Quite often a mistake is made by aquatics professionals and people looking to achieve specific aquatics goals. They don't distinguish between helping a person overcome fear surrounding water, which is actually a fear of drowning, and teaching a person not suffering from that same fear how to swim. The process and skill sets that are required to meet the needs of both populations are vastly different. Many assume that an “experienced” swim instructor should be able to help a person overcome their fear of water by teaching them the nuts and bolts of floating, gliding, treading and stroke development. After all, it makes some logical sense that, once a person learns to swim, they should no longer remain fearful in water. The problem with that logic is twofold. First, many swim instructors never get the opportunity to meet and help those fearful of water, because many in that diverse population will not participate in traditional swim programs as a result of their fears. Secondly, if those afraid of water do find the courage as adults or are forced by well-meaning parents to take swim lessons, most quit because they begin to feel more fearful, angry, frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and isolated than they did prior to the lessons. It is unrealistic and counterproductive to believe people can learn to swim in an effort to overcome their fear of drowning. Quite to the contrary, one must learn how to overcome that fear so that they will be successful in learning to swim. The only variable constant in both processes is that they can both be accomplished in water.

As in any effort to help people overcome unique challenges, assessing the behavior is a critical step in setting up a strategy to change that behavior. It is important to remember that individuals who fear water are responding to internal messages from their brain telling them they are in imminent danger, despite the obvious fact that they are not. Their view of the aquatic scene is far, far different from that of others who do not share their fear. Yet their fear and its consequences are both very real and innate to them. As a result of that uncontrollable fear, they find it extremely difficult and painful to learn, process and perform traditional learning-to-swim skills. Here is a list of behaviors that help identify a person who is abnormally fearful of water/drowning and probably will not benefit from traditional swim lessons:

1. Unable to stand, unassisted, in shallow water.

2. Unable to submerge face in shallow water.

3. Unable to perform an assisted front and/or back float in shallow water.

4. Unable to enter deep water with flotation device.

They stand little chance of learning to swim competently and comfortably unless they address the emotional component attached to these fears and learn specific and unique coping and aquatic skills that allow them to understand, manage and overcome their fear of water and drowning.

Jeff Kriegeris the founder and director of the SOAP (Strategies Overcoming Aquatic Phobia) Program, launched in 2000. He’s been an aquatics professional for 35 years, teaching people of all ages, fitness levels and life experience. His work is featured in the documentary, “Taking the Plunge,” by Falcon Rattler Media, and the book Some Nerve by Patty Anker Chang.