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Learning to Swim Is Not Learning Strokes

Published at LinkedIn
October 12, 2020

To be safe in water, we need to calm in water over their heads. People want this basic level of comfort to play, to socialize, to fit in, but most importantly in case they find themselves in deep water by surprise after falling in, or on account of a misadventure, accident or storm.

Being able to jump off a boat to play in a lake or dive off a diving board with confidence used to be measures of being able to swim. Kids at summer camp were routinely asked if they ‘could swim.’ It meant, “If you fall out of the canoe, will you be safe until we can come back and get you?” The implication was that knowing how to swim meant knowing how to be calm and safe in water over your head as long as necessary.

In my opinion, this was the correct definition of “learning to swim.”

What if you were on a sunset cruise a mile from shore and the boat capsized, depositing everyone into the water? The crew’s main concern would be which passengers could await help calmly, and which required immediate help. This is the line that divides people who can swim from those who cannot.

It would not matter how many could tread water for one minute and perform freestyle with rhythmic breathing for 25 yards.

Yet this is what most swim schools are teaching. The learn-to swim (LTS) agencies’ main message is that learning strokes is learning to swim. Now we have significant numbers of children and adults who can do a stroke for 25 yards in shallow water but cannot rest or remain calm in water over their heads. These people pass their swim tests but they can’t swim. They don’t know how the water works. They don’t understand it. As one aware instructor said, who was struggling with teaching afraid adults,

“My students are suffering from what I don’t know.”

-Sharon Powers, Powers Swim School, West Palm, FL before she became a Miracle Swimming Instructor

The success of the drowning prevention industry is neutralizing some of our country’s loss of life in water. I believe the drowning rate would plummet if LTS were teaching people to swim instead of teaching only strokes.

And since many other countries look to the U.S. for leadership and innovation, they have copied our mistakes and are suffering, too. But they could dramatically decrease or virtually eradicate drowning.

“The (U.S.) drowning rate has not changed appreciably in the past 20 years.”

-Adam Katchmarchi, Executive Director, National Drowning Prevention Alliance, 2020.

I can hear the swim coaches now. “Learning to swim is learning strokes!”

I’m a swimming coach and lifelong competitive swimmer, myself. But learning strokes is simply learning to swim efficiently. Yes, to win gold medals, we have to swim efficiently. But LTS is “teaching” people to swim efficiently before it teaches them to swim. It works for some, but it skips steps for many! It’s especially damaging for adults. It’s causing many kids to become young adults who won’t leave the side of the deep end.

If we taught everyone to swim, there would be a much larger pool of swimmers to train, from which to derive our elite swimmers.

As a swim school owner, I could not afford to fail. I had to pay my rent. The idea I espouse here has never once failed in 37 years, for over 5000 students, and hundreds of thousands of lessons. Not once.

This represents a massive societal and financial opportunity for swimming instructors and swim school owners–to pivot to a path of water safety that leads to our shared goal: water safety for all.

Learning strokes is not learning to swim. Learning to swim is not learning strokes. It’s learning to be still in water over one’s head.

This idea is the bedrock of the coming global renaissance in LTS that can virtually end drowning. Its success depends on you.


Melon Dash