A Helping Hand: Through special programs for those who suffer from a fear of water, we can reduce their risk of drowning and introduce them to the joys of aquatics.
Credit: Shawnelle KingFalcon Rattler Media A Helping Hand: Through special programs for those who suffer from a fear of water, we can reduce their risk of drowning and introduce them to the joys of aquatics.

Fear is a powerful motivator for change, but altering behavior is much more difficult if the person who needs to overcome a fear is never offered the right opportunity and resources.

This situation applies to a large group of people who, as a result of varying degrees of fear about water, might never be able to enjoy the many emotional and physical benefits that result from participating in aquatic activities. While their fear may vary in degree from mild to paralyzing, these individuals often sit silently on the outside of the aquatics community looking in longingly.

Many of us in the aquatics community center our lives around water and cannot imagine living any other way. Sadly, for far too many people, as much as they want that lifestyle for themselves, their fear of water prevents them from obtaining it. As aquatics professionals, we have accepted the huge responsibility of protecting and nurturing lives within the boundaries of an aquatic environment.

As people in this field, we need to ask ourselves several questions:

Are we accurately identifying and appealing to a population of fearful swimmers and fully recognizing just how serious the consequences of that fear are? This is especially important because these swimmers remain at higher risk for drowning.

Do we offer the special programing that this unique group needs so that they may feel comfortable, competent and safe in water?

Finally, as the professionals, are we getting the type of training and support that will enable us to maximize our efforts with fearful swimmers?

It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the adult population suffers from a fear of water. This does not include adult swimmers who are not afraid of water but just never learned how to swim.

This percentage exclusively reflects how many adults either never even tried to learn to swim, or tried and were unsuccessful, as a result of their fear and/or the lack of available, effective resources specifically designed to address their fear of water.

All too often, the problem comes down to a matter of vision and economics. Can an organization look beyond the traditional learn-to-swim and aquatic exercise formats that they have profited from in the past and see a lucrative future in programming that serves a population currently not very visible to them? Can enough pool space be dedicated to justify the expense of marketing new programs, and recruiting and training the right staff?

Once an organization has committed to helping fearful swimmers, the first step is finding experienced, dedicated professionals to embrace that passion and purpose, whether they’re aquatics staff or not.

Second, the organization must provide these staff members with the training they will need so they can teach their clients the “who, what, why and how’s” of anxiety, fears and phobias specifically related to water. Aquatic therapists and instructors who work with this population must fully understand the entire scope of cognitive, emotional and physical help that fearful swimmers need, and accept the fact that it’s almost impossible to teach a fearful swimmer unless they first address the fear factor.

This effort requires skills that therapists use in their offices to help their clients understand and overcome many types of fear. Unfortunately, most of those therapists don’t hop into the pool with their clients to continue the healing process in the environment where the fear exists. Therefore, aquatics professionals need to learn how to use not only aquatic skill-building techniques specific to fearful swimmers, but also skills that will enable them to provide emotional support in and out of the water, as needed.

The rapport between instructor and client is the critical part of this process. With the use of effective skills that include reflection, empathizing, behavior modification, desensitization, positive imagery and relaxation techniques — in addition to strong communication — clients increase their comfort zone and independence in water and ultimately become active members of the aquatics community.

Fortunately, organizations such as the National Swimming Pool Foundation, USA Swimming and the National Drowning Prevention Alliance are embracing this challenge. Case in point: Last year NSPF launched its Step Into Swim campaign, initially teaming up with nine organizations that teach children, adults and minority populations how to swim.

Other local and national water safety programs, swim schools, parks and recreation departments, and fitness centers also are connecting with fearful swimmers. But we need to do more. We need the following:

Partners with a plan. We need to continue to build bridges between the various communities — aquatics, mental health, financial, and health and wellness — and to develop a global strategy to address the issue of fearful swimmers, water safety, and health and fitness.

Promotion. We need more visibility and louder voices — people who can speak to the value of programs dedicated to helping fearful swimmers.

Proactive. We need to bring this assistance to a variety of individuals and organizations, including children, parents, grandparents, professional caretakers, camps, the military, schools, community programs, and parks and recreation departments. If we wait for them to approach us, tragedy might strike first.

Promise. We need to make a promise to everyone — regardless of age, fitness level, financial status, geographic location or life experience — that the aquatics community will continue to provide resources to any person who suffers from the fear of water. In so doing, we will help make this world a happier, healthier and safer to place in which to swim.