I am at a loss as to why I still can't swim.

During a college swim class taught by the school's men's varsity swim coach (at a Division I program in the United States), we learned all the building blocks of swimming. We did lots of breathing practice, learning how to take a stroke, then put it all together to do half-laps and full-laps.

I practiced a great deal, and perfected my breathing technique and was able to swim laps.

But after the semester, he told us that we can't take advanced swim class, because that's all done at the deep-end of the pool, and that there's no intermediate training to help us get to that level of swim. I never got better at this college swim course, even after plenty of personal training swim sessions at my local gym.

My problem is: Once I attempt to swim in the deep end, I somehow can't tread water, and so I always sink, and panic and need to be rescued, either by friends or trainers.

Has anyone ever experienced this phenomenon?

Is it a quick fix? Do I just need to add on the skill-set of treading water?

I feel that I've tried everything already - I've practiced treading water in my friends' pools many times. I always sink. Everyone's confused about why I can't do it.

  • You can't swim, or you can't tread water? And how do you swim laps if you can't swim in deeper water?
    – JohnP
    Jun 12, 2016 at 18:26
  • 1
    Have you tried specifically learning how to tread water with a trainer?
    – John
    Jun 13, 2016 at 14:38
  • 2
    If I were to guess, this sounds like you're dealing with some expression of fear.
    – rrirower
    Jun 13, 2016 at 17:26
  • What actually happens when you try to tread water? Like, do your legs freeze up or something? Can you float on your stomach/back normally?
    – CodeRedick
    Jun 13, 2016 at 19:46
  • Did you tried to use kickboard just to train treading water movents? It looks like you also you are dealing with fear and maybe kikboard will also help you with it. But personal training would be much better.
    – Paul
    Jun 14, 2016 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


Well two days and no answers (though a few comments asking for clarification). So here's my two cents:

As you have experienced, treading water is quite different from swimming. It's definitely a different skill.

As a child I learned to swim underwater well before learning any proper swimming strokes. I would pretend I was a seal. Eventually I learned to tread water (similar to babies and dogs and deer) because when you are completely submerged you learn to "scull." Think of how a bird's wing does not just flap straight up and down but does a graceful little semi-twist at the top and bottom of each stroke. When treading you "flap" side to side like a hummingbird. You also learn to flutter kick (short rapid kicks with a little knee bend at the end of each kick).

Ironically, it can be harder to learn to tread water if the water is too shallow. If you don't have enough room to extend your legs and flutter kick then you wind up tucking your legs in and then you have to rely on your arms much more.

So, I would recommend: first: swim underwater a lot and come up for air in the shallow part so you don't drown. Feel how to drive yourself through the water while you are completely submerged. It's different than surface swimming where half of your stroke is actually above the water line. (Underwater swimming might help you get over any fears too, as you realize just how long you can last before you do drown.) Second: go to where your head is just below the surface (so you can jump up from the floor if you sink) and try sculling and flutter kicking. Hold the edge of the pool with one hand if you feel you are sinking too much.

Don't feel bad! You'll get it soon! And please don't drown.

  • I feel that last part is definitely important, drowning does tend to put a downer on the rest of the day
    – Dark Hippo
    Jun 15, 2016 at 8:14

A different take, here is a simple progression you can practice. You should start in the pool and at a depth where you can push off the bottom to the top relatively quickly but cannot touch the bottom without going completely underwater by ~30cm.

With the below progressions, once you can comfortably do 3 sets of 20 seconds then add the next.

  1. Hold onto the side of the pool with arms as horizontal as possible. Use only your legs to flutter kick and push your torso up.
  2. Practice in the shallow end pulling your knees up and using breaststroke movements to hold your torso vertical and hovering above the bottom of the pool.
  3. Use a pool float and repeat the exercise from 1. again. This should be harder and help you get over the fear aspect.
  4. Start with 3. and then release the float, use your hands in the same motion as 2. and tread water. Remember the movements of flutter kicks and circles with your hands.

Instead of trying to teach you the swim progression, I will try to address the issue you face and suggest how you may seek help.

Many swimmers actually would sink if we just let go (myself included). So, you're not alone- no worries that you're different here.

It does seem that you have some panic/fear in there and "the deep end" sounds like some prohibitive space only meant for super swimmers. It shouldn't be that way. Once you are able to really swim, it should all be the same for you regardless of deep or shallow. While the deep end is faster, that difference is not of concern at this stage for you.

Perhaps try to slow down your strokes and use the wall to help you at the deep end. Slowing down will help you sense what it is you're doing much better and help you have control over your body. Do a few strokes, then stop at the wall, continue to add until you're confident. Slow it down like a meditation. Set specific distance to know you will stop and hold on to the wall comfortably.

Your experience with the coach also sounds very strange and somewhat discouraging.

Let's help you get away from all the negatives first:

Swimming does have a lot to do with overcoming the "strangeness" feeling of your body's slow reaction time in water. The slight weightlessness sense means your body needs to re-learn how it moves and place itself in the water for maximal streamline, for minimizing drag, and effective propulsion when you swim.

The opposite takes place when you tread water in terms of maximizing surface area so that you sink more slowly. For example, if you slightly lean back a little while treading, you need less propulsion to keep afloat then if you keep a straight up/down body.

Local swim pools often have lifeguards who do not have very deep technical experience teaching classes. I suggest you find a swim coach from a club or team and ask the coach to watch and give you some pointers. These coaches should be able to pick out at least 3 items for you to work on at the very first look.

For example, if you are too tense, the coach should be able to see that immediately. Being too tense would often result in situations similar to what you described.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.