Should your swim instructor be “polite?”

This weekend we had our first swim lessons of the fall season. Septemeber and October are extremely difficult times of the year.

If you have a large high school staff then many of your employees are likely burned out from the summer by the end of the year work and struggle to fully staff you outdoor pools. when they return back to school they’re innundated with sports, afterschool activities and more homework and responsibilities they’re not used to from the long summer off.

Coupled with low pay (because most programs are loathed to pay more than minimum wage) and a high bar to effectiveness because you need hours of training, finding quality instructors can be an insurmountable challenge.

So we had our first day of swim lessons and I had a couple of new instructors in the water teaching.

One of the first things that jump out to me with new teachers, often 15 and 16 year olds, is that they are too polite.

“Will you please do a front glide?”
“Can you come over here?”
“Go underwater, please.”
“Kiss the water, please.”

Do you notice a pattern here?

The instructors are asking the participants to do something, they’re asking “please,” too much.

One of the first things I tell my new swim instructors is that they need to be a little rude. Compassionate, caring, trusting, empathic, endearing, but a little rude. They should be like a master trainer teaching a dog to sit, to speak with command.

When you’re asking questions instead of giving commands the children, the 3-5-year-olds your working with will not respond as quickly, as well, or as immediately as they would if you spoke with authority.

I define “Polite” more as socially polite, like saying “please,” “thank you,” and not giving direct orders that you expect to be carried out. I define polite in this situation as asking children if they’re willing or able to do what you’re telling them to do.

When I’m advocating for not being “polite” I’m not saying “don’t be kind,” or be a jerk. I’m saying, drop the pleasantries from your speech. We don’t need to worry too much about etiquette when it comes to “manners” with strangers.

We’re in the water to do one job: teach fun and effective swim lessons.

Why do teenagers feel the need to be so polite when they’re working with children?

There are a few reasons:

  • They want to be treated the way they like being treated. Teenagers are on the cusp of being adults and wish to be treated with respect and honesty. They don’t like being told what to do and in turn, think that if someone “asked” them to do something they’re more likely to do it instead of being “told.”

    I feel like it is an expression of their rebellion and testing it out.

    For this one I could be wrong. It has been a while since I was a teenager, but my impression from when I was the age and my observation I suspect this is true. What do you think?
  • Teens are too polite because they’ve been taught to always say “please” and “thank you” at every turn by their parents. Sometimes I think we say “please” and “thank you” too often.

    Count the number of times a patron at Starbucks says “thank you” in a single interaction with the clerk.

    “Can I get a venti coffee with cream?”
    “Sure, anything else?”
    “No. Thank you.”
    “That’ll be $5.00”
    Inserts card. Pays.
    “Thank you.”
    “Thank you.”

    Swim lessons don’t need you to be socially “polite.”

  • Finally, teens and new swim instructors are too polite because they don’t have the confidence and knowledge of how to teach, what it means to have swimmers do things in the water, and what the natural progressions are.

    They’re uncertain.

    When you’re not confident in your knowledge or skills you ask questions. Can you do this? Can you do that?

    They don’t rest on the confidence and experience that allows them to say, “Charlotte, ready to go? Ok, go.”

    They lack the gumption to hold a swimmers arms and guide them through a front glide. They hesitate when they should be bold.

    Unfortunately, we can only train them so much before we let them experience it for themselves in the water, with a class.

How to cure being too polite.

I find that training helps a lot of this. With proper training and establishing expectations about how they should talk we can reduce much of this excess politeness.

Review sections of training like, “How to remove “okay” from your sentences.

We can do activities in training sessions where we practice speaking with command language.

We can Give our swim instructors training workbooks that walk them through how to teach lessons and all the different skills so they can feel confident in the progressions and activities they’re going to be doing in the water.

What do you do to make your swim teachers less “polite” in the water? I’d love to hear your strategies to get effective instruction out of your more hesitant teachers.

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