For some people, learning how to swim comes naturally. For others, a deep ingrained fear of swimming prevents them from ever crossing this barrier. There’s no doubt that confronting the fear of swimming is a lot easier said than done, but it is possible with the right amount of effort and perserverance.
You can get over the fear of swimming by doing the following:
- Find a swimmer willing to accompany you in the water.
- Find a controlled water environment to practice in.
- Walk in the shallow part of the water.
- Work towards submerging your head underwater.
- Practice floating on the water’s surface.
- Practice moving around in the water with a kickboard.
- Simulate proper breathing technique with a kickboard.
- Practice proper breathing technique without the kickboard.
- Be persistent!
While carrying out these steps, keep in mind that there’s no rush. In order to see success, you have to be patient and progressively work towards your long term aspirations by executing these small tasks week after week. Read further to get the details on how to approach each of these steps and yield results.
Step 1: Find a Swimmer Willing to Accompany You in the Water
The very first step in getting over the fear of swimming is to find an experienced swimmer that’s eager to assist you on your campaign. This person can be a lifeguard, swim instructor, or just an experienced swimmer that you happen to know.
Aside from knowing how to swim, you should be fairly selective in choosing who will act as your support system, since they have the capacity to make or break your success. It might be easy to find someone who knows how to swim, but it’s relatively difficult to find someone who possesses the qualities needed for this type of undertaking.
Furthermore, this partner should have solid communication skills, as they’re entrusted with the duty of describing exactly what the problem is and how to go about fixing it.
For these reasons, it’s often best to team up with an accredited swim instructor since they’re trained to have these positive interpersonal qualities. Not only that, but they help to give off a reassuring air of safety.
As a last bit of advice on this step, be sure that the swimmer is genuinely willing to come into the water with you. Those of you that fear swimming will benefit greatly from having someone else in the water with you, rather than having someone telling you what to do from the pool deck.
Step 2: Find a Controlled Water Environment to Practice In
Once you’ve found your partner in crime, the next major step is to locate a controlled water environment to conduct your training.
Open water—like a lake, river, or ocean—is not ideal for this type of training under most circumstances. This is due to the fact that there are many variables that lie beyond your sphere of control, which can hinder your progression. Examples of these unchecked variables include:
- adverse weather conditions
- aquatic life
- floating natural debris
- murky water
- sharp, rocky ground surface
The best type of controlled water environment is likely none other than your local swimming pool because of its easy access, constant safety supervision, and relative lack of uncontrolled variables.
Nonetheless, there still may be certain distracting elements at the pool—like loud noises and big splashes—you should take efforts to avoid.
The best way to deal with these distractions is to choose a quiet time to go to the pool. Typically, I’ve found that lunchtime or nighttime is when my local swimming pool is the least busy. At other times, there may be organized activities currently in session, such as swimming lessons, lap swimming, and water aerobics classes.
Once you’ve found a solid time and place for your training, make a habit of practicing at the same exact place, at the same exact time on a weekly basis. This way, you can begin to gain a familiarity with your swimming area.
Knowing the exact water depth of the pool and the location of the nearest lifeguard may seem trivial, but these tidbits of knowledge can help provide a sense of personal safety while you’re practicing.
This consistency, combined with a lack of distraction, can help to promote a calm, stable mindset in the water. When you’re less prone to feelings of panic, you’re far more likely to succeed down the road.
Step 3: Walk in the Shallow Part of the Water
After all this prep work has been done, the next step is to actually face the water itself. Before we delve into the intricacies of this step, know that this process will take time. So long as you progress, you should pay very little attention to the timeline of getting over your fear of swimming. Just keep moving the needle forward, bit by bit.
That being said, the only thing that you might do on your first day is dangle your legs in the shallow end of the pool. If you do that, then you’ve done your duty for the day. The whole goal of this step is to gradually develop a sense of comfort with being around the water, so even the briefest amount of contact with the pool counts as a win.
With each passing session, you should figure out a way to build upon your previous experience.
If you sat and dangled your legs in the water on the very first day, maybe the next time you sit on the pool steps. Following that, maybe you walk down the steps until your waist deep and stand there for several minutes. Then, once you’ve grown comfortable with that, you can finally begin to wade into the shallow end of the pool.
No matter your starting point, this is where you’ll most likely have to rely on your partner for support. They will have to play a critical role in helping you to slowly push your comfort zone.
Once you work past this step, celebrate! Often times, this is the biggest stumbling block that people face when confronting their fear of swimming.
Step 4: Work Towards Submerging Your Head Underwater
Next, you want to shift your efforts towards immersing yourself completely underwater, including your head. To make this process easier on yourself, you may want to consider wearing a swim cap and goggles.
Wearing a swim cap will help to secure any loose hair strands and prevent water from flowing onto your face once you’ve resurfaced. This will help to stop any water from trickling into your nose and mouth, helping you to feel more at ease.
The goggles will afford you crystal clear visibility underwater. Seeing underwater can help ward off any rising feelings of panic that may come about with this training exercise. Not only that, but goggles will also protect your eyes from being overly exposed to the water.
