Learning to Swim at All Ages


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

The other day, a small blonde-haired boy burst into tears near my lap swim lane. He shouted, cried, screamed, and pouted. Maybe the water was too cold, or the pool was too noisy, or he swallowed too much water during his swimming lesson. His father held his hand and told him, “Everything is going to be OK,” but this didn’t matter to the boy; he kept crying. He was probably four-years-old, and he made it audibly clear that he never wanted to return to the aquatic jungle ever again.

Learning to swim can be scary. The number one reason why many kids and adults don’t learn to swim is fear. Fear of the water. Fear of drowning. Fear of the unknown. Most swimming instructors are phenomenal instructors and professional aquatic gurus who “water whisper” the fear out of their swimmers. But sometimes, like with that blonde-haired boy, no matter what you do, no matter who your instructor is, the fear becomes too much.

Fear is present not only in children learning how to swim, but in adults, too. In a survey conducted by USA Swimming with the University of Memphis, “parental fear” was a “major contributor” why these parents’ own children didn’t learn to swim. “Fear of drowning” was, predictably, the “strongest overall predictor of swimming inability” among the surveyed.

How do you overcome this fear? How do you create an environment to swim beyond it and enjoy the water? And how do you foster and build a life-long enjoyment of the water, both recreationally and then competitively?

First, and most important, you cannot force the issue. As a former swimming instructor, I’ve seen my share of techniques to get kids and adults comfortable around the water. I have heard about a “forced-dunking” technique. To me, dunking someone into the water to force them over their fear of water is like shoving someone out of an airplane to force them over their fear of heights. It’s a backwards approach to building confidence and appreciation and life-long enjoyment of the water. I’ve heard too many stories about horrible first-time swimming lessons gone astray, and consequently, that person never again approaching the water decades later, believing he or she was just “not a natural swimmer.”

Second, go slow. Fear is a common denominator in all people. There’s a reason for that. Swimming, whether it be the first inches of treading water, or the first 100 yards of butterfly, can be scary. There is a fear of the unknown. Going back to that airplane anecdote above: If you push someone off an airplane at 10,000 feet, sure, they might realize they enjoy it, land with a smile on their face, and perhaps even jump again -- but they’ll never trust you around an airplane. Around the pool, if you push a child into the water, or dunk them down, even if holding tight with a perfected technique, you just risk that trust and confidence and enjoyment. There’s no need to rush overcoming fear. Go slow.

This applies not only to learning to swim, but all facets of competitive swimming. Many experienced, veteran, age-group and collegiate swimmers are now (or have already) tapering or preparing to taper. Some swimmers expect to drop buckets of time every practice, every set, and every race leading to their championship swim meet. And when these improvements don’t come, they worry. Fear creeps in. What if they “missed” their taper? What if they didn’t train hard enough? What if they won’t go fast enough?

All swimmers experience fear, whether it’s that small blonde-haired four-year-old crying near my lap swimming lane, or those lap swimmers worrying about a certain time, set, or achievement. Though the fears are different, the essence of the unknown is the same. The solutions to overcome them are the same. Be patient with tapers. Go slowly to achieve long-lasting success. And don’t force the issue.

Overcoming fear is the same whether you’re four-years-old and just learning to swim, or you’re fourteen and prepping for that shaved-and-tapered 200 fly, or if you’re forty getting ready for an open water swim. When you overcome your own personal fears through a series of baby steps, one length of butterfly at a time, or simply blowing bubbles, or even just sticking your toes in the water, soon, you’ll not only be swimming, but loving the journey along the way.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.

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