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When confidence meets competence in the water

By Carly Brake, Canadian Red Cross Digital Volunteer
Ah August, when summer is in full bloom. It’s a beautiful time of year with hopefully plenty of sun and heat. It is also the time when you have to start thinking of autumn. For us, that means thinking of activities for our son, particularly swim lessons.
Since my wife and I love the water, swim lessons are a given for our child. Sure, as a former lifeguard I could teach him myself and he would learn, but I want to ensure that he is truly skilled and competent. I want to make sure he learns how to swim in a well rounded, comprehensive way. I want to make sure his swim skills are strong and accurate.
Now if you were to ask my son, he would proudly declare to you that he is indeed a swimmer. My passionate, headstrong child would happily jump into any pool or open water, while forbidding you to help him as he knows he can swim.
Except he can’t.
Now do not misunderstand, this 4 year old actually shows promise in the water. But that’s all it is at this stage. Promise of being a great swimmer. His confidence far outreaches his actual skills. Much to his perpetual frustration with us, we cannot ever leave him out of arms reach because we know that all too quickly he could drown. Indeed, his exuberant fearlessness will mean great things for him as he grows to adulthood, but it also means he literally leaps before he looks. And that is truly dangerous in the water if the person does not have true water competency.

What is water competency? It is a core set of skills that means the difference between the casual swimmer and someone who can reasonably assure their safety in the water. These skills, recognized Internationally include:
1. Entry with total submersion
2. Recovery to the surface and remain there for at least one minute using floating or treading
3. Change in body orientation allowing repositioning, turning at least 180°, and facing toward an exit direction
4. Propulsion including leveling off and moving on front and/or on back position for at least 25
5. Exit from the water
 Carly and her son swimming
As you can see, these skills are not realistic for most 4 year olds, including my son. In fact, many adults might not truly possess these skills but feel comfortable in the water. The problem with children is that it’s all too easy to assume they are ok because they are comfortable and having fun but that’s also when the risk of drowning can be highest.
Shelley Dalke, Director of Swimming and Water Safety Education Programs with the Canadian Red Cross notes: “Water competency is our first line of action for drowning prevention. When a person says, ‘I can swim’, it has no real meaning as swimming is not defined the same by all. Water Safe attitudes are built through water safety knowledge, water safety skills and swimming abilities that promote water safe behaviours. Water competency provides parents and caregivers with a common language to understand what physical swimming skills a child has achieved to lessen the risks of drowning.”
It’s part of why I look to a formalized swimming program taught by staff who are up to date on their training. I want my son to have swim skills that are robust, but will also comprehensive enough to ensure his safety as a swimmer.
Even with good swim skills, it is always essential to recognize that different environments can impact your level of water competency. This is something I was reminded of when we recently visited a local beach we are less familiar with. My son, as per his usual inclination, excitedly went into the water with a bucket to work on a sand sculpture. As I stepped in a few paces behind I felt the unmistakable tug of a mild current. One that could disorient my son and lead to disaster, particularly since most of his water experience has been in a pool where currents do not exist and visibility is very good. I was reminded in that moment that this is why you need to be in arms reach of those who are not water competent. As much as it pains my spirited son’s ego, he cannot be left alone in water until he has acquired not only the physical strength but also the skills and knowledge to be water competent. And even then, water
competency needs to be assessed for each different swimming environment. Even the most seasoned pool swimmer is bound to be overwhelmed swimming in a river with a current or a lake with murky depths.
Because my son might still want to leap before he looks, but with water competency he’ll do so safely.
To sign up for Red Cross Swim programs and learn more about water competency, contact your local pool. For more information, check out
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