Playground Perspective (September 2014)

Last summer, I wrote about watching Thea wade through her personal developmental journey at swimming boot camp. It was a difficult experience for her - and for us! She was pleased as a peach to have completed the four-session immersion program. And she never wanted to go back.

As we moved into her sixth summer, Nikole and I were determined that our daughter would learn to swim. We had beach and river vacations planned, and wanted her to be safe and to be able to have fun without clinging to us (me).

Early in the summer, we managed to squeeze a handful of lessons in at the Jewish Community Center, one of which I observed from the sidelines. It became clear to us that once a week wasn't cutting it.

Even Thea was frustrated. She quickly went through the Three Phases of Swimming Frustration: dismissive swagger, confusion, and then frustration.

In her moment of swagger, she didn't need lessons. After all, she swam underwater once last year!

"Dad," she told me dimissively, "I don't need more lessons. I know I can swim because I did it last summer. I'll be fine."

As I pressed the conversation, her bluster faded. "I don't know why I just can't learn to do it!" she exclaimed. "I mean, I want to but I'm just scared."

Weeks later, at a pool party at a friend's house, the frustration resurfaced. Wrapped in a towel, she tearfully climbed into my lap in a quiet corner of our friend's yard. "I just want to be able to swim like all of my friends do!" she sobbed.

It was a little heartbreaking, a little frustrating and a little normal - all at the same time.

We made a deal that day. I agreed to join our community pool for the month of August and to juggle my work schedule if she agreed to practice swimming with me every day that the weather cooperated.

Early August, you may recall, was abnormally chilly. The shallow end of the pool was in the afternoon shade, and the water was cold. But we stuck to our deal.

For three weeks, we diligently went to the pool together as often as possible. I worked hard to meet her where she was, and to not push her. We balanced instruction, practice and play. We learned at her pace. And we saw lots of her schoolmates and friends from the community - all swimming. (Ah, subtle peer pressure.)

On day one, she clung to her float - and to me - and stayed dry from her shoulders up. And for the next week we practiced blowing bubbles with just her mouth beneath the water's surface. We worked on kicking. We paddled and practiced putting her face in the water, ever so briefly.

For six days, we played for 45 minutes and practiced small lessons for 15 minutes.

For six days, she left the pool shivering, hair dry and still frustrated, often in tears.

But she came home to her mom each evening with small bragging rights - "I kicked all the way across the pool with dad only holding my body up!" and "I blew bubbles with my mouth!"

And she eagerly went back, day after day.

The breakthrough came during our second week. It got warmer and climbing into the pool involved less hesitation. She ditched the float on her own. And after a little coaching, she put her whole head under water. For three seconds, for six seconds, for ten seconds.

And then she was retrieving rings from the shallow end of the pool, sitting on the bottom of the pool blowing bubbles, and kicking and paddling with less support from me.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

It takes 28 days to learn a new habit. Ten thousand swings of a baseball bat to move from awkward to mechanical to instinctive. A training class, or a workshop, or one lesson a week doesn't cut it. To learn a new skill, you must practice, push yourself and persevere. You must surround yourself with support, and give yourself permission to play even as you work. It is constant exercise.

The last day of summer (as marked by the Labor Day closing of the pool) was hot. The pool was crowded. Thea and I splashed and played together. And then it happened.

"Dad!" she commanded, pulling her goggles tight around her eyes. "Go stand in the middle of the pool and hold out your hands!"

Floating 15 feet away from her, I watched as Thea silently counted to three and pushed to me. I watched as she swam like a clumsy, breathless fish beneath the water, breaking the surface with a splutter and a smile.

"Next summer," she said, wrapper her arms around my neck, "I'm going to teach my brother to swim!"