There are many sports or activities that, within one day, you could learn how to do at a functionally competent level. For instance, nobody questions whether you can learn how to play badminton in a day, or go ice skating, or play volleyball, or myriad other activities. You can do them, but you just won’t be very good at them.
Could the same logic apply to learning how to swim? With swimming, more caution is necessary than the other examples because if you mess up, you could literally drown. So with your life on the line, our standards are much higher; there’s no option to swim poorly, otherwise it’ll be the last thing you do. With this in mind, can you learn how to swim in a day?
The realistic answer is it depends. At best, you can only hope to learn the basics of swimming in one day, such as floating, putting your face underwater, and perhaps doing the doggy paddle. If you have no fear of the water, are good at following instructions, and are physically fit, then you can perhaps learn how to at least survive in the water in one day, but not necessarily be a proficient swimmer.
In this article, we will ponder the question of whether it is possible to learn how to swim in a day. We will also discuss the factors that affect how quickly you can learn how to swim, and provide tips to increase your chances of learning it as quickly as possible.
My experience with learning how to swim
Nobody is born naturally good at swimming. However, if I can toot my own horn for a moment, I am probably the closest thing to a natural swimmer as can be.
I started swimming quite late, at around 8 years old. Nobody told me back then that I was starting late; I didn’t know that I was supposed to be at a disadvantage compared to other kids. Sometimes being kept in the dark can work wonders.
To begin with, I had no fear of the water, and for some reason in my mind I just knew I could swim. I saw all of the other kids swimming and instinctively thought, “I can do that too.” Learning how to swim was basically monkey-see-monkey-do for me, and it also helped that it felt very intuitive to me.
I saw the kids doing some hand-wavy back-and-forth motion with their hands (I later learned that this was called sculling), and they were also doing some kind of wavy kick motion with their legs.
Immediately, I tried to emulate that and to my surprise, it kind of worked. The problem was that I was doing it as fast and hard as I could which, ironically, was ineffective at keeping me afloat and it tired me out quickly. I learned that doing it slowly and gracefully helped me conserve my energy while still being capable of keeping me afloat.
I didn’t quite know how to do the front crawl, so I doggy-paddled. My dad tried teaching me how to do the breaststroke; he did a poor job of explaining and eventually just demonstrated the movement to me which I immediately copied and preferred over the doggy paddle.
Just like that, I kind of knew how to swim very quickly. I can’t remember if it took me literally one day, but it was fast. I did eventually take formal swimming lessons, but by then I had already had experience swimming in the deep end of the pool.
How did I learn so quickly?
Without formal lessons, I seemed to understand that waving my arms and legs in a forward and back motion helped generate enough propulsion to stay afloat. I couldn’t put it into words back then as I can now; it just felt right to me.
I also intuitively understood that if I wanted to stay afloat longer, I should conserve energy by doing these movements in a way that felt easy. I determined how slowly I could scull without sinking and that dramatically boosted how long I could stay afloat.
I think the reason I had no fear of the water, aside from the fact that I was blissfully ignorant of the dangers of drowning, was that I felt like in the worst case scenario I could just sink to the bottom of the pool and push off the bottom with my legs, and this would send me back to the surface where I could get my next breath of air. In hindsight this was extremely dangerous, but man, that knowledge made me fearless and it allowed me to fearlessly test my abilities in the water.
Since I had no fear of the water, I was able to think clearly about what I was doing right and wrong and adjust my technique accordingly. It’s hard to learn anything if you’re filled with fear and anxiety.
Now, if I was to give people advice on how to learn swimming, I would say go take swimming lessons in addition to practicing on your own.
Doing things entirely on my own could have ended disastrously, and I was doing some things inefficiently and ingraining incorrect movement patterns into my muscle memory that I had to unlearn.
The point of this personal anecdote is not to brag, but rather to let you know that you can learn how to swim very quickly. The biggest barrier in my opinion is mental, rather than physical, and that is due to one’s fear of the water. If you have no fear and understand that swimming is basically just propelling yourself with your arms and legs in a way that conserves energy, then you are already 50% of the way there to knowing how to swim.
Below, I provide some practical tips that can potentially help you reach that level even faster.
Tips to learn how to swim quickly
I don’t want to be responsible for anybody’s death, so the first thing you need to do is start in the shallow end of the pool. By shallow, I mean that your head is well above the water when you’re standing straight. That way, if you’re ever panicking, all you need to do is stand up straight and you won’t be at risk of drowning.
This is the perfect place to practice some of the basics. First things first, if you’re scared of the water, you need to spend time here until you’ve gotten used to being in the water without having a panic attack. Making progress at the other swimming basics should also help to alleviate this fear.
The second thing you should do is to submerge your face underwater without freaking out. Most swimming strokes require you to be face down in the water, so you need to be comfortable with it. Submerge your face underwater and hold your breath to get an idea of how long you can comfortably stay underwater.
Then you need to work on staying afloat. Understand that assuming a horizontal position such as laying on your back makes it easier to stay afloat. Doing so increases the surface area for the water to push back against (this is known as buoyancy), and you should effortlessly float. Also, you should take a deep breath of air because air is buoyant.
These are all things that you will learn in a swimming lesson. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what you need to know. As daunting as that sounds, I think actually being in the water and practicing these exercises will help you learn much faster and more easily than reading about it. If your deadline is one day, time is of the essence, so you need to be practicing ASAP.
Have the right attitude
In my personal anecdote, I was blissfully unaware of the dangers of the water. The silver lining of that ignorance was that it gave me such a positive, hopeful attitude that I felt like I could do anything.
I think that’s really important, and you should be deliberating trying to have that same mindset. Your mind can be your greatest ally if you think positively, or your greatest enemy if it is filled with negativity, fear, and embarrassment.
If it’s not fear you’re experiencing, perhaps it’s embarrassment. However, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Did you know that 11% of men and 22% of women can’t swim unassisted in North America? That works out to about one in five adults who are in the same boat as you. That’s quite common, so don’t think you are some extreme outlier.
Swimming is supposed to be a low-impact, fun, recreational sport. And if you know how to swim, this skill can potentially save your life, so why the heck would anyone think badly of you for wanting to learn such a great skill? That’s like laughing at someone who goes back to school to improve themselves, which is a noble goal. Ignore any haters.
With such a short deadline, I suppose this advice is not really helpful. However, if you had, say, 1-2 weeks to learn how to swim, then that’d be plenty of time to work with.
You should practice often because otherwise the skills you just learned will leave your short term memory and you might have to relearn them next time.
Reinforce knowledge by practicing often, and you can cram a surprising amount of knowledge into your brain in a short time.
It’s not unusual for an adult to learn how to be a competent swimmer in 2-3 weeks or about 10 swimming lessons.
I know that exceeds the arbitrary one day time limit, but there’s not a whole bunch you can do in a day unless you happen to be naturally gifted in the water like me. And not everybody is, but even an average person can learn to swim in 2-3 weeks with the right instructor.
Realistically speaking, in one day the best you can hope for is to learn how to float and maybe doggy paddle a bit. It’s not much, but everybody’s gotta start somewhere. Even having this tiny amount of swimming knowledge can potentially save your life, so don’t look down on it.
If you want to learn how to swim, you should set reasonable deadlines because nobody can master a skill in one day. Swimming is too important of a skill to half-ass because drowning is a very real possibility, so set aside 2-3 weeks of time to learn swimming like a normal person.