During my last year at university, I decided to learn to swim. I was reasonably confident in my ability to stay afloat in deep water and not die, but it wasn’t what you could call swimming. Luckily, two of my close friends were excellent swimmers and they agreed to work with me in the mornings before class.

As an aside, I did take swimming lessons on and off for a few years when I was a kid, but apparently I retained nothing from those classes. Maybe I was just a terrible swimmer the entire time? Possibly related, I have very few memories from my elementary and middle school years, so I have a suspicion that I didn’t do a whole lot of thinking when I was a kid. In any case, I was essentially a total beginner to swimming when we started. I knew that you kicked your legs and paddled with your arms to go forward, but that was about it.

It turns out that learning how to swim as an adult is an interesting experience because you have developed a pretty good awareness of your body, and can pay close attention to what your limbs and muscles are doing. My friends watched me swim, pointed out parts of my body that weren’t being used correctly, and I adjusted my motions. While swimming, I tried to focus entirely on my body’s movement and ignore other things, like the water around me. Extend forward with your arm. Roll your body to bring the shoulder forward. Push down and back with the other arm. Turn your head up to take a breath. Reach forward with the back arm and extend. Repeat on the other side. Keep your legs kicking. This became my mantra, and I filled my head with it.

I won’t pretend that it was easy, because it wasn’t. There were too many things to pay attention to, so I felt like I was always forgetting at least one thing. But I stuck with it. I was thinking about the movements enough that eventually I starting doing it even outside of the pool. Remembering how it felt to move through the water, I went through the motions in my mind while walking to class. Without actually moving my arms, I imagined stretching them forward, rolling my body, pushing back, and reaching forward again. I often had dreams about swimming too. It was pretty much the same thing, but in the dreams it felt more like I was really moving.

We started my swimming lessons in the fall and only had access to an outdoor pool, so the lessons stopped once it got cold, after only a few weeks. But even then, I kept going through the movements in my mind and having swimming dreams. I didn’t decide to do this; it just seemed to be the front-most thing in my mind a lot of the time. The experience of learning how to swim was fascinating to me. I was using my entire body in ways I hadn’t before, and the careful introspection of my motions was a new, fun challenge.

Come spring, we got in the pool again for the first time in a few months, and I swam my first lap. It felt good, and it felt familiar. The motions felt just the way I had been imagining them in my mind. When I asked my friends how my form looked, they seemed puzzled. “It’s crazy but it seems like you got… better? How did that happen?”

I had heard of mental training for sports before, like boxers shadow-boxing while imagining their next opponent. I didn’t know too much about the technique but it seemed like I had been doing something similar for swimming. It sounds a little magical to get better at something without actually doing it, and it definitely felt that way too, but I haven’t been able to recreate it for anything else since then. Swimming must have been the perfect activity at the perfect time to capture my attention – both conscious and subconscious.