By societal standards, swimming is largely seen as an essential life skill. However, people fail to realize that over half the world’s population does not know how to swim (source). To put this statistic into perspective, that’s at least 4 billion people!
After reading this shocking statistic, you’re probably wondering why do some people have such a hard time with swimming compared to others?
The major reason why most people cannot swim is fear of the water. This fear could originate from past traumatic swimming experiences, negative social influences, or an inherent case of aquaphobia. Often times, the fear of swimming only worsens as an individual fails to confront their anxiety.
Although fear is typically the root cause for why people cannot swim, there are many other underlying factors to consider as well. Below, we’ll discuss all of these variables in depth to get a thorough understanding of why certain individuals do not have the capacity to swim.
1.) Feeling Discouraged by an Overwhelmingly Steep Learning Curve
One of the foremost reasons that people cannot swim is the amount of training and time required to learn this skill.
For certain individuals, swimming may just come naturally. For others, however, it’s a struggle just to stay afloat. Beginners that have a difficult time grasping the swimming basics are often discouraged by the rapid successes of those around them. In some cases, this may even cause a novice to abandon swimming altogether.
Since every swimmer is different, it’s troublesome to pin down exactly how long it will take before an individual can be fully independent in the water. Factors that may influence a first time swimmer’s learning timeline include:
- Age – Adolescent swimmers have an advantage over adult swimmers in that they will have an easier time conquering their fear of the water in most cases. On the other hand, adult swimmers will have the muscle necessary to perform the fundamental swimming movements.
- Comfortability in Water – Unfortunately, those that have an innate fear of being in the water will learn at a much slower pace. Often times, a sense of panic will interfere with an individual’s ability to trust in their swimming instructor and listen to their directions.
- Level of Fitness – Swimming is a physically taxing activity. Physically adept individuals that are accustomed to the cardiovascular rigors of swimming will tire less quickly, stay in the water for longer, and ultimately get more out of their swimming lessons.
- Swimming Lesson Schedule – Beginners should take special care to plan out their swimming lessons in advance so that they’re not spread far apart from one another. Novices that only take part in swimming lessons sporadically will have a difficult time retaining their knowledge and developing a natural amenity to the water.
A beginning adolescent swimmer should expect to wait at least six months to a year until they’re considered a fully competent swimmer (source). A typical adult swimmer that’s just starting out may not have to wait a full year, but they should still expect to wait several months until they can safely be in the water on their own (source).
Many people simply don’t have the time nor the willingness to go such extreme lengths. This high level of work just might not be worth it.
2.) Experiencing Anxiety or Discomfort with the Swimming Dress Code
In addition, the dress code for swimming may be a bit too revealing for some people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Go to any swimming pool or beach and you’re bound to find men and women lounging around with a lot of skin showing. It’s no secret that swimming suits do this. Over time, this phenomenon of “revealing swimming suits” has progressively become more and more commonplace, to the point where people feel stigmatized if they don’t follow the norm.
Many people fail to realize that some people are self-conscious of their physical appearance, even if they do not outwardly address it. As a result, certain individuals completely avoid the act of swimming so that they don’t have to confront the negative self-perception of their body. As you can probably imagine, it can be burdensome to show yourself essentially half-naked to a crowd of strangers at the pool.
Plus, it’s important to note that the value of personal space and privacy can vary from person to person. Not everyone wants to put their body on display for everyone to see, especially in such close quarters. There are certain individuals that consider their body to be an extremely intimate part of who they are. Flaunting themselves in front of random people would violate this personal sense of privacy.
3.) Difficulty in Overcoming Past Traumatic Incidents with Swimming
Furthermore, people can’t swim because of the debilitating effects of a past traumatic experience on the water.
A traumatic incident on the water can come in a variety of forms, from the death of a loved one to a personal near-drowning experience. In special cases, these painful events may even lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Contrary to popular opinion, people don’t have to experience the event themself to get PTSD. If a loved one faces a traumatic experience, it may be enough for an individual to get PTSD (source).
