During the summers as a teenager I taught swimming at one of my hometown’s Olympic sized pools. From June through August six levels of classes ran simultaneously, swapping out groups of kids every 30 minutes for the two hours wedged between the morning and noon workouts of the local swim team. I’d quickly grab something to eat after workout then jump into teaching one of the two levels, that by the time I was fourteen, everybody who had a vote wanted me to teach.
One of those classes was with three and four-year-olds, the Tadpoles, as they were called. You might have been one once yourself. Most Tadpoles, although perhaps initially a little hesitant, would slip into the water easily enough with the encouragement of a friendly instructor, but not my little non-swimmers. Mine were hand picked—triaged would be more accurate—not for their stellar aquatic potential, but because it was clear they were beyond reluctant and just NOT going to get in the pool. These kids, who were probably perfectly fine everywhere else in their lives, at the pool, without a parent next to them, were scared (insert expletive).
They weren’t just anxious about getting in the pool, they were on a crying jag and in full meltdown mode as a pool attendant brought them to me. This happened so often at the beginning of each new series of lessons that it began to seem perfectly normal. Their concerned parents, sitting behind the cyclone fence twenty feet away, watched every move I made, praying the reports about me were true. The word was I could get any child in the water and make a fish out of the little rascal. All bets were on me, a kid in a Speedo. In just a couple of summers I’d become the panicked-child-at-the-pool whisperer.
This was not an accident.
When I’d been a wee Tadpole I wasn’t happy in the water either and I clung to the side of the pool for dear life. Not the best way to learn to swim. My experience helped me understand the fear my Tadpoles had of the water. Which was really a fear of the pool because there was SO MUCH water.
Plop any of these kids in their own bathtub with a few inches of warm water, some bubbles, and a couple of floatable toys and they’d be in their element feeling like Nemo. Bring them to an Olympic sized pool filled with strangers and noise—not too mention 660,000 gallons of chlorinated water—and they simply got overwhelmed. They wanted their parents and they wanted to go home. Instead, they got me.
The missing pieces from my experience as a shivering, stubborn Tadpole were an extra dose of sensitivity, some practical aquatic information, and a sense of belonging to the larger whole. My swim instructor was very kind, but it can take more than an affable personality to assuage a child’s fear. That kid needs to trust you.
So as an instructor, although I was certainly friendly, I’d start very very slowly. First, I’d sit on the side of the pool and talk to these scared little kids. With my feet dangling in the water, I’d explain that if they wanted to get in the pool with me I would hold them the entire time and put them back on the deck the second they asked me to. I told them that one day, if they wanted, I would teach them how to float on top of the water and then how to swim underwater.
Sitting side by side, we’d practice holding our breath and I’d let them know that now they knew one of the most important skills in swimming, and they hadn’t even been in the water yet!
Yes, I said that with an exclamation point, but when you think about it, it is great to discover that you already have some of the raw materials to help you learn something new, particularly something that might seem impossible at the moment.
Then, because this all happened on their first day, I’d take them on a walking tour of the pool. Olympic sized pools are huge and to a three or four year old they can seem like an alien world. My mission was to introduce them to this strange place and demystify it for them.
As we made our way along one length of the pool we’d sit down at different places and talk about what we saw. I’d tell them the names of each of the swim instructors we watched and we’d call out and say hi to them. Each instructor greeted us with a smile and a wave and the occasional, “You guys having fun?” helping bring a sense of community to my little landlocked Tadpoles.
After watching a diving class in the deep end, we’d head down the other side of the pool, engaging with more instructors. We’d duck into the pool office and meet some of the lifeguards. Then I’d introduce them to the young woman at the front counter—the first person they’d see when they came for their next lesson. Now, they not only knew her name, she knew theirs.
By the time we made it back to our little piece of real estate in the shallow end these frightened kids felt much better about where they were and who I was. At the very least I’d helped them feel better about themselves, more secure in their environment, and we had some fun along the way.
My approach could not be found on a single page of the city-wide swim syllabus, but I had so much success with these reluctant Tadpoles, not to mention my Goldfish (first level) swimmers who could do the butterfly by the time they graduated from my class—which was most definitely not suppose to happen until level six—that my coach, who also ran the city’s swim program, turned a blind eye. He was a man of rules, but results meant even more to him.
Breaking things down into manageable steps, removing fear by obtaining relevant information, and having someone compassionately take us for “a walk around the pool” so we have a better understanding of the landscape—emotional usually—that we’re dealing with in life, is the kind of care and attention we all need when it comes to navigating what is challenging for us.
My frightened shivering Tadpoles thought they were totally messing up because they were afraid to get in the water. I suspect they thought they’d never learn to swim, but they discovered that not only could they learn to swim, they could eventually become amazing swimmers. They just needed the right kind of help, some heartfelt encouragement and a big dose of love.
The same as with life.
Oh, and on that first day after our pool tour, every single kid would get in the water with me one by one, lie on his or her back as I gently supported them, and float like a happy piece of seaweed—totally relaxed. That’s trust. Their parents were always blown away.