Swimming Levels-The Skills, Strokes and Organization

Offering swim programs entails a lot of leg work to make sure that students are receiving a cohesive lesson plan.  Part of devising this plan is to decide what levels or skills your students will learn and at what stages.  Most lesson programs identify these as levels. 

Teachers who teach smaller classes or focus more on private lessons will not always find the need to specifically identify levels because they will know their students on a more personal level and will jump back and forth between skills more fluidly than having regimented levels and requirements.

Breaking down how you plan to teach your swim students is best done with an understanding of how the various swim movements and strokes work together and will be best utilized by your students. I will outline the different swim movements, strokes and types to help you identify the difference as well as develop your personal ideology about how you plan the levels to teach your swim clients.

Swim Movements

Most confident swimmers do not remember the first time they entered the water and didn’t know how to blow bubbles let alone swim a length across the pool.  A swimmer’s first moments in the water are vital to preparing them to be confident swimmers.  Swim movements are the building blocks upon which all competent swim is built. 

Blowing Bubbles

The first step for most swimmers begins with blowing bubbles. The reason blowing bubbles is important is because it establishes the swimmer’s ability to control their breathing under the water.  The is a preparatory step you develop as you learn to swim with your head under water so you can go further without becoming winded.  Blowing bubbles is not a sprint, but when properly done should mimic the cadence or rhythm at which you breath normally.

Submerging your head

The next swim movement is putting your head underwater.  This skill is typically the most divisive among new swimmers because most children are either fearless and will go under water with little  more than the request and other children will spend weeks attempting to put their head under water confidently.  This skill is important because while swimming your head will go under water.  To learn more about teaching a kid to go under water, read this article.

Back Floats

Apart from submerging your head under water, I find that back floats present the greatest struggle for new students. There are many different reasons why children will struggle with back floats.  These range from having their equilibrium thrown off balance when water enters their ears, to not trusting that the water will support their body, but whatever the reason, developing a functional back float is not only going to support future swim education, it is also a survival movement which can help save lives.

Front Float

Unlike the back float, a front float is not what I would consider a survival movement because your face is underwater and, unless we develop gills, that position is not sustainable indefinitely. The reason it is important to develop a strong front float is because it is a precursor to a strong crawl stroke which is the most common recreational swim stroke.

Front and Back Glides

A glide is when a swimmer positions themselves on the side of a pool and uses the pool wall to push off and glide further into the pool in a streamlined position.  Front glides are performed with the face submerged in the water, whereas a back glide is performed with the swimmer laying on their back. 

There are many reasons that glides are a part of the swim foundation, but there are two that stand out from the rest.  First, glides help students understand that they have control over their body.  Once they have pushed off the side of the pool, the student  must move their arms and legs into the proper positioning to glide more effectively.

Second, a glide is an introduction to forward motion in the water.  Until glides, the swim movements are all sedentary.  Being still in the water is vital to build body confidence in the water, but swim parties don’t consist of the attendees all floating calming on their backs the whole time.  Forward movement is apart of swimming and so developing a simplified understanding of it before formally learning a stroke will help that student understand their part in the process.

Flutter Kick

A flutter kick is when your legs alternate up and down movements in the water using straight legs, pointed toes and never going deeper than roughly 8 inches into the water.

Flutter kick is used with 2 of the four competitive strokes and is considered the easiest and most sustainable of all the kicks.  Establishing a strong flutter kick is vital as it will help support your swimmer as they develop both crawl stroke, back stroke and a recreation crawl stroke.  Most early swimmers struggle to perfect their flutter kick because it feels more natural to do a bicycle kick, which is when your legs are more full submerged into the water and move in a circular motion as if you are pedaling a bicycle. 

A bicycle kick may feel more natural but it is incredibly detrimental to new swimmers.  Not only does it require a lot more energy but it also displaces far less water than a flutter kick and, because of the depth and the motion, it keeps you rooted to the depths of the pool which will slowly pull you under when you become tired. 

If there is one skill to work vigilantly on with your students, it is developing a strong kick that has straight legs, pointed toes and remains on the top portion of the water. 

Swim Strokes

Above are all the basic swim movements.  These are movements because they do not require the coordination of both arms, legs and breathing and in most cases they will not move you anywhere.  After you have developed these foundational skills, you will be ready to consider which strokes you would like to teach first.  I will now outline the different strokes, categorized in a way that helps me understand their value to competitive swimmers, as well as the back yard Olympians.

Survival Movements

Survival movements are swim motions that have inherent life-saving properties.  These movements have the ability to save a life if a swimmer finds themselves in danger.  They are not technically strokes, however, because they do not have any forward motions.


One of the most dangerous places in any pool is the 4-5 feet area.  The reason this is so dangerous is because children who think they are competent swimmers try to swim in these areas and quickly find out they are not as confident in swimming as they thought or they become exhausted quickly by the lack of breaks. 

