How to Swim
And the 4-step methodology for learning any skill
Several years ago, I took on a part-time job as an Adult Swim Lesson Instructor. It was a beginner class that lasted 6 weeks. I was responsible for designing the class lessons and teaching the students how to swim. As someone who had spent years coaching young kids, I didn’t know what to expect.
The reasons for joining the class varied by student–whether they had never formally learned, they wanted to swim in the ocean, or they wanted to revive a long-lost skill– a common goal emerged: gain the confidence to swim in the “deep end” of the pool.
It didn’t appear to be a question of physical ability; it was a matter of mental ability. The students all shared the desire to conquer a fear associated with swimming.
The group was familiar with the pool albeit not very comfortable in it. We started in the warm, three-foot deep portion of the aquatics center. The bigger and deeper pool was on the other side of the complex. A distant, but visible goal.
I’ve been a competitive swimmer for as long as I can remember. I started swim lessons in pre-school and finished my swim career as the team captain on a Division I collegiate team. Swimming has always been second nature to me, like breathing and walking.
As a swim coach, I apply the following learning methodology to my swim classes, as well as any new skill that I am trying to learn.
Lesson 1: Deconstruction
My job as the teacher is to do the deconstruction part. I am an expert in swimming so I know how best to break swimming down in to smaller, workable, components that I can teach and coach.
As a learner of a new subject, you’ll have to identify the many things that make it up so that you can break it down into manageable pieces — not too big nor too small. Pieces that you can practice in isolation of one another.
Lesson 2: Selection
Now the most important part: selecting the key components. The best way to do this is to understand the Pareto Principle for your subject. The 20% of components will produce 80% of the output. What are the few things you can focus on that will enable you to produce the biggest results?
For my swim class, we focused on the three components outlined below: balance/floating, kicking, and body position. That’s it. If students can master these three components by the end of the course, they will be able to swim confidently in the deep end.
Lesson 3: Progression
Progression is all about reaching a level of comfort in each of the components selected. This is the hardest stage of the learning process and where many learners give up on their journey. The challenge stems from the frustration of not reaching goals fast enough. There’ll be points where you feel like you aren’t making enough progress to justify continuing, but you must push forward.
In my class, one of the students was struggling with kicking. He felt like he was sinking, rather than swimming and wanted to quit. Instead, he showed up to the pool an hour early to the lesson every day. He understood that learning to kick was the key to his success and his goal of swimming in the ocean with his family was too important to give up on.
Lesson 4: Goals & Stakes
Creating a list goals and stakes are what will motivate you. We humans are flawed animals. We aren’t perfect but establishing goals and stakes that motivate you will be critical in getting you closer to your objectives.
- Set Goals: Make them achievable so that you can build motivation
- Strive for early successes: Start simple & easy so that you can build confidence
- Set a system of stakes: Hold yourself accountable
Luckily, everyone in my class wanted to prove they could swim in the deep end, and by the end of the course, they didn’t just want to do it for themselves–they wanted to prove it to their classmates. They all started in the same place and committed to aim for the same goal as a group.
Together, we started simple and built confidence along the way. It is easier to hold yourself accountable to a goal when you are paying for it. But what makes it even easier is when the group is working towards a mutual goal: to go swim in the deep end on the last day. The stakes were set.
On the last day of class, we did a quick warm up in the little pool and then made our way to the deep end of the big pool. I’ll be honest — not everyone achieved their goal. I’m confident that they could all do it, but they hadn’t conquered their own fears yet. Of course, this was only after 6 weeks, so with more practice they would all be able to do laps in the deep end.
In my life, I’ve gone through this process with many things and have failed or given up at some point during all the phases. Failure depends on your definition of success. The important part of the learning journey will be about creating a system of small wins and rewards that can keep you motivated to continue for another day.
You can use this process for any learning journey and apply it to any subject, whether physical, digital, or other. Good luck!
4-Step Learning Journey
- Identify all the components of what you want to learn
- Break it down into small pieces.
- Work on and practice the key components. Keep track of your progress along the way.
- Create a system of goals and stakes that work for you. Commit yourself to the learning and keep the goal in sight.