How to Teach Students Leadership Skills Through Swimming Lessons

Courtesy: Nyawira Githae

About 7 weeks ago I started teaching swimming lessons at a small school in Mombasa. It’s a school of about 27 students ranging from the age of 3 to 19 years old and all of them are at varying swimming levels. I was allocated 2 hours, once a week to teach the 27 students. Initially, when the administrator reached out to me and explained the age range I would be teaching and the varying swimming skill levels, I was stumped. How were the classes going to work?

Before I began teaching at the school, I requested teaching with an assistant coach so that he could teach the younger ones as I taught the older ones. This way we would be able to spend enough time with each group within the two hours. The school declined my request because it was over their budget.

Group the Students Based on Their Swimming Skill Levels and then Identify Student Leaders to Lead the Groups

I had to think outside the box if I was going to make this work. During my first class, I spent those two hours assessing the swimming skills of each student. Which strokes could they swim? Could they breathe while they were swimming? How proficient was their technique?

As I was assessing them, I assigned them to groups based on their skill level and ended up with 4 groups – A, B, C and D. Group D was made up of toddlers who didn’t know how to swim. Group C, were kids around 6 years old who could barely swim. Group B consisted of kids between 6 to 11 years old who could swim freestyle but either had poor stroke, didn’t know how to breathe while swimming or both. Group A, consisted mainly of the more skilled and older kids.

From group A, I picked a 4 students to each be in charge of one of the groups. I instructed the leaders that going forward, it was their responsibility to ensure that their group came to class on time and they would also assist during the lessons. Only two of those leaders have been consistently assisting with their groups which is mainly group C and D – the younger and less skilled students.

At the beginning of the swimming lessons, I start with teaching the toddlers and then I instruct the two leaders on how to continue teaching the toddlers as I teach the next group (Group C). It’s critical that I have someone monitoring the toddlers/preschoolers because if left on their own, they can easily drown or hurt themselves.

Use Student Leaders and Teamwork to Help the Whole Group Improve Their Swimming Skills at an Adequate Pace

When teaching Group A, I began by correcting their freestyle technique. Once the majority of the group was kicking well and able to rotate to the side to breathe without lifting their head, we moved on to breaststroke.

Fewer students had the proficiency level that they had with front crawl. This meant that more students needed my attention. What was I going to do now? Was I going to extend the amount of time I spent teaching them at my own cost?

As a solution, I started recruiting the students who had grasped a specific technique and asked them to help teach it to their classmates. For example, perhaps I was teaching Group A how to do the breaststroke kick correctly. First I demonstrated it and then asked them to copy what I had shown them while holding onto the wall. I move from one student to the next, in a line, correcting those who weren’t doing it right.

Then I asked them, one by one, to swim a width or two of breaststroke kicks to confirm whether they had really grasped the technique. As the students were swimming in succession, I was taking note of the ones who had grasped the technique.

When I came across a student who was having difficulty learning the breaststroke kick, I assigned them to the students who had grasped it well. The students adept in the breaststroke kick were teaching the ones who weren’t as I was continuing to assess and correct the rest of the class.

Once I had gone through the whole class, I revisited the ones who were being taught by their classmates. Most of them had improved and grasped the technique sufficiently. Thanks to the teamwork, we were able to cover more ground than we would have if I was the only one coaching the class.

For those who still weren’t able to swim the breaststroke kick properly, I asked them to come early the next time I was teaching, during the one of the classes before theirs so that I would have extra time to work on improving their breaststroke kick.

My Takeaway from Teaching Students Leadership Skills Through Swimming Lessons

I never planned this so I have been learning on the fly. Here’s what I learned:

  • Kids, even the older ones, like to have their minds engaged and help where they can. None of the kids have complained about me asking them to teach their schoolmates. If anything, they are always eager and ready to teach. It may be important to note that the kids at this school are well-mannered and highly disciplined. I don’t know whether this would work the same way at all schools especially ones where there are high levels of indiscipline.
  • The kids have shown me that they have leadership and collaborative skills. They just need a space to exhibit and develop those skills.
  • I have to model the kind of teacher I want them to be because kids can imitate bad teaching habits. If I want them to be kind, I have to be kind as well which keeps me in check about how I talk and teach them.
  • I am able to help them identify areas they may need to work on as leaders. For example, there’s one kid who has very good leadership qualities but the language he uses can be a bit harsh when he’s teaching his classmates. I corrected him when he was teaching and later on, when we had a meeting, I pointed it out as one of the things he needs to improve on.
  • It’s a great way for students to recognize their leadership and collaborative strengths.

I had a check-in with the student leaders just before the term ended to get their feedback about this teaching style, find out what they think should be improved, commend them for their contribution and mention their strengths and weaknesses.

As a coach, you are probably well aware that teaching a group is different from teaching an individual. I cannot give the same amount of time and instruction to each student in a group as I would in one-on-one lessons. In a school setting, this usually leads to huge gaps in skill levels within the same classes or a class has to move very slowly to accommodate the students who take longer to learn. This is why you may see a student progress through different grades but their skill level doesn’t improve. It’s because they don’t receive sufficient attention.

This style of teaching helps everyone in the class make good progress while teaching the students leadership and teamwork skills. I highly recommend it for both class and club swimming lessons.

All in all, I have loved this whole experience, and I am looking forward to seeing how it evolves and applying it with other students.


Nyawira Githae is a swimming coach based in Mombasa, Kenya who doubles as a freelance writer and is grateful that she gets to enjoy two careers she loves. She specializes in teaching learn to swim classes and stroke improvement. Learning scuba diving is next on her swimming activities bucket list. She writes about swimming coaching, fitness and self-development. She also writes website copy, startup content, LinkedIn summaries and interview articles.

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