Are your ARC lessons efficient?

The most popular swim lesson program is the American Red Cross Learn-to-Swim. I grew up teaching them, and was even certified as a Water Safety Instructor, ARC’s version for advanced swim instructor training. I remember feeling so official, so empowered and enthusiastic about finally being able to “sign the cards.” And then I filled out a 25 forms in a day for my five classes. And I remember checking off all the boxes because they were redundant and barely paying attention to the actual words and skills (I was in high school, and boring stuff sucked: I wanted to find the quickest way to do things).

Swim lessons are tedious sometimes. They require significant assessment of your swimmers to gauge their progress and improvement. You can use the information that you track to determine the effectiveness of your swim instructors and identify key areas of improvement. If you have a successful program that means filling out evaluation forms for hundreds of people every session.

Do you like filling out 500 evaluations every two weeks? What about having your managers do it, or worse, having the swim instructors doing it themselves? How many hours does it take to proof read them all? If you’re not doing it yourself, are you paying managers to do it each week? There is a better way.

Before we get into that better option for filling out evaluations, let’s look first at the actual evaluations themselves. Here is a question for you:

How many skills do you test in each level?

American Red Cross Learn to Swim is one of the most popular swim lesson programs in america. When I do phone interviews with swim managers they almost unanimously say how they’re unhappy with ARC and have modified it in some way. Take a look at the level 1 skills for their learn to swim program which is for swimmers age 6+ all the way up to adults.

Here is ARC’s level 1 skill sheet right now:

You can count them, but trust me when i say there are 17 skills there for level 1. 17 skills. Let that sit in for a second. Seventeen skills for the “introduction to water skills class.” The intro. The beginning, the start. The most basic place to begin has 17 different skills required before moving on to the next level “Fundamental Aquatic Skills.”

That is way too many skills for a starting class.

Do you think that 17 skills for your level 1, first class a participant joins should have 17 skills? Do you think it is efficient?

I think you know. Having 17 skills as your intro class is definitely not efficient. I emphatically believe that we should reduce the number of testable skills to the fewest number possible. Swimming Ideas level 1 has 4 skills. Four skills to test for each swimmer. It makes assessment easy, quick, and efficient.

Level 1: 

Going Underwater, and Support

  • Go underwater unassisted
  • Supported front float with face in water
  • Supported back float with ears in water
  • Go underwater, then recover to standing on own

There are four skills here that we test for Swimming Ideas level 1. Four things that are the most significant and important things for beginning swimmers to focus on. I’ve highlighted the items closest withing ARC Level 1 that matches Swimming Ideas’.

If the picture doesn’t seem clear, there are four things highlighted here:

  • Open eyes underwater and retrieve submerged objects
  • Front and back glides and back float
  • Recover to vertical position from a front glide and back float or glide
  • Roll from front to back and back to front

These are the distilled, most refined, and basic skills that truly define ARC’s Level 1. Essentially they are go underwater, float, glide then stand up. You’ll notice how similar they are to Swimming Ideas’ level 1. Before we move on, let me as another question: “What do you do when you have to quickly test 30 8 year olds?”

I bet you didn’t say “I test each one on all 17 skills.” No, of course you didn’t. You probably said, I see if they go underwater and can move their arms in some fashion to move themselves forward. Out of necessity, out of ease of use, you have distilled down to the most basic core skills of the level. The chances are, if a swimmer can go underwater easily, they can likely float. If they can float, they can probably glide, and if they’re comfortable on their back, they can roll over onto the front easily. So when you have those 30 kids and 10 minutes to test them, you drill down to the heart and ask, “Who goes underwater, and of those, who can do a front glide into a back float?”

Let’s look at that ARC Level 1 list again, and highlight the skills that you should not be testing.

Once again, I’ll list out those items that are in red to make it easier to read:

  • Enter and exit water using ladder, steps, or side
  • Blow bubbles through mouth and nose
  • Bobbing
  • Tread water using arm and hand actions
  • Alternating and simultaneous leg actions on front and back
  • alternating and simultaneous arm actions on front and back
  • Combined arm and leg actions on front and back
  • Recognizing the lifeguards
  • Don’t just pack it, wear your jacket
  • recognizing an emergency
  • How to call for help
  • Too much sun is no fun

Why take out the basic swim skills?

