Swimming Lesson Guide – Giving feedback


Report cards, Certificates, Evaluations: The ins, outs, and positive sandwiches of giving praise and criticism

Swimming Lessons Ideas was initially designed as a resource for my own program, and as an online repository for swim lesson games and ideas. I am so fortunate to interact with a diverse and resourceful community of people looking to make their swim lessons and programs better for their participants. One community member asked the other day for some tips on effective feedback. Specifically, “How can you provide feedback that is personally tailored to the individual on the end of session evaluations?”

Some programs call their test “evaluations,” others call them “report cards,” or “certificates.” At the heart, these are all ways to assess the swimmer’s progress through whatever rubric or set of skills we are using as benchmarks or levels. At Swimming Ideas, we want to make this process as clear and easy as possible. We ascribe to the 80/20 rule which says, “Focus on the 20% of things that produce 80% of feedback.” You will see this theme come up repeatedly over the course of this guide. Swimming Ideas’ levels are designed to hone in on those 20% of skills that truly define the success of a swimmer.

Where does this come from? What is the source?

My primary job is to coach swimming for a competitive USA Swimming team. I run the first three developmental groups, which range from 5 – 12 year olds. To get on the swim team I work with, you have to only demonstrate 2 key skills:

  • Swim freestyle with side breathing for 20 yards
  • Swim backstroke with body at surface for 20 yards

I teach better front crawl and better backstroke along with breaststroke and butterfly on a daily basis to over 100 kids. My secondary job is running our swim program and teaching swim lessons. This ranges from 6 months to 10 years old and we primarily focus on teaching participants how to move horizontally through the water safely.

I mention this because we have access to things like ASCA, and USA Swimming clinics, seminars, and trainings. Recently we had a USA Swimming clinic where we were given a talk about “Effective Coaching,” and much of this post draws from the expertise of USA Swimming’s sports consultants; those people that work with Olympians and swim programs around the states to find the best and most successful teams.

This post takes those key topics from that lecture, and applies them to swimming lessons, and specifically, Tests, Evaluations, and Certificates.

This last weekend will have been the second time I’ve been through the “Effective Coaching” presentation, the first of which was two years ago. We’ve already adapted most of the items into both the swim lesson program and the swim team and have had dramatically successful results.

How we learn new skills

USA Swimming says that new skills are learned by engaging in deep deliberate practice. You have to do something with the intent to improve your ability and do it often. When we teach swimming lessons, we are attempting to provide an environment where our participants can engage in specific practice to get better at swimming. The activities we choose to do should point to a specific swimming skill. Knowing how we learn, and what skills you are going to use are the first steps to giving effective feedback. Let’s look at how American Red Cross chooses their skills. The skills you choose to work on with determine the feedback you give. you’re not. Going to give feedback on something you didn’t do.

A look at some evaluations, and 80/20.

One of the most popular swim lesson programs is the American Red Cross Learn-To-Swim program, which we’ll call “ARC” from now on (for American Red Cross). In ARC, there are six levels, and level 1 has 17 different skills to assess in their testing forms. Yup, 17 skills. The majority of those skills are small steps that can lead up to the actual point of the class, which is obfuscated by the hodge-podge of random “skills.”  Here are 12 of those 17 skills from ARC Level 1:

  1. Enter water using ramp, steps or side
  2.  Exit water using ladder, steps or side
  3. Blow bubbles through mouth and nose
  4. Bobbing
  5. Open eyes underwater and retrieve submerged objects
  6. Front and back glides and recover to a vertical position
  7. Back float
  8. Roll from front to back and back to front
  9. Tread water using arm and hand actions
  10. Alternating and simultaneous arm and leg actions on front
  11. Alternating and simultaneous arm and leg actions on back
  12. Combined arm and leg actions on front and back

Do you need to be wasting time “testing” whether a child can enter and exit the pool using a ramp or the side? Is that something you want to write down or check a box for?