Whatever the traumatic incident may be, it can seriously inhibit or completely prevent a person from learning to swim. A spontaneous flashback or a sudden triggering of the fight-or-flight response can throw a novice swimmer into a distressed state. This level of stress can be so destructive that it causes an individual to be completely distracted. In extreme circumstances, certain individuals may feel like they have lost all semblance of body control in the water.
The majority of people do not want to relive these scarring affairs, so they choose to forgo swimming altogether.
4.) Suffering from a Mild Case of Aquaphobia
Another condition that may drive people away from swimming is aquaphobia. According to Medical News Today, aquaphobia is the “extreme or irrational fear of water” (source).
Those that are afflicted with aquaphobia suffer an acute amount of anxiety in the presence of water, even if the body of water is harmless. In extreme cases, even the thought of water can cause an acute amount of anxiety.
Fortunately, there are treatment methods for people that are diagnosed with aquaphobia. Some of the most common treatment methods include exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, which is commonly known by the acronym CBT.
Exposure therapy is based around a slow, steady escalation of patient exposure to water. Mental health providers begin by exposing patients to water in a controlled environment with minor stimuli. They gradually intensify these stimuli as the patient begins to build up a larger tolerance to the origin of their phobia.
CBT is often paired with exposure therapy, but it also takes on a slightly different approach to treatment. The underlying premise of CBT is to focus in on the response triggered by patient exposure to water.
Typically, those that have aquaphobia undergo similar thought and behavioral patterns when faced with water. Helping the patient to understand the mechanism behind these response patterns and why they exist will assist them greatly in coping with their anxiety.
Unfortunately, not everyone with aquaphobia is diagnosed. Consequently, they’re often not aware of these treatment options that are available to them. Without proper treatment, it’s virtually impossible for these individuals to learn how to swim.
5.) Being Negatively Buoyant in Relation to the Water
Furthermore, floating on the water is an essential part to knowing how to swim. Sadly, not everyone is naturally prone to floating on the water due to their natural body density.
Much of an individual’s buoyancy has to do with their body mass distribution. You may have noticed that people with muscular body types tend to have a more difficult time maintaining water buoyancy compared to people with plump body types. The reason for this is that fat tissue is far less dense relative to bone tissue and muscle tissue. The average density values for fat tissue, muscle tissue, and water are listed below (source):
|Substance||Average Density Value|
|Fat Tissue||0.9 g/mL|
|Muscle Tissue||1.1 g/mL|
From the table, you can see that fat tissue is actually less dense than water, whereas muscle tissue is more dense. Since water buoyancy ultimately comes down to density values, those with a higher body fat percentage are mathematically proven to have an easier time floating at the water’s surface.
In the scientific community, the phenomenon of an object not being able to float on the water is referred to as negative buoyancy. Over the years, this phrase has gradually transitioned into the realm of swimming as people have debated whether or not negative buoyancy is truly applicable to humans.
So what does this mean for people with lower body fat percentages?
Luckily, more muscular, denser individuals may still be able to float on the water’s surface by manipulating their breathing technique and body posture, which are detailed further in the next section.
6.) Not Knowing the Body Posture or Breathing Techniques for Proper Buoyancy
Yet another reason why some individuals cannot swim is a lack of knowledge in the area of buoyancy. Some people are simply unaware of the fact that your body posture and breathing techniques in the water have a crucial impact on how well you float.
For starters, lying on your back in a “starfish” position is the most effective way to stay afloat.
This position maximizes the amount of body surface area that can rest on the water, allowing additional water to prop you up and support your weight. Moreover, this horizontal body posture places your lungs in a favorable position for buoyancy, since your lungs are up close to the water surface.
As far as breathing techniques go, individuals that fill their lungs with air to maximum capacity will see a noticeable increase in their buoyancy. If done properly, your lungs will serve as a natural flotation device and prop you up on top of the water. This is why swimming instructors tell their students to take big, deep breaths when attempting to stay afloat.
It’s especially important for muscular individuals to implement these flotation tactics since they have less margin for error compared to people of normal body stature. Without the proper swimming guidance, however, it can be difficult for people to learn of these strategies on their own.
