The FOSS Swim Path®, Part 3: Flip to Breathe

This blog is the third part in our series breaking down the FOSS Swim Path®. Read the second part on Float Up. Read our next blog on the fourth Swim Path® milestone, Swim Confidently.

As far as the Foss Swim Path® curriculum is concerned, flip to breathe is arguably the most fundamental milestone for our students. The earlier stages – Water Acclimation and Float Up – are necessary prerequisites to get to this point, but from a safety point of view the Flip to Breathe milestone is the final piece that enables a person who finds themselves in the water in an emergency situation to perform a self-rescue.

It’s worth reminding parents who may have learned to swim in an earlier time that we do not teach treading water as a part of water safety. There is a lot of swim science behind this decision which we have outlined in a separate blog post here, but the key takeaway is that the physiology of children makes treading water dangerous as a safety skill – larger heads compared to the rest of the body mean weight pushing straight down, and smaller hands and weaker muscles mean less force to keep the swimmer’s mouth and nose above the water line.

Flip to Breathe is a better way to achieve the same goal: allowing the swimmer to breathe, remain on the surface of the water, and also move themselves towards safety, which treading water doesn’t achieve. This is important because in most cases where a person is unexpectedly in the water, there is safety nearby – a dock, boat, floating item, ladder, or the edge of a pool.

Flipping to breathe: A key to safety, a foundation for strokes

In addition to its critical role in safety, Flip to Breathe is a fundamental skill in building out the swim strokes, especially freestyle (aka front crawl). By the time a student has mastered this skill, they are ready to start adding other motions and body positions, piece by piece, that when finally put together, will result in the ability to swim confidently all four competitive strokes.

This is why Flip to Breathe happens early in the Swim Path. Students will have reached this milestone when they complete a Little 3 class, or a Middle 1 or Big 1 class. (We segment by age as well as skill, recognizing that older kids can learn faster, although in some cases a student may need to repeat a level to get there.) Like all of our key milestones, mastery is required before moving on.

Things students learn when they “Flip to Breathe” at Foss Swim School

Here are some of the key elements of flipping to breathe:

  • Floating level: The most important thing when learning to flip is that your body needs to be in a flappable position – as level as possible in the water, either on the front or the back. Teachers work with students to ensure hips are high. It means filling the lungs with air, and using muscles to keep the body as flat as possible. Floating on the front, this means stretching the neck (“giraffe neck”) and keeping the feet submerged. This forces the hips up. Sometimes we us a floatation aid around the waist to help a student get the feel of floating level.
  • Learning to roll from the shoulders: In the pancake flip, a student learns the right way to roll from front to back and back to front. The roll starts with the shoulders and uses core muscles, not the neck – which is not always instinctive for students. Our teachers will help guide the body through the flip at first, and gradually require the students to do this on their own. It takes time and muscle memory, but being able to flip correctly is important for both safety and stroke swimming.
  • Timing breath with body position: As students flip, they learn to time their breath with their face leaving the water. In basic flips and for safety, the key is to know they can get to their back whenever they need air and breathe comfortably. But this same timing is used when swimming the freestyle – in that stroke, the swimmer still rolls their shoulders, but only 90 degrees (instead of the full 180 degrees of a flip), takes a side breath, then rolls back onto their front. Both breaststroke and butterfly require breath timing as the face emerges from the water on each stroke.
  • Tiger paddles and bird flaps for propulsion: The next need is the ability to move. On the front, we teach tiger paddles, using the hands and feet to move the swimmer forward, chin up to breathe. On the back, we teach “bird flaps,” also known as the elementary backstroke, drawing arms and legs up, extending them, and bringing them back together.
  • Putting it all together: When a student can put all of these together consistently, they have mastered Flip to Breathe and can perform what we call the Safety Stroke. We teach a swimmer to first get their body into position, then perform four tiger paddles, flip, four bird flaps, flip, and repeat as long as necessary. The alternations help a swimmer steer to safety, ensure plenty of time to breathe, and keep them from tiring quickly.

Reaching the Flip to Breathe milestone and moving to the next stage

Like every part of our Learn to Swim progression, flipping to breathe is taught progressively. It is the culmination of everything we teach for safety, and the foundation of everything we teach going forward on the Swim Path.

Once a student has mastered flipping to breathe, they are ready to take the next step: learning Swim Confidently, where the basic Safety Stroke is expanded and refined into the four so-called competitive strokes. Even if a student doesn’t plan to compete, knowing all four strokes helps them gain the full exercise benefits of swimming, and lets them have the fun of variety too!

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