Can You Forget How To Swim & What to Do if You Did? Are Kids Natural Swimmers!

Many of us learn to swim at some point in our youth. But, not all of us stick with it or there are breaks between swim sessions/seasons.

So, that leads one to ponder- ‘can you forget how to swim ?’ Once one has done enough swimming repetitions to learn the skill this knowledge is stored in the brain as what is known as procedural memory (the same thing that allows one to remember how to ride a bike even when they haven’t ridden one since they were a youngster).  

So, the short answer is No. You do not forget how to swim

But, to fully understand this phenomenon of recalling information sometimes years after learning/using it, let’s take a quick look at procedural memory and what exactly it is as well as how it works so that we better understand why we cannot forget how to swim.

First, it’s worthy to note that the human brain is complex and much of it is still a mystery to this day. But, we do know that memory is broadly divided into two categories- short-term or long-term. 

Short-term memory encompasses small bits of information that are remembered for only brief periods of time (think seconds or minutes; maybe days at a stretch). Long-term memory on the other hand retains information for extended periods (think weeks/months/years). 

Long-term memory is further broken down into explicit memory (also referred to as episodic and/or semantic memory) and implicit (also referred to as priming and/or procedural) memory. Swimming falls under the long-term memory umbrella and more specifically under the implicit (procedural) memory umbrella. 

Explicit (episodic/semantic) and implicit (procedural/priming) memory are very different from each other. Things that are consciously remembered are explicit (episodic/semantic) memory at work. The things that you subconsciously remember are the work of implicit (procedural/priming) memory. Implicit memory also deals with motor function; and, additionally, you cannot bring these types of memories into the mind at will. 

Other things that fall under implicit (procedural/priming) memory include driving a car, riding a bike (as previously referenced), going up and down flights of stairs, tying shoes, and using eating utensils. Swimming works much the same way as these motor functions/skills.  

So, after 100s and/or  1000s  of swim reps, motor patterns/neural pathways are ingrained into the nervous system; therefore, you won’t forget this motor function/skill- performance may have to be rebuilt, but the motor function/skill will still be there. (Source)

What to Do if You Forgot how To Swim

We have established that one cannot truly forget how to swim. One’s performance may decline over a break from swimming, but the motor functions/skills themselves will still be there.  

But, should you have an instance where you do “forget” how to swim/ “freeze” and seem to not be able to remember this motor function/skill- as can sometimes happen due to a traumatic event or fear/anxiety- here are the two things to keep in mind: 

  1. If this should occur while you are in the water, first and foremost-Do Not Panic. Just roll onto your back and float, or find something that you can float on/use as a floatation device. And, do your best to flag down a [boating/swimming] passerby/signal for help. 
  2.  If this occurs after a break in swimming sessions/seasons and before entering the water, you will want to take things slow and above all else- Be Safe. You will not start back where you left off.  You can either implore the aid of a swim coach/trainer/instructor or [re]teach yourself (discussed in more detail later in this article). 

The first point of what to do if this happens when in the water is pretty self-explanatory and does not require any further elaboration. 

For the second point, remember, you may remember the motor function/skill of swimming, but your performance level will not be the same.  Muscles shrink/wither (known as atrophy) if not used regularly. This occurs within as little as three weeks of inactivity.  Cardio fitness levels will also decline with inactivity and do so within just a few days of inactivity.  

Other things to keep in mind if you have “forgotten” how to swim/”Freeze” and can’t seem to remember how to swim and are returning to the water/swimming include building back strength in the main muscles/muscle groups utilized (core abs, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and upper back) while on land (this will help you in the water when you do get back in), start in shallow water and practice fundamentals while reacclimating to the water. Also, don’t be afraid to use floatation devices/swim aids as you are reacclimating to the water.  Lastly, you can always implore the aid of a swim coach/trainer/instructor to help you get the basics down. (Source A) (Souce B) (Source C)

Can Kids Forget how To Swim?

Kids can forget how to swim because they are in the beginning stages of learning it is completely normal for them to forget this motor function/skill between swim sessions/seasonsWhile it is completely normal for kids to forget how to swim, especially when there are breaks in their swimming, the inability to retain and/or recall the information necessary to perform this motor function/skill can sometimes be due to a lack of confidence or fear/anxiety- all of which can hinder one’s ability to learn and retain and/or recall information, especially at a young age. 

