Fighting their Fear With a Higher Aquatic IQ


The S.O.A.P. (Strategies Overcoming Aquatic Phobias) Program is a highly successful “Health and Wellness Aquatic Program” that offers an innovative approach to helping people overcome their fear of water. The program is available to individuals regardless of their age, fitness level or life experience. It is offered in group or private format for adults, but only privately for children under the age of twelve. Many SOAP clients have been unsuccessful in their efforts to overcome their fear of water by engaging in traditional learn to swim and psychotherapeutic programs. An individual’s fear of the water can result in very powerful short and long consequences, both personally and professionally. It is always important to remember that every person that never learns how to swim as a result of their fear of water, remains a potential risk of near drowning or drowning and every person that overcomes their fear of water and learns how to swim improves their ability to become an advocate and example of water safety and a potential life saver.

Furthermore, a child’s fear of the water may unfortunately lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and anger, in addition to a lack of confidence, self-esteem and appropriate conflict resolution and problem solving skills. Aside from the mental health component of this equation, a child’s fear of water prevents them from taking advantage of a wide range of aquatic activities that can improve their physical fitness, both as a child and as an adult.

Speaking of adults, there is no question that currently, our life expectancy keeps expanding and as that happens, seniors are looking for ways to improve their overall fitness. This may help to explain that more and more adults, between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-five, are enrolling in the SOAP Program, with the hopes that they can finally overcome their fear of water and be able to use the water as a place where they can both socialize and exercise. One thing that has become very clear to me, is that it is never too late to start this process and to be successful with it. This mantra is well documented in the SOAP Program, where the percentage of seniors enrolling in and graduating from the program has doubled within the last five years. I have also found it very interesting to note that significant changes in their lives, such as career moves, retirement, becoming grandparents or health issues have motivated seniors to explore areas of their lives that, in the past, had remained off their personal radar screen. Their lifelong fear of water seems to be one of those areas that they truly recognize and work very hard to overcome.  

Although the stories and backgrounds of many SOAP clients may seem very similar, it is always extremely important for SOAP Instructors to assess their clients through the use of an “Aquanalysis” prior to the start of the program. During this process the instructor learns about the client’s aquatic history, in addition to their emotional profile and their current comfort zone and skill set in water. Throughout the years, as I have talked with these clients, their instructors, as well as both aquatic and mental health professionals regarding the issue of aquatic fears and phobias, it has become very clear to me that both communities have seemed to allow this widely diverse group of people to suffer silently with this problem and have provided very few effective resources for them. It is my hope that we can all begin to appreciate their challenges and their goals and make programs, such as SOAP, available to them. Fear can be a painful deterrent and can truly disrupt lives, or it can be a powerful motivator, that can change lives in a very positive way. The first step in this process for us as aquatic professionals is to be able to understand what aqua phobia looks like and how overwhelming it can be. I have had the privilege of working with a highly diverse group of people who as a result of their various levels of fear, have been unable to enjoy the many emotional, physical and recreational benefits that result from participating in an aquatic lifestyle. Every SOAP client has a personal story that is inspirational, but a few help paint a profound picture of the very special journey that they took as SOAP clients.

There has been nothing that has served as a more powerful example of aqua phobia as the retired Marine Officer who shared with me and the other members of his SOAP group, that although he served in both military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, which clearly required tremendous courage and physical and emotional strength, nothing during those moments on the battlefield terrified him more than the thought of being in water over his head. The smile on his face as he jumped off the one meter board into thirteen feet of water after completing his SOAP Program was perhaps the most overwhelming sense of satisfaction that I felt as a professional.

However, there has been nothing that helps define the hope that the SOAP Program offers as the story of my oldest client to date, who at age ninety-one, had never been in water over her head.  As a result of the skills and encouragement she received during her SOAP Sessions, was finally able to swim the entire length of a twenty-five meter long pool, finishing in ten feet of water with a huge ear to ear smile on not only her face, but that of her ninety year old husband who watched nervously from the side of the pool and could not believe what he had just witnessed.

Furthermore there has been no better example of the importance of a program such as SOAP, than the story of a young mother of two toddlers who had never learned to swim because of her fear of water, but now her bigger fear was to not be able to protect her children in and around water and not enjoy those special moments because of her aqua phobia. Watching her as she helped her fellow clients towards the end of her sessions convinced me that she no longer needed to worry about family outings to the pool or beach   

Finally, there has never been an experience as exciting to me as both a parent, mental health counselor and special needs swim instructor as the story of the parents who brought their six year old son to me with a combination of guilt, anger, sadness and frustration. Unfortunately, with the best of intentions, they had decided to send their son to summer camp, where they offered swim instruction. They had alerted the camp director that their son was afraid to put his face in the water despite swim lessons at the local pool during the previous winter. When the young child returned home from his first day of camp, he became hysterical when his parents refused his request not to return to camp. After much discussion, it became clear that he had a very bad experience at the pool and even after his parents offered to go to camp with him the following day and speak with the camp director and swim instructor about his experience at the pool, even finally agreeing to let him skip swimming altogether, their son remained unwilling to return to camp. This type of unfortunate experience could have resulted in a lifelong fear of water and all the negative consequences that come along with that state of mind. While working with this child, it became very clear that he desperately wanted to overcome his fear of water and learn how to swim, but also that he was extremely shy and lacked confidence in his physical skills. The more he began to trust me, the more he began to trust himself and as his confidence grew, so did his interest in learning how to swim. Fortunately, learning to swim efficiently, not fast or even beautifully, does not require exceptional coordination or athletic ability and teaching a child to swim and how to feel safe in the water is more about trust than technique. Hearing him tell his parents that he could not wait to attend camp and go swimming that summer was not only a defining moment in his life but another one for the SOAP Program as well.

