Advice Needed! Should I quit on this swim instructor?
August 8, 2013 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm an adult learning to swim for the first time at the YMCA. I've only had 1 lesson so far and the instructor seemed encouraging. However, he did not address my fear of water and did not take the time to help me become comfortable with the water (submerging my face in the water, etc.). On the first day, he showed me how to kick while sitting on the pool edge, how to float on my back, how to kick using kickboard, and then he moved on to telling me to put my hands up in a torpedo position, face in the water, then glide forward while kicking. He was on the other side to catch me. I sunk every single attempt and he kept telling me to try again. I was so terrified that I don't want to come back to next class. Since then, I've been coming to the pool and practicing on my own. I feel like I'm more comfortable than the first day but I'm still afraid to come back for the next lesson this Saturday. This is the first instructor I've ever had so I'm not sure how to judge how he's doing. Do you think I should quit and get another one? The staff members at the Y that I've talked to told me that he's a good instructor but can be a very demanding. Please give me your advice! Thank you!
posted by missybitsy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (50 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd stick with this guy. Go into your lesson on Saturday and say, "after our first lesson, I realized how terrified of the water I am. Could we please take a huge step back and work on some basics to get me acclimated to the water first, before moving onto swimming skills?"

If he's as good a teacher as they say, he'll be receptive to that. If he's not receptive to that, then you should find a new instructor.

Good luck!
posted by phunniemee at 8:24 AM on August 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

Demanding? This guy's an asshole. What he's doing could be actionable. Document your complaints and send them to his manager and the national YMCA office (their contact info is at

This is not an origami class. Water is dangerous. His recklessness is endangering to you and other learners, which is why I think you should report him. Find another instructor, and don't let this first experience discourage you. Stay safe!
posted by cartoonella at 8:25 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'm going to try the tough approach, which some may disagree with:

You've been practising what you were taught, and improving.

You feel afraid, but despite that, you are making progress.

If you keep going, you will probably continue to make progress.

As you continue to make progress, you will probably feel less afraid.

I mean, you are scared of water, and nevertheless you have the guts to learn to swim. That means that no matter what instructor you get, you're always going to be somewhat scared while you're learning.

So, my advice is to keep trying, with the expectation that you will get it eventually and that greater mastery will reduce your fear.
posted by tel3path at 8:27 AM on August 8, 2013 [30 favorites]

Communicate with him prior to the next lesson. Does he have email? Articulate as best you can which activities make you anxious and what tone/words/speed he can adopt to help you manage it.

When I paid someone to teach me to tune up/maintain my bike I said "talk to me as though I have never seen a bicycle before and I am afraid of circles." I am not afraid of circles but I didn't need him to know about my body image & non-handyman-based anxiety, I just needed him to start from the beginning & go slowly.

Give him a chance to teach you the way you need to be taught. If he can't do that, fine, but that way you'll move on to a second instructor ready to ask for what you want up front.
posted by headnsouth at 8:29 AM on August 8, 2013

Demanding? This guy's an asshole. What he's doing could be actionable. Document your complaints and send them to his manager and the national YMCA office (their contact info is at

This is not an origami class. Water is dangerous. His recklessness is endangering to you and other learners, which is why I think you should report him. Find another instructor, and don't let this first experience discourage you. Stay safe!

What? Like seriously, what? There is nothing--absolutely nothing--OP has written here that would suggest that this guy is doing anything more nefarious than teaching her how to swim. I've actually gone back and read it four times now just to make sure I wasn't missing some obvious terrible thing, like him holding her head under water or something.

This description sounds exactly like the swim lessons I remember taking at the Y when I was six. Littler kids got to do the sit in the water and blow bubbles thing. I started off kicking from the wall, just like the OP.
posted by phunniemee at 8:31 AM on August 8, 2013 [86 favorites]

From the way you worded your question, it's not clear to me what you told the swim instructor about your fears. If you feel like you clearly expressed how afraid you are and he gave indications that he understood what you had told him, and you reiterated during the lesson how afraid you were and you feel like he wasn't addressing your fears then that's one thing (although I think that unless he was a total dick about it calling him an asshole is a bit extreme). I might consider finding someone with a gentler approach.

It sounds like you're making progress in spite of your fears though, and sometimes with fears the only way to have them dissipate is to face them. Maybe give him another shot, reiterate that you'd like some suggestions on how to feel less afraid (maybe he can go over things like treading water, floating, etc. so you'll feel empowered that you will have skills to be able to manage being in the water when not actively swimming). If after that you're still concerned, maybe you and he are not a good fit.

