Three ways to improve the dry-hair-teenage-swim-instructor’s teaching

Have you ever just watched a high school age person teach swim lessons, and it seems like they don’t want to be there? You can, like, read their minds as they telegraph all their thoughts with actions. Let me know if you’ve ever seen this scenario played out in your swim program:


Sally stands on the pool deck waiting for you to tell her which kids are hers. She has the same class every week, but has forgotten their names. Sally uses phrases like, “hey,” and “you,” to tell them when to go next, or silently points. Fifteen minutes into the class of level 1 swimmers her hair is still dry. In fact, it is the second lesson of the morning and her hair is still dry.  You notice the fresh pony tail bobbing while she looks around the pool, you meet eyes, she looks at her group and says, “We’re doing front glides, okay? You, go.” Sally doesn’t put her shoulders in the water, so the kid leaps up to grab her shoulders and tilts her head back in line with her arms and spine like a banana, but because Sally isn’t low in the water, the kid is more vertical than horizontal. Together they shuffle back to the bench while the child laughs and claws at her shoulders to get a better grip.  Sally deposits the swimmer on the platform.  Silently, she looks at the clock, and points at another child. “You, go.” Sally backs up while turning her back to the kids.  A few yards out she stands with her hands on her hips, and looks around the pool again. She says something to another teacher, and the kid she told to go struggles to get to her; again, with Sally’s shoulders in the air the kid grabs onto her stomach, then claws her way up to her shoulders and lets her feet drag vertically behind her.


Does this sound like a nightmare to you? Have you seen this in your swim lessons? I’m sure you have. It is a typical teenage swim instructor that isn’t really interested in teaching high quality lessons. They’re just there to babysit and play and then get paid and move on. Maybe they’re more interested in what they’re doing later that day, or the next day, or even what they did the night before.


To be fair, that is all fine to be preoccupied with. Somedays I don’t want to be teaching either, but what separates the good teachers from the bad is whether or not you care about your swimmers getting better. One of Sally’s kids might improve, but it would be accidental and simply a matter of being in the water. There is no real “teaching” going on in that description.  Let’s look at how we can improve people like Sally, and end our sweat soaked scary bad dreams.




When I walk to the bathroom at work, I think “How can I get my staff to teach better?” When I walk down the hall to fill up my water glass, I think, “how do you make high school kids good at teaching swim lessons?”


Training staff takes a long time. We have tools and guides to give you some shortcuts (and they work great!), but there is a time commitment. Here is how we structure our training:


  1. Knowledge
    1. Do you know the lingo? Streamline, front glide, back glide, freestyle.
    2. Do you know which skills we are working on in each level? If not, do you know where to find that info?
    3. Do you know the basic level differentiators?
      1. Level 1: underwater
      2. Level 2: streamline and move arms to make progress
      3. Level 3: breathing to the side freestyle
      4. Level 4: Swimming distance, breaststroke.
    4. Do you know how to hold the child for glides and where to position yourself?
  2. Teaching
    1. Saying “okay” at the end of sentences
    2. Giving commands.
      1. Concise? Clear?
    3. You did this, next time do that.
    4. Do you demonstrate, or provide good visual examples (skill sheets, pictures, video, etc)?
  3. Progress
    1. Do you give feedback on every attempt? Or most?
    2. Do you follow the skill progressions?
    3. Is there a method to your teaching?
    4. Do the kids you teach have noticeable improvement?
    5. Can you teach a class without a lesson plan?


This format for training new swim instructors and coaches is founded on “Deliberate Practice.”


Talent is Overrated


James Clear:

Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern: break the overall process down into parts, identify your weaknesses, test new strategies for each section, and then integrate your learning into the overall process.


We’re going to look at these parts, and I’m going to give you some weaknesses that we can address now, after someone has gone through training.


You can check out our SLI Swim Instructor Training Workbook on Amazon 1st edition, to get all the knowledge for swim lessons. We’re working on 2nd Edition to add in how to be a better teacher.


Here I’m going to give you some actionable steps on how to improve a swim instructor, typically in high school that is like Sally. Sally went through our training, she participated in the “okay” training modules. She even demonstrated ability to teach using effective feedback.  But there are days that she does not teach well; days she does not get her head wet and it more concerned with what time it is than actually providing good teaching.


Go underwater immediately.


Claire works out every day. She goes to the gym in the morning, which works for her, and does an hour workout. It varies, but she is consistent with it. I immediately though, “that is insane! Everyday? Who has time for that?” For Claire, it is a priority, something she does. What shocked me was that her habit, her trigger, her mandatory action to build up to this working out every day practice is not working out for an hour. No, that is too big of a commitment. Claire’s habit that she must do every day is a simple, easy thing that she knows as soon as she does it will almost guarantee she’ll workout. She hails an Uber or Lyft to pick her up and take her to the gym.  Claire’s daily habit is to get a cab to take her to the gym. That is it. She is allowed to ride the car there and just turn around, but she doesn’t. Once she’s there, she gets out of the car, walks into the gym and does a workout.


You have to get your hair wet immediately. Make that one thing your goal/habit at the beginning of your lesson because then the teacher will have already established that they’re under and will be more likely to do everything else that comes with committing to being wet.


Getting your hair wet right at the beginning is like calling an Uber to take you to the gym. Once you get there, you might as well workout. Once you’re underwater, it doesn’t matter; you can demonstrate going under much easier and more often than if you are trying to keep your hair dry.


