About 7 years ago, I had a swim lessons student named Susan. Susan clearly was being forced to learn to swim by her parents, as she hated every second in the pool. She was about 7 in a class with 3-4 years olds, shy, terrified of water and a very, very poor swimmer. She came to class and hung her head, stood on the side of the pool and begged to not be called upon; usually relentlessly trying to fight off tears. Susan was determined to not let her head ever go under the water.
I wanted Susan to enjoy herself. But she knew she sucked, she knew she was older, more scared, more uncoordinated and having less fun than all the other kids.
I introduced the prone glide to the kids. It’s tricky for kids who aren’t comfortable with their head under water. I knew it would be bad. The toddlers did a lot better than Susan. They were at least underwater and kind of moving. Then I called on Susan. She obediently transitioned through the entire rehearsed protocol, in an attempt to prone glide, looked a lot like a pigeon actively drowning in open sea. She stood up, 2 feet from the wall that she was attempting to swim away from and looked up at me for a verdict.
“Susan!? That was awesome! Wow! Have you ever done that before? I know you don’t really like swimming, but you must have done the prone glide before. That was fantastic! Can you do it again?”
She cocked her wet head to the side, like a confused dog. “No, never. That was good?”
“That’s the best thing I’ve seen you do so far. Show me one more time!”
Again, the dying pigeon…. “That is definitely your strength. That’s awesome!”
She looked suspicious and surprised, but pleased and excited.
The next class Susan came in smiling; a huge contrast to whatever bribery from her parents got her to come to class previously. “Are we going to do the prone glide?” She must have asked five times before we did it.
“OK, ok…Let’s see is, Susan!”
It was bad. Very bad, she barely got off the wall, but her head went under for the first time ever. “I practiced in the bathtub!”
Three weeks later, Susan passed to level 2. She wasn’t a great swimmer, but she didn’t hate it anymore, and she wasn’t afraid, she knew she didn’t suck, and she was the best prone glider in the class.
I don’t believe in the ‘trophy for trying’ mentality, life is hard and you often have to suck at stuff. And I wouldn’t normally tell someone they are good at something they suck at. But Susan didn’t believe in herself at all. And I helped her with that, and that’s all she needed.
“We become what we think.” –Buddha