What's it like to be an adult swimming beginner?
October 3, 2012 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Adult swimming beginners: what motivated you to learn how to swim? What techniques did you find useful in swimming lessons and what things made you uncomfortable?

I have recently completed my certification to be a swimming teacher and am starting adult classes next week. While I have the technical know-how, I'd love the perspective of people who have learnt to swim as adults.
I'd like to be the best swimming teacher I can be and as I learnt to swim as a child, I don't really know what it feels like to NOT know how to swim.
Anything you can tell me about being an adult beginner would be appreciated.
posted by lazy robot to Education (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I had my first swimming lesson on Saturday! It was really scary but fun!
I decided to learn because I was sick of not knowing how, and because I wanted low-impact excercise options.

These are a few things that were really weird for me:
1) sticking your face in the water/ breathing out underwater. It's so, so incredibly counterintuitive! I had no idea that swimming was like this- I always thought the goal was to keep your head above water! When you don't swim, you keep your breathing organs the hell away from the water.I also got dizzy from repeatedly having to bring my head up for air and then put it back down.

2) not being upright. What can I say? You feel like you're falling. You want to grab on to something and/or right yourself. So you wind up thrashing around because you can't grab water.

3) keeping your legs straight!? So weird! It's hard work, which you don't expect- swimming looks so leisurely, and you go in expecting that in order to be suported by the water, you need to be relaxed. Keeping your legs rigid is, again, counter-intuitive.

All in all, it's just a very different experience from what you expect/ are used to.
posted by windykites at 3:31 AM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Swimming requires you to wear just about the least flattering (small and clinging) exercise outfits, and swimming generally herds you into places (pools and beaches) where you will be compared to young and sexy people wearing similar outfits. If you're an atypical learner -- not young and muscled, but old and saggy and wrinkled -- this can be tough.

A good swimming instructor for older adults (closer to 60 than to 20) or adults who are just way out of shape needs to remember people's shyness and vanity, and to help people overcome that stuff as much as help them learn swimming technique. You want to create people who are comfortable with going to the pool or the beach and getting three-quarters naked in front of others. Maybe get them into a routine that gets them up to their shoulders in the soothing water quickly and keeps them there as much as possible.
posted by pracowity at 3:40 AM on October 3, 2012

Although I learned to swim as a child, I did take swimming lessons again as an adult to get back into swimming and build up some skills. For me, the hardest thing about being taught to swim was visualizing what I looked like in the water. I think this is much harder for adults than for kids. I mean, the whole concept of trying to remain buoyant while moving forward suspended in water is already spatially crazy, compared to learning other sports. My (not-terribly-helpful) instructor would keep telling me that my left arm was flopping around or that I was over-rotating on breathing, but I couldn't actually visualize what I was doing, which meant I had a hard time correcting myself. I knew what proper technique looked like - I knew what the goal was! - but I couldn't compare it to my own technique except in the most abstract terms. I often thought I just wished I'd had a video of me swimming so that I could finally "get" what I was doing wrong, but failing that I would have really loved if an instructor would actually get in the water and show me how I was swimming so that I could see why it wasn't working.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:15 AM on October 3, 2012

I've been able to swim in one form or another since childhood, but I took a beginner's swimming class in college because I never quite felt like I was doing it right. Even now, it feels awkward unless I've been swimming regularly.

The rhythm of breathing is what trips me up every time, especially the head-to-the-side motion in freestyle/crawl. It doesn't come easily to me. And it's hard to get used to figuring out how much air you need when you can't breathe freely: above ground I have no problem with aerobic activity, but it can be a struggle for me to swim one pool length without stopping for air. When I do swim laps, I often do mostly backstroke and have to work up to crawl.

I also have trouble swimming in a straight line and tend to brush against lane markers and such. This isn't much of an issue for people who want to move around in a lake or something, but if your students want to do laps at the Y for exercise it'd be a useful skill to have.

It probably goes without saying that there are different levels of "beginners": there are people who do not know the first thing about moving in water; people who can get across the pool without touching the bottom, but not with any recognizable stroke; people like me who can swim but aren't really used to the motions. You'll probably have a combination of all three, and figuring out what kind of beginners your students are will help.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:55 AM on October 3, 2012

I am an adult nonswimmer, despite repeated YMCA lessons as a child and a semester of high school swimming class. One thing I did not realize until I was an adult is that I do not float as well as other human beings (my brother is actually a sinker). So every time I went to a swim class that started with "just lie on your back and float," my nose dipped below the water and I started coughing and flailing and not wanting to be in swimming class anymore.