The reason that all these people were successful in the SOAP Program is that this program offers resources in three different areas, cognitive awareness, emotional support and aquatic skill building. Combined, these components will significantly increase the client’s “Aquatic I.Q.”, which the program defines as a person's degree of emotional stability, cognitive awareness and aquatic skills that enable that person to feel, think and act confidently, competently and safely in water. The program provides clients with all the tools that will help them to reach their specific aquatic goals.

The cognitive knowledge provided and the awareness that it creates includes the “who, what and whys” of aquatic fears and phobias.  Answers to the questions; why am I so afraid of being in water, who is to blame and what can I do about it, are very helpful as clients deal with the very powerful feelings attached to these questions, as well as the reality that their perception of water is very different from the reality of that view. SOAP clients are very surprised and somewhat relieved to learn that most people who suffer from a fear of water, did not suffer a near drowning or terrifying experience in water and actually have no idea why they respond to water in the way they do. All they know is that they have no control over their reactions, which includes increased heart rate, feeling dizzy and nauseous, abnormally high sweating, headaches, trembling, weakness in their limbs and being unable to think or communicate clearly. In extreme cases, people are unable to bathe or be comfortable in airplanes or cars that travel over or near water. Their view of the aquatic scene is so overwhelmingly skewed, that they truly believe that they are in imminent danger when in fact there may be no danger at all. Not only does the fear of water potentially rob a person of enjoying certain fitness and recreational activities, disrupt personal relationships and professional careers, impair self image and worth, but may prevent people from using aquatic therapy as a means to avoiding and rehabbing specific medical procedures.     

There are those whose fear is the result of experiencing a traumatic experience in and around water. Unfortunately, many people who come into the program recall terrifying experiences, where well meaning instructors, friends or family members pushed them into deep water expecting them to know how to respond appropriately. Others speak of fitness classes in high school or college, where similar sink or swim strategies were applied. Regardless of the specific circumstance, the people who fit into this category begin the process with similar levels of fear as those described above, but seem to respond quicker to efforts to learn the more advanced aquatic skills and are very appreciative to find an instructor who is sensitive to their negative aquatic history.

The third category of individuals includes those whose fear is the result of complete lack of exposure due to health or financial issues or a matter of geographic location and as the years go by, the more their fear of the unknown grows. Eventually the fear of the fear increases, further diminishing their willingness to enter the water.

That being said, no matter when, where and why the fear started, the most important part of the process in helping clients to overcome their fears will always remain the emotional support that the client  receives both in and out of the water.  This emotional support includes a healthy dose of empathy, the use of relaxation, behavioral modification and desensitization techniques, as well as group and individual counseling and coaching skills. SOAP clients are encouraged to share their experiences, feelings and expectations in meetings held prior to and after every session in the water. As the client(s) increases their Aquatic IQ, they increase the amount of time that they spend in the water, but SOAP Instructors always spend time asking their clients to reflect on their feelings and use these opportunities to solidify their emotional connection with their clients in a very brief amount of time. Therefore setting goals, boundaries and establishing an effective and efficient rapport with clients is the foundation for the entire process. Maintaining both exceptional listening and communication skills throughout the peaks and valleys of this journey are critical to the success in teaching clients the aquatic skills that will determine when and where they will be able to learn specific aquatic skills. Without helping clients to first overcome their fear of water, they will never successfully be able to teach them how to swim correctly and ultimately how to feel safe, competent and happy in water. This program is not a learn to swim program, but an opportunity for clients to understand, manage and ultimately to overcome the fear that has prevented them from being able to learn how to swim.

When the time is right,  SOAP Instructors teach their clients the many different aquatic skills, which include  breathing, submerging, floating, gliding, rolling over, treading, sculling all of which will help them to feel more in control when they are in water, especially in deep water. This progress will enable their client to develop and expand their comfort zone in areas where they had none previously. Once that has occurred, clients are ready to learn and develop both transitional and traditional strokes. SOAP Instructors constantly remind their clients that failure, no matter how significant, is only temporary and that success, no matter how small, lasts forever.

The SOAP Program remains one of the few programs that is designed specifically to help individuals take control of how they think, feel and act in water in an effort to overcome a fear that in the past has prevented them from participating in an aquatic lifestyle. As a member of both the aquatic and mental health community, I urge both those affected by an exaggerated fear of water and those in a position to help that population to reach out to one another and work together in an effort to eliminate fear as the reason why any individual cannot enjoy being in and around water.


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