Conference PaperPDF Available

Learn to swim - Do we practise what we preach?

AUSTSWIM International Conference – 2013
AUSTSWIM has been in existence, in Australia since 1979. In the last 34 years ‘swimming’
has become an industry, not just an elite sport or a recreational endeavour. Why? What
was happening before AUSTSWIM came into being? Most people learnt how to swim from
a parent or family friend who taught them... many with the sink or swim philosophy. Pools
were really just a hole in the ground with water and really nice lawns and managing a pool
only required a Bronze Medallion (which you only had to complete once). The beach was a
place that taught you the hard way what was safe and what wasn’t. Groups such as the
Royal Lifesaving (RLSS) and Surf Lifesaving (SLSS) Societies recognized that the status
quo wasn’t good enough to ensure the safety of our communities from ‘the drowning toll’.
That we needed a consistent approach to learn to swim and water safety, as well a minimum
standard as for what was acceptable in teaching swimming. Over the years, these industry
leaders (including AUSTSWIM) have completed research to discover who, what, when and
where people are drowning. To combat the drowning toll, they have developed education
programs such as Bronze, Grey and Surf Medallions, Swim Safe, Swim and Survive, Keep
Watch (@home, @rivers etc) programs and pool fencing campaigns. All to reduce the
number of drowning each year, and we aren’t the only ones... the story is the same all over
the world.
Yet the drowning toll is still hundreds of people every year. Why aren’t all our education and
safety campaigns making a difference? In Australia, AUSTSWIM and the RLSS are
committed to halving the drowning toll by 2020. That is saying that by the end of the next
seven years, only about 150 will drown in aquatic environments. Not just back yard or public
pools, but rivers, dams, the ocean as well as water features, buckets and washing machines.
So this makes me think we have to take a closer look at how we do what we do. To see if
there is a difference between what we practise and what we preach. Are we focusing on
making learn to swim about ‘looking pretty’ or are we focusing on making sure ‘it works’? As
an AUSTSWIM teacher and presenter of swimming and water safety, I believe that teaching
in the aquatic environment is about;
‘Teaching a way to swim (getting from point A to point B, unassisted, without drowning),
rather than the way to swim’.
Our communities, which includes everybody who comes in contact with an aquatic
environment, whether for competition, recreation or relaxation – young, old, able bodied or
not - need to be able to access the aquatic environment with safety, confidence and
Realistically, in an aquatic emergency you really need to be able to do a couple of things;
Move to safety – the more efficient you are the further you can go
Keep your lungs free of water!
However, another reality, is that not all people have the opportunity or the financial means to
go to private lesson for the weeks/months and in some cases years that it takes to become
Created by: Nina Nyitrai NZ AUSTSWIM Conference – Abstract January 8, 2013
efficient in all the strokes and water safety methods. In a lot of cases, they have two weeks
once a year in a school based learn to swim program... if they are lucky. So what is the first
thing that is being taught by the vast majority of teachers? I’ve made it a point over the
years - when I’m running/assessing learn to swim programs or visiting swim schools, or
talking at conferences- to ask teachers/parents, ‘what is the first stroke you teach/should
learn?’. The answer is almost always Freestyle (or doggy paddle). When I’m running
lifesaving or AUSTSWIM courses and I ask candidates if they know all the strokes... they
invariably say ‘yes’.... yet, to date, less than 10% can demonstrate an effective survival
backstroke or sidestroke until I teach them how to do it first.
Remember those two things people need to be able to do in an aquatic emergency? Is
Freestyle efficient when first learnt (especially by a toddler or young child)? Is it easy to
coordinate or efficient over any significant distance? Can it be used to save their lives in a
crisis? The answer to all of these questions is ‘no’. (and that is not even contemplating
teaching a coordinated face in the water breathing pattern and efficient body position!) Are
any of the competitive strokes any better? Again, the answer is ‘no’. AUSTSWIM recognized
this quite some time ago. Note the name of the AUSTSWIM entry level swim teacher is,
‘Teacher of Swimming and Water Safety’ which incorporates all the survival strokes as well
as the competitive strokes. The message about the importance of the survival strokes is out
there, it just doesn’t appear to be getting through.
The problem as I see it is that swimming teachers think they have lots of time or maybe
need lots of time in order to teach the survival strokes. However, what if, what their students
learn in their very first lessons is the only swimming skill that they learn (and not necessarily
perfect)? Would it be enough to save them in an aquatic emergency? Shouldn’t we be
structuring our lessons with this in mind? To teach our students a way to swim (to get from
point A to point B, unaided, without drowning) before we worry about the way to swim (i.e.
competitive strokes)?
It is my hope to have a collaborative discussion with AUSTSWIM teachers on both sides of
the Tasman, with the end result being a shift in what swim teachers teach their students first
in their learn to swim lessons. These discussions will help teachers to understand why
survival strokes should be taught first and that this will complement what they already know
on how to teach the survival strokes. Armed with this knowledge we can reduce the
drowning toll!!!
Created by: Nina Nyitrai NZ AUSTSWIM Conference – Abstract January 8, 2013
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