londoner who has been described as the “horse whisperer of swimming”.

He devised the Shaw Method 20 years ago. It is a world away from traditional swimming teaching. His is an holistic approach to the sport, based on the principles of the Alexander Technique. Also known as the Art of Swimming, the system teaches you to glide through the water effortlessly and with grace. It is a joy to witness — and even more of a joy to perform.

One of Shaw’s pupils, businessman Andrew Cohen, says: “When you watch Steven swim it’s like watching a dolphin. It’s incredible. He has an affinity with water and he transfers that to you.”

Swimming should be playful, reflective, meditative

My first encounter with Steven in the late 1990s was nothing short of life-changing. I could not swim under water and always had backache after swimming. In one session, he changed everything. He began with a swim check, filming me so that I could see my mistakes. Just half an hour later I could swim underwater and do a pretty decent breaststroke.

I was transformed from a reluctant to a keen swimmer overnight. But though pleased with my accomplishment, one thing still eluded me: the front crawl.

More than a decade and three children later, I decided it was time for a new challenge, so I joined Steven for an all-day front crawl workshop. It was fantastic. We started with the basics, first on land, then in the water. Several weeks later we met up once more. Again he filmed me, pointing out my faults and offering tips for greater efficiency.

Shaw’s pupils range from beginners to professional sportsmen and women. His teaching is not about getting from A to B at speed — but undoing bad habits and learning to swim with confidence and good technique.

“It’s a quality of experience,” says Shaw, whose clients have included many celebrities.

“Swimming can be hugely beneficial as it integrates body and mind. It works on every muscle. It improves your range of motion and your cardiovascular fitness, without putting strain on your joints. But with bad technique, it can do more harm than good.”

The reality, according to Shaw, is that most of us are guilty of poor technique.

“According to the World Health Organisation, you need to do at least 20 minutes of exercise three times a week to stay fit. Only five per cent of people in this country can do that with front crawl.”

When he was 12, Steven began swimming competitively. But the intensive training took its toll and five years later he gave up, burnt out and suffering from chronic back pain.

“The feeling of freedom of movement that attracted me to swimming in the first place had disappeared. I quit swimming and vowed never to return.”

In an attempt to alleviate his back pain, he turned to the Alexander Technique (AT) — a system of postural re-education. In 1987 he began a three-year AT teacher-training course in Tel Aviv. He also worked as a part-time lifeguard. Back in a swimming environment, he put two and two together — and arrived at his method. For most people bad posture was even more pronounced in water than on land.

Children love swimming, but most adults have forgotten how to enjoy the water. This was fundamental to his theory.

“Swimming should be playful, reflective, meditative — a break from our pressured lives,” says Shaw.

“It’s about enjoying the journey and not trying too hard to get it right.”

The Shaw Method is based on several principles. Among the most crucial are: good body alignment, passive breathing and an openness to new things.

Shaw adds: “Smart swimming is about knowing when and where to apply effort, and when and where not to.”

And there are no barriers.

“The greatest thing about swimming is that you can start it at any point in your life. I have one pupil who is 95. Age or disability will not stop you.”

He adds: “We have got lots of people who come with back or knee conditions caused by other sports. They know that for the long term they can’t keep doing their sport. They want to keep fit by swimming, but most have no idea of technique.”

There are about 100 Shaw Method teachers across the UK, and more in Israel and America.

As well as courses and private lessons, The Art of Swimming runs residential workshops and swimming holidays in Israel and beyond. Steven has also written two books and produced a range of helpful DVDs.

As for 2010, well, I was thinking about learning the butterfly… or maybe even an underwater tumble turn!

For more information visit www.artofswimming.com or call 020 8446 9442

    Last updated: 12:01pm, January 7 2010