Gently lowering your head underwater can be an intimidating prospect at first, so you will likely have to take things fairly slow and work your way up to this step. A sample progression of how to approach this is provided below:
- Bend at the knees until your shoulders are underneath the water. Your head and neck being the only parts of your body lying above the water’s surface. It may take an entire session for you to accomplish this, and that’s completely fine!
- Lightly splash your face with water. The purpose of this progression is for you to develop a tolerance for the feeling of water on your breathing passages. Again, make sure to go at your own pace, however slow that pace may be.
- Blow bubbles underwater. The upper half of your face should still lie above the water’s surface.
- Immerse your entire head underwater. It may help quell your fears if you hold your nose as you lower yourself. At first, you should only spend a couple seconds beneath the water’s surface. It may take hundreds of repetitions of you bobbing up and down to truly feel at ease underwater.
- Bob down underwater, blow out bubbles, and resurface. Do this when the aforementioned progressions feel too easy.
- Hold your breath underwater. This is the final step in the progression, so you should begin to safely push the boundaries of how long you’re able to keep your head underwater.
With all of these progressions, it will help if you stay close to a wall and hold onto it for reassurance. This will provide a sense of stability and safety throughout these exercises.
Step 5: Practice Floating on the Water’s Surface
After you’ve overcome your fear of getting your face a bit wet, it’s time to practice floating.
This step will be a bit difficult to take on at first, as this will be the first time that your feet will be leaving the ground surface. For this reason, it make take some time to get used to the feeling of trusting the water to hold you up.
So if you panic initially, don’t worry about it! That’s perfectly normal.
To start off, you should hold onto the wall for support and try to allow your body to float at the water’s surface. Only later should you let go of the wall and work on floating without its assistance.
If you struggle to keep your body at the water’s surface, breathe deeply into your lungs before attempting to float, as the extra air will increase your natural buoyancy.
You can find more information on exactly why deep breaths aid in human buoyancy by clicking over to Does Holding Your Breath Help You Float? (Solved!).
Another helpful strategy is to spread out your limbs to cover the most amount of surface area possible. By doing this, you maximize your contact with the water’s surface, permitting additional water to support your body weight.
Lastly, you should keep in mind that it’s easiest to float when the body is parallel with the water, not perpendicular. It may seem natural to orient your body straight up-and-down since it’s how we walk on land, but this is detrimental to maintaining proper buoyancy.
Again, this goes back to how much water directly beneath you is able to to support your body weight. The more that you adopt a “snow angel” posture, the better off you’ll be at floating naturally.
Most humans are neutrally buoyant, meaning that their body tends to hover underwater between the water’s surface and the depths below (source).
There are certain exceptions to this rule, however. Some individuals are positively buoyant, since their body compositions lends itself to a higher body fat percentage. If you fit into this category, this phenomenon will actually help you float on the water.
Other individuals are negatively buoyant. These individuals have a denser body composition, typically featuring a low body fat percentage with a high muscle mass percentage. If this description applies to your physique, you will not be able to float.
This is not due to any fault on your part. Your anatomical makeup simply doesn’t support buoyancy.
For further information on the topic of negative buoyancy as it applies to swimming, check out Why Some People Can’t Float (Everything You Need to Know!).
Step 6: Practice Moving Around in the Water with a Kickboard
The next point of emphasis is to acquire a basic grasp of moving around the water without touching the ground.
In order to familiarize yourself with how to move in the water properly, the basic mechanics of swimming will be broken down into easy-to-follow chunks. The first “chunk” that you will center your attention around is kicking.
Although floating and swimming are related, they’re distinct from one another in that they involve different skillsets. Thus, the transition from floating to moving about the water may be somewhat tricky. To ease into this transition, you will need the assistance of a kickboard.
This flotation device is designed specifically for novice swimmers that have yet to fully grasp the art of kicking, hence the name kickboard. I would advise against using other flotation devices for this step, as they’re not optimized for learning how to kick.
Pool noodles, for instance, are not ideal due to their inherent flimsiness. Trust me, you will want something that won’t twist or bend as you churn away with your legs.
Life jackets also won’t do, simply because they will do all the work for you. With a life jacket, you can get away with mediocre technique and still move around the water efficiently. The last thing we want to do is instill bad swimming habits.
Check out the video below to see exactly how you can work on moving around the water with a kickboard.
As a reminder, remember to stay as parallel to the water as possible, not perpendicular. The more vertical you are, the harder it will be to move around.
Step 7: Simulate Proper Breathing Technique with a Kickboard
When you feel completely comfortable with the kickboard, it’s time to take things a step further. The last “chunk” that we focused on was kicking. With this next “chunk,” we will be shifting our attention to breathing, namely how to breathe during the freestyle stroke.
Unfortunately, breathing while swimming is not as simple as popping your head out of the water whenever you feel out of breath. When done properly, your breaths should be coordinated with your swimming strokes.