On preview: I agree with phunniemee -- I took swim lessons for years and the things that the instructor was doing is straight up standard lesson material.
posted by Kimberly at 8:36 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks everyone who has answered so far! It took a lot from me to sign up for the class but I was hoping the instructor would help me get over my fear of water first before sending me to panic mode. I don't think I could learn anything when I'm panic. I kept repeating the "kicking from the wall" thing but I couldn't kick and therefore drown. I also was not allowed to use any floating device like pool noodle or anything like that. Is that normal?
posted by missybitsy at 8:37 AM on August 8, 2013

You would not learn to swim if he allowed you a crutch, like a pool noodle.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:40 AM on August 8, 2013 [17 favorites]

When I was learning to drive, I had a really 'gung-ho' instructor. He was very matter-of-fact and a little bit dismissive. I was also scared. He didn't get me familiar with the car at all, or take it slow-- just threw me into it and expected me to drive on the main roads and/or have an innate skill or something. He also saw I was scared, but did not address it. His "encouraging" felt more like demanding, and by the end of two lessons, I never wanted to drive again. I was absolutely dreading it. He also criticized me a lot when I did things wrong. "Why are you taking that line? Your gear change is choppy!"

I'm not sure if this guy is the same level of 'gung ho' or not -- but my dude was definitely an asshole. The best thing I did for my driving confidence was ditch that guy.

My next guy (an amazing guy called David!) was a super kind, super soothing, super gentle and really willing to take things slow with me. Very nurturing and encouraging. I didn't need many lessons, and he also got me on the road on the first lesson. But it was the WAY he did it that I responded to. He never criticized me, but gave me opportunities to learn from my mistakes. He also made sure not to push me so completely out of my comfort zone that I'd freeze up; he did it bit by bit and I responded to it. He was fantastic. It turns out, I think, that I just REALLY don't do well with 'gung-ho' types, because they don't compliment my personality. They actually set my progress back.

In the end, the first dude kinda put a weird fear of driving in me that somewhat persists to this day, generally because it was my first experience driving and it was overwhelmingly negative. I should have ditched him by one lesson, but people kept telling me that 'tough love' is the best way to get over things when you're scared.

For some people, it's really not. This may be you.

Anyway my point is, you shouldn't be really really dreading your lessons. If he's making you fearful, he's not the instructor for you. He needs to move at your pace, because to do otherwise, it will set you back. David moved at my pace, and I didn't outright fear the car or the road with him, I had the butterfly feelings of doing anything new, but I didn't outright want to bolt and/or die like I did with my first instructor.

Only you know if your instructor is right for you, but really he needs to respond to your fears. You will still improve with another gentler instructor if you need it, and you will make progress. Don't let anyone throw you into the deep-end (hah) if you're not ready.
posted by Dimes at 8:42 AM on August 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Demanding? This guy's an asshole. What he's doing could be actionable. Document your complaints and send them to his manager and the national YMCA office (their contact info is at

This is probably the most off the wall response I've read on AskMe in recent memory.

OP--this is what normal swim lessons are like. There are special classes for people with a fear of swimming. Here's one (I have no idea where you're located). Was the class advertised as helping people get over a fear of swimming? If not, I think you're expecting too much.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2013 [32 favorites]

I think part of this how you're thinking about it. Your swim teacher will not not let you drown or even come close to drowning. Are you doing all of these things in the shallow water? If not, perhaps push for that. If you are, then you should be able to stand up immediately.

If you find that you just cannot trust this person enough to believe he won't let you drown, then maybe trying to find someone you have a good rapport with would be better.
posted by Kimberly at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

But you won't drown. The instructor is right there and you have his full attention. A toddler, left unattended, can drown in an inch of water, but you aren't a toddler and you aren't unattended.

I hear what you're saying about going into panic mode, but the thing you need to learn is to get past that. A lot of people hang onto pool noodles for years and years without ever making any progress, because they won't let go of the pool noodle until they overcome their fear of floating without it, and they never overcome the fear because they are convinced that they can't learn anything unless they feel comfortable.

You are going to need some bravery, but I think you can do it if you keep on challenging yourself.
posted by tel3path at 8:45 AM on August 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'm not sure I understand the problem. You're feeling more comfortable! That's great! Adjusting to a new physical activity (riding a bike, driving, snowboarding, swimming) is a pretty scary thing to do and you're gradually getting less scared.

Do you expect to feel better about swimming overnight? That's unrealistic. But it does appear as if you're making progress. I'd just stick with it, see what happens.
posted by downing street memo at 8:45 AM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you aren't conveying your fears to him he has no way of knowing if you are terrified or not. You have to tell him and this is no fault of his. If all you said was that you didn't know how to swim, that doesn't necessarily mean you don't know how to tread water.
posted by JJ86 at 8:47 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm. I was afraid of the water as a kid. And then I learned a lot and went on to become a lifeguard and swim instructor.

I never worked with adults, but with children who were beginners, I always worked on blowing bubbles in the water. This is an excellent thing for you to practice on your own. You can do it from a standing position. Take a big breath, put your face in the water and focus on blowing air out your nose and mouth. (If you do it right, you'll make the water bubble.)