This may not be the specific problem of any of your students, but perhaps consider that adults who can't swim may have tried to learn several times with conventional instruction and that something about it has not worked for them.
posted by teditrix at 5:12 AM on October 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

windykites mentioned that a swimmer's legs have to be "rigid," which is likely their instructor's way of encouraging them not to bend their knees. In fact, flutter kick is pretty accurately compared to kicking off a pair of socks without using one's hands. I think swimmers understand movements better when the instructor uses examples of the kind of movement required, rather than just describing the movement itself... if that makes sense.
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:35 AM on October 3, 2012

I learned to swim 2+years ago at 39. I wasnt afraid of water but realized my limitations in deeper water (I'm short; anything over 6 feet is deep and not having a clue as to how to float/get to safety with confidence). I decided to learn how to swim as execise and as a safety issue as I wanted to be able to enjoy outdoor water sports in our short summers here in the Pacific Northwest.

The thing about her approach is she really listened and dealt with any fears/questions I had and would repeatedly go over each little thing until I was comfortable. She broke down lessons into small skills that would build to a whole. I learned to "breathe out the nose steady and sip air thru the mouth" made it soooo much easier to not get water up the nose and not feel out of breath! Seems obvious to those who grew up swimming but for me, I needed someone who really spelled things out without being patronizing and at the same time made me feel comfortable to want to be in the water.

Being comfortable in deep water.Teach people to not panic when they can't touch bottom or the sides of a pool. I can't tread water without super exhausting myself but I can/know to turn myself to the side to do my clumsy sidestroke or float/swim on my back until I'm ready to do my crawl.

(I LOVE my swim teacher who is an awesome instructor for all levels of skill and great all-around person and if anyone wants a referral to her in the south Seattle area me-mail me!).
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 6:50 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was able to dog-paddle before I took an adult swim class, so, some familiarity with the water.

I learned the crawl with great difficulty, it helped that we started off by standing and working on the breathing aspects of it. All the students were encouraged to go at their own pace, instead of pressured into doing the same drill in lockstep. In the past I'd lost interest in swimming lessons when we got to the part where you put your face in the water and chlorinated water fills your sinuses. I suppose kids are just supposed to figure out on their own how to not have that happen, but it was very useful to have what I was actually supposed to do explained, and have a chance to take as much time as I liked to work on only that aspect. Still hate the crawl though.

I found butterfly fairly easy to learn, but it would have been nice to have some method for telling when I'd run out of pool other than hitting my head.

The whole pool was reserved for the class, hopefully that is the case with your class.

Years after that, I learned an easy and pleasant method of swimming that I had no idea even existed, the side stroke. In retrospect I think there must be some idea to teach butterfly and crawl because they are better for racing, but I suspect that few people who learn these as an adult have any interest in racing. I hear people say they are more efficient, but if I find myself suddenly having to swim a distance I'll go with the method that doesn't involve spasms of coughing or hitting my head on things.

One thing that would be helpful is explaining what to do with glasses or contacts, and providing a place near the pool for glasses in case anyone wants to put theirs on to watch you demonstrate.
posted by yohko at 6:55 AM on October 3, 2012

I am a terrible swimmer. I took lessons as a kid, but never got good at it, and as an adult developed a fear of the water. I am planning to start swimming lessons in the next year or so, primarily because we have little kids and I want to be able to swim with them and help them with water safety. My big obstacle is panicking when I get in the water because I'm scared of not being able to breathe. Standing there and sticking my face in the water, fine. But doing the crawl, where every once in a while I'm turning my head, gasping for air, and swallowing some water in the process, terrifies me.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:48 AM on October 3, 2012

One of the things I found as a recent learner swimmer is that I'm still not able to swim full lengths of a 50m pool. Part of the problem is that I tended to swim too fast to keep my bouyancy up, and ran out of breath too quickly (bilateral breathing every 3 strokes). I've been working to keep my head up so that I don't have to turn so much for each breath and my head is closer to the surface, as well as slowing down while swimming.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 8:52 AM on October 3, 2012

I learned the basics as a child, but by the time I was in my early 20s I had developed a minor case of fear-of-the-water—shoulder-deep was my absolute maximum. Hoping to get over this, I enrolled in a beginners' course when I was in grad school (~33 yrs old).

For me, the "everybody floats" lesson was a breakthrough. At the beginning of the class, I was one of the skeptics clinging to the pool gutter, watching as students around relaxed into a back float. Some kids practically bobbed on the surface. A couple were almost completely submerged, but their faces remained above the water. IIRC, everyone was off the gutter by the end of the hour.
posted by she's not there at 9:28 AM on October 3, 2012

I learned to swim in my 30s at the Chinatown YMCA in SF in an adult class. I wasn't afraid of water, i.e. having my head under water, but didn't know how to swim. What worked for me was learning how to tread water first. With that, I knew I could be in deep water and not drown. It took away all my fears of being in water I couldn't stand in. So, if I got tired or confused while trying to swim, I could chill by treading water for a few minutes.
posted by shoesietart at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2012

Good for you doing this research! Most beginners to the freestyle stroke lift their head to breath rather than turn it. My coach told me to envision a taught wire from one end of the lane to the other. It runs through my prone body, preventing me from lifting my chin. I used this technique often after I became a WSI.
posted by Mertonian at 3:29 PM on October 3, 2012

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