How Do You Build Water Confidence? (For Adults)


a swimmer working on water confidence

Water confidence is much more than just being able to swim.

Lots of people can swim or paddle enough to get by, but true water confidence involves being comfortable in the water, being able to float, being able to tread water, knowing how to breathe in the water, being able to handle your body position in the water and being able to keep calm and get yourself out of tricky situations.

Typically, water confidence can be built by lots of exposure to water, including different water depths and different water temperatures. You should feel in control at all times. Practising drills and techniques, including breathing and diving, can help you build your water confidence.

I have struggled with my water confidence over the years, as I had to overcome a fear of water in order to learn how to swim.

This is an area that fascinates me, as I have had a long journey of building my own water confidence.

In this article I want to look deeper at:

  • What is water confidence?
  • Why are some people afraid of water?
  • How can I get over my fear of water?
  • How do you build water confidence?

What Is Water Confidence?

Although there is no official definition, as a general rule, water confidence means you feel in control and comfortable while in or around water.

Many believe that being water confident is being able to swim, but as someone who has struggled with a deep fear of water, I think water confidence is much more than just being able to do the front crawl.

Of course, if you can already swim and can handle yourself in the pool, then you may already have a high level of water confidence, but I know plenty of swimmers that become less confident and more panicked if they move away from their comfort zone.

I believe that true water confidence is being able to feel confident and capable no matter what water situation you find yourself in.

A truly water-confident person will always be able to take control of the situation if they find themselves in uncomfortable water.

For example, I know a very talented swimmer who is a former swim teacher and pool lifeguard who went for a swim in the sea. The wind picked up, and the waves started to rise.

When she found herself in the dip or trough of the waves, she could no longer see the beach.

Although she knew exactly where the beach was relative to her position and that she had the stamina and skill to swim to the shore, she began to panic.

This was a completely new water situation for her, despite over 20 years of regular swimming.

At that point of panic, her swimming training kicked in. She trod water for a couple of seconds and floated on her back until she was calm and relaxed.

Then she swam to the shore normally, despite her fear and panic.

For me, this is true water confidence. This swimmer was capable enough to manage the situation and her mind to swim to safety.

As I mentioned, this swimmer had years of experience, and it shocked me when she told me this story, as she is one of the best swimmers I know.

But it further proves that water confidence is more than being able to swim well. It is a true skill to master your thoughts and body in unknown water situations.

Why Are People Afraid Of Water?

Aquaphobia, or a fear of the water, is very common and can range from mild to severe. [source]

It is important to point out that water can be dangerous, therefore it is natural and healthy to have some fear for the water as this can save your life, but for others, the fear of the water is much stronger and can be debilitating.

Research has shown that negative experiences with water are the most common cause of a person’s fear of the water. [source]

We all have unique experiences in life and there could be many reasons you are nervous around water.

Perhaps you had a near-drowning experience, someone threw you into the deep end unprepared, or you never got good lessons that helped you understand the basic fluid dynamics of water.

If you think back to your early water experiences, you may identify a situation that amplified your fear.

For years, I was terrified of water, then I controlled my fear to a level I would describe as being “nervous but OK” in my depth.

Once I became a good swimmer, my fear moved to the deep end, and I got nervous when I saw deep water.

The fact that I could swim really well and still be nervous in water shows the powerful psychological factors at play.

From my experience, I decided to look deeper into my past to identify where my fear of water may have come from, in order to help me understand it as an adult.

Examining Your Past To Understand Your Water Fear

As I examined my childhood and past, I identified two things that contributed to my fear of water:

  • Badly taught swimming lessons.
  • Inheriting a parent’s fear of the water

Badly Taught Swimming Lesson

At the age of 9, my school ran a swimming lesson class for 12 weeks in the local public pool. I eagerly signed up and was so excited.

However, I was only ever in the pool a couple of times before the age of 9. When I turned up to the lessons, my classmates could already float and play well in the water as they all had prior experience in the pool.

As a result, the class quickly progressed and while my classmates were doing tumble turns in the deep end, I was left on my trying to work out how to use a kickboard.

