The 4 Biggest Myths about Learning to Swim

Learning to swim is a major bucket list activity, and for many people it stays on that list far too long because of basic misunderstandings about what it takes to swim. Recently, I met a woman in her 40s who was ashamed to admit that after months of group lessons, she still couldn’t swim more than a couple yards without total exhaustion. She described herself as “unteachable,” and figured that she just wasn’t a “water person.”

As I worked with her, it was clear that she had as much swim capability as the next person, it’s just that she was trying to learn in the wrong way. In this article, I’ll debunk 4 swimming myths that I’ve observed in my years watching people go from hugging the shallow end to swimming out past the waves. I’ll also tell you what to look for when evaluating a potential swim teacher.

Myth 1: Only very fit people can swim.

Baloney. Go to any pool at 10 in the morning on a weekday and tell me if you don’t see a number of elderly adults plodding their way back and forth across the pool. You won’t confuse their lap swimming with Michael Phelps, but what’s impressive is that one can swim for 30 minutes or more without vast reserves of strength.

Sure, swimming can be an intense cardiovascular workout. But most beginners get winded in a lap or two, not because of fitness, but because they haven’t yet learned how to float or use their energy efficiently.

Myth 2: Stroke technique is paramount.

Before you can swim, you should be able to float. It’s fruitless to spend time on the arm pull, for instance, if you haven’t yet learned how to float and bob with confidence. Our brains simply can’t learn new coordination at the same time that it feels we’re drowning. We may know we are only in the shallow end, yet some part of our nervous system will not relax until we’ve gained control in the water.

Learning how to float and not inhale water is the foundation of every other swimming skill.

Myth 3: Drill, baby, drill!

Drills can reinforce specific skills, but they won’t necessarily turn you into an intuitive or efficient swimmer. That’s partially because many of us are extremely results-oriented when it comes to drills, which means we prioritize accomplishment, like swimming a certain distance, rather than relaxing into the water.

When I was a kid, I spent probably hundreds of hours bobbing, floating, diving for rings, and generally rolling around like an otter in the water – much of this before I had learned any of the competitive strokes. Children who are lucky enough to have spent a good deal of time in water already learned how to be comfortable and efficient simply by playing.

Some portion of your swim practice should be undirected and intuitive, letting yourself sink and bob in the shallow end, blowing bubbles under the water, and just pushing off the wall and gliding without being too attached to a specific result. All animals (humans included) learn complex behaviors and skills through play and experimentation. It may feel silly to roll and sink in the shallow end, but I promise it’s time well spent on becoming a natural, confident swimmer.

Myth 4: Sinking is “Bad.”

In my experience, nearly everyone can float to some degree; it’s just that beginners interrupt the floating process by trying to hang onto the surface of the water. Think of an ice cube dropped into water: first it dips down and then bobs back up. If your concept of floating is that you should hover at the surface of the water without any downward movement, then you’re in for a long struggle. I often find that beginners respond better to the idea of “bobbing,” which includes some natural up-and-down motion, as opposed to floating which many people see as a static, permanent position.

Ironically, the most important skill-building exercise for floating is, you guessed it, sinking. In the shallow end, give yourself permission to sink over and over. Specifically, tell your arms, neck, and legs that they do not need to ‘help’ you float. Floating is not a concentrated activity like holding a yoga pose, it’s what happens when we let ourselves go in the water.

Depending on your body characteristics, you may be suspended perfectly horizontally like a raft, or your legs may sink (mine do). Don’t worry whether it’s only your head or upper back that stays close to the surface. By giving up your struggle to float, you will find more buoyancy and that will free you up to think clearly and soon learn how to swim.

That formerly “unteachable,” non-water person, spent hours learning to relax and gradually enjoy being underwater. She practiced sinking and gliding and had fun along the way. I see her swimming laps these days and think, now there’s a natural.

Finding a teacher:

A great swim teacher can help you swim with more ease and confidence than you ever thought possible. But sadly, many people have low expectations from swim instructors. Just as literacy doesn’t qualify a person to be a reading teacher, you should expect more from a swimming teacher than the fact that they know how to swim. How are they going to take you from the shallows to the deep end, and help you enjoy the process along the way?

– Find a teacher who prioritizes making you feel comfortable in the water. It’s a good sign if they’re willing to get in the pool with you.

– Does the person seem friendly or encouraging? You’re going to want to feel comfortable and non-judged in your lessons – trying not to disappoint your teacher is a distraction.

– How do they work with adults who may have anxiety about swimming? Does their answer indicate skill and experience, or a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach?

– Like a piano teacher or family physician, you don’t have to settle on the first one you find. Keep looking until you find a good fit.

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