Practice enough, and you will develop an important instinct: when your face is in the water, you breathe out. For me, this skill was really critical to reducing my fear, because I started to understand that face in the water did not equal water up the nose. I became able to trust my own ability to take care of myself in the water.

Another good skill to learn is a basic survival float. You can ask your instructor to show you, but here's the gist: put your face in the water (blow bubbles!), bend at the waist, let your arms and legs dangle, and just relax. Let the water hold you. You will float. If you need a breath, you push down with your hands just enough to get your face out of the water. But you can also just try this for a few seconds at a time, so you can understand what it feels like to relax and float. It will help you get rid of the OMG I'm gonna sink! panic.

Your instructor will be familiar with these techniques and will probably have other similar ideas. I guess what I'm saying is, let him know you're afraid, but also work on these skills yourself. At some point you will have to face the fear and work through it--which you CAN do. I did.
posted by the_blizz at 8:47 AM on August 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

You signed up for a swim class. People who sign up for swim class want to learn to swim. This is how you learn to swim. And it sounds like you made great progress, because your teacher is doing exactly the right thing, and teaching you to swim.

You can tell him you have a special fear of the water, but I suspect he's going to be like "swimming happens in the water and nobody's forcing you to come here."

Pat yourself on the back for the progress you're making and stick with it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:48 AM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I also was not allowed to use any floating device like pool noodle or anything like that. Is that normal?

Former instructor here. Yes, totally normal. You're teaching your body to move differently than it does on land, but more importantly, you're figuring out how to float. With a floating device like a lifejacket or noodle, you're not doing that. The device is doing the floating for you. Using a device, you're taking out the key part of learning how to swim. And, honestly, a device doesn't really help with your comfort with water over the long-run, because you're creating a new dependency.

Doing the blowing-bubbles thing suggested by the_blizz is a big help.

And congratulations on doing this! It's a big step, I know, but keep at it, and soon you'll find that you're floating on your own, and you'll find yourself remembering to panic instead of actual panicking. And from there it's a simple matter of overriding the remembering because, hey -- you were just doing it!

Good luck, and keep at it!
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:51 AM on August 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

It doesn't sound like the instructor was aware of your fear of the water. He might be an excellent teacher for other beginning swimmers, but if he doesn't know you're uncomfortable in the water he's not going to be able to help you. Either talk to him before class about your fears, or look for an instructor with whom you're more comfortable.

My own YMCA has a "nervous beginner" class specifically aimed at adults who are uncomfortable in the water. A class like that would be a much better fit for you.

Congratulations on practicing on your own, though. That takes courage and dedication and you deserve plenty of respect for that.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:53 AM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I dunno, he's a swimming instructor, not a therapist. If you are getting better with his instruction (and practicing on your own - very important!) then I'd stick with him. Sure you can tell him how afraid you are, but he's not going to help you unpack that, he's just going to teach you how to swim.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:01 AM on August 8, 2013 [14 favorites]

Learning to breathe with the swimming thing was really hard for me, even though I grew up with a pool. If I tried to breast stroke I would get all panicky and flail because I couldn't get the breathing right and kept inhaling lots of water. Gee that was fun. When I was taking swim lessons a few years ago at the Y, the instructor had me stand in shallow water and bend over, pretending to take strokes and turn my head so I get the rhythm down.

Maybe what you can do is try doing some things in the shallow end, maybe on the stairs, where you gradually work your way to being underwater. Not swimming. Then try to just standing in the shallow end and bending your knees so you go under and then come back up.

Tell him you're really embarassed by this fear of water but you really want to conquer it, that you even been back to the pool by yourself to work on it, but could use help from him, the professional here. Actually, if I remember correctly, one of the lessons from when I was a kid was actually just putting your face in the water - standing in the shallows, bending and just putting your face in the water. Just because you are learning as an adult doesn't mean you have do any different progression than anyone else learning to swim.

Seriously - you are doing GREAT. You want back to the pool on your own and actually tried. Do you have any idea how awesome that is? That is called facing your fears.

Any instructor worth their salt will help you with getting comfortable with the equipment - in this case the water. You are paying him, you get to decide how to use the time. Tell him what you need. He will appreciate it. (If he doesn't, then look for someone else.)

on preview - yeah, don't expect him to help you figure out psych aspects of it, just that if he knows you have a fear, you guys can work on getting comfortable with the water, but not get into WHY you are afraid or anything.
posted by sio42 at 9:03 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was somebody who learned as an adult as well and I understand your fear. I do feel that learning to swim as an adult is more difficult largely because of the fear factor. You'll discover that breaking through those fears will enable you to eventually swim. I was exactly like you and now I can swim a couple miles without stopping.

You are already seeing progress. If you had ZERO progress I might be concerned and would suggest one of those "be comfortable in water" classes. I didn't take one and I didn't need to. With me progress was really slow too and I probably kicked and sunk 100 times. But then it just "clicked." Just like that!

