How to teach swimming lessons – Concise Commands

Here is a quick training module you can use as an in-service or during your actual swim instructor training days.

By the end of this article you will be able to give a series of clear actionable commands. You will also be able to run a training module or in-service to teach your swim instructors how to speak in concise commands during their lessons.

Concise Commands

There are a few quick and easy things you can do as a swim lesson manager to instantly get better results from your swim instructors. My favorite little “hack” or tip is to remove “Okay” from your instructor’s vocabulary at the end of sentences (Article and Podcast Episode)  The second tip, but more complex one, is crafting your commands well. This article is about creating quick, actionable commands to get results. First we’ll look at what “concise” means and give you some examples. Then we’ll demonstrate why this is important to learn. Finally, we will go over how you can teach your instructors to be concise in their delivery and how to give commands and not ask or imply.

Examples of “concise:”

Instructors during swim lessons use language to get results. In a general, they issue commands to walk swimmers through a progression of activities that will eventually lead to them learning how to swim. You likely have heard the following phrases:

“We’re going to do front glides now. Johnny, go.”

“Okay, let’s do some jumps.”

“Everybody do 5 bobs.”

Each of these commands are concise, they are short and clear. They also expect the listeners to know what “front glides,” “jumps,” and “bobs” are. For our program we require all of our instructors to call these things by the same names. Streamlines are streamlines, not rocket ships, or blast offs, or any variation. We standardize the language, which allows us to be concise when we give our commands.

Remember when thinking about concise commands, be clear, be specific (using the appropriate word for the situation), and be direct.

Difficulties in teaching

New and temporary swim instructor staff are typically in their first job. Usually, they’re young too. Most of our summer staff is between 15 – 20. For many of them it is the only job and their only experience teaching something to someone else. Thankfully, swim instruction is not very hard. There are not that many complicated highly specialized skills you need to learn to do the job adequately. But we want excellent lessons, we want productive, effective fun classes that draw people in and generate revenue. We want a large successful program to increase revenue.

Most of the new teachers I watch over-complicate their instruction.

Here are a few assumptions about 15-20 year old swim instructors:

  • Know how to swim
  • Have a “vision” or picture in their mind what “good” swimming is
  • When teaching, they teach others to get as close to their picture of “good swimming”
  • Will spend lots of time focusing on small details: cupped hands, elbow position on recovery, path the hand travels as it returns over the water
  • Energetic
  • Reactive

Teaching swimming gets more difficult when an instructor focuses too much on fine (unimportant) details. They get mired in a repetitive loop of inefficiency by forcing actions in their swimmers that don’t matter.

Here is an example:

Sally was teaching swimming lessons at her indoor pool over the school year. She is on the swim team in high school. She learned how to swim at swim lessons, and thought she would be good at teaching too. She isa junior and on Varsity swimming. She knows how to swim. At lessons she was paired with the Level 2 class. In Level 2 her swimmers were learning freestyle. She had taught them how to streamline first and was not introducing the arms. Sally demonstrated first, then asked her swimmers to take a turn to her, “streamline first then do freestyle arms like I just showed you to me,” she instructed. Billy and Bobby both went and then Alice. Sally noticed that all of them were wildly flailing their arms’ great splashes with every arm circle, butts wiggling as they furiously spun their arms to get to her. “Woah! Let’s review again before we do it a next time. Remember, I want your hands to be cupped like an ice cream scooper, fingers together, thumb pressed against your hand, like this.” Sally showed them her flat palm and hand. “Also,” Sally continued, “when you come over the water I want your elbow to be higher than you hand and gently reach it over and then extend forward and place it in the water above your shoulder. Let’s go again. Streamline first and then swim freestyle to me remembering to cup your hand be gentle, keep your body straight, and point your elbows to the sky while you drag your fingers on the surface of the water back to full extension.” Sally paused for a breath, “Okay, ready go Billy.”

Indulge me in that story. It is based on a real wold example of a junior in high school swimmer teaching swimming lessons. She then spent the next 10 minutes working on high elbow recovery and cupped hands.

Those are good things to teach, to Level 3 or Level 4 swimmers. It is not necessary or worth our time for beginners to focus on that small, and largely inconsequential, details. Yes, eventually we want to teach those things as they are good swimming habits, but they are way beyond the needs of swimmers who can only streamline. Level 2 swimmers don’t even know how to move themselves forward yet with giant arm circles.

New instructors have a vision, or a picture, in their mind what “good swimming” is and will teach to that vision. Often they focus on fine details that are blatantly against that image. In Sally’s mind, open palms and splayed fingers were so obviously wrong she felt like she needed to correct it immediately at the sake of everything else. This is a common issue across most beginning swim instructors. They get lost in the details and forget the bigger picture. Or worse, they don’t’ know what the bigger picture is.  This is what complicates instruction and makes teaching swimming difficult: wasting time in fine unimportant details.