We feel that, no, this is not one of those 20% of activities that will yield 80% of the results. This is something you should do with your swimmer in the 30 seconds at the beginning and end of the class. Yes, it is a good thing to teach a swimmer to do, but it is not something you should be “testing.” Frankly, it is a waste of your time, your parent’s time, and your instructor’s time (who you’re likely paying) to fill out a form testing whether or not the child can get in or out of the water.

Instead, look for the 2 or 3 things in that list that actually should be tested. I’ve pulled out three skills that are the heart of ARC’s Level 1:

  • Open eyes underwater
  • Front and back glides and recover to a vertical position
  • Combined arm and leg actions on front and back

Most of the items on that 12 bullet “test” from ARC are redundant, repetitive, or unnecessary for testing purposes. Yes, they’re good things to do in your class, and should be included in a lesson plan, but shouldn’t be on your end of session test forms. Instead, look at these three key skills: underwater, front and back glides, moving arms and legs in a combined fashion. Those are the things you should be driving for. Those are the things you should be focusing on during your testing, because it is those three metrics that will determine whether or not a child will move on to ARC Level 2. One can assume, and with extreme confidence, that if a child can go underwater on their own, recover, then glide forward, plant their feet under themselves, and then do it again while moving their arms and legs in a combined fashion to move themselves forward, they can get in and out of the pool on their own.

If they can go underwater on their own, they can likely blow bubbles too. It should be assumed that they can.

But how will the instructor’s know what to do if it’s not on the test?

This is a common complaint from programs that let their high school and college staff run their lessons. “How will the instructors know what to do?”

Tell them.

Provide training and educate your staff on easy to understand levels with a few basic testable skills. Then, do the dirty and hard work of running training classes and opportunities to teach your staff the intricacies of swim lesson instruction. Demonstrate and do with your staff how to enter the water correctly.

Give your staff laminated lesson plans to read off of for each class. Include in those lesson plans activities that lead up to your testable skills, but that don’t actually require the student to be “tested” on. Yes, you want to identify things like, “blowing bubbles,” retrieveing submerged objects, and rolling from front to back, and back to front. You want those things to be inside your instructor “toolbox,” or your bank of skills to use (which we provide to Complete Lesson Program owners with the Trello.com board of all skills with pictures and descriptions).  You want your staff to have a wide range of things to do in their lessons, but those things should all point to your one, two, or three actual testable skills.

Focus on those 20% of things that get the 80% of results. For ARC level one, those should be:

  1. Going underwater
  2. Glides
  3. Moving arms and legs in some combined fashion to make forward progress.

All of your games, activities, songs, and instruction should point to those three goals.

Yes, teach how to enter and exit the water safely, but do it as needed when someone can’t do it on their own, or is unsure. Most swimmers will watch the instructor and then do what they did, or watch other swimmers. They will pick up on context clues and do what is demonstrated around them. Common sense here prevails. If needed, have a training session with your staff on how to enter and exit the water, and let them spend 30 seconds to a minute helping kids in the water and out in your preferred safe way.

But to test this? No. I expect this as a basic fundamental safety issue that preempts any in-water activities. It is hardly a thing a parent cares about (“Wow, my kid can enter the water using the ramp!” said no parent ever). Don’t waste time testing that which shouldn’t be tested.

Put your valuable effort and time into providing feedback to get results over wasting time checking a box that you check “yes” for everyone because it is such a simple, obvious, skill.

Applying the 80/20 rule: What gets the most results?

Swimming Ideas has three testable skills for Level 1:

  • Go underwater and recover to feet alone
  • Put face in when doing a supported front glide
  • Relax with ears in water doing a supported back glide

Can you teach safe and effective pool entries and exits in your Swimming Ideas level 1 class? Absolutely yes! Of course you can. But should you spend your class time dedicated to “teaching” that one skill. No. You should not waste unnecessary time with that simple quick instruction.

We looked at ARC lessons and other programs and all pointed to these three essential skills. Going underwater is crucial because it is the foundation upon which all swimming activity is based. A person needs to be able to easily go underwater and come up for air without panicking in order to begin learning to swim. We have to override the natural and real fear of being underwater and not able to breathe. We devote all of level 1 to this one skill because it is so important. If you’ve looked at our swim lessons plans


In those lesson plans, we point to going underwater with every activity. We want to approach it from every angle and side. Yes, the 20% activity is “going underwater” but we can approach it from multiple different and unique ways.

