Overcoming the Fear of Water

Overcoming the Fear of Water by Hector L Torres IMG_1698

This might sound familiar, a new athlete shows up onto the pool deck and tells you that they have signed up for an Ironman and ask for your help to learn how to swim. You direct the athlete to get in the water for a warm up and observe their technique. As you observe the athlete enter the water, you see a sense of fear in their facial expression. 10 minutes later, the athlete finally gets in the water. You direct the athlete to do a 400 warm up freestyle. You see the athlete cross the 25 yard lane pool with their head above the water. When you approach the athlete and ask them if they are okay; however, you see the athlete in tears. The athlete has a fear of water.

A significant number of new triathletes suffer an emotional block toward their first event, especially an open-water swim — such as in a lake or reservoirs. Many athletes did not learn how to swim when they were children; however, one incident in their life can trigger a sense of fear towards water.

Fear of water or aquaphobia is an universal fear experienced by lots of people. This article discusses this fear and then proposes a few basic water exercises to help you overcome this fear.


      • It often exists as an instinctive fear related to the fear of drowning.
      • It can be caused by the fear of the unknown, of what might be lurking below the water surface in deep, cloudy or muddy waters.
      • It may be related to a bad experience that occurred in childhood.
      • It may have been transmitted to a child by parents that were themselves afraid of water.
      • It may have been ingrained by swim teachers that used inadequate and/or stressful methods to teach swimming.

Pinpoint the fear!

Therefore, when working with an athlete who as phobia to  water, it is very important to start them in shallow water,  clear swimming goggles and work with them one on one. Try to work with them in a pool that isn’t crowed, so they wont be stressed with all of the people. To better understand the athlete, you must first:

      1. Cause of fear. What exactly about swimming are they afraid of.
      2. Positive self-talk. If they are afraid of drowning, remind them that they are learning to swim to prevent that from happening.
      3. Goals. With each session, have a goal and strategy in mind. Make sure that each goal is achievable for the athlete.

It is very important to be patient with the athlete, don’t allow any stressors to get in the way.

Getting Started

Getting started with the athlete, depending on the fear of the athlete and sense of comfort, you might have to start with basics, such as:

      1. Sit at the edge of the pool and allow the athlete’s leg to dangle in the water. Take your time and feel the flow of water in their feet.
      2. Allow the athlete to splash water in their face so they can get comfortable with the sensation of water touching their face.
      3. Ask the athlete to slowly enter the water, via the steps or ladder. When in the pool, as the athlete to walk around in the pool.
      4. The following is the most difficult for some and it is the head submersion in water. Remember, the athlete must have clear goggles on during this exercise. Ask the athlete to hold on to the wall and gradually submerge their head in the water for a few seconds. While doing so, ask them to observe the surroundings underwater. Make sure their mouth is closed and when they want to take a breath, ask them to stand up for some air. Do
      5. this exercise several times until the comfort level has increased.
      6. In the next exercise, ask the athlete to blow bubbles threw their mouth and then with their nose.
      7. During the exercise, ask the athlete to focus on key components such as,  body awareness, letting go of the wall, control of the environment, etc. Allow the athlete to change body positions in the water.

These are key exercises that the athlete must do on their own as well.


The next exercise is teach the athlete to float. You might have heard the expression, “I sink like a rock.” If this is the case, it may come as a surprise to you that water in fact supports the human body very well. It is very easy to float without using your limbs as long as your lungs are filled with air. This is because your body, being made of 60% of water, is slightly less dense than water provided that your lungs are filled with air. Therefore, you will come up to the surface.

You can teach them to float in several ways; however, start with them in the water.

        1. Ask the athlete to lay on their back and you will be supporting them with one hand on their mid-back and the other in the lower-back.

One key component, the athlete needs to relax; therefore, speak to them and ask them to focus on the feel of the water.

      1. Gradually take them across the pool and let go one hand at a time. Do this several t
        imes until the athlete feels comfortable.
      2. Whenever the athlete is ready, flip them over onto their chest and allow them to find the correction positioning of floating.
      3. The rest is on your hand teaching them how to swim.

In conclusion, after practicing these exercises with the athlete, the athlete will overcome their fear of the water. It is very important to remember that the athlete needs to practice. Don’t rush it! Literally, on the first session, explain to the athlete what are they going to be doing. Take your time with these exercises, even if it may take several sessions in the pool. Also, you must remember, we all have been in the same shoes of the athlete.

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