The first step to concise instruction

Speak in commands.

Ultimately our goal in swim lessons is to get our participants to do something specific in a certain way every time. That requires us to create new physical habits for our students. If we talk too much or give vague and confusing directions our swimmers will not know what to do or get confused by too much information. We want to speak clearly and specifically making the most of our words. The less we speak the more time our swimmers have to practice swimming.

Look at these two sentences:

1) Okay, we’re going to do front glides. Remember front glides everybody? Yup, we’re going to do them right now where we float over the surface like a rocket ship. I want  you to blast off like a huge explosion and SHOOT yourself forward across the water. Johnny you’re going to go first. 1, 2, 3, GO!

2) Ok, we’re going to do front glides now. Go one at a time when I call your name. Glide to me, then I will help you front glides back to the bench. Johnny, you are first. Put your shoulders in the water, put your arms out in front of you, and push off to me, go.

Example #1 is full of imagery and excitement, but it does not have any specific instructions or commands. It is vague and somewhat confusing. The swimmers do not not how to actually accomplish what you are asking them.

Example #2 is direct, concise and commanding. It is much better when giving complex instructions that require specific action from your swimmers. They know they are doing a front glide, they know how it will be done (the format), and they get the script (how to initiate the front glide) from this quick instruction.

Encourage your swim instructors to remove the “fluff” from their initial commands and instruction. When setting up activities and getting a class to “listen” we need to be commanding, direct, and brief. When we talk too much and use unnecessary words our participants will ignore us and get distracted or forget the actual directions.

Save your “fluff” for targeted specific feedback based on the participant’s actions.

When Johnny does his front glide to you, that is when we should give him feedback filled with colorful images and similes. For example, “Johnny, you jumped up in the air and then crashed down on the surface like a whale. Next time, remember to start with your shoulders in the water. You can give me crocodile eyes with your nose under like this. Then you’ll shoot forward instead of UP and then down. 

Step #1: Give commands when announcing what activity is next and how to accomplish that activity. Save the imagery and colorful rich feedback for individual corrections.

The second step of Concise Commands

Our first step in giving concise commands is to speak in commands. Give direct sentences with a period at the end designed to get action. Save your illustrations and your images for your individual specific feedback. The second step is to speak concisely, or to give specific short commands that build on previous commands and are targeted to a specific step action.

To speak concisely: be brief, be quick, and be clear.

Organize your commands and instructions using the following formula:

  1. Announce activity by name: example Streamline with freestyle kick
  2. How many times will participants do the activity? Example:  Everyone will go 3 times.
  3. How will the participants accomplish the activity? Example: When I call your name, push off  underwater. When you get to the surface move over in the lane and get back in line. You can go when the person ahead of you moves out of the way.
  4. Give success criteria or goals. Example: Remember to do all three things for streamline: look down, lock your thumb, and squeeze your ears. Start underwater and push off in a straight horizontal line. 
  5. Ask for questions
  6. Give individual instruction on a per person basis for more specific fine tuned instructions to accomplish task. Example: Sally, you need to also make sure you push with two feet off the wall, then lock your thumb, squeeze your ears and look down. 
  7. Repeat critical information throughout.

Swim Activity flow

This flow chart is designed to help you move through an activity while providing the best clear commands.

Notice how it starts with the activity itself. Name the activity. Then tell your swimmers how many times that they’re going to do that activity. Usually it will be everyone goes three times. Explain in detail how they will accomplish the activity. Give your specific examples, taking note of what the  exact step by step is, and using whatever script you choose to use. Finally, give a focus or a goal for added effort beyond just accomplishing the task generally.

Following this formula will keep your commands and instructions brief, they will remove the temptation to give too many details with too many fine points and distracting tips. Instead, participants will come to expect the formula when they hear your commands. What they’re doing, how many times, what specifically, and what to focus on. When you then repeat the activity, your participants will be able to focus beyond just what they’re doing and be able to spend more energy on fine tuned improvements and goal attainment.

Here are some examples:

Confusing instructions with too many details:

Next we’re going to do front glides and streamlines. Remember, with blast offs, you should look down, and put your hands out in front of you. I want you to put your arms on the surface like you’re spreading pancakes on a skillet. Keep your palms flat on the surface and then look at the fishes with your face. Also, don’t jump up first, make sure you push off in a straight line to me. Okay, Johnny, you go first. Ready go.

Concise command version of the same activity:

Next we’re going to do front glides. Everyone will go three times. Put your shoulders in the water, reach your hands forward, then push off to me when I say “go.”  When you get to me I’ll help send you back. Everyone leave from this corner [point to the right hand side of the lane/bench]. Johnny, go first. Ready, go.