USA Swimming suggests that you should “practice higher priorities more than all else combined,” when running a lesson or a conducting a swim practice.

We focus on “going underwater” because it is the most important first step. It defines a swimmer’s ability to participate in almost all swimming activities. Going underwater is the highest priority for new swimmers, and we focus entirely on it.

Entering and exiting the water is a safe thing to know about, but it does not point to “going underwater” and thus, is not included on our test forms.

Because “going underwater” is so important we placed it at the top of the Level 1 test. It is the first item we teach, and we include incremental markers of success: shoulders, chin, lips, nose, eyes, whole head. Your tests and evaluations should be likewise concise and direct. Focus your testing, your evaluation, and the success of your swimmers on how well they have improved at the core skills you want them to. Generally, for beginners it is “going underwater.”

High Priorities, Core skills, and choosing what to give feedback on

We’re supposed to be talking about feedback and how to fill out those evaluations well. The first step is to “trim the fat” or cut out those unnecessary skills. Do not waste time focusing on inconsequential items. Aim your feedback, your praise, and your criticism on the most important elements of your chosen program’s levels or tiers.

If you use ARC lessons, take a hard look at the 18-20 skills they want “tested” at the end of each class and focus on the 1 or 2 truly important level defining skills and focus your feedback on those.

Step 1 Highest Priority Items: Define your core swim skills in each level.

Using the ARC level 1 example trim everything out but:

  1. Going underwater
  2. Glides
  3. Moving arms and legs in some combined fashion to make forward progress.

Your high priority items are those 20% of things you do during your class time that get the biggest results. The beauty of these core, key skills, is that they are so challenging you get to approach them in infinite and varied ways. The majority of the swim games and activities on this website are designed to approach “going underwater” in a fun and unique way.

Remember that choosing one or two core skills does not mean you’re doing the same thing over and over in a boring routine. No! You’re approaching the skill in multiple variations.

USA Swimming suggests, “Engage [swimmers] by repeating productive sets/drills [activities, games, songs] with minor variations.” 

Basically, do what works well over and over and over, but make small changes to that routine to keep it interesting and successful.

Swimming Ideas took this, and implemented “short distance skill work,” or “3x [something] + [something]”

We follow the same framework for almost all activities, but substitute in different and challenging activities. For example:

3x supported front float + chin in the water

We would do this for a level one class where each person goes three times with the instructor and does a supported front float, but they have to put their chin in the water, or more.

Our feedback during this repeating productive set is focused on the two chosen items: doing the supported front float well, and putting the chin in the water, or looking down. You can see that these are  two core testable skills from level 1.

Another example:

3x supported back glide + roll over to stomach

We don’t do a lot of this, but it would work for ARC Level 1. Rolling over is one of their “testable skills” but in my opinion shouldn’t be a “testable skill.” Here you can orient your feedback around the back glide and encourage going underwater when you roll over.

Give feedback on the core skill.

In both of those examples the instructor should target their correction, focus their feedback on the core skill the activity is pointing to. Avoid mentioning that which truly does not matter. Avoid spending precious time in your lessons giving feedback on which foot to push off the bench with, or where to put your hands when climbing out of the water. Instead, focus on altering the swimmer’s behavior in the core skills.

Ask yourself, “Will this feedback increase my swimmer’s ability to [core skill]?”

“Will this feedback increase my swimmer’s ability to “go underwater?”

“Will this feedback increase my swimmer’s ability to “do front glides unsupported?”


How people learn swimming determines the feedback

USA Swimming’s “Effective Coaching” presentation can change your program. If you have an opportunity to experience it, do so.  Here is the pdf: http://www.usaswimming.org/_Rainbow/Documents/b1d27f79-8d21-4c45-bf08-6628fc3b9e80/!%2016.9%20EFFECTIVE%20COACHING%20Scotts%20SEP%202016.pdf

To summarize the first portion of the presentation, we learn by repeating things over and over, but not just repeating anything. We learn to swim well by repeating things correctly. To quote, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” The swimmer has to do the activity well over and over and over to achieve mastery of it.