This left me feeling like I was not designed for the water. I tried to catch up by pushing myself out of my depth, but this lead to panic and turned the deep end into a place to be feared.

The poorly taught lessons ignored the few of us who had zero water knowledge.

Feeling left behind, I dreaded the weekly pool session and my mind froze every time I entered the water after that. My water confidence was zero.

Inheriting A Parents Fear

I grew up surrounded by lakes and rivers, with a deep lake just a one-minute walk from my home.

As a child, I was constantly told to stay away from the lake and rivers.

Of course, this is reasonable advice to give to a child, and I listened, but the constant “do not go near the water” mantra reinforced my water fears.

Instead of the lake being a place of beauty, it was a place of danger to be feared.

I dragged this thinking from my childhood into adulthood.

Look Into Your Past For Clues To Your Water Fear

I share these two personal experiences from my past, as you may have some similar experiences that might shed some light on why you are nervous around water.

It is most common that an external factor or event triggered your fear.

By understanding where my fear of water came from, I came to understand my fear, putting it in context and making peace with it.

This allowed me to progress my swimming as I realised I was not the problem. It was the poor water experiences I had that created my fear.

This allowed me to cope with my fear and deal with it.

3 Steps to Boosting Your Confidence...
3 Steps to Boosting Your Confidence by Changing Your Self-Talk

How Can I Get Over My Fear Of Water?

Before learning how to build water confidence, if you have a fear of the water, there are lots of dry land treatments to help you cope with your fear. [source]

It is important to point out that a fear of water is a really powerful fear for people. Always go to a lifeguarded pool with someone you trust and never feel that you have to put yourself in a situation that you are uncomfortable with.

When I was trying to get over my fear of water, I signed up for all sorts of group swim clinics and lessons to help me get out of my depth, however, these classes were not tailored for people with water fears, therefore they completely backfired.

As I was so eager to swim, I would push myself beyond my comfort zone, which would lead to panic and reinforce my fear.

The following are some of the most common ways to address and try to work through your fear.

1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a proven method of replacing the negative talk in your head with more positive messages.

The theory behind CBT is that it will gradually rewire your thinking so you change the way you think about your fear, including the emotions associated with your fear. [source]

Of course, this is not a quick fix and longer term treatment is usually needed to help you deal with your fearful thoughts.

There are now many trained professionals who deal offer treatment in CBT.

Personally, I have not yet attended a CBT session in person for my phobia, however I have been still benefiting from CBT practices by listening to self-help CBT audio books on Audible.

Here are some good audio books on CBT if you are interested in exploring this avenue.

Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting over Frightening, Obsessive, or Disturbing Thought

Change Your Thinking with CBT: Overcome Stress, Combat Anxiety and Improve Your Life 

2. Exposure Therapy

Exposure Therapy is a tried and tested method that involves gradual exposure to your fear. [source]

I used exposure therapy effectively to deal with my fear of deep water.

At first, I would look at pictures of the deep end of the pool and instead of allowing the scary thoughts to take over, I would marvel at how blue and beautiful it looked.

Then I would watch lots of videos of swimmers in deep water, either deep diving or just swimming and having fun, marvelling at how they looked like they were flying.

I would go to the pool and, from the safety of the shallow end, dip my head under the water and stare into the deep end of the pool, marvelling at the beauty of it.

Once I saw the deep end as somewhere I wanted to be, I would gently swim breaststroke alongside the pool wall until I was in the deep end. My head was always above water for a start, until I got more comfortable.

From this point, I progressed to treading water at the deep end for my full swimming session, in addition to learning how to float.

This gave me water confidence as I knew I could easily tread water for 30minutes without breaking a sweat.

At this point I was ready to swim laps, however, I still struggled when I saw the deep water. To handle this, I signed up to join a shallow hotel pool.

This pool was 20m in length but was only 1m deep. In this pool, I could practice my stroke and get really good at swimming as I felt confident and safe in the shallow water.

Finally, when I felt strong and could swim a mile in less than 45minutes, I decided to return to the deep 25m competition pool.