After like the 50th time I was less scared, more just mad I wasn't able to swim. I wonder if this will happen to you. After all, I didn't drown after doing what I thought was a "dumb exercise" at the time 50 times in a row, so it was much less scary. Eventually the fear was replaced with determination to get it over with.

One thing that my instructor said to me that was really assuring: "Even if you TRY to drown yourself, I am going to save you. There is NO chance of you drowning." Ask him how many of his previous students have drowned. He'll say zero. He'll ensure you aren't the first! Trust him!

The fact that you are practicing on your own makes me believe that you are going to be able to swim very soon. When I put that level of dedication into it, I learned how to swim within a month. Stick with it!
posted by ajackson at 9:06 AM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

EVERYONE who doesn't know how to swim - whether you're 2 or 52 - is somewhere from uncomfortable to terrified in the water. Dealing with that without making it worse is what swim instructors do.

Doing things over and over again, teaching your muscles how to do them, is the only way to learn to swim no matter how you feel about the water. Swimming is one of those bike-riding things - one day your body does it right and suddenly you know how to do it, and that's the only way. You can't read a book on it.

There's no actual value in accommodating your anxiety. It just makes it worse and draws out the process. If you learn to swim, the anxiety will go away. So he's trying to teach you how to swim. It is the fastest way to get it over with.

When I did this when I was six, we got a kickboard for one lesson. Nothing after that. When I re-took Intro to Swimming in college, she let a couple of people who literally had never kicked before use them for maybe half an hour if they were short-armed and couldn't just hold the side of the pool.

You're not going to drown, and it's okay to dislike him for making you do what you fear and it's okay to not look forward to doing things that scare you. Having bad feelings is because you have anxiety, though, not because you should stop. Him being demanding provides some emotional distance for you that you can take advantage of, because you don't swim by flexing your emotions. Let his demeanor help you set a professional, unexcited tone.

I would encourage you to practice blowing bubbles on your own, as others have advised. You can sit on a step or kneel in the shallow end to do this. You're doing great, and you probably feel so rotten about it because you are SO CLOSE to getting it right. That's the worst moment in learning a physical activity - just before you stay upright on the bike, just before you actually serve the ball over the net, the last crappy knot before you tie it right.

A month from now, you're barely going to be able to remember what it felt like to be afraid of the water. This is so close to being behind you.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:11 AM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

I should add that with my adult learner classes, a fear of water was very common. Most students. And hey, why not? It's a healthy response to possible danger.

The only real way to address it is by increasing your comfort level in the water itself. You have to feel that you're OK.

With my adult learners, I found that the best way to overcome that fear was to just get on with the business at hand. The more you talked about a fear of water, the more insurmountable it became, so you just focus on the task instead. Maybe that's what your instructor is doing here. But maybe that's not the right approach for you, in which case you should switch. But -- I don't think the instructor is doing anything wrong, it's just not the right approach for you, which is perfectly OK.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:16 AM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding what Lyn Never says. Not being able to swim while in the water is a bit like not being able to ride a bike when someone's taken the stabilizers off. Anxiety and fear and trepidation are part of the journey and a single lesson with a competent professional isn't going to magic away that lack of comfort.

However, on the plus side: once you can see the progress and begin to the lose the fear that you are a stone, not a swimmer, in the pool then you're over a huge hump. From then on practice, familiarity and confidence go hand in hand.

In short: hug your bears. Your instructor has taught many people taking exactly the same path you have and if you are frightened or need to go at a slower pace then talk through that with him.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:17 AM on August 8, 2013

For people saying "he probably isn't aware, since you never mentioned it," I just want to point out, it'd take someone pretty oblivious to not notice a phobia and/or extreme reluctance like the OP appears to have.

I never had an outright 'phobia' -- I was just scared at first because it was something new and cars were fast and sometimes crashy. I am guessing the OP is more frightened than phobic necessarily-- if it was a phobia it would be tough to "come to the pool, and practice on my own."

Nevertheless, my first driving instructor totally noticed my misgivings and severe distress, and his attitude was that I needed to "push through for my own good, and just get out there and face my fears and just do it because you wanna learn, right?"

And really, that method put panic into me, that began to really hinder my learning. Thing is, I was already facing my fears, just not in the way he felt was adequate or on a pace he agreed with. I'm not saying this is this guy-- it may not be, my guy was definitely on the aggressive side-- but in the end, his 'teaching style' did not gel with me.

For the record, I also had progress-- very fast progress-- I was totally driving in heavy traffic by two lessons on a stick which I'd never driven before. But I was also more scared and not confident, which made dangerous and I began to develop severe anxiety at the thought of driving, and at the third attempt, which is when I decided to try someone else. I also wasn't calm enough to actually learn well.

So really, a bad instructor can really set you back or make things worse. There's a big difference between a healthy trepidation and terror and anxiety.