Coaches and instructors are so incredibly effective because they should provide instant specific feedback designed to maximize the swimmer’s efforts in the quickest most direct fashion.

Look at these three examples of positive feedback, and determine which is the best:

  1. Great Job!
  2. Well done on that kick.
  3. Very good looking at the bottom with your whole face.

Obviously, number three is the best of those feedbacks. It praises a specific action and uses a key phrase to reference back to prior instructions. If you’ve used the Starter Kit, you know from the swim skill sheets that the three things to streamline are, Look down with your whole face, lock your thumb, and squeeze your ears. This praise directly references one of those key terms.

The other two are general and useless words. “Great job?” For what? What specifically did the swimmer do great? Feedback is useless is they swimmer does not have context or understanding of what exactly, specifically, directly they did well.

Number two, “well done on that kick” is better, but still too general for targeted specific praise to increase mastery over kicking. If the instructor gave a single targeted goal for that attempt like, “This time Billy, remember to move your legs like you’re patting dough with your feet,” then “Well done on that kick” would reference the immediately proceeding instruction. However, most times I watch instructors they say, “BIlly, front glide to me.” He does. “Great job on that kick.” What? What did Billy do on his kick that made it great?

“Great job on that kick Billy. You really kept your feet pointed and moved quick!

I was coaching the more advanced group of swimmers on the swim team the other day. Our focus for the day was getting in streamline position, or fully position 11 extension (with the arms) on every stroke of freestyle and breaststroke. Our set was 4 x 25 of Breaststroke swim where you shoot your body in streamline through an imaginary circle of spikes, or circle of flames, or circle of slimy seaweed. The goal of this drill/activity, was to encourage a long narrow, body and arm reach with every stroke. Swimmers were told to hold their streamline on breaststroke until their kick finished. We were over-accentuating their glides.

We did this for many reasons. Primarily, we encourage long reach and narrow body because engaging the core and holding arms above the head makes you faster when you swim with every stroke. Secondly, the longer your breaststroke reach and glide,the faster you go when your kick is strong and quick.  We practice this so when we get to the meets, they have a habit of long, reaching strokes.

For this example, we drew pictures on the whiteboard, we discussed the objectives, and we outlined the goals. Throughout the set, our feedback was oriented to the core points we asked them to do. We chose a skill, and gave feedback on the success or improvement of that skill. For the set, feedback was aimed at getting in streamline with every stroke and holding it until the breaststroke kick finished.

There were multiple opportunities to practice the one skill. Feedback was poignant and aimed at. that one skill. Participants got repeated engagement with the coaches to refine their movements to establish new habits. The set was short so we could focus more on thoughtful deliberate practice.

Positive and Negative Feedback

Here is another example, another short story of an activity we did this fall in swimming lessons.

I teach a group of 8 swimmer every Monday whose only requirements to participate is that you go underwater on your own, and are at least 5 years old. We have a wide range of ages (5-9) of varying abilities. I’m running this swim lesson very similar to a swim team practice. We started with doing “lazy puppets into soldier position” then we did soldier while standing in the water. Then we did streamlines while standing in soldier. Then we did streamlines a very short distance from bench to bench. We did each activity 5 or 6 times before moving to the next one; 5 x streamline from bench to bench, or 6 x soldier into streamline positions.  During the streamline from bench to bench segment there were participants that did it well and those that had never done it before.

The goal of this activity is. to learn streamline. Streamline is taught because it promotes a long, tall body line, which is used in every swim stroke. We are really teaching body posture and learning to move horizontally through the water. We gave positive reinforcement feedback and negative corrective feedback to each person on each attempt.

[bench to bench picture]

To maximize the effectiveness of the feedback we focused on three key elements of streamline: lock down, lock your thumb, squeeze your ears. We know that if you do all three of those, you will likely have a very engaged core, with a straight long body.

