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Graphic by Nick Orabovic/Illustration by Tim Bobko

If adults have tried lessons and haven’t learned to swim, they are almost certainly afraid in water and lessons have not addressed the fear effectively.

Many swimming instructors have declined to teach adults on account of their size. If a 200-pound, 6-foot-tall man took lessons from a 5-foot-5-inch, 130-pound woman, does it need to be risky for the teacher? Not at all: Don’t make the man frightened.

How do you know an adult is afraid in water?

  • He doesn’t go into deep water.
  • He doesn’t put his head under.
  • He moves stiffly in water.
  • He’s in a hurry when he tries to follow your instructions.
  • He quits after two lessons.
  • He doesn’t go into crowded pools (three could be considered a crowd in a backyard pool).
  • He makes excuses to avoid pool parties.
  • He doesn’t play with his children in water.
  • He’s very nervous watching his children in swimming lessons.
  • He doesn’t use his own backyard pool.
  • He avoids bridges.
  • He may avoid saying he can’t swim.

Most of these people were afraid as children. As kids, they said they didn’t like to swim. They may have lied about taking swimming lessons — getting their bathing suits wet and wrapping them in their towels and returning home as though they’d been in class, for example.

They told their friends not to push them into the pool, which drew attention to them. Consequently, their friends would push them in, causing more trauma. Then, they avoided swimming parties. Perhaps their parents were afraid in water as well, and couldn’t show them that swimming was fun. This is true of about 60 percent of today’s afraid adults.

How can you prevent a student who's afraid in water from becoming frightened?

Meet him at his level and go at his pace, not yours or anyone else’s in the class. At this point, he doesn’t really want to know how to swim. He wants to know how to be in control of himself in the water, whether he’s in shallow or deep, at the side or in the middle, at the surface, mid-water, or on the bottom.

He wants to know how to get his safety from himself, not the bottom or the side. These do not follow from learning strokes. There’s an entire 80 hour training to learn how to teach afraid adults!

Problems of teaching adults:

  • Teachers are afraid to teach adults because if adults panic, the teacher feels at risk
  • Teenage teachers don’t understand adult learning
  • Teachers of all ages believe that if someone is afraid in water, he just needs to learn strokes. This is untrue.
  • Teachers believe adults are unreliable students
  • Teachers’ definition of swimming is different from adult students’ definition
  • Teachers treat adults like kids, telling them what to do but not asking how they feel
  • Teachers are uncomfortable and unprepared to work with adults who have fear of the water or deep water. And almost all adults who can’t swim are afraid.