In preparing for my first Beginners Swim Class at the YMCA last March, I thought I would give a brief talk about who I was, what the goal of the class was, and how I hoped everyone in the class would be able to reach their goals as a swimmer in the short six weeks that we would have together. But as I began that first class, with all of two people in it, one who could swim to some degree and another woman who was afraid of the water, I quickly realized that the fearful swimmer wasn’t much of an English speaker, so my first class offered up my very first challenge before we had even gotten into the pool, one I had never considered; how do I get my instructions across to this one person?
Luckily this student was brave and game and after only six weeks she was able to flutter kick with flippers and a basic breaststroke pull across the entire 25 yard pool, wow, a success! Since then she has returned to take another class and is on the verge of being able to swim freestyle the length of the pool, something that I don’t think either of us imagined that first day.
My start as a swimming instructor began like many things in life, sometimes you just find yourself in a position where an opportunity presents itself and you reach out and grab the opportunity without a whole lot of thought. That’s kind of how I came to teach three beginner swim classes a week at one of the YMCAs in my area, and now four different sessions and six months later there are many lessons learned, and many more to be learned. Each new student is unique in their backgrounds, fears, and physicality, as I try to take them from either afraid of the water, or maybe just “fearful”, or to someone that says they know how to swim and are “self-taught”, or to those that have some basic skills but still struggle with their breathing or need stroke correction. But how did I get here I still wonder?
Right before the COVID pandemic hit I was part of a group of local Masters swimmers that received instruction and certification as lifeguards at the Masters pool we swim at. This was done as a precautionary measure by the Head Coach as our City requires that all coaches be lifeguard certified, as a back-up to the city supplied lifeguard. None of us had intentions of actually working as a lifeguard per se, we just wanted to have the certification to satisfy the cities requirement “just in case” we needed to fill in for the Coach. I was the only swimmer in the group with a USMS (United States Masters Swimming), coaching certification, Level 1&2, so I was the likely candidate to step in.
Well fast forward nearly two years, through the COVID pool closures and gradual opening of the pools, with the reintroduction of first one swimmer per lane, then two people per lane, and then eventually completely re-opened, and our head coach was looking for people to be assistant coaches and fill in on a regular basis as he took on other coaching work. I began coaching Friday nights, “Fast Fridays”, writing my own sets and enjoyed being on deck and working with the Master swimmers, most of whom I swam with on a regular basis.
At the same time, I had joined the local YMCA as I had been working on my own strength training program at home, as many of us did during the COVID lockdown, and I realized that I needed to get back into a more regular and more rigorous routine. I also knew that my lifeguard certification for the City was going to expire shortly, and that the YMCA had an upcoming class to certify lifeguards and that the City would accept the YMCA’s certification as a lifeguard to meet their requirements. I signed up, took the class, and was able to continue coaching on deck.
At the same time there was a change in the head coaching position in our Masters program, so I thought with a new Head Coach coming on board, with his own staff, that I would soon be out of a job. The thing was, as soon as I had completed the YMCA certification program, Madison, the Aquatic Director at the Y asked if I wanted to work as a lifeguard as all the staff (mostly students), had left when the pools shut down because of COVID; they had returned home to do remote learning. The Y was so short staffed that they couldn’t offer the classes and open swim times that they wanted and were looking for staff to hire. I really didn’t want to be a lifeguard working 10-15 hours a week, but saw that there was an opportunity to teach swim classes as there were no adult swim classes on the schedule. Madison said they were unable to offer classes as nobody was available to teach them, and this is where the opportunity arose.
I told Madison about my USMS coaching certification, and that I had taken a class in how to teach adults how to swim, the ALTS (Adult Learning-to-Swim), class and maybe I could teach a beginners swim class for adults. She was excited to hear my offer so we talked it over to decide what I could do, when I would be willing to teach the class, or classes, and who we would be reaching out to. Madison said I would need to apply as an employee to become a swim instructor for the Y, so while that process unfolded, we worked out a schedule.
She thought we needed to offer one early morning class and one evening class for people that worked. We settled on a Monday 8AM class and a Tuesday evening 6PM class, also leaving open the options to teach private lessons before or after these classes as currently there was a back log of swimmers waiting for lessons for all the same reasons, everyone but one person had left! We have since added a 5PM Tuesday evening class as the 6PM class was wait listed.
That’s how I wound up teaching my first beginners swim class last March and how in hindsight I really didn’t know what I was getting into. My background as a triathlon coach and as an assistant Masters coach was always with people that were highly motivated and physically able to swim/bike/run or at least swim, and at a pretty high level compared to say maybe the general population of America?
