How Long Does it Take to Learn to Swim?

By Tom King

The amount of time it takes you to learn to swim depends almost entirely upon the level of fear the would-be swimmer brings into the water with him. Practically, it takes as long as it takes. A good swimming teacher can help you overcome run-of-the-mill fears, but deep seated psychological terror may make the process considerably more time consuming. In addition physical disabilities, level of fitness and buoyancy can all play a role in slowing down the process of swimming. A young person who is comfortable in the water can be swimming like a minnow in a long afternoon with a good instructor. On the other hand, even a professional athlete who fears the water and negative buoyancy can spend a week just learning to dog paddle.

Barriers to Swimming

The amount of time it takes you to learn to swim depends almost entirely upon the level of fear the would-be swimmer brings into the water with him. Practically, it takes as long as it takes. A good swimming teacher can help you overcome run-of-the-mill fears, but deep seated psychological terror may make the process considerably more time consuming. In addition physical disabilities, level of fitness and buoyancy can all play a role in slowing down the process of swimming. A young person who is comfortable in the water can be swimming like a minnow in a long afternoon with a good instructor. On the other hand, even a professional athlete who fears the water and negative buoyancy can spend a week just learning to dog paddle.

Making the Process Faster

An instructor who has the ability to make a game out of learning to swim can have a class of youngsters or even grandmas paddling about the pool in just a few lessons. By starting with games that teach prone gliding and slowly add leg kicks and arm pulls, the swimmer is soon pulling through the water under her own power. After that it's a matter of learning to breath properly and combine the strokes. After that the ability to swim distances depends on conditioning the previously unused swimming muscles. In most cases, an average neophyte swimmer can pass a swim test in about five lessons.

Addressing Barriers to Swimming - Fear of Immersion

Fear of water can be addressed with simple games that gradually help the swimmer become used to having his face immersed in water. Teaching a nervous swimmer to hold his breath, to blow air out through his nose to prevent water getting in the nose, or to use nose plugs to help during the adjustment period are all techniques instructors use. Combine these with games like "human torpedo" and "bobbing" and the fun helps the swimmer overcome the fear and move on to learning to swim.

Addressing Barriers to Swimming - Negative buoyancy

Some swimmers float, some sink and some go down like a rock. Athletes and people with muscular build tend to be sinkers and may have fear issues as a result. The instructor teaches the swimmer to be comfortable underwater through bobbing and diving games and exercises. Kickboards, life jackets and buoyancy supports can all help in the early stages of instruction. Once the fear of sinking is overcome, the swimmer can focus on rapidly learning the proper body position and leg and arm skills needed to move through the water.

Addressing Barriers to Swimming - Disabilities

In teaching people with disabilities to swim, it is essential to cast aside notions of proper technique. What works is what works. It doesn't have to be elegant, it just has to work. Use buoyancy supports to help the swimmer learn the adaptive physical skills needed to begin actual swimming. Use games to help the swimmer gain confidence. Don't rush the process, as it may take some weeks of instruction for the instructor and the swimmer to figure out how to swim in a nonstandard way.

Addressing Barriers to Swimming - Age and Physical Condition

Beginner swimmers who attempt to learn for the first time after they are adults may have stronger fears of the water than kids do. Often there are strong psychological factors that have kept them from the water so long that must be overcome. Take your time. Older swimmers who are out of shape will need lots of shallow water exercises, games and skills tasks till they develop the strength and flexibility needed to master propelling themselves through the water. Don't rush the nervous older swimmer. Failure can be humiliating and lead the swimmer to give up.

Addressing Barriers to Swimming - Age and Judgment

Be very cautious teaching children under five. Good judgment and situational awareness are crucial safety skills when swimming. Very young children who swim may know just enough to get themselves into serious trouble. Though very small kids can learn to swim quickly, unless you are prepared to keep your eye on them every moment, consider waiting to teach them and letting them be a little afraid of the water while they develop some wisdom.

From Confidence to Mastery

The secret to quickly and successfully teaching a nonswimmer to swim is by moving from confidence to mastery. First, use fun activities to build confidence in the water gradually. As the swimmer learns to put his face in the water, glide through the water, propel himself underwater and control breathing, the instructor catches the swimmer at teachable moments and adds topwater swimming skills until, before the swimmer quite realizes it, she's swimming.

How Long?

It can take anywhere from an afternoon to several months, depending on the barriers faced by the swimmer. Don't rush the process. Approach the task of acclimating the swimmer to the aquatic environment naturally and at his or her own pace. Pushing swimming progress is for competitive swim coaches after the person has learned basic swimming and is comfortable with his own skills level.

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