Getting a fright and going backwards in swimming

It’s easy for children to get a fright in the water and lose confidence in their swimming ability. Sometimes parents and swimming teachers can pinpoint the exact scenario and act immediately to help get the child back on track. Other times parents can be left wondering why their child has a sudden lack of confidence and is displaying a timid approach to their swimming lessons. 


I’ve observed children on many occasions lose confidence because the adult has moved backwards during a swim and the child has struggled to make the distance. Yes, just this very simple action can affect a child’s learn to swim progress. They may quickly become reluctant to swim off the ledge or arch their back in protest when before they have been very relaxed. In this situation, it’s important to go back to a very short swims where the child makes the distance easily as this will build their confidence. Even just a little jump and cuddle with no submersion may need to be the starting point. Remember if you have told a child that you won’t move keep your promise. It’s important that we maintain trust with the child when teaching them to swim. 


Common scenarios that can cause a setback

  Taking in a mouthful of water or getting water up the nose

  Struggling to make it to the side of the pool 

  Getting out of their depth

  Becoming reliant on goggles

  Being pushed to perform a skill before they are ready

  Boisterous play with other children


These are only a few examples of things that can happen to make a child lose confidence in their swimming ability. The good news is that we can easily overcome this apprehension if we take a careful approach to get the child back on track. 


Play in shallow water 

Children will feel much more relaxed when they are in shallow water. Here they are in complete control of their learning and don’t need to rely on the adult for support. It can be intimidating and frightening for children when someone else takes them out of their depth. I would certainly encourage the parent or caregiver to participate in the lesson with the child. Here they can demonstrate to the child how relaxed and happy they feel in the water. But shallow water avoids parents or teachers having to over handle the child. Remember there are lots of swimming activities you can do in shallow water including breath control, back floating, crocodiles along a ledge to develop paddles while the legs learn to float. Be creative and don’t rush the child. 


Revise the foundations skills 

Remember we should follow a building block approach when teaching children of any age. Start again with the learn to swim principals of water familiarisation, breath control, submersion, floating and propulsion. By revisiting the foundation skills we set goals and activities that are easy for the child to master and this in turn builds their confidence. Remember even the best swimmers need to perfect streamlines and their body position in the water in order to excel. Therefore revising the foundation swimming skills should never be seen as a backwards step. 


Frequent exposure

If children are showing apprehension or a fear it’s important they are given a lot of opportunity to practice. Once again it’s about building their confidence and a week in between swimming lessons is a long time. Combining a play swim on Saturday and Sunday with the formal swimming lesson during the week will give great results. Booster blocks or holiday intensive programs are also ideal for timid swimmers. Remember some children will take longer than others to warm up or become relaxed in the water environment. It may be a good idea for you to arrive early to the swimming lesson so your child can acclimatise and watch other children enjoy the classes. 


Don’t stop swimming lessons

Some parents choose to pull out of swimming lessons when their child show signs of fear, apprehension or dislike to classes. Stopping swimming lessons at this stage is not recommended. Very often this results in children becoming more fearful and when parents try to recommence swimming lessons they are faced with the same or worse problem. I must stress that using fear, force or intimidation to achieve swimming results is totally inappropriate. Swimming must be a happy experience for both parent and child. 


If you have a child who is fearful of learning to swim or who has lost confidence in their swimming a ability don’t become frustrated or disheartened. It’s important not to force the child to do things they’re not comfortable with. We should read their body language, let them take the lead and gently encourage them to get them back on track. The main focus should be to have fun and choose games and activities that are easy for the child to achieve which will build their confidence in the water. Don’t underestimate the importance of regular play in a variety of different environments. If you follow these suggestions, you will have a happy, confident little swimmer in no time at all.

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Emma Lawrence

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