Chapter One~Getting Started
The Home Pool


Water-Shy People

There are several common experiences and traits in adults who are fearful about being in a large body of water.

For one thing, most of my pupils were professionals in various fields and well educated, therefore, it's possible that water-shy people may be more intellectual than average. Nearly all of them have had a near drowning experience or other negative events related to water, especially if they had occurred between the ages of three and six. That period of life appears to be crucial in laying foundations for lifetime perceptions.


One woman said that when she was little her mother washed her hair in the bathroom sink. While holding her daughter's head down in the water the child felt that she was unable to breathe and was terrified.

A man once told me that as a small child whenever he had a temper tantrum his father poured a cup of cold water in his face causing him to gasp for air. More serious experiences, are cases in which unthinking relatives or even swimming instructors had thrown children who couldn't swim into deep water, and of course, "friends" who dunked non-swimmers without warning them.

Another lasting impression is when a child sees a drowned person pulled from the water. Related to this are woeful tales told by parents constantly warning children that they could drown if they played near lakes or rivers.

One lady in class explained that she was from Puerto Rico where children are frequently warned about the ocean. She recalled that parents wanted their children to respect the sea because many people where she lived fished for their living, however, sensitive children as herself become deeply frightened. When a friend or relative is lost at sea or a body is washed ashore from a boating accident their fears are reinforced.

Several pupils said that they had not been particularly fearful until they were required to take swim classes in college. Often, on the first day of class a college swim teacher would line up students at the pool's deep end and have each one jump in, presumably proving that they won't touch bottom and their bodies will float to the surface. Most college-aged beginner swimmers are able to swim a stroke or two and do not feel uneasy in a swim pool. For some, however, performing such feats in front of peers without warning or preparation can be a terrifying and humiliating experience. Most said that they simply left class and never returned. Others who had gone through with it, said that they were so frightened they dreaded attending classes and eventually dropped out before learning how to swim. The following description is what one pupil told our class about her traumatic experience:

"He had a long aluminum pole he thrust into the water. He pushed it down so the end of the pole touched bottom and the top was a few feet above the surface. We were to dive head first and swim under water until we found the pole, grab it and then climb hand over hand until we reached the surface. I was petrified and the teacher was so impatient he wouldn't allow us to hesitate. I can't recall if I dove in or was pushed but I went under very deep. For some reason I actually did touch bottom and that frightened me all the more. When I felt around for the pole it wasn't there! I panicked, took in water and was unable to come up for air. A student noticed my predicament, dove in and pulled me out. That's all I recall because I passed out. When I came to I was lying on the deck and the instructor was telling me to try it again. I don't think anyone knew I had fainted. I got the shakes and someone found a blanket and wrapped it around me. Another student walked with me to the dressing room. She said that the instructor had turned his back to the pool when I jumped in and was conversing with someone. She said that he didn't even know I was in trouble until I had been pulled up on deck. I never reported the incident because I was too upset and embarrassed."

The woman who related this story is a school district administrator with three college degrees including a doctorate. She learned how to swim well in my classes but not without some unusual quirks. For instance, she could easily swim the length of the pool from the shallow to the deep end but couldn't bring herself to go more than a few strokes from the deep to the shallow end. At first, neither of us knew why, as it would seem one would feel safer heading toward shallow water. Finally, I figured it out. She was right handed and was swimming down the right side of the pool where subconsciously she knew she could grab the side trough with her right hand if necessary. Swimming back, her left arm faced the trough. I then suggested that she swim across the width to the opposite side of the pool in the deep end where her right hand would be facing the wall swimming toward the shallow end. It worked. From there she had no trouble swimming from the deep to the shallow end. She had conquered her fear of deep water but she still needed the security of having her right arm closer to the side wall. She easily swam widths at the shallow end without having her right arm facing the wall. She also accomplished such a beautiful breaststroke that I frequently had her demonstrate it for others.


Generally, those who are water shy tend to be more sensitive than most, both physically and emotionally. They are not aggressive but are frequently ambitious and often perfectionists--especially in trying to understand and perform each swimming position correctly. Some swim instructors may be irked by this behaviour and show disdain by becoming impatient with them--an attitude which only increases their pupils' insecurities.

