Learning To Swim: Mastering The Basics

For many people, learning to swim can be one of life’s annoying little challenges. Most non-swimmers fall into one of these three categories. Which one applies to you?

  1. Had school swimming lessons a child but never quite grasped the correct technique Avoids swimming for fear of splashing around in the pool, resulting in complete embarrassment.
  2. Had bad experience as a youngster Spent the next 20+ years avoiding all swimming activities like the plague, through fear of drowning.
  3. Just never learnt Realises that to fully enjoy a holiday one must learn the basic swimming techniques.

Learning to swim

This guide to mastering the basics won’t teach you to swim. It will however show you, that learning to swim isn’t so difficult.

I can tell you from first-hand experience – with 15 years as a swimming teacher/coach – that I’ve never met somebody that simply can’t swim.

Most beginners think they can’t swim, the majority have told themselves so many times they can’t swim that they actually think it’s true and just never give it a go.

In reality, everybody can swim – it’s very simply mind over matter.

You must first believe you can swim, visualise yourself swimming and then practice.

The importance of building your confidence in the water

The basic technique of swimming can sometimes be tricky if you don’t know how.

Most non-swimmers benefit from a few swimming lessons to help them get started, but essentially it’s down to practice, just giving it a go.

I’ll give you an example:

I met a young lady last year who was literally petrified of going in the water, before the lesson she was shaking and clinging onto the side for dear life. In the first session, I thought to myself “wow, this is not going to be easy.”

Ever the optimist, I grasped the bull by the horns and took up the challenge…

We sat and talked for 15 minutes until she calmed down and slowly got in the pool and had a little paddle around, nothing more.

Over the next two lessons, we just worked on relaxing, breathing and floating whilst holding onto the side of the pool – and talking some more.

By lesson four she was floating, kicking, talking and even starting to swim.

When we reached the fifth lesson, confidence was flowing, she managed to swim from one side of the pool to the other – an amazing achievement for somebody who truly believed she couldn’t!

One of my coaching highlights of the year without a doubt.

How was it possible for this lady who was simply terrified of water to be swimming down the pool with her face in the water?


First you build confidence: you must believe you can do it, visualise yourself swimming, relax and enjoy it.

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

Believe me, it’s not. You just need to know how.

Here’s where my 7 step guide to learning the basics comes into play.

It’s unconventional, it conflicts with what you might have read elsewhere, it covers everything you need to know if you want to learn to swim:

  • Getting used to being in the pool
  • Putting your face in the water
  • How to breath comfortably whilst in the water
  • Floating
  • Developing a strong leg kick
  • Pulling
  • Experiencing your first swim

Swimming basics: What you will need

Get some swimming goggles and a suitable swimming costume.

Pick a pool that’s quiet and away from the crowds, somewhere you can go to relax.

The pool should be 1.2m deep or less, so you can comfortably stand up in the water.

Step 1 – Getting used to being in the pool

Spend around 15 minutes familiarising yourself with the feeling of being in the water, relax and paddle around.

At this stage it’s important that you breathe slowly and deeply: in through your nose, out through your mouth.

Try to enjoy the feeling of being in the water and keep paddling around until you feel completely relaxed and comfortable.

Explore the pool, stay close to the edge, walk around with your shoulders fully submerged under the water. Feel the resistance against your body as you take long strides through the water.

Step 2 – Putting your face in the water

For most beginners this is the big challenge.

The reality is that you can either do it on your tenth trip to the pool or your first.

You might as well do it right away and save yourself time; It’s actually a really nice feeling.

Spend a while practicing this, at first it’s a strange feeling but you will get used to it and it will really help you relax.

Exercise you can try

  1. Stand with your feet on the bottom of the pool shoulder width apart.
  2. Hold the side of the pool with your hands and submerge your shoulders.
  3. Take a deep breath and slowly put your face into the water.
  4. Try and hold your breath for a count of five, remember to open your eyes to help relaxation.

Step 3 – How to breath comfortably whilst in the water

Breathing technique is one of the most common challenges facing beginner swimmers.

Many people choose to swim with their head out of the water to avoid the challenge of putting their face in. The main problem with this style is the effect it has on body position, not to mention the pressure it puts on the neck and lower back.

Developing sound breathing skills can aid relaxation, improve flotation and contribute to a well-rounded, streamlined, swimming stroke.

Many swimmers can benefit from breathing practice, as even the most accomplished swimmers can suffer stroke imperfections due to breathing with poor technique.

Exercise you can try

Repeat the exercise for getting your head in the water, but this time, we’ll make a few adjustments:

  1. Whilst your head is under the water, try and release some air bubbles out of your mouth (as if blowing through a straw)
  2. Blow all the air out of your lungs
  3. Pause for a second and then lift your head for a fresh intake of air

See if you can repeat this process a few times until you feel confident with the breathing technique.

Step 4 – Floating

Most of us can float, some better than others.

The key to a successful floating position comes down to two simple factors: head position and relaxation.

Focus on these two elements and you should see a horizontal body position with legs fully extended out behind, heels almost breaking the surface of the water.

Your ability to float directly impacts your body position, which is crucial to a sound swimming technique.

Take a little time to learn how to float first, before you try to swim. Learning the correct floating technique will help you to relax in the water and build your confidence without having to leave the side of the pool.

Exercise you can try – Part 1

  1. Hold onto the side of the pool, eyes looking slightly forward with legs extended fully out behind you.
  2. Slowly kick your legs up and down to help with balance.
  3. Keep repeating this until you feel like you’re floating comfortably.

Exercise you can try – Part 2

Notice your body position, legs slightly low in the water?

  1. Hold onto the side of the pool, with your face in the water and legs extended fully out behind you.
  2. Kick your legs gently up and down, this time incorporating the breathing technique from step 3.

