Swimming teachers hear that phrase a lot:
"I had a bad experience in the water..."
It's often said by parents who are bringing their children to lessons in order to make sure that their little ones are happier in the water than they are, or by adults who want to learn to swim to get over a fear learned long ago.
The surprising fact is that most of us have had bad experiences in the water - even strong swimmers and swimming teachers. I've had seaside trips when I've been knocked over by waves and completely lost control, ending up in a heap by the beach - some of which have left me bruised and pretty shaken up. I know my parents, also very competent swimmers who have been teaching for nearly fifty years, have had similar experiences themselves too - many other swimmers and swimming teachers I know have been scared or overpowered by the water at some point. I've known other adults who were pushed into a pool, fell into a pool or were forced to go underwater or swim out of their depth before they were ready - and being under water and out of control is one of the scariest things we can experience.
So why is it that for some people a bad experience in the water puts them off for life, while for others it is a blip in an otherwise happy relationship with swimming?
I feel the answer lies in the extent to which swimming is a regular part of your life. For me as a club swimmer and later a swimming teacher, I couldn't afford to let a terrifying experience put me off going in the pool again or putting my face in the water. The next week I had to be back in the pool again - it wasn't an option to stop.
By taking your child to swimming classes, you are definitely building a stronger swimmer, and one with plenty of water confidence. But we can't completely water proof our children and babies - the water will always be stronger than us, and there will always be circumstances outside of our control. What we can do is make swimming a regular part of our lives, so that we have to get back to it - if we stay away and let a fear or anxiety build up and eat away, we'll never overcome it. Bad experiences should be a learning opportunity, providing renewed respect for the water and a reminder of the importance of water safety, but we shouldn't allow a negative experience to destroy all future swimming experiences.
I can't minimise or belittle how deeply entrenched a fear of water can be - for some it is completely debilitating, but by swimming regularly we can build up the number of good experiences to outweigh the bad experiences. If your baby or child has had a bad experience in the water - or if you have yourself, start small. Build your trust again over weeks, not hours. But don't stay away from the water - that can only encourage the fear to deepen over time.