Talk to the guy. Explain your misgivings. If he pushes you too far too fast again, or belittles you for wanting to take it a bit slower-- you have my permission to find someone that will move at a pace you need to move at. There is absolutely no shame in needing to go slower, or at a gentler pace-- or to do one thing at a time, as long as you keep at it. Find a teacher that suits the way you learn. The key is, that it doesn't matter how fast you make progress, as long as progress is being made each time. You've come so far already and it's really awesome what you've done.
posted by Dimes at 9:17 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to give a slightly different answer. I briefly taught worked at a summer camp and taught swimming lessons to 10- and 11- yr olds; many had never had swimming lessons and a couple children were absolutely petrified of the water (from your description, you may fall in this category).

For a few of the kids who were terrified of swimming/water, I worked with them one-on-one. My goal for them at the end of a few weeks was not to swim, but to be comfortable in the water. This included things like putting their face in the water, holding their breath, blowing bubbles, floating, floating and kicking, jumping into shallow and the deep end. Then they could take a subsequent class with a group one they were comfortable with water, but the first few weeks were just to not be terrified of water. If a child would not get into the water without th floating device, I let them do that- but those things were slowly taken away, ideally in class 2 or 3. But it would NOT be a good idea to hold onto it for weeks and weeks, because you are not getting comfortable in the water.

From your description, OP, I wonder if it may be a better solution to work with someone one-on-one with a specific skill list just to get comfortable and then sign up for a subsequent swim class. Or check out the swimming class for people with water anxiety - I suspect that they would walk you through everything, too.

Alternatively, do you any friends who swim and would be willing to go with you to the pool and talk you through trying some of these things (i.e. putting your head in the water, floating, etc.). You could do that in supplementation to your class- but I can't tell how strong your anxiety is in regards to swimming and water.

Also, congrats. It takes a lot to face the fear and take such a class. As one human to another, I admire and respect anyone who faces down a fear like that and takes steps to overcome it.
posted by Wolfster at 9:18 AM on August 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I don't think this instructor is bad or awful or wrong...but it sounds like your particular mode of learning and overcoming your fears is a bit beyond his level of understanding, and that's ok. He's probably used to teaching folks to swim who don't necessarily have the same anxieties you do. I feel that its totally fine to find someone who is a bit more sensitive to your needs.

I don't think that by taking it more slowly, or by using floatation devices for a time period that you suddenly 'won't learn to swim.' It sounds like what you really need to focus on isn't so much the rote mechanics of swimming just yet, but a comfort level with the water.

I remember learning to kayak as a kid and learning how to escape from a capsize with a bottom assist or a roll quite literally paralyzed me. I had a patient instructor who indulged my odd requests that slowly made me more comfortable until I could do it on my own.

Its your fear and you are already taking steps to address it. Why not do it on your own terms?
posted by jnnla at 9:24 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd like to say two things. 1) I admire your bravery. 2) For practicing breathing with your face in the water: I could never blow out a steady stream of bubbles until an instructor taught me to hum underwater. Hum a steady note and you'll get a steady, reliable stream of bubbles coming out your nose. If you're submerged entirely, no one can hear you underwater so don't be embarrassed.

I still do this when I've been away from swimming for a while (which is every year) until I get the hang of what it feels like again.

I really don't know if you should stick with this instructor or not, but the practicing you're doing on your own sounds great.
posted by purple_bird at 9:27 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd also state that you're going to a swimming instructor, not a psychiatrist/psychologist.

He may know some "tricks" to help you get over your fear of water, but only you (and maybe a therapist of some kind) can "get over" that.

He is there only to help you learn to swim. Don't put more on him than that.
posted by kuanes at 9:29 AM on August 8, 2013

When I was learning how to fly on airplanes, the captain unfortunately would not just let me get in the plane, and then get off, and then maybe taxi for a while, and then pull over and let me out.

I got in the plane, I strapped myself in, and we went where the plane was going.

Then I did it again.

You wrote: but I couldn't kick and therefore drown.

No. Just like my phobia wasn't going to crash the plane, your phobia is not going to drown you. You are accompanied by a professional, and surrounded by other people. You are not going to die learning how to swim. You are however going to be scared and unhappy!

But you are doing an amazing job. Getting in and practicing was really brave. You're going to be SO HAPPY you did this!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:33 AM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

So I used to be a swimming instructor and I have some limited experience dealing with teaching adults but mostly I taught kids.

I dunno, he's a swimming instructor, not a therapist.

I have to second this. This doesn't mean your instructor has an excuse to be mean or insensitive, but being a swim instructor takes on the order of 50 hours of training - maybe? Your instructor may sincerely not realize the extent of your discomfort or may not know how to deal with it. It does sound like he is teaching you the first basic steps of learning how to swim though, so that's positive.

Swim instructors also are somewhat biased - somewhat obviously, they're comfortable in the water. So they may be a bit blind to people with a fear of swimming. I don't know your instructor but as others have said, it may be worth simply being honest with him. Not everyone is super-great at reading people. Just say how you feel and what you want. Thankfully as an adult you can actually do this, which is the one upside of teaching adults over teaching kids.