Whether they are unable to remember simply because their brains are still developing and they are in the beginning stages of learning or because of fear/anxiety/lack of confidence, it is completely normal. And, with patience and through building trust with the water, the motor functions/skills can be quickly retaught and further honed which will allow neural pathways to be created and stored in their implicit (procedural) memory.

Do Most People Not Know how To Swim? 

With statistics showing that over half of people worldwide do not know how to swim, it is safe to say that the majority of people do not know how to swim. Some will attribute the lack of swimming ability/skills to fear while others will attribute it to socioeconomics.

Or, perhaps, it’s a little of both – fear and socioeconomics. Either way, let’s take a look at some of the statistics out there. 

Studies show that the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury deaths is drowning. Per the World Health Organization (WHO), there are roughly 236,000 drowning deaths per year worldwide. These statistics further solidify that a majority of people do not know how to swim. 

The number of those that cannot swim unassisted is higher among women than men. Only 1 in 3 women CAN swim whereas  6 in 10 men CAN swim.  

Statistics and studies also show that the number of those that cannot swim unassisted is higher among lower and middle-income regions than high-income regions. In low-income regions, 72% of adults are unable to swim unassisted. In middle-income regions, 62% of adults are unable to swim unassisted. And, in high-income regions, only 24% of adults are unable to swim unassisted (yet 76% can swim- more than low and middle-income regions combined). (Source A) (Source B

On a side note, check out Why is Swimming and/or Hydrotherapy Often a Popular Choice for Physical Therapy?

Do Humans Know how To Swim Naturally? 

Some cultures believe it is instinctive; however, science begs to differ. While an infant’s movements/water movements may be natural they lack instinct/the cognitive ability to know to lift their head to the surface to breath (which is critical to swimming). 

Furthermore, humans do not have webbed feet, gills, scales, fins, or any other aquatic adaptations for being in the water/swimming.  Therefore, while some cultures may be inclined to believe swimming is an innate ability, science indicates that swimming is a learned skill and was a skill developed out of necessity in ancient times. 

Frank Pia, an author &  lifeguard, once said, “We are, compared to fish and other native creatures, so ill-equipped in both movement and survival in the sea and lakes that consume the vast majority of our planet”. (Source

Can I Teach Myself to Swim? 

For those that are self-taught (autodidact), with safety precautions and patience in place, Yes! you can teach yourself to swim

If you are going to teach yourself to swim, first things first-SAFETY. Here are a few swimming safety tips for beginners: 

  1. Swim in water that is monitored by a lifeguard (or at least have a friend/buddy go with you)
  2. Do not swim in water that is too cold 
  3. Don’t swim during inclement weather 
  4. Start in shallow water /a depth that you can handle (i.e. where you can stand up, feet flat on the ground, with your head above the water)  
  5. Start (and progress) slowly-  remember you’ve either never done this before or it has been a while and you will not be at the same performance level you were when you last swam.

Some other helpful tips/hints/tricks/pointers for learning to swim as an autodidact include: 

  1. While acclimating yourself to being in the water, start with getting comfortable floating and breathing in the water (both breath control and breath movement).
  2. Once you are comfortable floating and breathing in the water, you can break down the components (what your arms and legs are doing  + breathing pattern) of each stroke and practice them individually (i.e. just move your arms and breath or just move your legs and breath).
  3. As you start feeling good about the components individually, you can begin putting them all together for each stroke (and, of course, practicing each stroke). 
  4. Another trick (that can be done before getting in the water) is to practice these same components (from tips #1-3) on land and then take to the water.
  5. The easiest strokes to learn are the Front Crawl (a.k.a “doggy paddle” and an elementary version of Freestyle), Breast Stroke, and “Elementary” Back Stroke as they allow you to keep your head above/out of the water and are less tiring (both factors that help one to feel more at ease in the water).
  6. One’s Core is in charge of coordinating movements. Thus, a strong core provides the foundation needed to swim. 
  7. Swim aids such as noodles, kickboards, or fins/flippers, can help you as well; so, don’t be afraid to use them. 
  8. Set realistic goals. 

(Source A)(Source B)(Source C)(Source D)(Source E

Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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