Have you ever asked a swimmer to show you how to get in and then out of the water using the ladder, steps, or side of the pool? How did you even start your lesson if they didn’t get it? How did they leave every day. That is an easy one to remove from your test, from your evaluation, because it isn’t a necessary testable skill. It is only a thing to do, and yes, a good idea to teach, but it takes about 30 seconds of time to demonstrate and do.

Bubble blowing is a good skill to remove too, because it is something relatively easy to actually do, but not needed to watch someone do in the water. You can easily have anyone that goes underwater (notice that if they go under, the one major actual testable skill, they can blow bubbles) learn how to blow bubbles. Ready? Close your mouth, and hum. Now go underwater and tell me what happens. Even easier, close your mouth and talk and let me know what happens. You blow bubbles. Air comes out of your nose. Done. One simple way, and already the skill is completed. Notice how we talked about “if you go underwater.” There is that essential distilled skill rearing it’s head. Test going underwater, and teach blowing bubbles as a supplement.

Bobbing can go as well as it isn’t one of the core skills of the level. You can keep it if you’re using bobs as a safety tactic; bobbing to safety, using bobs for breath control and learning, etc. Again, bobs are a great thing to do, but if you’re working on teaching people to “go underwater” then how are they going to bob too? This is another example of a skill that you can and should do when appropriate in your lesson, but not necessarily “tested.”

Treading water is gone because it is inappropriate for level 1. Treading water is not an easy thing to do and quickly leads to exhaustion. It always boggles my mind why ARC added treading water to level 1. I guess because people can’t go underwater so they learn to stay at the surface? It requires significant effort to teach, and is better taught later on in a later level when swimmers understand the concept of pressure and using the water to generate lift and buoyancy. These are complicated concepts that are extremely difficult to articulate to adults, let alone children. Reserve this for a later level, and use it only as a supplemental activity that you do sometimes and not something you test.

Arm and Leg action. This is an odd one. Basically, this means that the arms and legs are moving in some fashion while on the belly or back to move the person forward. We move this into Swimming Ideas Level 2, because it is the precursor to front crawl. We feel that the glides, body line, and floats are of significant importance whereas the addition of arms and kicks is not something that should be specifically tested. When ARC asks you to do this test they say, “can you float and move your arms and legs to make yourself move forward?” Again, this is a lead up skill, or a step in the progression to front crawl or back crawl and should not actually be tested. Instead, this is a tool to get to swimming front and back crawl.

Safety Skills:

You can further separate out the safety skills from the actual swimming skills. We remove them and we’re left with these seven:

  • Enter and exit water using ladder, steps, or side
  • Blow bubbles through mouth and nose
  • Bobbing
  • Tread water using arm and hand actions
  • Alternating and simultaneous leg actions on front and back
  • alternating and simultaneous arm actions on front and back
  • Combined arm and leg actions on front and back

I would even take out more of these “skills”

  • Enter and exit water using ladder, steps, or side
  • Blow bubbles through mouth and nose
  • Bobbing

Why no safety skills on the evaluation?

The first question I got when modifying a swim program from ARC to a new one was, “How are the instructors going to know to do safety skills if it isn’t on the test?” The answer is simple: you train them. You give them a lesson plan, or put it in your teaching as a supplemental, or make a handout to give to the parents.

So why remove the safety skills from your evaluation form test?

Because they should not be “tested.” They have nothing to do with swimming well, nothing to do with going underwater. Instead, put them as a informational marketing product that you send out to everyone when they start. Collect all your safety material and hand it out as a sheet to the parents while they wait. And yes, you should do these things in your lessons, but do you need to have them on your evaluations? No, we feel you do not.

Remove the clutter, remove the excess, and get down to the most essential items.

Are your evaluations efficient?

When you take your test at the end of each session how long does it take? You need to watch each person do 17 skills if you’re running ARC. Even at 1 minute for each skill, that is way more than any swim lesson. Assume you have three kids in a class, and it takes one minute each skill per student. That is fifty-one minutes just to test the three kids on all 17 skills.

Even with four skills in level 1 (like Swimming Ideas has) that is 12 minutes to test all 3 swimmers. That is a significant difference, and as we all know, working with kids, the time it takes to do simple activities will take longer than 1 minute each.

Let’s leave this today with, how can you make your swim evaluations easier? How can you distill it down to the most basic and simple few activities that are essential to that level?

Cut the excess, shift the progressions to the lesson plans, or training, and only test those things which define the level in its most basic form.

Better swimming.
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