Conference PaperPDF Available

When is a 'Good Swimmer' a Competent Swimmer?


An assessment tool developed as part of a larger drowning prevention study ('Is the Australian Swimming Benchmark useful for the prevention of drowning') is piloted at the AUSTSWIM NSW Regional Conference (Splashout '16) as part of a practical session (wet) for AUSTSWIM teachers. The attached notes give the reasoning for why an evidence based method of assessment (with clearly defined assessment criteria) is a necessary part of the Learn-to-Swim Industry.
Splashout ’16 NSW – Dubbo Regional Conference
When is a ‘Good Swimmer’ a
Competent Swimmer?
There are a few really important questions that we, as AUSTSWIM Teachers of Swimming
and Water Safety, need to ask in order to be able to do our job effectively. Firstly, when is a
‘good swimmer’ a ‘competent’ swimmer and secondly, what do we mean by ‘competent’?
Finally, how can we reliably assess for competency? In order to answer these questions, we
need some background information on how we (the Learn-to Swim [LTS] Industry) evolved
into what we are now.
How AUSTSWIM and the LTS Industry came about:
The 1960s in Australia saw an increase in participation in aquatic activities. With this
increase came an increase in aquatic accidents and injuries, which led to questioning of the
content of traditional swimming and water safety programs and the need for the
establishment of a national water safety education program (AUSTSWIM, 2014; Royal Life
Saving Society - Australia, 2010). The main concerns with the provision of the LTS programs
at the time were:
a lack of unity in relation to acceptable qualifications and the lack of experience of
some swim teachers;
a lack of agreement regarding methods of teaching swimming, survival and rescue
techniques to various age and ability groups;
a proliferation of certificates and awards available to participants with no quality
assurance methods in place; and
a range of standards demonstrated by candidates in obtaining certificate and
(AUSTSWIM, 2014, p. 1)
Following a national forum in 1979, the Australian Council for the Teaching of Swimming and
Water Safety (AUSTSWIM) was formed with the objective of developing a sound education
base for teaching. The formation of AUSTSWIM allowed for standards to be created for the
teaching of swimming and water safety in Australia. I am sure you all remember reading your
AUSTSWIM manual and know that the council included representation from each of the
states and territories of Australia, and of aquatic organisations such as Royal Lifesaving
Australia (RLSSA), Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) and Swimming Australia Ltd. (SAL).
Recently, the membership has increased to include YMCA Australia, Australian Leisure
Facilities Association (ALFA) and Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) (AUSTSWIM, 2014).
Since AUSTSWIM was formed 37 years ago, the aquatics industry has moved to improve
the quality of teaching standards in LTS programs by using the evidence-based
biomechanical research that was spawned by the sport of swimming in the late 1940s and
by pedagogical advances in teaching methods (Colwin, 2002). However, although there are
recommended teaching standards for the techniques of each recognised stroke (freestyle,
Nina Nyitrai
Splashout ’16 NSW – Dubbo Regional Conference
breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, side stroke and survival backstroke (Commonwealth of
Australia - Service Skills Australia, 2012a, 2012b), we all know that LTS programs are highly
variable. Individual instructors, swim schools, venues and other agencies (such as State
Departments of Education or Sport and Recreation) may either use recognised published
LTS programs (i.e. RLSSA Swim and Survive or SwimSafe), modify existing LTS programs
or create their own programs. An individual instructor’s level of comfort, experience and/or
confidence determines how they implement an LTS program. Decisions that each instructor
makes include how and when the standardised strokes are introduced within the program,
the emphasis of learning directed on each stroke, and the magnitude or type of water safety
incorporated in the program. This reliance on individual instructors’ interpretations of how
and when each swimming and water safety component is introduced into a LTS program,
combined with the generic interpretation of ‘swimming’, has made it difficult to define what
components of swimming and water safety are linked to drowning prevention.
