How good is your memory? When asked, most people would probably answer that they have a decent memory. But I bet if you asked them where they left their car keys or wallet (testing their short-term memory), or you asked them what are the names of every single teacher they had from elementary school through to high school (testing their long-term memory), they would probably have gaps in their knowledge.
When you forget something that is seemingly obvious, it can make you feel really stupid. Not knowing where your car keys are even though you just saw them a minute ago is an example of your short-term memory failing you. Not perfectly remembering the names of every pre-tertiary education teacher you had even though you literally spent months with each one of them is an example of your long term memory failing you.
As you can see, memory is a fickle thing. We can forget the most basic things that happened seconds ago, but at the same time, we can remember the most random, specific details of something that happened decades ago. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard people say that you can never forget how to ride a bike or drive a car. Well then, can you forget how to swim?
If you’re just learning how to swim and all of the knowledge is still only stored in your short-term memory, then absolutely, you can forget how to swim. However, if you swam enough in the past that the knowledge was stored in your long-term memory, then it will be very difficult for you to truly forget how to swim. You may be rusty returning to the pool after a long layoff, but you will likely get back to form quickly if you already knew how to swim before.
In this article I will discuss what it is like to return to swimming after a long time, whether you can truly forget how to swim, and how you can overcome this obstacle.
A simplified overview of how memory works
Look, I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert on how memory works beyond a layman’s understanding of it. This is the kind of stuff that researchers spend their entire careers studying, and you need to understand a simplified explanation of how memory works to better understand how it affects swimming.
Depending on how you categorize it, there are 2-4 main types of memory, but we only need to focus on two: short-term memory and long-term memory.
Short-term memory refers to new information that you received seconds, minutes, hours, or days ago that you can recall. If you reinforce this information (e.g. through forced repetition or if your brain deems it important, more on this below), then the memory will eventually be stored in your long-term memory where it is harder to forget. Otherwise, you will simply forget it after a while.
Long-term memory refers to information that you can remember for weeks, months, years, and perhaps even for your entire lifetime. We can further sub-categorize long-term memory between explicit memory (information that is retrieved consciously) and implicit memory (information that is retrieved unconsciously).
Explicit memories apply to information that you have consciously studied and committed to memory. They are memories that you are aware of because of the effort you put in to remember them such as knowledge related to a profession, hobby, or relationship.
Implicit memories are memories that you unconsciously know. This is the memory that is being accessed when, after not riding a bike for years, you are able to ride one again despite “forgetting” how to ride it.
The same logic applies to driving, walking, and even to breathing. We very rarely manually breathe because we just let our brain automatically handle it, and this same phenomenon occurs when we ride a bike or drive after a long layoff.
Keep in mind that memory is fickle. Even things that enter your long-term memory can be forgotten, or at least the details can change. Over time, even long-term memories can change so much as to be a complete fabrication, which is why accurately documenting important events is so important.
How memory affects swimming
Applying what we know about how memory works, we can now tackle the topic of how someone can forget how to swim.
We know that if someone had minimal experience with swimming and what was taught did not make it into their long-term memory, then it is possible for one to forget how to swim because technically they never really knew how to swim in the first place.
How about someone who did have enough swimming experience that it entered their long-term memory? Can they truly forget how to swim?
Based on personal experience as well as anecdotes from friends, family members, and strangers, I’m going to say the answer is no. Even if you can no longer consciously recall how to swim, subconsciously you can still remember how to swim thanks to your implicit memory.
With that said, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned, memories are fickle. They are heavily biased, imperfect recreations of how you interpreted the situation, not necessarily what is true. You will mess up some details. Even things that you consciously think about frequently can subtly start to fragment over time until the memory has completely changed.
As an aside, thanks to how easily accessible cameras are nowadays, you can keep an accurate account of what really happened by recording important moments. I’ve watched some videos of events that I thought I remembered perfectly, only to find that my memory was way off. Unless you’re neurodivergent, your memory is not as good as you think.
