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Turning the Ship of Aquatics

The Ship Must Be Turned.

Aquatics encompasses all water-related sports and activities, ranging from aqua-exercise to swimming lessons, post-op water therapy to swimming on the Olympic Team. It’s family pool relays at the July 4th community picnic. It’s what happens after you jump off a boat. It’s SCUBA diving.

Why does the ship of Aquatics need to be turned? Because even with all the magnificent and empowering aspects it can boast and all the good that the Aquatics industry is doing, it’s built on a premise that isn’t true. That premise is costing adults, teens, and children their lives.

What’s the false premise?

“Learning strokes is learning to swim.”

WHAT?

That’s right. Learning to swim is one thing. Learning strokes is something else. They’ve always been thought to be the same. But five thousand non-swimmer adults taught me otherwise. And they are right. The aquatics industry never made the distinction. Until 1983, neither did I.

My adult students say, “I CAN SWIM!” when they learn to be free in the deep end of the pool. They can hang out anywhere in the deep end, rest, flip around, play, and stay as long as they like. Their concern that they will sink, drown, or panic is gone. The first time they said, “I can swim!” I realized they were right. They were safe. We had never once mentioned strokes.

A century of formal swimming lessons operating on the premise that learning to swim means learning strokes has been turned on its head. Teaching kids and adults to be water-safe is far less work than Aquatics thought. To end drowning, the world needs to know.

What is learning to swim? What is learning strokes?

Learning to swim is learning to be safe and competent in water over your head. Everyone should learn this. One never knows when they’ll need to know how to swim. It’s part of being literate in personal safety. You look both ways before you cross the street. You don’t give your social security number to random callers. You go to the dentist. You don’t get into a stranger’s car. You listen to your gut. You learn to swim.

Learning strokes is learning to move in water efficiently. Strokes are the choreography (1) of swimming. They are the efficient way to swim. But they are an extremely inefficient way to learn safety. Strokes are unrelated to safety!

Safety must come before efficiency. But look closely: the way traditional lessons are taught, efficiency is taught and safety is not. This has become more stark in the past 30 years since swimming coaches– with good intentions– took over swimming lessons from teachers. Now, people take swimming lessons, learn a few things about propelling themselves with strokes, don’t learn that deep water holds them up, and therefore they emerge from lessons not knowing how to swim. Now we have teenagers, college students, and young adults who believe they can swim, though they cling to the sides. They passed swimming tests as a children but now they can’t swim in deep water. The test didn’t test for safety. It tested efficiency.

Where did the false premise come from? It came from teaching kids strokes. It worked for most kids! Why? Because practically without being taught, kids figure out that the water holds them up. Kids play in water every chance they get, and they learn about their buoyancy. And lessons once included learning to float.

Half of the adults in the United States worry that if they go into deep water, they’ll panic or die. That’s 114 million people. If they could swim, they wouldn’t be afraid in deep water. People who can swim understand how the water works. People who don’t know how it works are understandably afraid. The swimming lessons they took most likely taught flutter kick, arm strokes, rhythmic breathing, push and glide off the wall. Or they tried. And these have nothing to do with resting or being safe in water over your head.

The learn-to-swim organizations haven’t examined these truths. At Miracle Swimming, we have done back flips trying to tell them for 37 years. It’s time the public knew. It’s time to turn this ship around. The ship of Aquatics is coming into port for an overhaul. When adult lessons are prioritized and adults are not ashamed to say they can’t swim, when learning to swim means safety instead of efficiency and instructors know the steps of overcoming fear, and when every swimming student is successful on their first try because they are met at their level, the overhaul will be complete and the ship can head back out to sea.

 

(1) An idea from Christopher Canaday