Open Water Swimming Tips: Overcoming Open Water Swimming Fears


Hello Future SwimVacationers!

Having a healthy respect for the water is, well, healthy. But when that respect turns into downright fear, it prevents us from doing something we might really enjoy, something that might be really good for us. Whether the fear stems from creatures, currents, the unknown, or even drowning, overcoming a fear of the open water can be just as rewarding as swimming a personal best time.

For this Open Water Tips newsletter, we posed a series of questions about open water fears to Dana Blackmer, Ph.D., a Sport Psychologist and Owner and Founder of The Extra Gear.



President, SwimVacation

Why are some people fearful of swimming in open water?

Usually these fears stem from a lack of experience. The strongest predictor of people's performance in any activity, including open water swimming, is the degree to which they believe that they can successfully accomplish the activity. This belief is called "self-efficacy." One of the best ways to increase self-efficacy is to successfully complete a series of progressively more challenging short-term goals that take you closer to accomplishing the activity. For example, if your goal is to compete in a triathlon that has an open water swim, you might start by taking short swims close to shore in shallow water where you can touch the bottom. From there, you might progress to taking longer swims in deeper water for longer periods of time. Eventually, you can set even more challenging goals, like swimming when the water is choppy or the current is stronger. Of course, safety considerations should always come first, which means never swimming alone or attempting things you're not sure you're ready to take on.

Is fear of open water rational?

Being afraid to swim in open water is rational if you haven't done it very much. Swimming in open water is different in several respects than swimming in a pool: It's harder to see where you're going, there's a current, and in some cases there may even be debris to watch out for. Knowing your limitations and your level of experience is important so that you can slowly and gradually build up your skills and your confidence. For many people, however, it's not the rational fears that limit them the most, it's the irrational ones. Some people ruminate so much about being pulled away by the current, being unable to see where they're going, running into something that's slimy, or even getting attacked by a sea creature that they become too preoccupied with their fears to get into the water. If you're old enough to remember the movie "Jaws," you probably remember that after seeing it many people didn't get in the ocean for months!

What can swimmers do to overcome these fears?

Gaining confidence from setting progressively more challenging goals is one of the best ways to gain confidence and overcome your fears. In addition, learning a quick relaxation technique, like taking a couple of long, slow breaths, can help reduce your physical tension before swimming in open water. This is important because if you are nervous, your muscles become tense, and this makes it more difficult to move in a coordinated and fluid way in the water. Finally, many people "psych themselves out" before doing something that makes them anxious because their head is filled with negative and self-defeating thoughts. We call this "self-talk," and it's one of the most important mental skills in sport. If you are about to get in the water and are thinking, "Look how choppy the water is, I don't think I can do this!", "What if I run into a fish?", or "I hope I don't embarrass myself.", you're not going to perform at your best. These kind of thoughts will make you nervous and will distract you from what you need to do. I teach the athletes I work with to become aware of their negative thinking and give them techniques to change them into more positive, supportive, and realistic thoughts like, "The water is choppy, but I've practiced for this and I'm ready.", "Just keep swimming straight and strong, straight and strong.", or "This may be tough, but I can do it." This combination of goal-setting, relaxation training, and self-talk management can be a very effective way to increase confidence and manage anxiety, but just like with physical skills, mental skills take practice. For those people interested in learning more about these mental skills, I have several training articles on the Training Tips page of my website.

How sweet are the rewards?

Thinking about the rewards for overcoming your fear of open water swimming is important. After all, overcoming a fear takes work, and you're not very likely to do the work unless the benefits outweigh the effort involved. What's most important here is that you make sure that you are attempting to overcome your fear of open water swimming for reasons that are important to you, not to someone else. If you're doing this because your spouse is nagging you or your friends are humiliating you, you're not likely to succeed. On the other hand, if you are taking on this challenge for your own reasons, you are much more likely to succeed. If what really motivates you is the thought of swimming with your kids, taking pride in yourself, or competing in triathlons at a higher level, your chances of succeeding are much

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higher. Really take some time to think about what motivates you to conquer your fear of open water swimming, and keep this image in mind. Being clear on what you're doing this for will be important as you do the work necessary to meet your goals.

SwimVacation and The British Virgin Islands provide a great setting to overcome open water fears. Clear, clean water, friendly fish, and gorgeous weather make for some of the most forgiving open water swimming conditions anywhere.

Feel free to contact us at SwimVacation with any questions or comments about our open water tips.

A special thanks to Dana Blackmer for his tips on overcoming open water fears!