Stress is fear--fear that something won't get done on time or that everything at work or home is dependent upon whether it's done quickly and correctly--fear of being late--or of fast traffic--fear of losing a job or money--fear of illness--fear of most anything that's stressful. These stresses induce other fears. It isn't unusual for swim pupils to regress after having particularly stressful times elsewhere in their lives.

In any swim class there is always some regression but it occurs more often in Water-Shy classes. Swim instructors must not only teach these classes more slowly but tasks must be broken down into far smaller components. Instructors who are easily frustrated by slow progression should not teach those who are fearful. Each accomplishment, however small, is a feat for someone who has aquaphobia. For example, a pupil who takes three lessons before getting the nerve to hold her head underwater, may be comparable to someone without any trauma, learning to swim a perfect front crawl in a half an hour.

Water-Shy instructors need to smile a lot and keep calm. Each well executed task should be praised. The greatest asset for Water-Shy instructors is the ability to have PATIENCE! They must also be diplomatic. People with fear often engage teachers in conversations to prolong the time before confronting a task. Instructors must be aware of this without appearing disinterested or hurting their pupil's feelings.

INSTRUCTORS MUST NOT FORCE PUPILS TO DO TASKS WHCH ARE FRIGHTENING TO THEM! Water-Shy classes are mostly taught on an individual basis. Even if there are fifteen people in a class, with the exception of the first few easy lessons, instructors must forget the idea of having everyone doing everything at the same time. There may be a fairly wide range of abilities and fears in regular swim classes but in Water-Shy classes they are far greater.

In an average Water-Shy class of about 15 or so there are usually one or two people who are not as fearful as they'd thought. They may have been unable to keep up in a standard class and dropped out. They can be a mixed blessing. They may give encouragement to classmates when others see that the tasks are actually possible. On the other hand, some traumatized pupils may feel like "hopeless cases" when they are unable to perform as well.

Most Water-Shy pupils fall in the middle range. They have deep fears but perform alright as long as they are taught more slowly than in a regular class. They do well as a group because they relate to one another more readily, and give each other encouragement.

At the other end there may be one or two pupils whose fear is so deep that they must be given special attention and have tasks broken down even more than for their classmates. With every tiny accomplishment they must be praised. Often, such persons' fears are exacerbated by severe coordination problems which may have caused them to be fearful in the first place.

In any class there are always those who quit. Most often they are people who only attend classes sporadically. It's seldom those with the deepest fear who quit for they have already shown determination to learn how to swim simply by enrolling and showing up for the first class--for them, a great feat in itself.

I don't want to give the impression that everything is taught individually. It is not. When at all possible it's best to teach as a group and also with partners watching and encouraging each other.

One thing that differentiates these classes is that the teacher is not obligated to conduct them at a prescribed rate, nor having to concentrate efforts mostly on those who fall in the middle range. Water-Shy instructors do not have specific time goals, in fact it should be emphasized often that students take as long as they wish to practice a given task. It takes a long time for those with traumatic fear to convince themselves it's okay to float without holding onto the side. Eventually, they will! They cannot be forced or coerced into achieving a task before they are ready in their MINDS to do it. Physically forcing one with aquaphobia only increases the trauma.

Inviting former successful Water-Shy pupils to visit new classes is an excellent way to convince pupils they can learn to swim without fear. Long-time water-shy instructors will find that many pupils have enrolled due to referrals from previous students.

Ideally, it's best to conduct classes when the pool is unoccupied by other swimmers as fearful adults are often embarrassed by someone watching them.

Instructors may wish to incorporate Red Cross Basic Water Safety and RC Basic Water Rescue (the latter when pupils are more advanced). These are courses suited for non swimmers. Pupils receive certificates upon completion which are good morale boosters.

Instructors must end each class with the following three objectives met:

1. Pupils succeeded in performing a new task.
2. Pupils have renewed hope to learn.
3. Pupils have a strong desire to return.


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Chapter 3~At the Pool