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)