Examples of positive feedback:

  • Well done aiming your whole face down.
  • Great job squeezing your ears.
  • Good glide doing all three things, looking down, squeezing your ears and locking your thumb.
  • Excellent thumb lock.
  • Great job at pushing off on the surface.
  • Very nice! You looked down!
  • (Thumbs up, followed by squeezed ears gestures).

You’ll notice that all the feedback targeted one of the three essentials of streamline (which you can find on the visual swim skill sheets). Sometimes, the feedback wasn’t verbalized, but. Done with a two gesture series with eye contact. Often I will get the swimmer’s attention, give a thumbs up and follow it with a physical example of what they did well. Swimmers are in the habit of looking at me after every attempt because they get feedback after every attempt.

Here were some examples of negative feedback:

  • Remember to lock your thumb.
  • Next time focus on aiming your whole face down, not just your eyes.
  • make an effort to push off on the surface and grow into your streamline.
  • You’ve got to actually do a streamline, not just doggie paddle.
  • Next time squeeze your ears. You can’t look down if your ears aren’t squeezed (visual example of thumbs locked,arms straight but head leaning way back).
  • What was that? You didn’t do streamline at all. (Demonstration of a short streamline).

The given negative feedback is all action oriented. You’ll notice there are very few, if any, “don’t do this….,” or “No ‘lifting your head.” Examples. Instead, everything is aimed at the next opportunity to attempt the skill. We give multiple attempt, multiple opportunities to improve based on feedback. It. Is built into the design and flow of the class. The constant targeted, simple only on 1 or 3 items, feedback encourages deliberate practice in a focused way. We are honing in on the 20% of most effective items of a streamline to get the best results.

USA Swimming says, “shorten the feedback.” Make it as specific and targeted as possible. We have 3 things. We work on with streamline. Focus your feedback on those three things.

From Effective Coaching, “Give feedback right away… a small quick change is more effective than a complete reworking of a skill.” Look at the positive and negative examplesagain. We are using language each time a participant attempts a streamline to make that streamline just a little bit better by focusing on one of the three specific elements of streamline. The feedback is immediate: right after the attempt. The feedback is concise: targets 1 element of the streamline distilled to 3 options: locked thumb, squeezed. ears, looking down.

USA Swimming continues, “”Limit your feedback, people [children] can only focus on one thing at a time.” They will get overwhelmed and do nothing if they get too much correction.This is why we only talk about one item, even if there are multiple things the person did wrong or poorly. There is always another attempt, focus their attention on correcting one item on that next attempt.

Positive feedback is generally easy. Find something they did well, and tell them.

Negative. Feedback is more difficult. It requires that you structure your language to be heard and followed. USA Swimming, again, tells us, “they don’t hear anything after a ‘but.” Remember the examples of negative feedback a few paragraphs up, make your negative feedback action oriented to the next attempt. Avoid saying, “Don’t do this…” or You did well, but…” Instead, say, “Next time do this…” Give an alternate action or way of accomplishing the task.

**As a note here. Sometimes you do need to say, “Don’t do that.” Use your. Judgement to know when you should employ this language. Typically it is squashing disruptive and bad behavior.

Praise the effort, not the talent or their intelligence.

USA Swimming and a host of other sources like “The Little Book of Talent” (amazon) suggest that you put your effort into praising a child’s effort at a given activity versus praising the intelligence of the child or the innate talent. If a child in your level 1 class goes underwater, an effective way to praise them would be based on the effort the child expressed in doing it.

You could say, “Great job going underwater all the way, you’ve been working really hard to get there!”  Generally, we skip most of the words and say, “Great job going underwater.” The short direct praise works, but we should attempt to include a reference to the child’s effort as much as we can. You could praise the child for going underwater by referencing how it was the first time they did it, or how they did very well in the attempt. You can even make it as simple as, “Good effort on going underwater.”

Other effort based feedback:

  • Great attempt.
  • I could really tell you were making an effort. Next time remember to
  • Well done on that front glide. You improved looking down.
  • Woah! Wonderful! You just went underwater for the first time! Well done!


Pick one thing, and focus on it.