From your description it does sound like a lot for the first lesson, but it all sounds like normal things to do. Learning to feel comfortable sinking is part of the process.

I'm really sure that you can get through this and get comfortable with the water. But a lifetime fear isn't something that you can get over in one day. Please do keep at it! Swimming is both fun and an important safety skill. It's always your prerogative to change instructors if you don't feel comfortable and regardless of whether this person is doing "the right thing" or not. Only you can define whether you feel comfortable or not so if this person isn't working for you, don't feel bad about finding a different instructor. That said, I don't think I'd expect a different instructor to do anything very different, but you might like their interpersonal style better.

Good luck and keep at ot!
posted by GuyZero at 9:34 AM on August 8, 2013

Also, it is normal not to use a flotation device. A flotation device isn't even a crutch - it will actively interfere with you learning to swim. Those floatie swimsuits and water wings that little kids wear are the worst thing ever. As others have said, your instructor is right there and will not let you drown. Instructors and lifeguards are trained to get you to safety if you have a seizure and a heart attack at the same time while in the deep end. I'm assuming you're starting your learning in the shallow end where you can probably just stand up if anything goes horribly wrong.
posted by GuyZero at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2013

Do you have swim goggles? I learned how to swim about five years ago as an adult, and goggles made all the difference. I had a total fear of water and just time spent getting more comfortable in the water helped a lot generally.

I'm still not comfortable exhaling underwater, the humming idea sounds like a good idea, and is still something I need to work on. I discovered a trick to water not going up my nose while in the water (act like you're going to make the T sound only hold your tongue where it is, and don't let the air out) but I'm not an expert.
posted by no relation at 9:44 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to add another data point, what your instructor is doing sounds totally normal to me, I took nearly 10 years of swimming lessons.

It sounds pretty similar to the way I was taught to swim when I was 5. We weren't allowed to use any kind of flotation devices at all--they really do interfere with you learning to swim.

Think of it this way, your instructor is telling you to to repeat the "kick off from the wall and glide" exercise over and over again, despite your struggling because he is watching you, knows that you can do it, and knows that you are not going to drown.

I kept repeating the "kicking from the wall" thing but I couldn't kick and therefore drown.

No. You didn't drown. You didn't even come close to drowning. You might go into panic mode, but it's important to remember that you did not drown.
posted by inertia at 10:36 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds totally normal to me, too, and I took swimming lessons last year.

I think that perhaps he didn't understand just how deep your fear of water goes, especially if you didn't talk to him or make your expectations clear before the class. You should do that next time, and also consider therapy to deal with your phobia on a broader level.

Seconding swim goggles. Being able to see underwater makes a world of difference.

Also, I don't know how much this will help, but: You are not going to drown. Even leaving aside the trained professional not two feet away from you, the shallow end of most pools is what, 4 feet? One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that if I ever felt like I was going to drown, all I had to do was stand up. Even if the water was above my head, I could jump and take a breath of air. Knowing that helped me be significantly more comfortable in the water.

And yes, congratulations! It took me almost fifteen years to get back in the water after a traumatising experience with a swim instructor (long story, mostly bad communication to blame for that.) What you're doing takes a lot of courage, go you and don't give up!
posted by Tamanna at 10:46 AM on August 8, 2013

What I figured out with swim goggles was that without them I wasn't putting my face in the water the whole way, and that messes with your balance in the water and keeps you from floating. Once I could see the bottom of the pool I realized partly what I was doing.

Also I took some time outside of the lessons and just played with floating, balancing, figure out where my tipping point was, etc. Also did lots and lots of kicking.
posted by no relation at 11:02 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, an important thing to remember: You are not going to die if you get water up your nose. It is uncomfortable, but that's it — uncomfortable. I swam competitively for years and when you are doing that — flip turns, backstroke, etc., you get water up your nose no matter how good you are. I had a coach who had us do it on purpose just to desensitize us. And while that may be advanced for you right now, just remember — discomfort is not death.
posted by dame at 11:03 AM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I completely to agree with Wolfster's comments above about looking into private lessons.

I'm also a bit surprised at the comments/advice otherwise in this thread who seem to be telling the OP to "suck it up and learn to swim".

It seems to me, that an adult who never has learned to swim will be (at least) fearful and (at most) very much afraid of the water, and should be treated differently than a 5 year old learning to swim. You don't need to be a therapist to figure that out.

I taught swimming lessons for years, mostly children, but a few adults (privately) and I was very sensitive to my student's fears in every case. In one case in particular, I was teaching a woman who was getting married and wanted to snorkel with her husband on her honeymoon. Only, she was terribly afraid of putting her face in the water. I took all of my queues from her (with gentle pushing along the way) and got her where she wanted to be over 8 weeks. All it takes is paying attention to how people react to what they're being asked to do and adjusting accordingly.

