Instructors, this one’s for you! We’ve all been faced with that swimmer who has a set of lungs on them that puts Mariah Carey (during her prime…) to shame and we know that when they go into a breakdown, the lesson is most likely over and it’s time to pull out the pool toys. That being said, there is totally a time and place to push through the feedback we get from our swimmers in the water.
Before we jump into how to approach feedback, let’s discuss what feedback is and the forms it might take during a lesson.
Feedback is any information we get from a swimmer that lets us know what they’re feeling at any given point during a lesson. There’s no positive or negative side to feedback because it simply informs us about how they feel. By separating ourselves as instructors from the idea that certain feedback like crying or resiliency is “bad behavior,” we’re giving ourselves the opportunity to respond without reaction and to make space for our swimmers to work through what they need to to ensure a productive class.
So how do we respond to feedback and how might our responses change based on the circumstances?
First, if a swimmer is uncomfortable just being in the water with you, the best way for you to respond is to remain patient and let them know with language or simple actions that they are safe. Making the experience fun and welcoming will lead to your swimmer learning to love the lessons you create. Until you get to that point, work on the skills you would normally work on, but add a level of playfulness to them. Instead of simply working on flutter kicks, turn whatever drill you would use for kicks into a game. Even if they’re screaming during this process, the consistent sense of playfulness will eventually get through to them. If you feel like a fool while responding to feedback with enthusiasm and playfulness, you’re doing it right!
If a swimmer is comfortable being in the water with you, but tends to give you feedback around specific drills like back floats, or unders, your best bet is to break the drill down to its simplest form. For example, if your swimmer is resistant to working on back floats, ask them to simply look up at the sky and put their ears in the water while holding onto the wall. Continue to call this action a back float to blanket the phrase with a level of confidence towards what they know they’re capable of. This technique can be performed in steps. As a swimmer becomes comfortable with each step of a broken down drill, add a slight twist to what you’re asking and continue to use the same language as if they’ve been performing the full skill from the very beginning. Naturally, as you repeat this process, that confidence will work its way into having your swimmer perform the entire skill without any uncomfortable feedback.
When a swimmer forms opinions about drills and activities being performed in the water over time, it’s important to acknowledge them, but to continue to work through the skills without hesitation from you as the instructor. If a swimmer has fear towards something and your response is to hesitate or back off, it reinforces the idea that there might actually be something to be afraid of and that’s never the kind of perception we want to create with our swimmers.
The reality behind feedback in the water is that there is really only one time we should back off 一 when the resistant or debilitating behavior escalates to a degree that becomes paralyzing to you or the swimmer. It really shouldn’t get to that point, because instructors should be capable of encouraging swimmers to try new things, but there will always be circumstances where a child isn’t responding to any level of encouragement and the feedback they provide escalates over multiple weeks. After a few lessons of attempted encouragement without progress, we need to recognize that we’ve probably overstepped to some degree. This can generally be identified through the type of crying or language being given to us. It’s quite apparent, as we get to know the children we’re working with, which cries need to be address and which can be acknowledged and pushed through. In this case, turn everything into playful activities and create a simplified language around whatever you do in the water that avoids triggering a response. From there, be very specific with whatever drills you decide to perform, using detailed language to let your swimmer know exactly what they’re doing and how you’re going to keep them safe. Trust place the biggest role here and by avoiding any vague language or suggestion of trickery, your swimmer will eventually use that trust as a buffer to lean on while trying something new. At the end of the day, if this level of debilitating feedback exists, that swimmer is only going to need to be in control of the pace of the lesson. We need to remember that we’re teaching water safety, but we also want these children to love being in the water too.
We never want to create an environment where our swimmers feel that they’re being forced to do something they don’t feel safe doing, but when you are able to distinguish between when to push and when to back off, it becomes easier to encourage swimmers to want to try things that they may not have originally felt comfortable with. Trust plays the biggest role in this process and creating that is going to take time, but once you’ve earned it, your swimmer is going to learn at a pace much faster than if you could imagine.