Hops are a skill taught to help children who find themselves unable to propel themselves forward in mid-depth water.  When a child starts to struggle, their body will quickly change from a horizontal position to a vertical position in the water.  When this happens, the child should exhale all their air, put their hands by their sides and then move their arms above their head which will push them under the water. 

This is seen as counter-intuitive, but by submerging themselves underwater, the child will be able to find the bottom of the pool, push off in a forward and upward motion which will push them out of the water, allowing for breath and movement toward more shallow waters. 

Teaching this survival skill is not easy for young children because it does take time to develop trust that the movements will lead them to safety.

Front float to back float

Another survival skill is teaching a child how to roll from a front float to a back float.  There are several ways to teach a child how to do this, but it is essentially helping the child feel comfortable enough laying on top of the water so they know they can roll without putting themselves at risk. 

If a child begins to struggle in deeper waters, a back float is the easiest way to receive oxygen, remain safe and conserve energy.  Most children will never need to use a back float to save their life, but many can utilize it when they feel their bodies becoming tired and are not immediately able to rest.

Survival Strokes

A survival stroke is a swim stroke that can be used to assist a person to safety if they become stranded in the water. Most people will never experience being so far out in a large body of water that their swim endurance is really tested, but if it does, you will most likely utilize either  the side stroke, crawl stroke or elementary back stroke to get you to safety.

Side Stroke

Side stroke is when you are positioned in the water as if you are a superhero flying through the air on your side.  It does not matter which side you choose to lay on and most proficient swimmers will switch back and forth.  Whichever side you have submerged in the water has the arm extended in the water while the other hand remains in line with the body. 

During this stroke, the head remains out of the water and the arms will come together and then return to their resting positions as the legs do a scissor kick simultaneously. 

A scissor kick is when they legs pull apart at the knees and then snap back together in a similar motion to scissors opening and closing.  The movement of the body is followed by an extended gliding period until the movement is repeated to help propel the swimmer further. 

This stroke is a survival stroke because the head remains out of the water and it requires little movement with a long time to glide. This helps the swimmer preserve energy and swim further.

Elementary Backstroke

Elementary Backstroke is when the swimmer lays in the water on their back with their arms by their side and legs straight.  In a coordinated movement the arms draw up the body to the armpits, then extend out to the their side forming a “T” and the using a straight arm displacing the water while moving the arms back down to the starting position. 

The elementary back stroke kick begins with the legs extended and the feet drop straight down in the water while the upper thigh remains flat on top of the water.  Once the lower legs are bent down into the water at a 90 degree angle, the feet separate out to the sides, keeping the knees close together. 

Finally, the feet displace the water in a half circle movement returning to the starting position.  The arms and legs complete their coordinated movement and allow the body to glide through the water until you repeat the motion.  This is a survival stroke because you are able to lay on your back, with your head out of water and use very little energy to move through the water. 

Recreational Strokes

Unlike survival strokes, recreational strokes are used during every day swimming with friends. These strokes can also be used in a competitive sense, but for most of the world they are simply used while goofing off in the pool or local water hole.

Crawl Stroke

This is the most common stroke in the swimming world. The stroke involves laying in the water face down with their hands extended above the head. The arms then alternate through the water following the curve of the body until they reach the hip and then coming out of the water to return the starting position.

The legs constantly perform a flutter kick.  The swimmer is able to breathe using a technique called side breathing, where you roll your body to the side as you are doing an arm stroke to take a new breath and then expel the air underwater by blowing bubbles. 

Side breathing would ideally be performed at similar paces of your normal breathing pattern.  Crawl stroke is the most common stroke utilized by swimmers, but is it also one of the most difficult to learn because there are a lot of demands made to coordinate during the stroke.

Back Stroke

The back stroke is when you lay on your back with your arms down by your side and legs extended flat on the top of the water.  As your legs perform flutter kicks, the arms take turns coming straight out of the water, creating a semi circle and re enter the water above the head and then displace the water as your hand follows the curve back down to it starting position at the hip. 

As that arm is returning to the starting position the other arm then repeats the movement.  This stroke is a competitive one, but it is also used heavily in recreational swimming as it is fairly simple to perform and much faster than the survival elementary back stroke.

Competitive Strokes

Competitive strokes are often the most difficult to teach, learn and master, which is why they are used almost exclusively in competitive venues. 

Unlike the previous sections, I will not attempt to describe the two competitive strokes, breast stroke and butterfly, as they are both very complex and involve a lot of body movements that do not lend well to a succinct description.  Although I will not describe them in depth, there is more to say about each of the strokes.

Breast Stroke

Breast stroke is naturally the slowest of all the competitive strokes because it involves gliding rather than the constant movement of its counterparts.  It is for this reason that there is still value in teaching a new swimmer how to be proficient in it.  Although the stroke has several complicated movements, it can be taught  at a very relaxed pace and is a great stroke to use as a precursor to teaching children how to trend water.