I think you'd just have a better experience with a one-on-one lesson from an instructor who makes you feel comfortable.
posted by CorporateHippy at 11:48 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a one-time lifeguard, it sounds like a normal situation to me. The standard YMCA lessons are going to be pretty basic because there is not much time or individual attention.

I have seen advertisements for lessons geared towards people who are extra afraid. (Kind of like those dentists who advertise that they are coward-friendly?) I don't know what those lessons would entail, but perhaps more numerous sessions given at a slower pace. You could also try to buy some individual lessons.

But my advice is to remain in the current situation. I think it is good that you practice on your own between lessons. Swim instruction is merely a starting point and you will need to do 99% of your learning/acclimating/conditioning on your own. Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 11:57 AM on August 8, 2013

Another thing your instructor's method is trying to teach you, is to get you used to trying to follow instructions in the face of your own panic and perhaps fatigue. As a person who may eventually be a swimmer, you are voluntarily taking the responsibility to put yourself in situations where you might get into serious problems (riptides, unexpected wave actions, etc.), where you'll be the object of a rescue by others. Learning to take directions from others, in spite of your immediate emotional state, is really important to being able to help yourself, and cooperate with rescuers in such situations.

If the Coast Guard ever has to drop a rescue swimmer and basket on you, the rescue swimmer will not be impressed with your gasped explanations of your possible phobias about heights and small baskets. He will appreciate you doing exactly what you're told to do, when you're told to do it. So, learn to do as you're told, as best you can, when you're told to do so, along with swimming, floating, and breathing techniques.
posted by paulsc at 12:27 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

If this is a group class with kids, they are going to move at a certain pace. It's possible that this instructor might just not be a good fit for you, but if you take group swimming lessons with kids this is pretty much how they work.

You might be more comfortable in a class for adults who are first time swimmers, or private lessons.

The staff members at the Y that I've talked to told me that he's a good instructor

You need to get recommendations specifically for someone who is a good instructor for adults who don't know how to swim. See if you can talk with the instructor before signing up for class, and discuss your concerns with them.

Also, staff members at place X are not going to say anything about an instructor working at place X that implies they are not a good instructor. Maybe you can find some online forums that discuss people in your situation learning to swim and find some recommendations there.
posted by yohko at 1:32 PM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Um, and just to put this into perspective, you need to feel the fear and do it anyway, but I don't think you need to concern yourself with the coast guard just yet. The coast guard are very rarely called to indoor suburban public pools, so as long as you stick to those and stay out of the briny deep, you'll be pushing yourself as hard as you need to for now.
posted by tel3path at 1:43 PM on August 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

did not take the time to help me become comfortable with the water (submerging my face in the water, etc.)

I think this phrase is what was behind cartoonella's comment, with the lack of references to who submerged your face and whether or not submerging your face was a thing that happened, cortoonella seems to have assumed the worst.

Yeah, if someone else shoved your face in the water and held it there, that is a bad thing.

I'm guessing that you were wanting some sort of guided activity around being told to submerge your face. You can do this at home.

If you are looking for someone to actually stick your face in the water and force you to keep it there, I doubt you will find a licensed instructor who is willing to do so. This is very dangerous, and you should avoid hiring or convincing someone to do this to you.

I kept repeating the "kicking from the wall" thing but I couldn't kick and therefore drown.

I'm not sure if this means you felt you couldn't kick because you would drown, or that you did kick and it caused you to drown.

Just sinking is not drowning, if you had a near drowning involving considerable water in your lungs you should go to the hospital. Just getting a bit of water in your nose or coughing a bit is not drowning.

There are other swimming strokes, and a different approach to teaching may start you off with a different one.
posted by yohko at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm sure this instructor is very good at what he does, but he doesn't seem like a good fit for you. Have you told him you are afraid of the water and you would like help overcoming that fear before you learn the basics of actually swimming?

The thing with phobias is that it's not really a matter of "just pushing through" since that can sometimes backfire, leading to further entrenchment of the fear. A swimming instructor doesn't need to be a therapist, but a good instructor of any kind will observe their students' particular needs and work with them.

A tough love approach often doesn't work with students (of any subject) who are experiencing anxiety and fear. I speak from experience both as an instructor (not of swimming) and as a person with fear of the water who has taken swimming lessons. I have taken swimming lessons from people who had a tough love approach and it did not work for me; I did not improve much at all, and I absolutely dreaded every lesson. I then took group lessons intended for adults with a fear of the water and made much more progress.

If you tell this instructor you need help with overcoming your fear of the water, but he is not able to help you with that, by all means switch to another one. (Again, I recommend private or group lessons specifically aimed at people afraid of the water.) Try not to think of it as "quitting," and reframe it as finding an instructor who has a style that works with your needs.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:31 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try another instructor. While I agree that floaties and such won't teach you to swim well in and of themselves, they are very helpful in helping you feel comfortable and secure in the water. Once you're more confident with your skills, you can get rid of them. You aren't ruined as a swimmer for using tools like floatation devices when you're just starting out. I don't understand this hard-line approach to learning to swim. Take your time. Use tools and equipment to get yourself to the point where being in water isn't scary. Find an instructor who will get in the water with you and gently hold you up while you get comfortable with floating and gliding. Again, as soon as you feel comfortable, assistance can be withdrawn.