Try and visualise yourself floating on top of the water, not under the water.

The more you breathe, the more you will relax and the more you relax, the better you will float.

Here lies the secret to learning to swim:

Relaxing in the water.

This might be a good time to practice standing up from the prone position.

Step 5 – Developing a strong leg kick

A strong leg kick is the balance and power to a successful swimming stroke.

It takes time to build a strong leg kick, usually with plenty of trial and error at the beginning.

Experiment with different kicking speeds and tempos, find out what works for you. Each time trying to better your previous effort in terms of distance and speed.

Exercise you can try

For this you will need a small float board. The goal is forward movement, of any kind.

  1. Hold the board out in front of you, arms extended and eyes looking slightly forward, chin resting on the surface of the water.
  2. Give yourself a strong push off the side and try to get some momentum going by kicking your legs up and down (flutter kick).
  3. Try and replicate the flat body position from your floating exercise, with your legs extended out behind you.

flat body position

Note: You may start with a few failed attempts to achieve any forward movement, that’s ok, go back to step 4 and practice the flutter kick whilst holding the side of the pool.

To advance this exercise try combining kicking and breathing with the head down in the water.

Before moving to the next step why not try breaststroke leg kick?

Step 6 – Pulling

Here’s the fun part…

It’s time to get your arms involved.

Learning an effective arm action can help you to develop tremendous amounts of propulsion.

The key part of any effective arm pull is the ‘catch’ this is the point at which the hands take hold of the water, ready for the propulsive phase of the arm action. The catch happens at the beginning of the stroke and determines how effective each pull is going to be.

Once you’ve mastered the catch and you can feel the resistance against your pull, try accelerating your hands through the stroke. Notice the increased propulsion.

This sounds complicated for a beginner, but it’s not.

It’s just about building up your own ‘feel for the water’ and getting used to the resistance against your arms as you move them through the water.

Exercise you can try

  1. Start with your arms extended out in front of you palms resting on the surface of the water, shoulders slightly submerged, feet firmly on the floor, eyes looking forward and down (at this stage mouth and nose above the water)
  2. In turns, pull each hand through the water from the extended position.
  3. Relax your hand slightly to give you the largest possible surface area and keep your fingers close together
  4. As you ‘catch’ the water at the front of the stroke accelerate your hand towards your body and back past your hip
  5. As you pull through the water feel the resistance against your hand. The more resistance you feel, the more propulsion you will produce and ultimately the faster you will swim.

The goal of this exercise is to learn ‘feel for the water’ and start to understand how the different forces help you to move through the water.

Try taking small steps whilst pulling yourself through the water. Walk down a stretch of the pool practicing the arm stroke and getting used to the feeling of forward propulsion.

Experiment with breaststroke pull to see if the symmetrical pull of breaststroke gives you more power and speed.

Breaststroke arm pull starts with both arms fully extended out in front. Initially the arms sweep outwards until they are shoulder width apart. At this point elbows start to bend, arms sweep inwards and downwards to the deepest point of the arm pull. Finally hands sweep upwards towards the chest and extend back out into the streamlined position.

Front Crawl Lesson

Step 7 – Experiencing your first swim

Here it goes…

You’ve learnt all the different elements that make up a successful swimming stroke, the only thing left to do is give it a go.

Prepare yourself for plenty of trial and error. You will need bags of determination if you wish to successfully swim.

The most important thing to remember at this stage is to be confident. Commit yourself to each attempt and remember, swimming is far easier when you have momentum. So give yourself a big push off and go for it.


Exercise you can try: Kicking

  1. Start a couple of meters away from the side, small distances to begin with
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Give yourself an almighty push off to gain momentum and glide
  4. Face down in the water looking at the bottom of the pool, arms fully extended out in front of you
  5. Focus on your legs and keep kicking fast until your hands come to rest on the side of the pool

Now slowly increase your distance, try 3 meters.

Remember: Push off, first glide and then kick yourself to the side of the pool.

Well done! You are now swimming.

Exercise you can try: Kicking and pulling

It’s time to start using your arms, just like we practiced.

  1. Start with a push and glide just like you did the first few times
  2. Keep your arms extended out in front of you
  3. Concentrate on a fast flutter kick
  4. Now alternate your arms, as you did on the pulling exercise – aim for two long powerful pulls to get you to the end

Spend plenty of time mastering short distance swims whilst constantly reverting back to the previous skills of kicking, floating and breathing.

Once you feel comfortable with short distance swims, try incorporate breathing skills into the stroke, alternate between breaststroke and front crawl practices. Remember to stay relaxed and enjoy your time in the water.

Safety in the water

Your safety is most important. Swimming can be a really fun, enjoyable experience. But you MUST remember to stay safe at all times.

We recommend that all non-swimmers or beginners, are accompanied by a strong swimmer AND there is a lifeguard present at all times.

Do not try to swim alone if you are unsure of your capabilities. You’ll feel far more secure with a strong swimmer alongside you for encouragement.

What to look for in a swimming instructor

Learning to swim can be a challenging, so it’d be understandable if you’d rather take some lessons at the beginning.

If you are looking for a swimming coach, make sure to find an instructor that’s attentive and understanding. Of course you want results, but it’s important that you enjoy your swimming experience.

Look out for attention to detail in your initial consultation and try to pick a teacher that’s interested in your specific goals.

Your initial appointment should be an assessment lesson from which a plan should be customised to your ability level and individual needs.

A good swimming teacher should be able to teach anyone to learn to swim inside 12 lessons.

Some people build confidence, adapt well and learn quickly whilst others have difficulties with nerves, coordination, timing and relaxation.

Some learn quickly, others don’t, but here is the truth: Everybody can swim!