In the freestyle stroke, this means that your side-breath should be synchronized with the pulling movement of one of your arms. This synchronization often feels unnatural at first, which is why this is a point of emphasis for overcoming your fear of swimming.
To master your breathing technique, we will need the assistance of the kickboard once again. The exact details of this drill are outlined below:
- Float horizontally on the surface of the water. Lie belly down in order to mimic the body orientation of the freestyle stroke.
- Kick your legs. You should be moving forward while performing this drill to better replicate the act of swimming.
- Extend the kickboard outward with the hands. This will be where your hand resets as you simulate the freestyle stroke.
- Pull one arm back and take a side-breath. This should happen simultaneously, as the pulling back of your arm affords you a window of opportunity for your head to resurface for air.
- Reach out and hold the kickboard. The hand should be placed back at the original starting point.
It can be hard to picture this drill mentally, so you should refer to the clip below for a visual demonstration.
It may be better for you to start off with one arm at a time. Though, you should eventually progress to both arms and get comfortable taking side-breaths on both sides of your body.
This will take a considerable amount of time to master, so don’t expect to learn this on the first day. If you manage to tackle the issue of breathing though, you will be well on your way to overcoming your fear of swimming.
Step 8: Practice Proper Breathing Technique without the Kickboard
This next all-encompassing step will be putting everything you’ve learned—floating, kicking, and breathing—together into one drill.
This drill is essentially a rudimentary form of the freestyle stroke. You implement the same exact steps from the previous progression, just without the help of the kickboard.
You should already have a baseline level of skill in all the different “chunks” of this movement, but bringing it all together may still require quite a bit of time.
Like all the other steps in this progressive sequence, remember to be patient! Keep your sights set on the bigger picture and you’ll be sure to surmount the pinnacle of this progression.
Step 9: Learn the Basic Swimming Strokes with an Accredited Instructor
Once you’ve mastered all the previous steps in this progressive sequence, your fear of swimming should be all but conquered. At this time, you’re ready to learn the fundamentals of the universal swimming strokes so that you can handle yourself in deeper waters.
With all the previous steps, you could realistically get by with working independently in the shallow end of the pool. If you truly want to overcome your fear of swimming in its entirety, however, seeking out the guidance of an accredited swim instructor will be necessary for you to learn deep water swimming skills.
For instance, learning how to tread may seem like a rather straightforward undertaking in shallow water, but that’s an easy proposition to make with the bottom of the pool within reach at all times. Treading water with the bottom of the pool so far below is not only more physically demanding, but more mentally taxing as well.
In short, the deep end of the pool is a whole different challenge, so you must treat it like so. The progress you’ve made up until this step, however, will benefit you greatly if you do choose to continue further down this swimming journey.
As a side note, make sure to inform your instructor of your fear of the water before your lessons. That way, they can modulate the lessons so that you don’t feel any unnecessary fear.
Things to Keep in Mind When Confronting Your Swimming Fears
Now that you know exactly what it takes to vanquish your fear of swimming, I will leave you with some additional items to think about as you embark on this tough challenge.
You’re Never Too Old to Overcome Your Fear of Swimming
No matter your particular age, know that learning to be comfortable within the water is still a realistic, attainable goal. Sadly, a substantial portion of individuals that never learned growing up are under this false notion that learning how to swim is completely out of their grasp.
There’s no question that it is difficult to break free from this caged mentality, but it can be done. All you have to do is take that first step and carry that momentum forward, bit by bit.
There are multiple instances where adults have learned to overcome their fear of the water, for people that are 30, 40, 50 and older!
If you want to see proof that adults can learn how to swim in spite of their initial fears, check out the video below!
You’re Not Alone in Your Swimming Fears
When you’re tasked with confronting a fear of swimming, it can be easy to feel as if you’re alone on this journey. This is why finding another swimmer to accompany you is not only important for your own personal safety, but your social and psychological health as well.
When you’re caught up in the thick of your fears, you may be tempted to feel like no one else shares your burdens. Fortunately, this is not true, because there are thousands of other people that feel exactly the same way that you do.
Even one of the most decorated swimmers the world has come to know, Adam Peaty, feared swimming as a child. The strange feeling of losing contact with the ground was enough to alienate him from the sport as he was just learning the ropes. It was only when he stuck with it and persevered that he uncovered a hidden passion for swimming.
Peaty declared, “As soon as I knew I enjoyed the water and started having fun, I forgot about the fear” (source). Those are powerful words coming from an Olympic swimming champion.
Getting over the fear of swimming is a long, arduous process that requires a great deal of effort on your part. If you’re still having trouble facing your fears, it may help to understand the reasons why you’re having trouble in the first place.
For this reason, I recommend you read through the article 10 Reasons Why Some People Simply Can’t Swim (Explained!) so that you can get a better understanding of the root cause of your swimming fears.
Wherever you’re starting point is, get after it and good luck!
All content written by HydroPursuit is for informational purposes only. The material found on this site is not intended to replace professional medical advice, treatment, or diagnosis. Consult with an accredited health care provider prior to initiating a new health care regimen.