Learning to swim is a skill. What is a skill? Skill is a learned ability to repeat a given movement a number of times with the correct action. Skilful swimming has the characteristics of efficiency, using just as much effort as is needed, and permanence, can be repeated consistently. “Practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect”.

How is a skill learned?

The learning of skills for most individuals is a progression through definite stages and when teaching a skill it is important for the teacher to remember the following points:

  • Individuals will start at different points
  • Individuals will learn at different rates
  • Individuals will have different desires to learn
  • Individuals will have unique levels of potential
  • The teaching methods used will influence success

When teaching swimming it is quite easy to see evidence of all the points above. The class of beginners who arrive for their first lesson with differing background experience. The swimmer who moves through the classes very quickly, whilst others take a number of courses to progress. The swimmer who, regardless of how hard he/she tries, does not have the potential to make a swim team. The factor common to all these individuals is the process they go through in order to acquire a skill. Being told how to perform a skill is not enough on its own; the individual must also practice the skill. If the skill is practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher he will provide the initial information of how to perform the skill, followed by an opportunity to practice. After the practice the teacher will provide feedback and possibly further information. The circle of learning is continuous. “Repeat and repeat.”


Feedback provides motivation, e.g. praise combined with action for improvement and a focus for the teacher to draw attention on areas of performance to be considered during subsequent attempts.

For a skill learning to occur:

  • Activities must be appropriate to the individual (Ability groups)
  • Learners must see a good model (Demonstrations must be correct)
  • There must be ample opportunities to practice
  • Learners need to know how they have performed (Praise)
  • Learners must experience the enjoyment of success (Badges, awards etc)

Learning a new skill

In the initial stages of all physical activities muscle tension is high. As pupils begin to learn a new skill they are not aware of which muscles to use or the amount of effort to be exerted. The consequence of this is that he/she uses more muscles than necessary and creates a lot of tension in all the muscles.

Continued learning

The internal and external feedback, which the learner receives, enables him/her to establish which muscles need to be used and the amount of effort required to make the movements apparently effortless. The pupil now knows exactly which muscles to utilise and the precise amount of effort required. The pupil has now grooved the movements and is able to perform them repeatedly without apparent effort. The brain works like a video recorder. Each time the pupil performs a skill a recording is made of the movement. This recording continues as the skill is developed. Once the skill can be performed well the brain then stores this recording and replays it each time the skill is to be performed. As the performer becomes more competent at the skill he/she begins to feel as if he can do it without thinking about it. When a beginner first attends swimming lessons much of his attention is taken up with focusing on the surroundings and basic activities relating to water confidence. He finds it difficult to process any additional information related to acquiring the movement skills. As the pupil becomes accustomed to his new environment, and feels comfortable in his surroundings, he is then able to focus on the techniques required to swim.

Role of the teacher

  • The teacher needs to be aware of individual needs, watching and assessing participants carefully and continually. Set levels of work for each individual. The individual rather than the blanket approach.
  • Control the amount of information being processed by the teacher. Focus on one particular aspect of the skill and limit the quantity of information and feedback to an amount with which the learner can cope.
  • Select activities that are appropriate to the developmental stage of the learner. It is easy for the teacher to look at the techniques of a good swimmer and then try to teach the same style to a swimmer in the early stages of skill development, regardless of the fact that this skill may be wholly inappropriate at this stage.
  • The teacher is the swimmers’ eye and it is his feedback, which will motivate and inform.
  • Skill learning will be accelerated if the lesson is enjoyable. The learner may arrive screaming and crying but it is important they leave smiling and wanting to come back.

Muscle memory

When describing the Frontcrawl, Freestyle, Backcrawl, Breastroke or Butterfly there is an easy format or anagram that can help you with the development process and that is “BLABT”

  • B = Body position
  • L = Leg action
  • A = Arm action
  • B = Breathing
  • T = Timing

When teaching the strokes it is important to remember Newton’s Law of Action and Re-action. Every action has an equal and alternate re-action. If you remember this when looking at faults it will help you to correct the fault. For example if the legs are too low look for the opposite end of the body, the head, as it will probably be too high. When studying a swimmers’ stroke you must view it from all angles, front, side and back in order to get the overall picture. Sometimes it is necessary to ‘over correct’ in order to get the correct movement in the stroke, e.g. in backstroke hand entry a lot of swimmers ‘over reach’ and enter at the back of the head, if you imagine the face of the clock in relation to the head and body position the head being 12 o’clock you would ask the swimmer to enter their hand at 3 o’clock. The swimmer will do what he thinks is the right movement and will probably get near to the correct entry required.

Next time we will focus on each individual stroke.

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