The Swim Professor

Jim Reiser, M.S.

Terrified in the Swimming Pool »« Fearful Swimmers

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).

, , , , , , , , , , ,
June 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm
Leave a Reply or trackback

You must be logged in to post a comment.