Pursuing Uncomfortable with Melissa Ebken

Pursuing Safe Swimming for Kids with Selena Willows

July 19, 2023 Melissa Ebken Season 8 Episode 5
Pursuing Safe Swimming for Kids with Selena Willows
Pursuing Uncomfortable with Melissa Ebken
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Pursuing Uncomfortable with Melissa Ebken
Pursuing Safe Swimming for Kids with Selena Willows
Jul 19, 2023 Season 8 Episode 5
Melissa Ebken

With over 28 years of experience coaching children in high fear sports in and out of the water, Selena combines her coaching experience with her water safety background of coaching cold water survival for the military and training police in water safety to teach parents how to help their children overcome fear in the water and teach them to swim and keep themselves safer in just ten practices of under ten minutes as early as two and a half years of age.

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Show Notes Transcript

With over 28 years of experience coaching children in high fear sports in and out of the water, Selena combines her coaching experience with her water safety background of coaching cold water survival for the military and training police in water safety to teach parents how to help their children overcome fear in the water and teach them to swim and keep themselves safer in just ten practices of under ten minutes as early as two and a half years of age.

Follow Selena

Support the Show.

More From Melissa and Pursuing Uncomfortable:
fiLLLed Life Newsletter
Leave a review
Pursuing Uncomfortable Book

🎶 Podcast Intro: Welcome to the pursuing uncomfortable podcast, where we give you the encouragement you need to lean into the uncomfortable stuff life puts in front of you, so you can love your life. If you are ready to overcome all the yuck that keeps you up at night, you're in the right place. I am your host, Melissa Ebken let's get going. 🎶

🎶 Episode Intro:  Selena Willows has been teaching high fear sports to children for 28 years, including swimming and competitive gymnastics. When her eldest child developed a fear of water after a water accident, Selena had to find a way to help him overcome his fear and learn how to swim. She developed a teaching method that is far superior and more instinctive than what is traditionally taught. Her experience and passion for helping children overcome their fears and learn new skills has led her to become an expert in her field and to pursue her mission of reducing drowning rates. Let's welcome her to the podcast. 🎶

Melissa Ebken  0:01  
Selena, welcome to the Pursuing Uncomfortable Podcast. It's so awesome to have you with us today. 

Thank you. I'm so glad to be here, Melissa. 

Melissa Ebken  0:12  
So where are you? And how are you? 

Selena Willows  0:15  
I am well. Thank you. I am currently in Canada's capital in Ottawa. Yeah. 

Melissa Ebken  0:23  
Nice. Is it hot up there? It's the middle of July. Well, it's not the middle of July. I was working on my calendar earlier. It's late June as we're recording and we're at a hot spell down here. 

Selena Willows  0:35  
Yeah, so it seems to come and go. We'll have a few hot days and then it'll get chilly a little bit for a few days. But it's it's summer. It's summer in Canada. Yeah. With us. 

Melissa Ebken  0:46  
Exactly. Well, tell us a little bit about what you do because it's so fascinating. 

Selena Willows  0:53  
Thanks. So I help parents help their children overcome fear of the water and learn to swim. 

Melissa Ebken  1:02  
Yeah, yeah. That's an essential skill. I know when my son was little, I wanted him to be able to manage himself in the water. 

Selena Willows  1:12  
Yeah, it's necessary. It's a life saving skill, really, and I, for us personally, in our home, it's a non negotiable, everybody must learn to swim. Really well. 

Melissa Ebken  1:22  
Were you active and watersports as this, how this came about for you? 

