Eight year old Santosh refused to attend his swim class in school. It started with excuses of aches and pains, grew to sulking and whining, and soon escalated to bouts of terrified crying. Santosh started to have psychosomatic illnesses that made him miss not just his swim classes but his school as well. Concerned, his parents with the support of the school counsellor gently questioned him on this matter. “I will die in the pool,” he sobbed bitterly.
After much questioning and prodding, the truth came out. The swim teacher, irritated with his reluctance to swim, would often employ threat techniques like dunking or holding his head down in the water to get him to ‘behave’. “What if he is angry with me and does not lift me up?” was a fear he tackled every swim class. His anxiety was real. He did believe he would drown.
Feeling vulnerable and distrustful of his swim teacher, Santosh’s initial experiences in water had cast a dark shadow in his interest in swimming – and sadly, many other activities and adventures he could have explored but didn’t because of his deep-rooted trauma.
There is a word for fear of swimming – it is called aquaphobia. But very often, a fear of swimming may be triggered not by an inherent issue like aquaphobia but because of poor learn-to-swim techniques and lack of trust in the swim teacher. This is a matter of grave concern because swimming is more than just a sport – it is a vital life skill and life-saving skill that everyone must know.
The Importance of Trust
Building trust is an important responsibility of the swim teacher, perhaps more than in any other sport, because there is a water safety risk involved in every lesson. A lack of trust can fuel fear, causing a child psychological distress and emotional trauma. Or worse, a disconnected or aggressive teacher can cause drowning accidents.
How to Build Trust
If a teacher is unable to build a rapport with the learner in the first few lessons, it can lead to doubt and distrust in the child. When in the initial lessons, if the swim teacher is not attentive or unavailable or dismissive, it can cause a fear of water in the child. Instead, teachers must pay attention and provide the learner reassurance that they are safe in the water by smiling often, having a firm and reassuring hold, learning their names and looking directly into their eyes through their lessons.
One must begin the swimming journey with inculcating the love for water and enjoying the fun element that comes with it. Start with water familiarization – yes, like splashing around, blowing bubbles and pushing balls in the water. These activities help learners get comfortable in the water, and also gives an opportunity for the swim teacher to build a connection with them through fun and play.
Do not stigmatize fear
Do not berate, humiliate or mock the learner, calling him or her demeaning names like coward or pussy. Be sensitive to the threat of peer pressure that the child may face from fellow learners. Do not allow it to happen. If the learner knows that it is okay to be vulnerable and scared, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, he or she will find it much easier to overcome their fear of water. Once they do this and learn to trust their teacher, they can familiarize themselves with the water faster and get on par with the group.
Establish an open and inclusive culture
Swim teachers should build a personal connect with students, and have open communication with them that goes beyond technicalities of swim teaching. For example, a teacher should make the effort to learn the names of their students. Even a simple gesture of replacing ‘Hey you’ or ‘Hey boy’ with their names can go a long way in establishing trust and bonding. Be sympathetic and patient towards slow learners. Also, be inclusive and do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, class, age, religion, beliefs or gender.
Gain knowledge by reading, or going through online media, or enrolling for courses, or attending events to understand the science of fear and techniques on overcoming it and building trust. Psychology offers scientific strategies for overcoming fear that teachers can adapt in their classes. Also stay updated on the latest methods of swim teaching. Generations have evolved, and to keep pace with the new generation that acts and reacts differently, teachers must tweak their teaching styles accordingly.
Work with parents and care-givers
Swim parents are key stakeholders in the evolution of the swimmer. If the learner suffers from fears, keep the parents/ caregivers in the loop, and advise them on how they can contribute towards addressing the child’s concerns. Set expectations of parents right in the beginning so as to avoid any feelings of mismatch or distrust arising in them.
In the end, remember that trust building is the most essential skill for a swim teacher. Where there is trust, the relationship with the teacher will be strong, and the learner’s engagement with the water will be long.
Can Parents Help?
The job of a parent is to equip a child with essential life skills that will keep him or her healthy, happy and safe. Swimming is an essential life skill and life saving skill that every child should know. Often the parents’ fear for the child fuels and amplifies the problems. So here are tips on how parents can work with their child and swim teacher to build trust and help overcome fears.
- Talk to the child’s teacher about your child’s fears, in advance, so that the swim teacher is more prepared to deal with the child.
- Speak positively about the swim teacher to your child. Do not berate them in front of the child or undermine the teacher’s training.
- Do not make swimming or swim teachers into scary threats, like, “Do this now or I will call for your swim teacher/ drop you into the swimming pool, etc”.
- Do not interfere with the swim lessons, especially when the class is on.
- It is important to trust the swim teacher’s knowledge and skills. Insist on a swim teacher with proper qualifications.
(Note: Swimming Matters is committed to promoting safe, correct and fun swimming and water safety practices. To learn more, visit www.swimmingmatters.in)