Finding a balance between fun and discipline

You have taught swim lessons to young kids before, and you’ve likely tried to teach your new swim instructor staff how to strike a balance between fun and learning. But how much time have you spent thinking about how to balance the two in your own classes? Have you considered teaching someone else to instinctively tell when their class is “getting out of hand?” Do you know how to reset your class?

Thankfully you’ve found a resource like this where we dive into things like how to be a better instructor.

I was teaching a level 3 class to six participants, recently, and realized the tone of the class was leaning too heavily on discipline. Really, it was my fault for not following our lesson plans. Sometimes I like to go “off the cuff” to test new things, and dynamically react to the kids in the class. Unfortunately, it backfired, and I was a tyrant in the class, moving from drills, boring repetition, and uninteresting skills to even more repetitive dry practice without resetting the class with a game.

After the class, and even inside of it, I was aware of why it was happening: there was a single troublemaker in the class I was having to reprimand over and over for distracting and annoying behavior. He was making it impossible to play any game because he was disrupting every activity. How could I reward errant behavior with a game? With multiple games? My response was severe: more drills, more hard work, more progressions, and more kicking longer distances. It was a disaster.

Thankfully, you don’t need to go through that problem on your own. You can train your staff to handle the balance between discipline and fun to avoid classes that lean too drastically to one side, and hinder learning.

What is ‘fun?’

In swim lessons, we call ‘fun,’ games, activities and things that are entertaining, exciting, challenging, and well, fun. The swim lesson plans that you can get from our website are interspersed with games and challenges at regular intervals, and when I’m teaching my own classes, I usually make sure that I follow the same ‘beats’ or rhythms found there.  Fun is used to reset the class attention. We can use it to promote learning, and we can put fun to effective use. When we play games and have fun in our swim classes we make learning easier and make it more exciting and interesting. Fun swim lessons make children and swimmers want to come back to the pool because they love it so much. We can tactically use fun to generate more revenue, provide longer engagement, and make our participants better at swimming.

What is ‘discipline?’

Generally, discipline is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.” It can also mean the repetitive action and devotion to technique to improve yourself. It stems off the idea that we want to “train” people to do something specific. In this case, swim well. In your swim lessons there is an element of ‘discipline’ where we train our participants to obey our commands and follow a specific “code of behavior” while they are in the class.

And this is a good thing. The children in swim lessons should be adhering to the code of behavior we want from them. The pool and water can be a dangerous place where they could drown and come to serious harm. Children especially should follow closely the things we tell them to do primarily for their safety, but also so they can learn how to improve their ability.

So, ‘discipline,” here can mean two things: how you get them to behave, and how you train them to learn.

Back to the story

So how was my class so strictly discipline based and not fun at all? I didn’t play any games, and the activities or challenges I did play, weren’t very interesting and did not ‘reset’ the class and promote engagement or any sense of challenge. Look at my activity list for the 45 minute level 3 class:

  1. Jumps into the water.
  2. Front glides + doggy paddle back to wall (I was not in the water at that point. whoops).
  3. 25 Freestyle kick with boards
  4. 3 x streamline with all three things
    1. This group had not done this before in this way exactly. 2 of the 5 had.
  5. 3 x streamline + 3 strokes of freestyle
  6. 25 back kick
  7. 3 x streamline + 5 strokes + 1 breath to side
  8. 25 Free kick
  9. 3 x streamline + free swim to 1/2 way (to me, now in the water).
  10. 1 x 25 free swim
    1. 2 kids did not use a board because they were more advanced. 2 needed the kickboard to do ‘catch-up’ drill. And the troublemaker used a board as a punishment even though he didn’t *need it.
  11. 3 x push off on back and do 3 strokes back
    1. Kicked out the trouble maker (until it was his turn)
  12. Throw a ring, swim to me, then get ring, and backstroke back to wall
  13. Jumps

Do you see any “fun” in that string of activities? I don’t. I see repeated discipline. Repetition, drills, separating activities like the 25 kicks and swims. Lots of location changes, but no “fun.” I should have just followed a lesson plan from our bank, and been happy with the drill, practice, game formula (that works!). Instead, I did the above and it was disastrous.

Now, I could have done this same string of skills without the troublemaker kid, and the class would have been fine. But over time, it would get really boring and really stale. Participants would not be interested or motivated, and eventually would drop out of class, not wanting to return. Fun helps engage the kids and makes them want to come back, and makes them ask their parents to take them to swimming.

So how the heck do you find the balance?

Follow this formula:

  • Introduce
  • Practice
  • Fun (incorporate the skill if possible).
  • Drill
  • Practice
  • Fun (rest)


For level 1 introduce can be bobs, or put your chin in the water. For level 2 it can be a couple of glides a very short distance. Introduce is a small taste of the skill you’re going to do. As a 7 year old on the swim team asked me the other day, “is it foreshadowing? Is this activity ‘foreshadowing’ for freestyle?” It was awesome, and yes, yes it is foreshadowing. Everything we do is pointing to something more complicated later on.

So introduce the most basic item of a skill.


Give an opportunity to do the next step of that skill over and over. Or make it challenging, and give many chances to do the skill well or poorly with feedback. This is the meat and potatoes of swim lessons. This is the where the literal learning and work goes into learning. Give feedback, provide concise commands and instruction, and focus on the 20% of corrections that will get the 80% of results.

Repeat the skill with feedback.

Fun #1

Play a short quick game, that hopefully uses some part of the skill you just introduced and practiced. You can even make it something as simple as jumps. Do a personal challenge. Do a group game. Check out our game list for an idea.

Have some short fun.


With ‘drill’ you want to offer a unique way of targeting a specific skill. For streamline it can be doing 1 on the surface, 1 in the middle between the surface and the bottom, and 1 on the bottom. For back crawl it can be the ‘head lead balance with rotation drill.’ For breathing it can be standing in soldier and turning your head to the side 5 times one way and 7 times the other. The drill can be a short, or longer activity that targets one element of the stroke or larger skill you’re working on.

Isolate a specific part of the more complicated swim and practice it.


Put everything together and give multiple opportunities to practice the given swim skill. Like freestyle with breathing, or streamline then front crawl without lifting head up. Be specific, tie in the elements of what you did to build up to this skill, then give feedback based on the language you used early to improve specific elements of the swim that you’re working on.

Put it all together, and expect success.

Fun (reset)

Play a fun game that has little to do with what you just worked on. This is technically the reward for the progressive skill and effort. You’ve introduced, practiced, drilled, and offered an opportunity to do the full complex skill with feedback. Reward that effort, reward that attention with a fun game that removes the stress of hard work, and makes your lessons fun. The relaxing nature of the game will allow your students to recharge their mental energy and confidence to attempt again soon on another skill.

Play a game that resets the interest, mental energy, and enthusiasm of your class.


How do you balance your swim classes between “fun” and “discipline?” I would love to hear your opinion on this topic! Comment below, or connect on twitter @swimmingideas or facebook.


Want an easy way to build a balance between fun and discipline in all of your swim lessons? Check out the swim lesson plans which follow this tested formula:


Better swimming.
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