How to Teach an Adult to Swim

Senior woman floating in pool, eyes closed, side view

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When teaching adults to swim, two issues are key. First, adults may be embarrassed that they have not yet learned to swim and they may lack confidence in their abilities. Second, adults tend to be very analytical and concerned about the details, which can hinder mastering the basics. This is quite different than teaching children's swim lessons — kids just want to swim, play, and have fun; they don't worry about the little things.

To teach an adult to swim, you must convince them that the details are unimportant. Instead, adult novice swimmers need to become comfortable in the water and learn to float. Read on to learn the best way to teach adults to swim.

Develop Trust

U.S. Masters Swimming says the very first thing you should do with an adult swim student is to develop trust. The group, which sponsors swimming competitions and events for adults nationally, puts it bluntly:

"Before going near the water, develop trust with your student by simply talking with them about their experience around the water and what they would like to accomplish in the lessons. Many adults who want to do lessons have issues around the fact that they have put this off for so long. Discuss this with them and reassure them that it’s never too late to learn this essential skill."

Additionally, Masters Swimming gives these tips for teaching adults:

  1. Have patience and empathy: Allow the adult novice swimmer to learn at their own pace. You are there to help and guide the student — not to push them.
  2. Encourage your students to wear goggles.
  3. Get in the water with your student(s) to demonstrate the skills you want to teach.
  4. Use the sandwich method of criticism: Tell the student what they did correctly before and after offering a critique.

Help Them Feel Safe in the Water

Find a quiet, private environment to teach adults to swim, advises Livestrong. As noted, adult novice swimmers may feel embarrassed that they don't yet know how to swim, "so don't teach them alongside children or in the middle of a crowded pool."

Livestrong also advises that you start by teaching basic kicking skills in water that's shallow enough to touch the bottom, and once your students are comfortable with that skill, teach them how to tread water. "Get them to experience the buoyancy of the head," swimming instructor Ian Cross told The Guardian, a British newspaper. "Let their head rest in the water." 

Floats and Glides

Masters Swimming says that before you even attempt to teach swim strokes, help your adult students learn to float and glide in the water, as follows:

  • Front Float: Explain to the students that when they take a deep breath, their lungs fill with air and act as a floatation device. "While holding the side, the student should back away from the wall until they are leaning into it diagonally with their arms straight," says Masters Swimming. "Tell them to take a big breath and put their face in so only the back of their head is exposed."
  • Back Float: Explain to students that while doing a back float, they can see where they are, breathe naturally, and call for help if needed. Have your students hold the wall, relax, and then bend their knees, lifting from the bottom. They should then lie on their backs, letting the water to support them. Remind students that when they take a breath, they create buoyancy, allowing them to float on the water.
  • Glide: Have students hold the gutter with one hand and two feet on the wall, and their other arm pointing down the lane. To glide, have students take a breath, put their face in the water and release the wall placing their fingers on one hand over the fingers of the other. 

The Swimming Strokes

Once you've helped the adult swim novice become comfortable treading water, floating, and gliding, begin to teach specific swim strokes. As you might have surmised, teaching the swim strokes is actually the least important part of giving adult swim lessons. But, once your students reach this point, teach the freestyle stroke first, says the blog Adequate Man. Importantly, teach students that they need to breathe on both sides of their body.

Livestrong also advises that you allow students to wear life jackets as they learn basic strokes. Remember, this isn't a competition. Teaching adults in a comfortable, slowly paced manner is the best way to proceed. If the students advance enough, you can then teach them the other basic strokes: the backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Once they are comfortable, encourage students to remove their life jackets to practice the swim strokes you have taught.