learning to swim as an adult
Prioritize your swimming skills

You guys may not know this about me, but I managed swimming pools for the first six years of my professional career, and was a certified lifeguard and swim instructor for 13 total years. I can’t remember a summer when I didn’t head to the local pool every single day, logging countless hours between swim lessons, swim team, hanging out with friends, and eventually working there as a teen. All those hours in the sun also probably played a big role in my bouts with skin cancer.

The point is, swimming has always felt natural to me, but I know that’s not the case for all adults. My own mother gets a little anxious around water, and the first few adults I personally taught swim lessons to were substantially more fearful than most children. Which makes sense – adults understand risk better than kids, and they’ve had more years to cultivate their fears. It’s nothing unusual, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

But it also shouldn’t stop you from learning to swim as an adult, or improving your swimming skills as an adult.

The benefits of swimming stretch beyond “fun”

Aside from the fact that swimming is just plain fun – a reprieve from hot summer days, and a great way to cross-train for other athletic endeavors – it’s also a critical life skill, one that doesn’t diminish in importance as you get older. Sue Mackie, the Executive Director of the United States Swim School Association (USSSA), says, “I feel it’s important to swim as an adult particularly if you have children – so you can participate in water activities with them, model positive behavior around water, and assist or rescue your child if he or she gets in trouble in the water. It can also enhance your life forever, offering a great form of exercise, particularly as an older adult.”

Finding adult swimming lessons or classes

The challenge, of course, is sucking it up and learning the new skill, particularly if your local swimming pool doesn’t publicize adult swim lessons. I know this first hand from having managed pools – the vast majority of lessons are marketed to children, and it’s a rare adult, indeed, who would volunteer to jump into a class with four-year-olds. (Aside from the difference in age and size, the instruction appropriate for a child versus an adult is substantial.) That doesn’t mean, though, that your local facility doesn’t offer adult lessons.

Mackie says, “Call and ask about adult programs. Check with the local swim school, YMCA, or City to see if there are group or private lessons for adults.” Understand that checking the website or program manual may not be enough, as lessons geared to adults may not be specifically labeled as “adult” lessons, but may fall under, private, semi-private, or private group lessons.

Overcoming fear to make the experience positive

The first time I taught an adult to swim, I was 16 years old and taught a woman in her 40s who didn’t speak English. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, in part because of the language barrier, in part because I didn’t really know how to adapt the programming from a child’s perspective to an adult’s perspective, and in part because the woman was so terrified that she would literally tense up and shake in fear. By the end of the course, she wasn’t a fabulous swimmer, but she could float and paddle around, and she wasn’t as terrified of the water. For what it was, it was a success.

It wasn’t until probably six years later that I had my next chance to teach an adult. Being able to communicate with the woman about her fears, and why she was so afraid, made the experience infinitely better. I could encourage and coax, reassure and back off,  throughout each lesson, helping her face her fears in a positive way. The beautiful thing about adults is that they have the mental capacity and gross motor skills to learn quickly, assuming they’re able to conquer their own mental barriers.

If one of the reasons you’re not a proficient swimmer is due to a past trauma or fear related to the water, share that with your instructor. “I once had a student over the age of 60 who wanted to learn to swim,” says Mackie, “After watching a brother drown in childhood, this person had avoided water for decades, but eventually the fear was overcome and I was able to teach the person how to swim and be comfortable in the water. It’s never too late to start, and there’s no reason to be ashamed.”

And that’s the most important takeaway. There’s no shame in being unable to swim or swim well. As Mackie reiterates, “Some people never run a foot race until retirement and no one judges them for this. Learning to swim should be viewed with the same sense of accomplishment.”

Plus, if you can swim, you can compete in triathlons, go scuba diving, feel comfortable paddle boarding, surfing, or kiteboarding. It pretty much opens up a whole new world of adventure. Why would you want to miss out on all that?

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