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Swimming lessons fail to promote pleasure and motivation in kids

A new study published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living sheds light on the way swimming lessons are taught to children, suggesting there’s significant room for improvement to enhance children’s intrinsic motivation to swim. 

The research was led by Carola Minkels, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Movement Sciences at Free University Amsterdam. 

“Here we show that swimming lessons in the Netherlands poorly support the intrinsic motivation of children: their need for autonomy is thwarted, while their needs for competence, and relatedness are only weakly supported,” said Minkels.

“Fortunately, we also show that teachers can be taught to better support these needs if they adopt a swim teaching program explicitly designed for this.”

Focus of the study 

While swimming is not just a potentially life-saving skill but also a means of a full-body workout promoting cardiovascular and lung health, it has been observed that few children continue with swimming after learning the basics in high-income countries. 

In the Netherlands, for example, while a significant percentage of children earn their basic and advanced swimming diplomas, 70% of swimming teachers believe their former students seldom swim post-certification, leading to potential deterioration in their acquired skills.

Swimming lessons

“Regularly recurring practice is necessary to preserve swimming skills, and to master swimming in more challenging environments, such as strong currents and waves,” wrote the study authors.  

“Since most children in Western countries acquire swimming skills during swimming lessons, these lessons also offer an ideal opportunity to stimulate children to adopt swimming as a sporting activity, be it at a swimming club or in unorganized form.” 

“To this end, swimming lessons should be focused not only on the acquisition of swimming skills to become water safe, but also on developing motivation for and pleasure in swimming.”

Self-determination theory 

Minkels and her colleagues based their research on the self-determination theory of human motivation and personality, which asserts that individuals are more likely to enjoy and persist in activities when they are self-motivated. 

This theory proposes that autonomy (the need to control one’s actions and goals), competence (the need to feel effective in one’s behavior), and relatedness (the need to belong to a social group) are critical factors shaping self-determination.

How the research was conducted

The researchers observed 128 swimming lessons at 42 schools, taught by different instructors. Of these, 25% of instructors were trained in the EasySwim program, designed with self-determination theory in mind, whereas the remaining 75% were not. 

The lessons varied in duration and size but were all aimed at novice swimmers between the ages of four and ten. Following each lesson, the instructors were rated on a seven-point scale regarding their support or thwarting of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

What the researchers learned 

The findings revealed that while competence and relatedness were somewhat supported, autonomy was significantly lacking in the teaching styles observed. 

“Instructors scored significantly lower on the employment of autonomy in swimming lessons than on the employment of competence and relatedness,” the authors noted.

However, instructors trained under the EasySwim program displayed higher scores in supporting autonomy, indicating that it’s possible to teach instructors to nurture all three critical needs.

Study implications 

The experts recommend a shift in the teaching style employed by swimming instructors, advocating for an approach that strongly supports autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

They believe that this teaching style will not only improve swimming skills in children but will also inspire them to enjoy swimming and continue practicing the sport long after their formal education ends. 

“Motivation is a prerequisite for all forms of learning, including motor learning. A more motivating teaching style is therefore more likely to improve the swimming capability of children,” said Minkels.

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