Illustration by Tim Bobko
 

I have been teaching swimming for more than 30 years. I thought I had this swim lesson thing down until a 4-year-old made me realize I still have much to learn.

I believe in getting into the child’s world. I have games and gimmicks to accomplish this. A favorite of mine is the car wash. I put the student on a noodle, give the child a ring for a steering wheel and put them through the “car wash.” Usually, I get laughter and excitement from the child.

Another technique I use is making sure the student is balanced in the water. This is accomplished through relaxing the youngster (such as using the car wash technique) or playing other games. I want the student to be able to glide through the water with straight hands and straight legs. I really want to have the student “trust” the water. Once we get that trust, we can go on with all sorts of skills.

But on this particular day, my technique did not work. Like many students who have never been in a pool, she was scared stiff and uncomfortable. She also was put in the water with a stranger (me).

I’ve seen many children in this same situation in my career. I really try to educate parents to put their children in the water at a very young age, preferably 3 months old. It’s a lot easier to teach an infant than to teach a 4-year-old who has already developed a fear of water.

So we were in the pool for the first time and I was ready to accept the challenge. I always start the lesson off trying to find a way to relate to the student. I look for something on the child’s swimsuit. Maybe it is an animal or a cartoon figure. Perhaps I can find a way to make the child laugh at something I can do. It didn’t seem to work this time. I tried everything and still she wouldn’t budge from the pool steps.

Finally, I just told myself that I would have her do a head-up glide. I took her off the steps approximately 5 feet, then turned her around and glided her back to the steps. All of this was done with her head up. She then proceeded to very calmly climb out of the pool, grab her mother’s car keys and lock herself in the car. I could not believe it! 

We couldn’t convince the girl to come out of the car until finally, after some time and a lot of coercing, we talked her into opening the door. The swim lesson was over for that day, and the mother drove the student home.

I don’t know what was said or done prior to the next swim lesson, but it was much more successful. The girl ended up being a very good swimmer. It was an experience I will never forget!

I love challenges. I love to teach the student who has a lot of fear. Once you gain that trust and also have them trust the water, you can teach your student anything.