The Swim Professor

Jim Reiser, M.S.

Pop-up Breath for Beginner Swimmers

One of our Swim Lessons University Instructor-Trainers in Virginia sent this great question today:

Dear Professor Reiser:

We conducted training at Winchester Parks and Rec today for six prospective Swim Lessons University instructors for our staff.   A question came up.  In Swim 101, why not have the children take their breaths to the side instead of breathing forward?  The questioner observed that one of the children seemed to be getting too vertical when breathing forward.  What do you suggest?

Thanks for your insight!

Coach Bill


Dear Coach Bill,

Excellent question!  Having experimented with about every beginning swimming technique, our experience is that turning the head to the side is just too complex of a skill for a 3-5 year old BEGINNER in Swim 101.  I stressed beginner because once a child masters the “pop-up style breathing,” this front breath without hesitation will transfer effortlessly to the freestyle side breathing when the student is ready for the Swim Strokes 201 class.   When you start with the side breath for such a young child who is also a beginner, it is just too much for them both physically and developmentally to put it together right away in Swim 101.  And again, as you know, once the child is stroke ready we introduce the freestyle with side breathing in the 3-5 year olds Swim Strokes 201 course

The secret to success when teaching the 3-5 year old beginners is to keep the skill as basic as possible.  The less complex the better.  Then when the child masters the less complex skill, he/she will be ready to learn something more difficult like the side breath in the strokes class (progression principle). 

In regard to this particular child getting vertical, generally speaking our goal is to discourage any vertical body position in the water and we accomplish that in most cases by allowing the child to master the breath while keeping a narrow, fast kick with any given amount of buoyancy.  We don’t remove the buoyancy until they are successful.  However, on occasion there may be an exception where you accept what the child is doing at that point in time (A good example is that kid who is ready for the swim team, does all the strokes, but just doesn’t flex one foot out yet.  You don’t hold him back and keep him off the 8 & under swim team over something that is just going to take a little patience and persistence).

Back to the pop-up breath. One of the changes coming in the 2nd Edition of Swim 101 is that we believe it is so important that we don’t take away flotation too fast.  If the student is taking more than a second or so to get a breath or he looks distressed, you put a flotation pad back in.  You want the pop-up breathing skill to be automatic and comfortable. And regarding the video clip I believe you are referring to, McKenzie was very comfortable in the water but I agree she was getting a bit vertical on her first breath without the vest.  Today, 7 years later, I may or may not put the Power Swimr swim vest back on her.  Remember this:  That was literally the VERY FIRST TIME McKenzie EVER swam without her vest!  We just happened to get lucky and catch it on video!  She deserves a few chances to get it right providing there is no safety risk and she is happy and comfortable swimming without it vs. nervous or distressed.  I think you would agree she looks happy, comfortable, and confident!

Also please note:  In the 2nd edition of Swim 101 there will be even more video examples.  You’ll also see that we have COMPLETELY ELIMINATED the Paddle Stroke.  If the child isn’t putting face in, the new lesson plan will call for another set of in-line kick practice which makes the combined skill of first-time breath holding while kicking much easier.  It also give our students extra reps on the skill they need the most work.

Hope this helps!  The 2nd Edition of Swim 101 is coming in February.  For a limited time, it can be pre-ordered it at 20% off at


Jim Reiser, Executive Director

Swim Lessons University

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December 15, 2013 at 2:03 am Comments (0)

Pop-up Style Breathing for Preschoolers

Teaching the Pop-up Breath:  A Child Centered Swimming Lessons Approach

I have been teaching swimming since 1983.   This is hard to admit, but I have been teaching longer than most of my instructors have been alive!  And of course over the past 34 years, my methods and approaches have changed.  One technique I continue to change and evolve is developing the best techniques for teaching a young child how to do the pop-up breath.

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of  progressive flotation devices.  I love the fact that you can remove buoyancy as the swimmer becomes more competent in the water.  But most recently, I have witnessed a few of my instructors become overeager to remove the buoyancy pads, which has prompted me to write today’s blog.

I have one philosophy I believe in like the bible and I will teach it to my grave.  Learning to swim should be enjoyable.  Learning to swim should NOT be scary or stressful to a child BECAUSE of an overeager instructor or parent.   I want to RE-EMPHASIZE that our methods can be progressive, but they MUST be child-friendly and child-focused.   We CAN NOT put our goals or the child’s parent’s goals in front of the child’s skill readiness.  Take your time, and enjoy the process.

Let me ask you this:

  1. If your student is swimming and yelling, “I’m scared!” Is this a child-centered approach?
  2. If your student has the fear of God written all over his/her face, is this taking a child-centered approach?
  3. If your approach is making your student is exceptionally nervous and scared, is this a child-centered approach?

NO, NO, and NO!!!  AND NO EXCUSES!  As a professional swimming instructor, you need to eliminate the fears your students are experiencing.  And more than likely, it will be very easy to do, because it is your approach that is creating the fearful environment. Your approach should be causing young children to develop a life long love of the water.

So a few NEW GUIDELINES for teaching a young child the Pop-up Breath:

  1. Do not remove ANY FLOTATION from the vest UNTIL the child is competently swimming and doing a pop-up breath without a struggle.  If there is a struggle, teachers should NOT increase the difficulty, rather find a way to reduce it, i.e., assist the learner with a little support during the breath (just enough so he/she is successful).

