As a young child I lived in a neighborhood with a community pool. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I was afraid of the water and didn’t know how to swim.
My mother, seeing the problem, got me a coach – I don’t know to this day if she paid him or he did it voluntarily – but Jim Cox was not only my first coach but also my hero. He had served in the Navy and done deep sea diving. I remember him as tall, handsome and having a commanding presence. He was the lifeguard at our pool for several summers.
What Jim did is what all good coaches do: break down the process of learning a complex sport into discrete tasks and exercises. Only after mastering each task did he move me on to the next one.
So he started with me standing in the shallow end of the pool and just getting my face wet, repeatedly.
Once I got used to that the next task was to totally submerge my head and hold my breath. That took a while, but Jim was very patient. I finally got used to it.
I later learned that Jim followed the Red Cross method of teaching swimming. Next I learned the “dead man’s float” – lying in the water and holding my breath, letting my natural buoyancy keep me on top of the water, though at first I was afraid of sinking to the bottom of the pool.
Over the course of a few weeks I went from a kid who was afraid of the water to one who loved it. Practicing each element of the crawl until I learned it gave me the confidence to move on to the next phase. A few years later I was good enough to get hired as a lifeguard myself. I worked as a lifeguard for three summers, saving up enough money to hitchhike around Europe and the Middle East – but that’s another story.
So how did Jim Cox turn a kid who was afraid of the water into a lifeguard and a lifelong swimmer, who at almost 70 years of age can swim a mile of crawl without getting out of breath?
First of all was patience. He never got angry, he never pushed me too far, but always a bit further than I was comfortable going. Jim never asked me to do something new until I had mastered the previous step, no matter how long it took or how many times I had to repeat it. Unlike my basketball coach, he never yelled at me!
He followed a proven method of teaching.
He followed through until I could swim the crawl, probably the most difficult stroke to master as a child, though the butterfly, which I later learned on my own, isn’t easy either.
One of the most important things he did was to take a very difficult, complex process requiring a fair amount of coordination into a series of manageable steps.
But the most important thing he did was inspire me to learn on my own. Not only did I learn the butterfly, the breast stroke, back stroke, how to do flip turns, and how to do bilateral breathing, which is more difficult than the typical crawl stroke, but more efficient. I learned to swim underwater for pretty good distances – 60 yards. And to hold my breath for over a minute. Needless to say, I overcame my fear of the water. My school did not have a swimming team, so I never swam competitively. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it, as I preferred team sports – namely basketball and hockey – to individual sports like swimming and tennis.
I’ll be forever in Jim’s debt – and my mother’s – for giving me the gift of a lifelong habit that is not only good for my body but also my mind. Once I discovered that aerobic swimming – doing a half mile of crawl non-stop was about the minimum – generated endorphins I was hooked. Endorphins are my drug of choice. In fact they became a problem, as when I swam after work I would often have trouble getting to sleep at night I was so high from my endorphin fix.
So whether you are coaching or mentoring, be patient, be kind, but be firm and push. But the most important thing you can do is to inspire your students or mentees to learn on their own, as Jim Cox did for me.