I’ll keep referencing USA Swimming, because this is a part of the “Effective Coaching” presentation.  When you give feedback make sure you focus on one item. Children, and people, can get overloaded when you throw too many things at them.  There are a thousand little things we can correct, but we should attempt to focus on one, maybe two items from each attempted round.

If we ask a child to do a streamline, we prime their focus on the three elements of a streamline that will get the most results: locked thumb, squeezed ears, face looking down. If they push off the wall with their body all catty-wonky, and don’t kick, we might have a list of things they did wrong. Maybe in this example the child didn’t even push off in the right place and ran into someone returning to the line.

Your job is to determine what is the most important one or two things to tell this child so you don’t overwhelm them, but get a maximum return on your instruction.

Imagine if we said, “Kyle, you pushed off on the wrong side of the lane, you didn’t kick, you had your head up, you weren’t squeezing your ears, and you were looking up. Dude. Why? What was that?”

The child would be overloaded with feedback, and bad feedback. Not a single item is a potential alternative behavior, or corrective instruction.

This would be a better way to go about it: “Kyle, you pushed off on the wrong side. Next time, remember we push off on the right side of the lane. Also, next time remember to lock your thumb when you do a streamline.”

It is okay to state what they did. You can say, “You did [this].” It states an event or an action and should be viewed as a neutral statement. You can use it to point out behavior, and then make it clear that that is either not appropriate or offer an alternative way to succeed.

Report Card / Evaluation / Feedback

Here is an example email that you get with Swimming Ideas Online Swim Lesson Management. We send these emails after we have assessed a swimmer in our program.


You can see from this evaluation that this is a level 1 skill. It includes a picture, and a description of the core skill: Going Underwater. The tester has an option to say, “Yes,” or “No.” Did the swimmer complete this activity?

There are then checkboxes, based on that activity that you can mark yes or no on. This lets the instructor give more details on the specifics of that one skill. If they didn’t go underwater, how far under did they go?


You can see from the second picture, which shows the administrative interface, that you see the skill, and there is a section for comments. Here you would put your positive feedback that both the parents and the swimmer will read. You can also put things the swimmer needs to improve on. Finally, you see along the right hand side a list of characteristics of successful Front glides and back floats. Was the face still? Were the arms straight? The details of each skill give a clearer assessment for the parents and the swimmer to focus on. IT also gives the instructors and the administrators guidance on what successful front and back floats entails. IT focuses the assessment on those core skills.

What Kind of comments / feedback do you use for evals?

You should use similar language for evaluations that you do  in a lesson. Keep in mind a few things when filling out evaluation forms.

  1. Parents will read these first. Then they’ll show their child.
  2. This is a permanent record from your program. It will be a beacon of awesome, or a totem of terrible. Choose your words wisely.
  3. Focus on positive things.
  4. Give a clear reason why the child did not move to the next level: be specific what they still need to do. For example: Billy did well on his supported front glides. He still needs to be more comfortable putting his face in the water completely. Well done putting your nose in those many times!

Coming up with comments and specific comments can be difficult.

We recommend that you have your MANAGERS or proven, veteran instructors fill out the evaluations or test. 

We highly discourage you from letting the instructor fill out the forms. Often times they are young, in high school, and frankly, more interested in themselves than they are in how your program looks to the public, and the long term ramifications of sloppy, careless comments. Let your managers do the assessments and base their comments on repeated test and note-taking. For large programs with hundreds of swimmers, assessing can be a challenge and the online system we have developed makes this process easier.

To help with your comments, because they can be extremely difficult, we’ve included the “Canned Feedback” section of the tests. We wrote some positive feedback you can include inside the final notes of each level. They are level specific and generic, so you can use them liberally throughout your test.



Has this article helped you with your evaluations and your feedback? Let us know in the comments below, or connect on Facebook or Twitter.

Check out our product page to get access to the lesson plans, the skill sheets, and inquire about access to the online lesson management.


Thank you for your time and dedication to better swim lessons tomorrow!



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  1. The “Effective Coaching” PPT link is broken. Is there any way you could potentially email it to me instead?
    Thanks for the great tips!

    1. I’ll look into uploading the actual file, but it looks like USA Swimming removed this link from their website.