The creation of standards on what and how LTS programs are taught has helped to improve
the consistency of implementation of programs (especially when compared to pre-1980s).
Nevertheless, the improvements in facilities, resources and standards, and the increased
availability of LTS programs, has not reduced the drowning toll in Australia. In order to
address the persistent and continuing issue of the drowning toll, the Australian Water Safety
Council (AWSC) was formed in 1988 to improve water safety within Australia. This body has
created and has implemented three National Water Safety Plans in order to meet the
objective of improving water safety. The goal of the AWSC’s 2012-2015 strategy is to reduce
drowning by 50% by 2020 (Australian Water Safety Council, 2012).
In order to meet this goal, the AWSC’s 2012-2015 Water Safety Strategy recommended that
a benchmark level of swimming be included under the Personal Aquatic Survival section of
the National Swimming and Water Safety Framework. This benchmark is based on the Royal
Life Saving Society study (RLSS – Australia, 2012), ‘No child to miss out: Basic swimming
and water safety education: The right of all Australian children’. This study identified the
RLSSA Swim and Survive Active Award 4 as an achievable goal for 100% of children leaving
primary school (12-13 year olds) (RLSS National Drowning Report, 2013). The research I
am conducting for my PhD study is to assess the validity of the benchmark, especially in the
conditions that are commonly associated with fatal drownings, such as open water and
unexpected falls into water.
What is the aim of the LTS Industry?
If you were to ask people why it is important to learn to swim, invariably, the answer is to
prevent drowning. The concept most people have of ‘drowning’ involves not being able to
swim in deep water and where drowning equates to fatality (hence the term ‘near drowning’).
While we (the aquatics industry specifically and the community at large) don’t have a
definition for ‘swimming’, we do have one for drowning. The definition for drowning, as
agreed by consensus at the 2002 World Congress on Drowning Prevention (now known as
the World Conference on Drowning Prevention) is:
‘Experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in a liquid’ (The World
Congress on Drowning, 2002) and has three possible outcomes:
1. Fatal
2. Non-fatal with morbidity (such as Hypoxic Brain Injury)
3. Non-fatal without morbidity
Nina Nyitrai
Splashout ’16 NSW – Dubbo Regional Conference
Yet even though this definition has been in place for nearly 14 years, we still have very few
people who understand what it is we are trying to prevent by learning swimming and water
safety (protecting the air way from submersion/immersion in a liquid). Remember this point
when we come back to discussing competency.
How do we recognise a competent swimmer?
Starting new students in a LTS program involves enrolment forms, which routinely ask
parents what level of swimming their child is at. However, what if the program they last
completed was ‘starfish’ and your program uses ‘red, yellow, green and blue’ or ‘1 Thru 5’ to
classify your levels? How does that compare? If the parent says their child is a ‘good
swimmer’ or ‘strong swimmer’, but they only ever swim in their own backyard pool, how does
that translate to what level their swimming ability is at in your facility? Are we only concerned
with their swimming ability (hint: NO!!!!). Even if we were, we don’t have a definition for what
is meant by ‘swim’. Is ‘swimming’ your ability to propel your body through water a specific
distance, using a specific stroke (or range of strokes)? If learned and performed in an
enclosed environment (small, medium or large pool) is it transferable to open waters (rivers,
creeks, dams and beaches)? Does the ability to propel your body through water, whether
efficiently or not, equate to having the confidence to do so and can lack of confidence impact
on your swimming ability? Finally, the experience of the teacher assessing the student’s
ability can also impact on what level that student’s ability is classified as. Whether it is a tick
or a cross next to a listed skill or a competent/not yet competent on a progress report,
assessing a swimmer’s level of ability is open to interpretation, with no real guidelines as to
what is considered competent.
What do we need to be able to identify a competent swimmer?
We need a consistent, evidence-based assessment tool that can be used by any instructor
(new or experienced), that can give instructors the ability to better determine where a
person’s competency lies. Instructors need to be able to differentiate between all the grey
areas that lie between competent and not yet competent. Knowing a student is a ‘beginner’
or a ‘starfish’ or Level 2 does not give us enough information about their level of competency.