Save the imagery for when you’re giving individual feedback

From the above example of front glides, I showed you to ways to get your participants to do the same thing using different language. The first example is closer to what most beginning swim instructors do: they get lost in the details and give confusing wandering instructions. With the second example we see a formulaic delivery of commands. What are they doing, how many times, with specific instructions and then how it will happen. Once those participants are used to that activity and the general procedure to actually do it, we can add goals and specific focus on top of the activity by itself.

Every time swimmers do an activity we should give feedback if they accomplished the task, or if they need to take steps to improve. We expect that everyone gets some sort of personalized feedback with every attempt. Sometimes it is a thumbs up, or a smile and a head nod. Sometimes it is more specific, “Next time don’t jump up in the air first to get to me, lean forward, start with your face in the water and you’ll make it easier.” The more specific you are the better.

When giving commands, make them as specific as possible and as short as you can. Challenge yourself to give complex directions and feedback using the fewest words possible yet still maintaining the essential meaning,.

Step #2: To be concise, give commands with short sentences using as few words as possible. With every ne activity you do you have a chance to practice getting your point across with as few words and commands as you can.

Instructor Challenges to Improve

Here are a few ideas for things you can do during your new swim instructor training, or during a regular training session to improve your concise commands (for you and for your staff).

Three Activities for Small Groups:

1) Find partners and pair off. One person gives commands to the other partner. Make the commands as brief and quick as possible. Give groups specific things to do and have the partner receiving the commands only do what the speaker explicitly states. For example, have one partner be blindfolded and have the other give them directions to pick something up and drop it off at a different location. Come up with different activities involving giving specific instructions allowing the partner receiving them only doing what was explicitly said. 

Some direction ideas:

  • Pick up an egg with a spoon while blindfolded.
  • Navigate an obstacle course while blindfolded.
  • Get in the pool, swim a certain stroke to a location, pick up an object underwater, and exit the pool via stairs. The person doing it can only do exactly what the instruction giver says. 
  • Start at one location, walk to another, take off shoes, put shoes on and tie the laces, while pretending to not know exactly how to do all of that.

2) Form groups of 2-4 people each. Hand out a piece of paper and a pen/pencil. Leader states that everyone will start at the same location, someplace you’re at, or someplace in a pool area. It can be a place, or a setting. Leader then says, I’m going to write down a goal, or an objective. You need to write down in the shortest sentences you can, and the fewest number of commands to get someone to acheive that goal or objective from the starting position. Write as if you’re telling the person what you are going to do, or what they will do. Be as specific as possible.


Setting: Teachign a level 1 swimmer in a private lesson named Billy. You are in the zero-depth (like a beachfront) area of the pool. 

Goal: Do 3 jumps in the deep end. 

Group examples: Billy, we are going to do a front glide to the deep end together. Put your hands on my shoulders. Let me hold you at the surface. Kick your feet to help us move faster. Ok, turn around. Reach both hands for the wall. Ok, reach, put your lips in the water. 1, 2, 3, go! Climb out. Put your toes on the edge. Do you want to go underwater? No? Okay. Ready, I’m going to help you. 1, 2, 3, go. Ok, turn around. Reach both hands.. (repeat 2 times). Alright, lets do a backfloat this time. I will help you. Put your head on my shoulder, flatten your body, and kick your feet. Keep your hands at your sides. Kick. Ok, sit up on 3. 1, 2, 3. Well done! Great job on your front floats, your jumps and your back floats!

3) Take a sentence and make it short, activity.

This can be done in a large group. Rotate people that come up to the front of the group. Have that person say a rambling or confusing set of instructions. Make them as needlessly complex as possible. When in doubt give too much detail. 

The rest of the group should shout out easier, more concise, simpler alternatives to achieve the same goal as the complex instruction. 

For example: 

Standing in front of group: “You’re going to put one hand on the railing there. Nope, not there, near the water line, but 5 inches above the smallest wave between the 30 and the 31st droplet marks. Then place your right foot on the lower most ladder step, but only use the ball of your feet, letting your toes extend past the step. Then grasp the other railing with your other hand. Pull yourself up and forward.”

Group members: 

“Climb out of the pool using the ladder.”

“Use the ladder to exit the water.”

“Climb out here!”

Have you used any of these activities? How do you encourage concise instruction and language? Leave a comment or connect on facebook or twitter.  

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2 thoughts on “How to teach swimming lessons – Concise Commands”

  1. Spot on! The importance of clear, concise communication in swim instruction cannot be overstated. I would add that building rapport and fostering a positive learning environment are equally important. A friendly and encouraging coach can make a huge difference in a student’s confidence and progress.

    • I totally agree. Building trust is so important it can’t be overstated and encouraging and positive feedback and friendly interactions develop trust and respect. For sure.

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