Teaching Adults to Swim the FOSS Way

by Jon Foss

Over half of American adults can’t swim or lack some basic swimming skills, according to an American Red Cross survey. An even larger percentage can’t swim well, both increasing their risk around water and denying them the many benefits of swimming, including:

  • Cardiovascular health
  • Low impact on joints
  • Muscle toning and strength
  • Stress and anxiety relief
  • Brain health, promoted by increased blood flow
  • And of course lots of fun and socialization opportunities!

Unfortunately, many adults who can’t swim think that it’s too late for them to learn, either because they feel they are physically ill-suited to swimming (not true), they are embarrassed to admit they can’t swim, or they don’t think they can find swimming lessons for adults. In some cases, the inability to swim may be tied to a psychological barrier, either a profound fear of water (perhaps tied to a traumatic experience) or a mental block wherein the fear feeds on itself and causes anxiety or even panic, making it extremely difficult to learn.

Foss Swim School has made it our mission to help ANYONE learn to swim. Our Swim Path® curriculum adjusts for all ages and abilities. We offer adult swim classes, usually as private or semi-private (with one other student) lessons, allowing us to tailor our lessons to each adult’s specific skill level and what comes next in their Swim Path® progression.

In my decades of teaching and coaching swimmers, I have worked with many adults. While the specific skills and techniques we teach are the same for ANYONE learning to swim at FOSS via the Swim Path®, the approach we take when teaching Adults uniquely addresses three Adult swimming dynamics: fear, feeling and freestyle.

We approach teaching adults to swim as a three-step process:

Overcome Fear

A natural, inborn fear of water – which is a healthy thing to have for a person who can’t swim – impacts one’s ability to learn. But the simple truth is, if you are afraid of water, the best thing you can do is learn to swim!

For adults, I find that the most useful tool is knowledge. Unlike kids, adults can rationalize complex information showing the human body is actually very well adapted to swimming – many of the evolutionary adaptations humans picked up seem designed to help us swim, including:

  • the ability to create an airtight seal with our lips
  • downward-facing nostrils that let us hold air
  • a spine that lets us twist shoulders and hips separately
  • full shoulder rotation
  • scoop-like hands
  • natural buoyancy

The second part of overcoming fear is learning to trust water and feel at peace in water. Once adults get to the point where there is no panic, they trust they are safe, and they can put their faces in the water, helping them experience the sense of wellness and peace that comes from water can put adults in a place where they are ready to learn.

Feels Like Flying

The most important thing adults learn in this step is about balance and body control. In water, when you adjust your balance, you are weightless. It often doesn’t feel that way on entering water, however – the lungs want to float, and the hips want to sink. People naturally float upright, with the top of their head out of the water and everything from the eyebrows down underwater.

Swimming means learning to control your body to take advantage of that natural buoyancy. For kids we call this step learning to float up. We teach adults to push their chin down with their arms spread, moving the buoyant lungs lower, which causes the hips to lift up. Using the hands like wings to steer the body up and down and add some small propulsive motions, a person can learn to “fly” through the water.

They only need to add a couple of inches to their natural buoyancy to grab a breath, then submerge, and then add a little push when their body floats back up to grab the next breath. This is not full swimming, of course, but the ability to be comfortable underwater and knowing how to balance one’s body is the basis of swimming well.

Master the Freestyle

For adults, the most important stroke to learn is the freestyle (or front crawl.) Using the principles of balance and buoyancy learned in step 2, we add in additional motions to maximize efficiency and propulsion.

In freestyle, the weight of the arm as it comes up and out of the water with each stroke pushes the rest of the swimmer down – a swimmer should feel like they are “swimming downhill.” Every fourth stroke, at this step in the swimming progression, the head rotates with the shoulders to let the swimmer grab a breath. The hands grab and push water back, while the kicking feet add to the forward propulsion.

In principle, it is simple and efficient. Of course, it is an exercise in timing, form and strength that takes practice and refinement. But once the basics are grasped, adults can learn quickly how to manage and combine all the parts of the motion.


If an adult can get through these three steps, they are already a much safer, more competent and confident swimmer. To learn additional strokes or learn to swim faster is just a matter of learning new motions and timing and refining the efficiency of your strokes.

Knowing how to swim is a lifelong gift. It’s one many parents work hard to provide for their children, but too many lack the ability themselves. I would encourage any adult who isn’t confident swimming to ask about adult classes. We hope you do, and look forward to helping you take the next steps past fear to flying and freestyle.

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