However, if the list of tasks they complete had a rating scale, we can better answer those
important questions regarding competency.
Remember the point made previously about the definition for drowning? When we are
assessing for competency, is breath control (ability to protect the entire airway – mouth and
nose) one of the criteria that is given the highest priority or are we looking at the technical
aspects of a stroke? Should whether or not the stroke is being performed efficiently be the
determining factor of whether or not the student is deemed competent? What about students
that can achieve the distance required, but not maintain breath control? Are they still
considered competent?
Below is the assessment tool and criteria I have developed as part of my research. This tool
is in the process of being tested for both reliability and validity. AUSTSWIM Teachers of
Swimming and Water Safety at this conference and the NSW State conference have the
opportunity to be included in a pilot study of the tool’s reliability. The ideal outcome for using
this tool is for all teachers of swimming and water safety to be able to rate the level of
competency when testing against the AWSC’s benchmark. If we can define what is meant by
competent and we can show consistency in how that competency is assessed, we can move
closer to understanding the link between swimming/water safety and drowning prevention.
In order for the LTS industry to progress and meet the aims of the AWSC’s Water Safety
Strategy (reduce the drowning rate by 50% by the year 2020) we need to acknowledge that
Nina Nyitrai
Splashout ’16 NSW – Dubbo Regional Conference
we don’t have all the answers when it comes to drowning prevention. We need to work
together to build a better understanding of exactly what is meant by a ‘competent swimmer’.
Scale Description
1 Refused to attempt task
2 Attempted task – did not complete
3 Attempted task – completed with assistance
4 Completed task with difficulty, little or no confidence and/or inefficiently
5 Completed task with ease but lacking confidence and/or efficiency (correct technique)
6 Completed task with moderate ease, confidence and/or efficiency (correct technique)
7 Completed task with ease, confidence and with moderate or high efficiency (correct
Criteria for assessment tool –
1. Breathing is controlled throughout task – i.e. no choking, gasping or reliance on aids
to breathe comfortably.
2. Correct stroke technique as described in the AUSTSWIM manual (see clips listed
under ‘correct technique’)
3. Assistance is defined as kickboards, noodles, floats or physical assistance from
another person.
4. Difficulty is defined as the inability to coordinate the individual components of the
stroke as a whole (i.e. body position, arm action, leg action and breathing).
5. Moderate ease is defined as the ability to coordinate the individual components of the
stroke as a whole, but not having to ability to maintain that coordination over
distances greater than 10m.
6. Ease is defined as the ability to coordinate the individual components of the stroke as
a whole and maintaining that coordination over distances greater than 10m.
7. Confidence demonstrated through non-reliance on aids such as googles, pool edge,
shallow water and/or lack of anxiety in the water.
8. Efficiency demonstrated though reduction of frontal and eddy resistance effecting the
body moving while through water – i.e. body position, maintaining streamline,
reducing time/distance from streamline position.
Australian Water Safety Council. (2012). Australian water safety strategy 2012-15. Australian
Water Safety Council.
AUSTSWIM. (2014). Teaching swimming and water safety: The Australian way. 3rd. from
Colwin, C. (2002). Breakthrough swimming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Commonwealth of Australia - Service Skills Australia. (2012a). SISAQU310A Instruct
swimming strokes: Industry Skills Councils.
Commonwealth of Australia - Service Skills Australia. (2012b). SISCAQU309A Instruct
clients in water safety and survival skills: Industry Skills Councils.
Royal Life Saving Society - Australia. (2010). Swimming & lifesaving: Water safety for all
Australians (6th Ed ed.).
Nina Nyitrai
Splashout ’16 NSW – Dubbo Regional Conference
The World Congress on Drowning. (2002). Recommendations.
Nina Nyitrai
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.