This is the only stroke that is not typically accompanied by the word “stroke.”  Butterfly is an incredibly complicated stroke to explain and even to learn it relies on the swimmer developing a rhythm before they are able to experience a slight bit of success. 

Many young competitive swimmers struggle to find their groove while swimming butterfly and therefore avoid it at all costs. It is for this reason that most swim lessons avoid it all together.  Butterfly requires a lot of upper body strength and unless there is a plan to become a competitive swimmer, it is best to simply skip this one altogether.

Advanced Swim Movements

There are classes of instruction that are tailored for the most proficient swimmers.  These are usually the individuals who plan to go on and compete in the sport and therefore need to begin building the foundation for the competitive moves.

Flip Turn

If you watch the Olympics, you will notice that the swimmers do not simply grab the wall and turn themselves around when they finish the lap.  For crawl stroke and back stroke, they perform a flip turn which is when you perform a forward somersault in the water, push off the wall with both feet while moving your hands into a streamlined position above your head and slowly rotating your body in the water while you glide. 

Flip turns for back stroke involve the same process, except they rotate onto their stomach before the turn and then remain on their back after pushing off the wall. 

This move is one that competitive swimmers perform hundreds of times a week and so if you have a future Phelps on your hands, it would be important to introduce. 

I also enjoy teaching flip turns in my more advanced classes because the kids enjoy learning to control their flips and rotations.  They may never compete, but they will win a lot of back yard races!


For a child to dive head first into the water is intimidating and exhilarating.  When a student is ready to try a dive, it can be valuable to begin on their knees as the distance from their current location to the top of the water doesn’t seem so drastic. 

A dive is properly performed when the swimmers arms are extended above the head in a streamlined position while standing, or kneeling, on the side of the pool.  The swimmer then positions their body so that their arms will enter first, followed by their head, and then the rest of the body follows after.  This process can be intimidating as many children get scared of hitting their head on the water.

Developing Your Levels

With a full understanding of the different aspects of swimming that are normally taught, you are not prepared to put together your levels or in what order you plan to teach various concepts.  An easy way to create your lesson plans is to use a three step process.

Develop Skill Groupings

Your first step is organizing the above skills into three groups: Vital Skills, Important Skill, and Helpful Skills.  Vital skills should only include those that will help the student be safe in the water. This may include going underwater to elementary backstroke depending on what type of program you plan to run.

Important skills should be those that will help the student be more than functional in the water.  This would include the more developed strokes and safety skills that will help your student be capable of not only surviving in the water, but enjoying the water in a recreational way.

Helpful skills are those which will help an individual enjoy the water, but are not necessary for most swimmers to enjoy the water and be safe in it. The list created should give you a good beginning road map to organizing your lesson structure. 

Assigning Skills to your Groups

The next step is to organize each of the lists you just created and organizing them by what skills need to be taught or mastered before moving on to more difficult ones on that list.  A good example of this is teaching a child to do a back float should proceed teaching a child to do a back glide. 

This list will not necessarily be “tidy” because many skills can be taught successfully simultaneously.  An easy way to organize this list is to create several horizontal lines.  Put all the skills that can be taught at the same time. On the next line down, put all the skills which are best taught when the first lines skills are functional.

On the third line, write down all the skills that should be taught after a functional knowledge of the first and second lines is complete and continue this process until all the skills in each list is included. It is important to note that you should not expect a student to master a skill before moving onto the next.  Often teaching a student on multiple levels helps them better understand the more basic skills than just drilling them with that skill.

Making your Calendar

Finally, it is time to take your three lists and put them into a calendar of your swim lesson length.  This is a good time to evaluate how many classes you plan to spend on a specific skill.

Some skills will only require part of a single class, where other skills will be worked on throughout an entire session.  Each list-Vital skills, important skills and helpful skills-will most likely require more than one session to accomplish everything you hope, unless your session length is extremely long. 

A good way to test if you are offering sessions that are beneficial is to write down everything you plan to accomplish in one session and evaluate if you would be satisfied with what your child, or yourself, have learned. 

A parent would be dissatisfied if they attended a two week session and their child barely learned how to blow bubbles without even an introduction of any other skill.  On the other side, you may be upset if your child is taught every single stroke, but cannot perform any stroke adequately enough to make it across the pool. 

This process allows you to develop the number of levels and expectations you have for a student to move on to the next level.  If you are an independent swim instructor, you might not advertise these levels, but keep these flow charts as a way to measure your own progress and guide your lesson format.  The flow charts can also be used to help plan specific lesson plans, activities and other tools to make your lessons successful and stress free.

The best way to structure the levels in your swim lessons is to step away from assigning numbers to skill and instead look at the service you are trying to provide on a whole. Taking the time to understand the skills you are able to teach and how they work together does not only guide your lesson flow, but it allows you to make connections in your classes you may not otherwise make if you look at each skill independent of others.

Creating these lists also provides a check list for yourself to make sure you have not neglected an important skill.  The benefit to formalizing your lesson structure takes very little preparation and yields many benefits that make the investment well worth it.

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