These students can’t swim (yet)

21 Feb 2020 ,

People who learn to swim at a later age have to learn to trust the water, says Syrian student Muhammad, speaking from experience. Annika hasn’t yet reached that stage. ‘I never put my head under the shower; I’m so used to avoiding water.’

In the Nijmegen Erica Terpstra swimming pool the demand for swimming lessons – for adults, mind you – is so high that instructor Claudia Bouwman has a waiting list. You’d think everyone would have learned to swim as a child, but that’s not the case. Muhammad Salibi (28), a Syrian Computer Science student at Radboud University, has been taking up swimming lessons for the first time in his life. He’s decided to face the water after moving to the Netherlands.

On this Thursday night, he’s in the swimming pool with Bouwman. Some of the other students are already diving for rings in the shallow pool, others are still getting used to floating.

‘My aunt only learned to swim when she was thirty-something, so maybe there’s still hope for me’

According to Bouwman it takes approximately one year for an adult to be ready to move from the shallow pool to the 1.80-metre-deep pool where the more advanced swimmers practise.

The swimming instructor likes working with adults because they’re keen to learn to swim. ‘They‘re very motivated.’

Salibi decided to take lessons because he had the feeling he was missing out on fun things in the Netherlands. He’d like to try his hand at a variety of water sports.

Fear of water

Motivation is not the only crucial element if you want to learn to swim: logic and emotion are at least as important. These are the two things that make learning to swim so fundamentally different for adults as compared to children, says Bouwman. ‘Explain to adults the logic and technique of swimming, and they immediately understand what you mean.’ She believes this is why it’s easier to teach an adult how to swim opposed to a child.

However, for grown-ups, the real challenge is overcoming their emotions. Bouwman refers to the feelings associated with years of avoiding water. Although fear of water and not being able to swim often go hand in hand, fear of water is not necessarily the reason a person can’t swim. In some cases, it’s the other way around: not being able to swim leads to avoidance, which ultimately results in fear of water.


‘I actually think it’s easier to learn to swim when you’re younger,’ says twenty-year-old student Annika Eskes. Being allergic to chlorine, she never learnt to swim as a child. Now, she has a hard time catching up. ‘I think I’ve outgrown the chlorine allergy. But I’m so used to avoiding water that I’m still not particularly motivated to learn to swim.’

Eskes didn’t sign up for swimming lessons, nor is she planning to do so in the near future. On the one hand because of the time investment, she says, but also because avoiding water is a difficult habit to break. ‘I never put my head entirely under the shower because I’m so used to avoiding water. My aunt only learned to swim when she was thirty-something, so maybe there’s still hope for me (she laughs).’

Salibi has similar experiences when it comes to avoiding water. ‘I wasn’t particularly afraid of it,’ he says. ‘But because I couldn’t swim, I did learn to avoid water as much as possible.’ His biggest challenge during swimming lessons is to learn to trust the water.

The logic behind a skill may be easy to grasp, but the fear that it triggers is much harder to suppress. And yet, Bouwman sees incredible progress from her pupils. Some of those who were very afraid of water a week ago are now really going for it.

In the end, says the swimming instructor, it all boils down to one thing. ‘You have to tell the students nothing bad will happen to them,’ she says. ‘And then they have to tell themselves the same.’

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