Selena Willows  1:26  
Um, so we are more or less active in water sports. Yes. This came about though, because I have been teaching swimming and high fear sports children in high fear sports specifically, for 28 years now. And high fear sports. High fear sports. Yes. So swimming falls under that category for a lot of children. And I also used to coach competitive gymnastics. Gymnastics is another one where, you know, if you slip off the bar off the beam, there's a little bit of fear that comes in and even trying new tricks, right can be can be fearful, a fearful cross process for a child. So yes, I've been working in high fear sports for 20 years now. And when my little ones because I have two children of my own, when my eldest was 18 months, he, he had a water accident. And he developed a tremendous fear of water, night terrors, and all that wouldn't go near; hair washing became a nightmare. He was traumatized. And so I had to find a way to get him swimming, because well, because like I said, it's in our home, not negotiable. We do do a lot of camping and paddleboarding, and boating and fishing and stuff like that. And so though the kids are not necessarily in water sports all the time, we do do a lot of activities around water. And so it was absolutely necessary. 

Melissa Ebken  2:59  
So how did you help your son overcome the traumatic experience he had? 

Selena Willows  3:03  
Yeah, so it was a lot of research at first, frankly, because I knew what I knew from teaching through what I call now traditional lessons, right. And those traditional lessons with myself and with independent instructors, were not working for my son. And so from there, I deep dove into fear in children into how to help children overcome fear in general, how these fears develop how they manifest in a body, all of this. So I did a really huge deep dive into the emotional side of it. And then I did a bit of a deep dive into the physical side of it. And what I realized pretty quickly, was that we teach swimming in a very particular way compared to every other sport out there. Well, I think we're doing it wrong. I certainly think so now, eight years later, and you know, over 2,000 children taught, I now know that we are teaching swimming wrong. And so 

Melissa Ebken  4:10  
now I'm really intrigued. I barely remembers swimming myself. I have some memory of my son's swim lessons. So what's the wrong way that we've all been doing? 

Selena Willows  4:23  
Yeah. So I mean, I think that this is, you know, I say wrong. And that's a really heavy statement. Like that's a very bold statement for me to make. But really, truly what it is, is that if you can go back and remember how your child learned to walk, run, climb, ride a bike, stand on a snowboard, whatever sport they do, and did it there was very little prescriptive movement involved, right? So for example, if you were to teach your child to walk well, you would have to explain to the child hold to lift their foot, hold their balance on one side, shift their weight over, move their foot forward, shift their weight back over do it again, right. And that's just why you can't explain that to a child, they won't understand, right, but they learn, just by trying it, they see us do it, and then they want to try it now, with swimming there is that whole factor of they're in the water, right. So there's a bit of danger there. So we have to kind of modify. But swimming has been taught in prescriptive movements for almost 100 years now. So these, these programs were developed in the 30s. And a lot, a lot has maintained and remained the same over the years. They've changed, you know, the order of the colors, and they spread stuff out and whatever. But the process by with the metho methodology by which they're teaching is very prescriptive movement. So I equate this to teaching a child the dance choreography. So if you get in the water and try to do say brushstroke, or front crawl, you need to remember to kick to move your arms to turn your head to the side to breathe, or if you're doing breaststroke, the count, right, the gliding the pulling the kicking, the lifting, all of it has to be remembered, until you have it in a sequence where you can just do it. But to get there, that's a lot for a child to remember. And so, now that you say that, that's right. Of course, children are not learning to swim until they're 5, 6, 7 years old, independently, right? Because they have all these pieces that they have to put together. Now you add that to the fact that a child doesn't have its called proprioception where their limbs are in space, right. Children don't have proprioception the way adults do. They don't really know what their limbs are doing. A lot of the time. 

Melissa Ebken  6:41  
A lot of time, I would say my teenager is still, well, I think he's willfully unaware of what his limbs are woefully blissfully, right? 

Selena Willows  6:54  
Yeah, yeah. So if we can actually strip away the choreography, then the child can learn to swim the way the child learn to ride a bike. You didn't give explicit instructions. Press down on the pedal with X amount of force and whatever. No, it's a feeling. Learning to ride a bike learning to ride a snowboard, a skateboard, any of those things. It's a feeling. And so if we can swiftly strip away the choreography of the swimming and turn it into a feeling, kids learn so fast. So fast. 