*Understand this fact:  The less flotation a child has, the more he/she will tilt the head back and chin up because he is trying to keep the mouth out of the water so he can breathe, creating a diagonal for vertical position in the water. The more flotation the student has, the more confidence he/she will also have to attempt swimming with the face in the water and getting quick breaths as needed.   Once the skill becomes instinctive, then you can start removing flotation.

  1. NEVER force the face into the water.   If you allow the learner to have the maximum amount of buoyancy, he/she will put his face in the water upon your command WHEN he/she is ready.  If you force the face in the water, the child will likely panic and breathe, causing him/her to choke on the water.  This will only prolong learning the skill that you are trying to help the child master.  ENCOURAGE, ENCOURAGE, ENCOURAGE!  Don’t threaten or pressure.

* Side note:  Last summer my son Nolan, who was not even 2 years old at the time, started doing the pop-breath while playing in the neighborhood pool and while wearing a Type 3 lifejacket.  Why?  He had nothing to fear.  He knew he could easily get his next breath without a struggle for his life.

  1. Use the cues “Breathe and Swim,” “and Face-in,” or “1, 2, 3, 4,5, 6, Breathe.”   Did you know that one technique that hinders many young swimmers’ ability to get horizontal in the water is the paddling they are doing with the hands?   Teach young learners to put the arms more to their sides, and to use some minimal sculling movements during the breath, but the hands should not be out in front like a dog paddle.  This typically causes the swimmer to struggle to stay in a horizontal position.
  2. ALWAYS be in a position where you can see your student’s mouth, eyes, and facial expressions.   Fear hinders learning.  Security and confidence produce it.
  3. Give just enough support so that your student is successful, and gradually give less and less support when your student has proven to themselves that he/she is capable, and your student BELIEVES he/she can do it!

The best teachers foster this belief through the use of positive, reinforcing, and encouraging feedback.  You can’t fool them, but you can help them develop both the physical and psychological tools to be successful, and you can help them develop a lifelong love of the water.  Be patient.  If you teach yourself to put the “child happiness” first, and task mastery second, the pieces will fall into place.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame has named Jim Reiser the recipient of the 2015 Virginia Hunt Newman Award for his curriculum and approach in teaching infants, toddlers, and children to swim.  Jim was the first American to win the award in 10 years.

If you would like to learn more about the Swim Lessons University certification program and curriculum, make sure to visit us at 

We have training and certification programs designed for both private instructors as well as organizations like YMCAs, Recreation Departments, Athletic Clubs, and more.

Swim Lessons University is currently being utilized by recreation departments, YMCAs, America Camp Association swim lessons programs, as well as by private swimming instructors in 45 states and over 30 countries!

You can also call us toll free at 1-866-498-SWIM (7946).

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June 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm Comments (0)

How to Teach a Child to Swim Using a Progressive Flotation Device

from wikiHow – The How to Manual That You Can Edit

Have you wondered how a flotation device could help a child learn to swim? In this article (and video below), you will learn and see the tremendous difference a progressive flotation device can make, and why!


  1. Give the child’s self-confidence a boost. Are you confident about skills you can’t do? Of course you aren’t. And you hesitant to try something new that you know nothing about? Of course you are. Not to mention the added hesitation if you feel that you may be injured in the process of trying it, let alone drown. So the progressive buoyancy device gives the child confidence he needs to start practicing and developing swimming skills.
  2. Increase practice time. The bottom line is that learning to swim is no different than learning any other sport skill. Improvement requires practice. If you can’t practice, you can’t learn. It’s very simple. If you utilize a progressive flotation device correctly, your students will improve skills quickly because of the increased practice time in which they are afforded due to wearing the device and not be dependant on someone to hold them.
  3. Eliminate gross technique errors. Because the extent of the improvement is limited to the mechanics being used to perform the skill, the flotation device can really help a child’s ability to perform skills he/she wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform. Technique problems arise for the simple reason that the young children are survival swimming instead of being able to concentrate on doing the skill properly. One good comparison is asking a child to swing a major league size baseball bat. The child would be so busy just trying to lift the bat he couldn’t begin to swing it properly. This is precisely what occurs in the swimming pool. The child’s so busy trying “not to drown,” he has no chance of doing the skill correctly.
  4. Motivate the learner using the “removable flotation” pads as rewards. As you will see in the video below, we call the flotation pads “bones” and in the first class, we tell the children that if they “swim like a puppy,” they will get a bone! We even have them bark and pretend they are puppies. Of course, as seen on the video, once the children are capable of swimming with their face in the water we teach them to do a “pop-up breath” and discontinue the dog paddle, but they still LOVE to get their bones!
  5. Make learning to swim achievable and fun by giving the child enough buoyancy to be successful. Once again, as seen in the video below, you want to give the learner enough buoyancy to be successful. If the child is successful with a given amount of flotation, then you remove “one flotation pad” and let them try it with a little less buoyancy. By using this progressive buoyancy device with 9 removable flotation pads, you can take “baby steps” to swimming success, while you are making learning to swim challenging–but achievable.


Watch how Jim Reiser, the author, teaches a small class of three and four year olds to swim using a progressive flotation device.

Sources and Citations

Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Teach a Child to Swim Using a Progressive Flotation Device. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.

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December 22, 2009 at 6:07 pm Comments (0)