If You Are Afraid to Swim, Why Would You Get Into the Water?

Floating Beyond Fear Of The Water...

The Author. Melon Dash

It has always been thought that if you're uncomfortable or afraid in water, you just need to learn to swim. But if you're afraid in water, why would you get into it? Why would you want to put your face in? Why would you volunteer to take your feet off the bottom and try to swim? For over a hundred years since formal swimming lessons began, the common practice used for swim students who were afraid or unfamiliar with the water was to start from the premise that if you practice something uncomfortable long enough, it will become comfortable.

The prospects of doing this did not entice non-swimmers to hurry to register for the next possible swimming class. Nor do these students relish going to lessons or practicing.

One hundred forty-one million American adults (64%) are afraid in deep, open water. One hundred six million American adults are afraid in deep water in pools (these statistics come from a 1998 Gallup Poll). Do people need swimming lessons to be safe, in case they're in a fishing boat that's flipped by a whale or sailboat that sinks? Do they need to know freestyle? Backstroke? What's the minimum they must know to make them safer?

Every summer we hear about accidents like the one in May where a man was fishing in 3 feet of water in a creek in Indiana. The Indy Star reports, "... he said, 'watch me swim.' He apparently wandered into a spot where the lake bottom dropped off dramatically. He just bobbed for about four minutes.

He went under and never came up."

This happens over and over, every single year, around the world. Did the man need to know strokes to be safe? No, strokes weren't necessary. He needed to know that if he walks off a drop-off, it's not an emergency: the water will push him back to the surface. He won't (and can't) just stay at the bottom, walking.

Water doesn't work that way.

True, if he wasn't very buoyant, or if he were wearing heavy clothes, he wouldn't have floated to the surface as quickly, or even at all. But still, this is not dangerous and it's no reason to panic. Everybody who knows the water knows that. But how many people know the water? Most of the ones who drown don't. Most of those who panic don't. This points to one essential lesson swimming lessons need to teach: how does water work?

Most people are shocked to find out in beginning swimming lessons that the water holds them up; that it's difficult to reach the bottom. People who are afraid in water believe that water acts like air and allows us to drop down through it and park on the bottom effortlessly. Correction needed!

The man in the Indiana accident also needed to know something else. He needed to feel a sense of discomfort coming on and realize that it was time to stop himself from losing control. But if he was showing off, or under the influence of alcohol, or terrified, he may not have gotten the signals his body was undoubtedly giving him, if only he'd been able to pay attention. One signal was that he had some buoyancy: for 4 minutes, he was not at the bottom.

Another was that air was nearby: he was close to the surface, going above and below it. But when you're "gone," in the zone of panic, that which is obvious to others is out of sight for you. If you don't know how to prevent panic, you cannot pay attention to the messages for safety that your body gives you when panic arises. Panic prevention is the other lesson swimming lessons must include.

The water and one's body work together easily. Once you know water, it's a fun place to be. But fun isn't the only benefit. Knowing the water is also a matter of safety and a life skill. You can't get to know it or learn to swim without experiencing water, however. You have to feel it. By feeling it-everything about it-one can learn its different laws. It doesn't work like land and gravity.

People who are afraid in water, who are asked in swimming lessons to do something scary, cannot feel the water.

Their minds are halfway down the trajectory to panic. Their main concern is avoiding drowning. How can learning flutter kick or rhythmic breathing at that point help them? Both are irrelevant at that early stage. The afraid swim student needs to know how she can feel safe, how to be at home in water, and that she can be in control of herself in water, just as she is on land. He needs to know he won't inhale water, won't get water in his nose, that he has no reason to panic, and that he floats. Or, that if he's a true sinker, which few people are, it's perfectly okay: there's a simple way to come up and stay up.

While freestyle and backstroke, flutter kick and rhythmic breathing are all part of swimming, and swimming is a great skill to have for fun, play, exercise, and going a distance under your own power, to teach it before teaching how water works and how to remain in control is to put the cart before the horse. In a world concerned with safety, this doesn't float.

Why would an afraid non-swimmer want to get into the water? To put his face in? To take his feet off the bottom voluntarily? Because he wants to learn; because he feels safe, feels understood. Because she knows she can remain in control while she's learning and that she has supportive help if she needs it. And, she wants to know what the water is about. She knows there must be a way to learn.

About the Author:Melon Dash offers Swimming for Adults Afraid In Water in six locations around the United States. Melon Dash's Transpersonal Swimming Institute, started in Berkeley in 1983, has just been named the teaching arm of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Their combined goal is to bring new safety to all citizens by teaching them the true basics of swimming so that preventable drowning (which is nearly all drowning) will eventually be eliminated.

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Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 27, 2016

  • Book: Conquer Your Fear of Water: An Innovative Self-Discovery Course in Swimming

    Instructional Video: The Miracle Swimmer: How to Overcome Fear and Discomfort in Water, Shallow and Deep