The first time I returned to deep water, I did have some fear, despite being a very good swimmer at this point. The first length I found very difficult to do. I was scared, so my breathing was irregular.

Given that I could easily swim a mile, float for hours and tread water all day, this goes to show how much my fear is completely mental.

With regular swimming in the deeper pool and exposure to the deeper water, I slowly found a happy place where I was comfortable.

I believe that this approach worked for me as I used exposure therapy to help my mind cope with being in the deep water.

How Do You Build Water Confidence?

Water confidence can be built in many ways and what you decide to do will depend on your current water confidence level.

Hera are some ideas that might give you some inspiration to work on your water confidence:

1. Join A Swim Club

Being part of a swimming club is a great way to have fun safely in the water, work on your swimming technique and meet water confident people.

Being part of a swim club can give you confidence in the water and build a swim space where you can feel safe and comfortable in.

By regularly swimming with a club, you could reach a point where swimming is as easy as on-land exercises such as walking.

2. Track Your Progress

Keeping a swim log or tracking your swimming progress can be very motivational and help build your confidence.

Because I tracked my progress when trying to overcome my fear of water, I could see that I was staying in the deep end for longer and gradually getting more comfortable.

With time I saw my swim distances increase from 500m to an average of swimming 5km per week.

This really helped me as although I had negative thoughts in my head, you cannot deny that swimming 5km per week for nervous beginner is a great achievement and this spurred me on.

3. Do A Swim Challenge

For many, swimming up and down the pool aimlessly can be de-motivating and difficult to do.

If you set yourself a personal goal or take part in a swim challenge, this can motivate you to get in the pool, which will improve your long-term water confidence.

There are many swim challenges you can do, and they do not have to be public.

For example, I love the “Swim The English Channel” virtual challenge from Conqueror Events.

You can sign up, set a deadline for when you want to finish the challenge and then get a medal when it is done.

It is a 21 mile swim and you can decide if you want to do it in a week, month or year.

It is a personal challenge that will give you something to work towards.

4. Identify Your Water Weakness & Work On It

If you have a particular area of swimming that you are not happy with, work on improving it.

Perhaps you have a weak kick, or you don’t like diving; whatever the area, think about what you can improve.

5. Educate Yourself On How To Survive In The Water

If you want to be truly water confident, you need to know how to survive in the water.

In the UK, the RNLI has a “Float To Live” Campaign which teaches you to get on your back and float if you are in difficulty.

Everyone who gets in the water should work on their floating and treading water skills.

I have covered this in greater depth in this article, “If We Are Naturally Buoyant, How Can People Drown?”

6. Get In The Pool Regularly

If you want to be water confident, it is a good idea to get into the pool regularly.

Constant exposure to water and being in the pool can help you build your swimming muscles, work on your skills and get comfortable being in and around water.

7. Learn To Dive

Diving is a great skill to help you build your water confidence.

From free diving to scuba diving, this is a skill set that will immersive you fully in the water and learn how to cope when out of your depth.

Learning to dive through a club is also a wonderful way to meet like-minded people and build confidence as you master the skill.

8. Get Used Of Being Under Water

To be water confident, it is important that you are comfortable being under the water with your head submerged.

By being in the shallow end, you can practice dipping your head under the water to get used to exhaling underwater and the feeling of being submerged.

Ensure you practice this skill safely in the shallow end of a lifeguarded pool, and always with a friend who can help you out if something goes wrong.

Lifeguards tend to focus the majority of their attention on the deep end, not adults in the shallow end, so ensure you have a friend that can personally watch out for you.

9. Get A Good Pair Of Goggles

This might sound strange, but having a good pair of goggles can really help build water confidence.

With a well fitted, anti-fog pair of goggles, you will have excellent visibility underwater.

Simply seeing well underwater will help build confidence as you sometimes, the fear of the unknown can be a big issue for many.

10. Practice Water Confidence Building Drills

From simple water confidence building drills from lying on your back to drown proofing, there are many exercises you can practice in the water to build confidence.

Here is one of my favourite training videos on learning how to float and building water confidence in deep water.

Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure.

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