7.) Being Socially Conditioned to Doubt Your Swimming Capabilities
The next major reason on this list has to do with social conditioning.
For many people that never learned to swim at an early age, they constantly have to box themselves into the category of non-swimmers. Over time, as they continue to classify themselves as non-swimmers, they begin to identify with this categorization. Eventually, this effect can become so pronounced that it creates a psychological barrier that discourages them from attempting to swim.
Take gym class swimming for example. In the swimming unit, students have to be broken up into two categories—the swimmers and the non-swimmers—for safety purposes. Although the gym teachers may not purposefully intend to do it, they reinforce the non-swimmer label. Certain students may feel embarrassment with their grouping, driving them away from swimming altogether.
Once someone has come to terms with the fact that they’re not willing or able to swim, it will take a considerable amount of effort to break through this ultimatum.
8.) Not Having Access to Local Bodies of Water
Furthermore, access to water is a crucial determinant as to whether or not a person can swim. Swimming areas are more prevalent in some parts of the world more than others. This unequal distribution of water has a direct correlation with the unequal distribution of swimmers versus non-swimmers in the world population.
Without access to swimming facilities, it’s practically impossible to learn how to swim effectively. This was a serious problem in the era of racial segregation, when minorities were barred from having free access to swimming facilities. It is argued that this is one of the main contributing factors as to why 64% of African-American children cannot swim, compared to only 40% of Caucasian children that cannot swim (source).
Fortunately, this is far less of a problem now than it used to be in civilized countries. Local YMCA swimming programs have made tremendous strides in youth outreach by informing schools of the instructional swimming services that they offer.
Nonetheless, there are still communities out there where swimming facilities are completely unavailable. This is certainly an area in the future that should be addressed, as everyone should have the privilege of learning how to ensure their own personal safety in the water.
9.) Having a Strong Aversion to Being Wet
In addition, it’s important to consider the fact that certain people are naturally repelled by the water for no other reason than that they simply don’t like the sensation of being wet.
Unlike psychological disorders like PTSD and aquaphobia, this distinct aversion to being wet does not involve an overriding sense of fear. This type of aversion to water doesn’t disrupt normal, everyday activities. Rather, this aversion to water is considered more of a mild distaste as opposed to outright animosity.
For individuals that have no intentions of swimming in the first place, this dislike of feeling wet is reason enough to avoid swimming completely. To offer you some perspective, here are a few common reasons for why people don’t like being wet:
- Chafing due to a wet bathing suit
- Feeling of clammy skin
- Stinging caused by water droplets in the eyes
- Uneasiness caused by salt or chlorine on the skin
- Water droplets being trapped in the nose and ears
If you’ve ever taken a plunge in the water before, you probably know at least one of these discomforts firsthand. What may feel like a minor discomfort to you may be a major source of revulsion to someone else.
10.) Lacking the Urge or Desire to Learn How to Swim
Lastly, it’s important to bear in mind that a particular subset of the population sees no benefits in learning how to swim. To some of you reading right now, this may be a bit hard to believe, especially considering how much of modern culture is based around water activities. Believe it or not, it’s the way it is.
For those that never plan on swimming in the future, it wouldn’t make any sense to devote precious time and resources to learning what they consider to be a non-essential skill. That time could be spent elsewhere, doing other activities that they hold in a greater regard.
Personally, I learned how to swim at an early age, so it’s challenging for me to wrap my head around this perspective. I’m sure that there are others reading right now that share the same sentiment.
Regardless, at least attempting to understand this line of thinking has helped me to realize the true value of what I have learned. It has also opened me up to the fact that not everyone views swimming in the same light as I do. Whatever view you currently hold, do your part to treat contrasting perspectives with respect.
The Bottom Line
Typically, fear is the root cause of why most people cannot swim. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, as outlined in the sections above.
If you don’t yet know how to swim, I highly recommend that you at least try it out once. If it’s not for you, then no harm done. But if you do enjoy it, knowing how to swim will open up an entirely new realm of activities for you to take pleasure in.