In my first assembly at Brighton Girls, I told the story of how I ended up competing in a relay event at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido, with limited swimming experience, and virtually no experience of the cold water (not unless you count family holidays in Northumberland in the late 80s where we would frequently emerge blue-lipped from the North Sea). The purpose of the Tooting Bec story was to introduce students to my philosophy that nearly everything is worth trying at least once; that they should grasp every opportunity and step up to accept a challenge when one comes along. In this case, I had stepped (or swam) in at the last minute to help a friend who needed a female competitor to complete a relay team.
“You’ll do it, won’t you?” he said.
“Yes, of course”, I said, without asking for any details.
I am a firm believer in stepping up, signing up, and giving things a go. Whether it is being part of a team, mastering a new skill or just gathering life experiences, being busy and full of purpose is good for us. When I look around the school, I am delighted to see so much going on. The Summer Term is always a busy one, but there is fun and fulfilment to be had for those ready to dive in. As I walked to work along the seafront on Tuesday morning, I was pleased to see so many familiar faces – 36 pupils and 4 members of staff from the Prep and Senior schools running along the promenade, having signed up for Running Club. Meanwhile, 32 students from Years 7 and 8 have signed up for early morning cricket training; 14 have joined our new self-defence classes; 29 are keen to join sea swimming, 100 wanted to take part in athletics, and many more have committed to Fashion Club, Culture Club, the Salvage Sister workshops, Shakespeare Schools and Improvisation, to name but a few of those on offer.
The summer term is, of course, a time of exams but, here again, there is fulfilment to be found. Yes, exams can be stressful and anxiety-inducing, but there will also be triumphs – there is the pure celebration of survival, for one thing, and there are moments of personal pride when a question or topic is conquered, when the revision pays off. If we deny ourselves opportunities, we deny ourselves the chance to feel good about ourselves.
But, as with everything in life, there is a happy medium. Trying to do everything, and be everywhere, can be unhealthy if we don’t learn how to stop and take a breath. Being over committed puts us under great pressure.
There is a flipside to the story of how I ended up swimming the length of Tooting Bec in temperatures of 3°. Was it my devil-may-care attitude; my determination to try new things? Or was it, in fact, a far less flattering trait: my complete and utter inability to say, “No”?
Halfway across the pool, despite the pre-race pep talks, I realised I had forgotten to breathe, which I now know is a common phenomenon when immersing the body in cold water, especially with no preparation, no acclimatisation and no understanding of how the body responds to this type of stress. For a few scary, interminable seconds, I struggled to catch my breath.
Last week, we hosted a talk in the Hive where Dr Mark Harper, author of ‘Chill, the Cold Water Cure’, explained the science behind cold water adaptation. Just as I believe in being busy and experiencing manageable levels of pressure, Mark Harper’s research explores the benefits of cold water in building the body’s tolerance of stress. The first piece of advice Mark Harper gave to swimmers echoed Donald Rumsfeld’s words, “it’s easier to get into something than to get out of it”. (How true of so many things in life!) His point was a practical one: before you get into the water, know how, and when, you are going to get out.
I could adapt this truism for myself: Before you say, “Yes”, learn how to say, “No”.
Last week, we welcomed our Governors into school to talk to students about their experience of Wellbeing at Brighton Girls, both in terms of the Wellbeing curriculum and their general feelings of happiness and belonging. The students made constructive comments about what they gained and what they would like from their Wellbeing lessons, and I was delighted to hear that, overall, they feel happy at school and they know who to turn to when they need support. Above all, I hope that students will get to know themselves, so they can recognise what is a good level of busyness and stress for them and, importantly, they know how to acknowledge when it is time to stop,
be nowhere in particular,
and maybe just take things