What to do when a swimmer falls underwater

Imagine with me for a second that you’re walking on your pool deck, observing swim lessons, and you see a kid wander off the bench or let go of the wall and immediately start drowning. Active drowning, trashing around not able to get up. The instructor rushes over to catch the swimmer, lifts them out of the water and the kid immediately starts screaming bloody murder.

Is your heart rate amped up? Are you fighting the urge to rush over and take over the situation?

How you react when a beginner briefly falls underwater defines their future.

Most of our group lessons are filled with 3-6 year old beginners. A large portion of our classes is teaching level one, or what we call “Going underwater, and learning to put your face in the water with your body flat at the surface.”

We use benches and the wall to let our participants stand safely or keep themselves above the water. Young people tend to bounce around and move a lot. Sometimes they fall off the benches or slip off the wall.

Ideally, this would never happen and we could ensure that no one ever slipped and fell underwater until they are ready to.

What you do, when they briefly fall under, determines their reaction.

Quickly lift the child out of the water and smile.

State clearly what happened. “You fell in! Next time remain on the bench.”

Smile again, touch their head, or hold their hand, and say, “You went underwater and that is awesome, but be careful. Only do it with me when you are ready to.”

Reiterate that you are there to help them and to take care of them. “Remember, I am here to help you.”

1) State clearly what happened exactly
2) Create a connection, holding hand, or pat head, SMILE.
3) Encourage the underwater on their own, but when they choose, or only with instructor
4) Reassure that you are there to help them, and protect them, and that everything is okay.

If instead, you freak out and ask them if they’re okay, or suggest reasons why they would be scared and terrified, you will get a lot of unnecessary tears. Swimmers that fall underwater will usually cry and freak out only if the instructor or parent does too. Generally they are stunned, and surprised, but not afraid when they briefly slip underwater.

If the teacher or parent reacts in a scary or terrified way, then they will too. Sometimes the swimmer will cry for a short while, which is fine. Follow the steps above, and you will likely not have that full on melt down.

The final step to this process is crucial:

Tell the parent what happened clearly, and calmly explain how together you worked through it.

Make certain that you give the parents the full breakdown of what happened, why, and how the instructor handled it. Do that, and you will have an ally on your side that will help encourage and gently push the swimmer to have a positive reaction to slipping underwater for a short moment. Your reaction will also dictate what the parent will react like when they bring up the conversation at home.

Tell me what you do with swimmers that accidentally fall underwater. Do you freak out too, or do you calmly lay the groundwork for safe swim lesson behavior and future underwater ventures with the instructor?

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