As someone who was "taught" how to breathe underwater by a horrible instructor who just pushed me under for a count of 10, I know that not all instructors understand how to teach skills well and how to make their students feel comfortable. I went on to find good instructors and became a confident swimmer who swam competitively and doesn't hesitate to swim in the ocean.

You can do this and it can be a comfortable and wonderful process. You don't have to suffer through tough love approaches that make you scared and uneasy. You can move beyond your fears with an instructor who is compassionate and willing to teach you without making you go through exercises that have you in fear of sinking or choking on water.
posted by quince at 2:34 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't want to be a dick, but these are swim lessons at the Y and you get what you get. I would try to find another instructor, but:

As a one-time lifeguard, it sounds like a normal situation to me. The standard YMCA lessons are going to be pretty basic because there is not much time or individual attention.

There are other places to take swim lessons, and some might work better for you, but if you signed up for the basic, cheapo YMCA class, this is pretty standard.

And you are not going to drown in swim class. Your instructor is a lifeguard, there's probably another lifeguard on deck, and no one is going to let you drown. Even if you try to drown on purpose, you're not going to drown.

And no swimming instructor is going to let you use flotation devices.

(I just taught myself how to properly swim recently, too. Had a panic attack swimming in open water a few years ago. Understand, more or less, where you are coming from).
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:49 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Something you can try, which a friend who teaches swimming suggested long ago: Go into the pool where the water is up to your chest. Take the biggest breath you can possibly take (to the point where it almost hurts). Lift up your feet from the bottom of the pool. All that air in your body should help you to float. Don't try to do anything else than float. If you start to lose it, you just put your feet down and you're standing out of the water. This will help you to become accustomed to how your body feels while floating, but without having to be in the deep end. As you become comfortable with this, you can try taking in less and less air, and you should find yourself floating lower and lower. You will start to feel for how much air you need in your lungs in order to just float without any other body motion. After a little while this should hopefully feel calming, since you aren't actually doing anything but feeling the water sway you around a bit.
posted by markblasco at 3:53 PM on August 8, 2013

I think this is the wrong class for you. This is for people who are already happy in the water and want to learn strokes. You need a water confidence class.

When I taught swimming lessons, there was a level 1 that was blowing bubbles, floating front and back, and opening your eyes under water. There was probably also some kicking, but mostly it was ten lessons of getting comfortable in the water. Many kids didn't need it, but the one's that did couldn't have done the class you describe.

Can you get a few private lessons before going back to the class? Ask for someone other than the your current instructor, because he doesn't seem to be particularly empathetic. Or muck around in the shallow end by yourself until you can go underwater and blow bubbles and open you eyes easily. Also float. Floating is useful. (I assume the class was quite large? Because otherwise, I can't understand why he kept asking you to do the same thing when it obviously wasn't working.)
posted by kjs4 at 6:36 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm with Dimes: I got a driving phobia because I had a driving instructor who blew off my fears and made me charge ahead anyway even though I was paralyzed with fear. You do not want to continue with an instructor who is already making you feel this bad after one lesson. It will not improve from there. Maybe he's not a bad instructor, but he is not emotionally equipped to deal with someone who's this scared. Maybe he was never that scared himself, I don't know, but if he can't deal with your fear first before he teaches, he's not for you.

And the people who are all "all instructors are like that"--come on. You swimming instructors have to see a fair number of people who are actively scared of the water. It cannot be totally uncommon in your profession. This is right up there with dentists who claim to have no idea how to deal with someone with a gag reflex--don't tell me I am literally the only one in your entire practice who starts to puke when you shove pointy objects as far back in my throat as you can get and you just don't know how to deal with it! It's his job to be able to deal with scared people, and if he's making you more scared, leave!

Go to the Y and tell them that this instructor is not working out for you and you need to change people, and ask who they think specifically is good at dealing with people who have a water phobia.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:10 PM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I actually have a childhood memory of the moment I realized I could swim underwater and stopped being afraid of drowning.

It's one of the most powerful memories of my life.

And, yes, as many have said, the only way I could possibly have gotten to that moment was by being told -- as a three year old, mind you -- that I needed to just put my head under the water and try. This was when I was physically small enough that, not only could I have drowned in an inch of water, there was no way I could even stand up or have physical control of my surroundings in a swimming pool.

I needed to have that moment of trust that, by putting my face under the water, I would be vulnerable, but that my teacher wouldn't let me die.

If people let their toddlers do this, I promise you that you will be OK. And the moment you realize you're OK will be incredibly liberating.
posted by Sara C. at 10:17 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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