If you were a champion swimmer before, you can’t take years off and expect to perform on the same level as soon as you return. Other than the fact that your physical condition has changed, you might have forgotten a lot of nuance to exactly how you performed the swim stroke.
Thankfully, many people have found that it’s simple for them to de-rust and they can reacquire their lost skills quickly. Once again, this is the implicit memory at play.
Traumatic memories of swimming
Sometimes information or memories need to be reinforced through constant repetition, but that’s not always true. Sometimes all it takes is a singular significant event for the brain to store that information in its long-term memory.
Researchers hypothesize that your brain can immediately remember things for the long-term that are important to your survival even if your exposure to it was brief.
For example, some people have had the unfortunate experience of nearly drowning or knowing somebody close to them who has drowned while swimming. This traumatic event is seared into their brain and they can remember it like it happened yesterday.
Why does the brain torture the person by remembering the event so vividly? It’s a survival mechanism to remind them of the dangers of the water. The brain doesn’t care about how debilitating the event is to the person, it cares only about self-preservation by avoiding risk.
This hypothesis also explains why we tend to remember a lot of painful or embarrassing memories that we’d rather not; it’s your brain saying “don’t make these mistakes ever again.”
Unfortunately, because these memories bring so much pain, some people try to repress them and anything associated with them. To this end, some people resort to impairing themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t remember what happened.
For swimming, this can be a major impediment. I’m not so sure if a traumatized individual like this has truly forgotten how to swim; more like they have a major mental block that paralyzes their body in fear and renders them unable to swim. Their panic is so overwhelming they cannot access the swimming information that is in their implicit memory.
I suspect if this hypothetical traumatized person gets some much needed therapy, including exposure therapy, then perhaps they can overcome their trauma and swim in the water just fine again once their head is clear.
Getting back into swimming after a long layoff
Take your time
If it has been years since you last went swimming, you need to mentally prepare yourself for a sharp deterioration of your skill (and physique). Due to your imperfect memory and possibly out of shape physique, you cannot expect to accomplish what you did the last time you went swimming, at least not right away.
I recommend being cautious and starting slow, preferably at the shallow end of the pool. Go at your own pace, swim leisurely, and try to remember what it’s like to go swimming again. Practice the fundamentals like treading water, floating on your back, backstroke, freestyle, and so on. You will be surprised at just how natural it all feels, and that’s all thanks to your implicit memory.
Anecdotally, you could potentially return to your old self in just a few days’ or weeks’ time. If you used to be really good, it might take months. This timeline has proven true for people riding a bike, driving a car, picking up an old instrument, or any activity that they did hundreds of times before but stopped.
Even if things come slowly, what’s the rush? Are you thinking of being competitive again or what? It’s not ideal to set deadlines if it just causes you to rush the process in my opinion. If you’re older, you have no choice but to wait for your body to catch up to your enthusiasm anyways. You’ll get it all back eventually as long as you’re consistent, so chill out.
Don’t swim alone
One advantage of swimming at a public pool is that you’re never really alone. There are always others nearby and at least one lifeguard on duty, so if you’re ever in trouble, you can call for help or somebody will spot you.
Swimming outdoors, you do not necessarily have this luxury. People will be spread further apart, the ocean currents can be unpredictable and sweep you away, water visibility can be poor, there is a risk of getting tangled up in kelp, etc. If you’re planning on swimming outdoors, you need to have a swimming partner more than ever.
Take swimming lessons
Depending on how far you got with your swimming lessons before you stopped and how long of a break you took, you might want to consider taking adult swim lessons.
It might be the case that you never really learned how to swim in the first place, in which case your implicit memory will do nothing for you. People who can simply remember how to swim are people who likely swam a lot in the past and knew the fundamentals. If this doesn’t describe you, consider taking swim lessons.
There’s nothing wrong with taking swimming lessons as an adult, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, you might be in a better position to learn than a child because you are more motivated, smarter, and can ask better questions, and so on.
Just make sure to leave your ego at the front door. Trust that your swim instructor knows their stuff and trust the process. I have seen people who had big egos, thought they knew best, and kept talking back to their instructor. They are usually the ones that learn the least. Don’t be that person.