Even the people that show up with more athletic ability to the classes don’t automatically have the ability to relax and breathe in the water, or to perform the basic recovery moves to go from floating either face down or on their backs to standing. I’m not talking about kicking, breathing in time with the kick, or rolling to breathe so water isn’t rushing into their mouths and nose, or even learning the proper freestyle stroke technique. Just going from floating to standing poses a challenge for a lot of people, and I had to figure out how to make each of them feel safe and comfortable in the water before I could move them on to even thinking about kicking or swimming across the length of the pool, especially across the deep end of the pool.
Adults all come to the class from different points in life, in their lives, with fears, anxiety, stress, and with the idea that as a 23 year old, or a 37 year old, or even a retired 72 year old, it isn’t too late to learn how to swim. Many relay childhood experiences of near drowning, or the knowledge of others that had those experiences, while others simply do not have it in their culture to swim in a local pool, river, lake, reservoir, or ocean.
I grew up with parents that technically didn’t know how to swim, but who knew how to float, bob, and maneuver in the ocean waters off the south shore of Long Island, and in the north shore of the Long Island Sound. As such I also never learned how to swim growing up, but after spending many a summer day at the beach and especially spending many summers playing in my friend’s backyard pools, I didn’t have a fear of being in the water, holding my breath, bodysurfing the waves, etc., while still lacking any formal swimming instruction. I could swim out to the buoy line at Bar Beach, I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but we also knew how not to drown, something that many of the people I am seeing are really afraid of and it overwhelms them while they struggle to learn the basic components of swimming that I am teaching.
As a side note, I personally did not get any formal instruction on how to swim until I was 33 years old, and that was only for four weeks. I didn’t join a Masters swim program until five years later, so it wasn’t until I was 38 that I really learned how to swim.
Again, not really knowing who I was going to be dealing with, I had to quickly learn to put myself in their shoes, or flippers as it turns out, and find not only that part of myself that remembers what it is like to be afraid of being in the water, but also to have the empathy and understanding for these adults, from all ages and backgrounds, and to get them to trust me to help them overcome these fears, and to move past all that and take the steps, baby steps at first for most of them, to becoming a swimmer.
This has exposed a part of myself that I hadn’t really had to show in my past life as an engineer, an age-group triathlete and Coach, competing with and working with athletes at a very high level. Suddenly people were relying on me to steady them as they struggled with their balance in the pool, as they started to go under after unsuccessfully trying to bring their knees to their chest while rotating their bodies upright and then standing after floating face down in the pool. I knew inherently that not everyone would be able to do everything I was showing them right away, but I naively thought they would catch on quicker.
And it wasn’t just my actions on saving them, or guiding them to perform each new move, it’s also being calm and present with them, each of them as the individuals they are, talking them through each of the phases of their development. I still enjoy seeing the look on their faces when for the first time in their lives they are kicking in the pool, hanging on to a kickboard, sometimes for seemingly dear life, an item they have never used in their lives, and then as I remind them to breathe, slow down their kicking, relax their shoulders, release their death grip on the kickboard (I tell them it’s their friend and they are strangling it!), and slowly release my own grip on the front of the board while I gently pull them along, they realize that they are moving along in the water, still hanging on to some degree of fear and trepidation, but they are doing it themselves and we both get to enjoy that moment.
For many the moment comes to an end when they realize that we are approaching the deep end of the pool (starting at 3’, going to 4’, 4’6” and then 7’), where I generally stop around the 4’ mark so everyone can stand up, very happy to touch the bottom and grab onto the side of the pool again and catch their breath. Note, I get the wall lane so that everyone has something to grab onto, besides the lane lines.
And then we turn around and return to the shallow end of the pool, many of them visibly relieved to be as far away from the 7’ end as possible, where we stop and celebrate this first big step on their way to learning how to swim. The challenges from this point on continue, as I correct their kicking (straight but not stiff legs means straight legs, no “bicycle kicking!), get them to put their faces into the water and exhale, to rolling to breathe to the side, introducing a single catch and pull, and then eventually taking away the kickboard and introducing them to the next steps in their progression.
After my first week of teaching these classes, having reviewed the notebook from the ALTS class many times already beforehand, I re-read the very first page. Right there in black and white it clearly stated, “Have no expectations.” Once I saw that, again, and it finally registered what that meant, I was able to don all the different hats I needed to help each person on this journey. I was a swim instructor, life coach, confidant to their fears, a steady hand to catch them when they slipped or sank, sometimes all at once.
I don’t know who learns more from each of these sessions, but after spending the better part of an hour with them, week after week, I have learned how to tailor my way of teaching, how I learned to swim, to each of them because it’s no longer about how I do it, it’s how I can get them to do it. My own personal needs for reward have been pushed aside, now I get to reward them for their hard work as they learn to become the swimmers they hoped to be.
For a deeper dive on my ALTS certification experience, check out this blog post: