For millions of Americans, learning to swim is a childhood rite of passage that unlocks fun and freedom for those who master the skill. But for those who don't, getting into the water can unleash downright terror. Are you fearful of swimming or do you know someone who is? If so, there is help. Swim instructor Melon Dash, founder of Transpersonal Swimming Institute in California, was invited to appear on "Today" to share some thoughts on helping people conquer their fears of swimming.
How many people have a fear of water?
In 1998, Gallup did a national poll to find out how many adults in this country are afraid in water. They found that 64 percent — 128 out of 200 million — are afraid in deep open water. Forty-six percent are afraid in deep water and pools. And 39 percent are afraid to put their head under water. This is a statistic that is so much bigger than anyone thought. When people hear that, they say, "Well, maybe I'm not the only one. Maybe I'm not weird after all." And it makes them feel more normal.
Why are most of these people afraid of the water?
I would say 90 percent of my clients have had one or both parents who are afraid in water. And 60 percent are people who have had a scary experience in the water that they feel their fear has come from. The rest: Some people can't remember why they're afraid in water. Their parents can't remember anything that ever happened. Some people know that what made them afraid in water was something that didn't happen in the water. But it was a place where they felt like they lost control.
And it carries over to their feeling of being out of control in the water. But most people can remember an experience.
In teaching someone to swim, how much is mental and how much is physical?
I'd say 98 percent is mental, and 2 percent is physical.
So how does that affect your approach? What do you do?
Well, I need to connect. I connect to people. I say, "Listen, if I can learn to swim, if anyone can learn to swim, you can learn to swim. The only difference between me and the experience you've had is that I got all the steps in the beginning. And you missed some steps. So we're here to fill in the steps.
"One of the steps you skipped was making sure that you were comfortable in the water. We won't skip that step. 'Cause, if you're comfortable, and if you feel in control of yourself, and if you feel like you're safe, then you'll have some attention to spare for 'What do I do with my legs? What do I do with my arms?'
"But if you're not comfortable, you don't have attention to spare for that. You're worried about, 'What if I drown? What if I can't stand up? What if I can't get air? What if I look silly? What if I get to the end of today and I haven't made an progress? Does that mean that I'm really hopeless?' "
So my job is to make sure that everybody knows that where they are right now is a perfect place to start. They don't have to be anybody else. They can go at their own pace. And they'll learn beautifully just by letting themselves be themselves.
What do you think is the best approach?
What we do is teach the information that comes before swimming mechanics. People who are afraid in water need to know how to be in control. Once they learn how to be in control, then they can learn swimming mechanics. So, together, we can make a lot of swimmers.
Why do you think your approach works?
It works because it's based on universal laws of how people learn. It's based on universal laws about how healing happens. And those laws are things like you have to be safe in order to have attention to learn. Or you have to be comfortable in order to be able to listen.
And so we start with all kinds of things that people usually think are not important, like warm water. We only do our classes in 92 or 93 degree water. Being in the pool by yourself is usually one of the things we do. Making sure people know they can ask any question they want to. That they can say no. That they can ask, "Can I take a break right now? Or can I rest?" We let them really be themselves. And, when you give people that much space, and that much permission to just relax, they kind of find their own groove, and their own pace. And they settle in.
What constitutes success for a student?
Breakthroughs. Doing things they've never done before. Doing things they never thought they could do. Being in control of something that used to make them panic. Those things, and a big smile.
Melon Dash is president and founder of the Transpersonal Swimming Institute in California. To learn more you can visit
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