Ideas to implements this:

  • Require every instructor to go underwater completely before any kids get in.
  • Have a child count to 3 for instructor to jump in, and go underwater.
  • Designate a “bucket-person” to walk around the pool with a bucket full of water in the first 5 minutes and pour water on any non-child’s head.
  • Set up a small waterfall you have to walk through to get in the water; instructors too!



Demonstrate Once before having a child do it.


Harold is a swim coach and has been doing it for 35 years. At almost 60 he still feels strong, and enjoys working with age group kids (9-13) of high ability. He swam in college and high school, and knows what it takes to create champions. He’s had a state champ in Illinois in 10 of the last 15 years. But Harold is lazy; he sits on the bench most of practices, and when he explains sets he hands out workouts or writes a wall of numbers and intervals on a chalkboard.  Harold often complains to other coaches that his kids don’t streamline well, even though he repeatedly tells them to. Sometimes he’ll stop a set in the middle and yell at them about their streamlines, then give them a 500 free where they need to “work the turns, making sure to streamline each time with three dolphin kicks.”


Compare Harold to a good developmental coach that stands the whole practice, does perfect poses on the deck of what a good streamline is, and provides explicit opportunities like do 3 streamlines with freestyle kick, move over, do it again. The developmental coach then gives them feedback on each attempt; what they did well, and something they can do next round to improve.


Who do you think will have better streamlining swimmers?


Harold, who tells the kids to streamline off every wall, and gives them sets like 500 FR, 200 IM, or 10×50 on 1:30. He then sits on the bench next to the pool and talks to other coaches on deck, randomly shouting, “streamline.”


The developmental coach that stands on deck and demonstrates an ideal streamline. She asks the kids to get out of the water, and do it with her. She repeats the three things to streamline, and the kids echo it. “Repeat after me, but in the softest, fastest voice you can: lock your thumb, squeeze your ears, look down!” Then, she gives the kids a set where they do 3 x SL + 3 FR, then 4 x 25 Free, focusing on streamline. After each round of the 3xSL portion she gives feedback to each kid on the three things she highlighted first.


Young kids are good at modeling and mimicing others. Have you played “statue master?” They want to see something done well; it is pleasing to see others do something they can’t. You can show them a streamline in the water, and they’ll know right away if they did it similarly. If they didn’t, the swim instructor is right there to correct them.  Demonstrating also defines the action for the swimmer; it removes the mental process of imagining what the words mean.

I once joked to a new assistant coach and said, “My favorite thing about coaching is that I take words and translate that into good swimming.” Words are one tool, but demonstrating and providing opportunities immediately after to coerce them into mimicing it is more important.


Ideas to implement:

  • Require every instructor to state the next activity clearly, “We are doing front glides.”
  • Require every instructor to then, demonstrate it as close to the exact way they’ll be doing it.
  • 1 demonstration by instructor or high level child per activity.
  • Show a picture of the skill or a video on loop to reference after announcing what activity you’ll be doing.
  • Have the instructor demonstrate the skill once correctly, then once wrong and ask what specific part was bad about it. Have them do it too. Once wrong, then once corrected.



You have to say something.


Larry was teaching swim lessons but he had a hard time focusing his thoughts. Brenna, the teacher in the lane next to him was just talking the whole time. From laughs, shouts, and a constant stream of vocalizations, she was just loud the whole forty-five minutes. Added to the splashing, the kids crying, yelling, and the general pool noise he was having a hard time to just figure out what they were going to do next. It made him feel rushed.  “Ok, we’re doing back glides. Billy go.” “AWESOME! JOSEPH You DA-MAN! Next time make sure you start in the water-tho.” Brenna overwhelmed him again with her shouting and talking, he almost forgot what his kid just did. Was the back glide okay? “Uhm, good job Billy.” He said and helped him stand up on the bench. Brenna was so annoying. Who was next? Oh yeah, Bob. “Bob, your turn.” “Jerry! HOLY COW; moo moo moo moo,” laughter, “great streamline dude, NEXT time, look down the whole time though cow man.” Larry sighed. It was going to be a long class.


Even with the loud distracting volume in a crowded space you have to talk. You have to give feedback. I like to play a game with swim instructors called, “you have to say something.” Basically, they are required to say 1 thing about each attempt a child makes. Ideally it would be the 20% of things that get 80% of the results for a better swim,; I can dream. But, we know that it takes time to see with a discerning eye. You have to start somewhere, and saying SOMETHING is better than nothing. It is kinda like the brute force technique to cracking a code. If you do nothing, you won’t find the password; but try enough times eventually something will work. I guess more like the millions of monkeys pounding on keyboards; eventually given enough time one will write a story worth reading.


In the story above, Brenna was annoying to Larry, but she was clearly the better teacher. She was dynamic, expressive, interesting to the kids, and most importantly: she gave high quality feedback. “you did this well, next time improve this other thing.”


Ideas to implement:

  • You have to say something: require every instructor to say 1 thing about the attempt for each child each time they do something.
  • Filibuster: you have to talk for 4 minutes straight about whatever you want. This is a training module to practice talking about swimming. Can do it after watching a video of a swimmer for prompts.
  • Decibel contest. Download a decibel meter app on your phone and record near one person one class, and then record near another teacher next class and see who is louder. Loud doesn’t mean better, but if you’re not talking at all you lose.
  • Set a feedback goal during lessons. Assign someone to watch each instructor for 5 minutes every lesson. If any one class time gets up to 200 feedback’s (count each time an instructor gives feedback on an attempted skill) then they win and get a pizza.



How do you fix the dry hair teenage instructor problem? Comment below or connect on social media


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