Water. We drink it, purify ourselves with it, and all life is sustained by it. So for some, why is there a fear of swimming? Are some predisposed to fear it? Is it based on a traumatic experience? Do some just know how to swim? Why might a person who wouldn’t think twice about saturating their head in the shower, have a totally different response when in a pool? If you have a fear of the water, I suggest you keep reading. If you are an Instructor that cannot seem to make progress with a fearful student, this might hold more for you than you realize.
Swimming has always been a part of my life. I swam before I could walk and have been able to swim even before the memory of learning about it. When I was five, I could successfully pass the twenty five yard swim test the pool required to access to the deep. I was a lifeguard for over nine years, swam competitively in high school for three years, and have taught lessons for over twelve years. For me, there has never been a conscious association of fear with the water and this creates some difficulties in my instructing. I don’t fear it. No that is not a humble brag, I just never grew up intimidated by the water. So, how does one who doesn’t fear water logically communicate to a timorous person that the water they drink is the same as in the pool? Simple...you don’t!
The truth is we do not fear water, we fear drowning. Logically, I know the water coming out of the faucet does not put me at risk of suffocation, but all logic goes out the window when someone becomes engulfed by it. It is no longer a pool filled with water, it is quicksand with a lower viscosity. Adults, children and anyone who does not have the proper knowledge of floating and forward motion will view the pool as such. In children, this seems obvious to us, as they are often more fearful of irrational things. However; with adults, this becomes a point of struggle for them. They know that water is nothing to fear, but they cannot seem to override this idea when they enter a depth that triggers this.
I have always had adult students, but the ratio has strongly favored younger students every year. It seems that as of late this is not the case. I regularly receive phone calls asking “Do you teach adults?” and they are all voiced with the same tone, embarrassment. The reason is almost always “I never learned when I was young”, but the part that is often left out of this is “...so I avoided the water”. It is not that children are inherently better swimmers, they have terribly short attention spans, forget things often, and don’t always like or agree with their peers ( I’m still talking about younger students). And yes, they are also fearful of the water. The biggest differences between the fear of my younger students and my adult students comes down to two things:
1) The younger students do not have a choice to opt out of the lesson so they have to learn.
2) They haven’t had enough time to grow their fear.
Our brain is an amazingly powerful and incredibly frustrating thing to control. It is wired to keep us alive and out of trouble, but does not appreciate the scary things you make it do. To prevent you from doing this again, it gives a panic response to ensure you will avoid making the same mistake again. This is all well and good to some point, but can very quickly spiral out of control. The “preventative measures” to avoid something can easily be more destructive than the thing we avoided in the first place. We try to create an environment that is free of this fear, but the longer we avoid it, the stronger it becomes.
A few years ago, I was contracted to teach a student who had been pushed into a pool. I figured it was a fairly deep pool, probably had not been able to touch the floor, reach for the wall, and had maybe flailed about for a bit before being pulled to the deck. I arrived at an apartment complex with a square pool about 15 feet in length. Unlike most pools that slope down in one direction, this pools depth was less than four feet on all sides of the walls, with the deepest part of the pool being 5 feet and it was only in the very center. I met the student who was well over four feet tall. I was immediately confused. If he had fallen in, why couldn’t he just stand up? I asked his mother if he had drifted to the center. He had not. Still confused I asked, “Did he have to get pulled out?” His mother's response was “kind of”. Basically, all of my assumptions were wrong...except flailing about. He was pushed into water he could stand up in, he was close to a wall that he could have grabbed, but he did none of these things. The panic response had kicked in and his first and only instinct was to get his head above the surface. He moved his arms around so much that he was not only making himself exhausted, he was splashing his face with water. He then avoided going to the pool for over a month. His mom told me he loved swimming, but now he tries to play with the other kids from the pool stairs. Simple things like putting his face in the water, even at the shallow depth of the stairs was a struggle. If at any moment his sense of security or support was removed he would thrash violently. I would regularly come home with bruises on my arms and shoulders because of how hard he would hold on to me when he would panic. It took months of work, but eventually we were able to make progress.
I have been praised many times by numerous clients for my level of patience with their children, they may retract their statement if they saw me during rush hour or standing in line at a bank. I am usually able to channel frustrating situations into problem solving ones and get the right solution the student needs. However, with the student I mentioned, a lot of the delay in progress was a result of my own frustration. I could not figure out a way or method to remove the panic he felt because I did not understand his situation. I would rush things, I would repeat them over and over, and the tone in my voice was often one of frustration. I realized I was trying to apply things that only made sense to someone who was not afraid of the water. We tried to dismantle all events and feelings he went through when he fell in. We did exercises to help replicate small parts of the incident separately and not let his mind put them back together. Slowly we built these exercises up and began to combine them until he was finally able to enjoy swimming again.
I cannot imagine how much worse this could have been if he had gone years without trying to swim or overcome the fear he felt. He didn’t have a choice. His mother saw the limitations his mind was putting on him and sought out help. How many of us as adults, who are capable of great things, avoid challenges or events? Logically we know they shouldn’t intimidate us and we probably think they are silly and insignificant, until we are forced to face them. Fear is a powerful thing that can imprison us, and make us say things we don’t mean in a tone we don’t normally use. For those that do not understand someone's fear, it is easy to be dismissive of their feelings. This only isolates the individual more, bringing a deeper sense of shame and fear.
The greater tragedy of this is its ability to be passed down. I have taught many students whose parents have expressed the importance of wanting their children to know how to swim because they themselves do not. When I mention the idea of swim lessons for them, I am often told they are too old to learn or that I will be unable to help them. Often times the only thing that drives a fearful parent to lessons is the idea of “What if something happens?”.
As I said before, the brain is amazingly powerful and an incredibly frustrating thing to control. When offspring are suddenly added into the equation, the brain seems to rewire itself to make them priority. This is often what brings both parents and grandparents in. Is it love? Is it instinct? Can it be both? Or does it even matter? Love conquers fear, and that protective barrier our brains put up is easier to remove when we have a purpose or reason behind it.
If you are an adult who has had a traumatic experience in the water, or if you simply never learned how, you are neither alone nor too old to start. I do not have a fear of the water, I have a passion for it. That passion is what helps me communicate to all my students the joy of swimming. It is possible to remove that fear, learn to swim, and enjoy it at any age!