Melissa Ebken  7:29  
Yeah, that makes so much sense. And you know, I've been racking my brain trying to remember my first swim lesson. And I was really disappointed in that first lesson, because it was, alright, here's the water it's a little bit deeper than you are. Don't go under. But right now I want you to only use your arms, keep yourself afloat. And we did that for a few minutes. And then she said, Okay, now I want you to do the same thing, but only use your legs. Okay. And that was my first swim lesson and I thought, well, what a rip off. But I see that maybe that really suited me well because I trusted that my body would keep me above the water. 

Selena Willows  8:11  
Would know what to do. Now. Can I ask how old you were when you took that lesson? 

Melissa Ebken  8:16  
I'm guessing probably seven or so. 

Selena Willows  8:22  
Yeah. So the other part is that we tend to, in traditional lessons, try to teach children to swim with their head up. A lot of children don't want to put their face in. And so we try to teach them to swim with their head up and out of the water. Unfortunately, this position is not available to children. It's just not. They don't have the upper back musculature to keep their head up and to keep in this horizontal swim position. So as soon as they lift their head, their bum goes down. And then you become vertical and this is actually called the drowning position. It's actually called that. We don't 

Melissa Ebken  9:00  
Yeah, because you have less. Yeah, that makes sense. Right. Down, you're gonna sink like a torpedo. 

Selena Willows  9:07  
Exactly. So when children try to swim with their head up, they can't get very far, or for very long or very fast, because their bodies are tilted right at this angle. And so they're pressing against the water to try to move, which doesn't work very well, right? Have you ever tried to jog in the water doesn't work very well. Right? So and then they're paddling, paddling, paddling to try and keep their head up out of the water. So they get air, and they're exhausting themselves. And they're actually putting themselves in more danger, than if they were to just put their face in. 

Melissa Ebken  9:39  
Yeah, I see that now. 

Selena Willows  9:40  
Yeah. So there's a whole layer to this, though. So safer with your face in the water for a couple of reasons. The first is that they can actually move they can actually get to where they're going to where the safety point is where the air is available to them consistently by holding on to the side or reaching the stairs or whatever. But the other problem is that as mammals, we have this amazing kind of ability to have all these the all these processes in our body, right. And so one of these processes is called the dive reflex. And the dive reflex allows us or tells our brain and tells our body not to take a breath. 

Melissa Ebken  10:15  
Okay. So real quick, you're saying dive? D i, v, e? 

Selena Willows  10:20  
Yeah. Okay, the dive reflex. And all mammals have this. And what it is, is that when water hits these little tiny nerves in our nostrils, the dive reflex is activated, and our body knows we are underwater, we are not to breathe. Now, just like any other complex system, it can be overwritten, right, this is how we end up at a place where possibly we're drowning. However, it's also how free divers standard water for so long and can hold their breath for so long. Because as soon as the dive reflex is activated, not only do we know not to breathe, but oxygen is diverted to essential organs only. And so we can actually maintain a breath for a very, very, very long time under water, when a child swims with their head up like this, and the water is lapping up and down and up and down. And they're breathing through their mouth, dive reflex is not activated. And so a lot of times children end up inhaling water. And this is where they end up on the side coughing, coughing, coughing, no, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine. And then they go back in and play. And they do it over and over and over again. And this is where we end up with problems. 

Melissa Ebken  11:23  
You know, I had some friends of friends who lived in Hawaii, they had a baby, and they just kind of threw the baby in the water. There was a little more to it than that. They were present with it. But the baby just knew what to do. 

Selena Willows  11:38  
Yes, yeah. So that's actually called the infant swim rescue. And it is, it's a methodology for infants. It it's a survival kind of swim, swim course. Now the thing with, the thing with that is that asking a child to float on their back is extremely onerous, it's really hard to get a child to swim to float on their back and to just relax in the water, right? We're asking children to submit to the water when they have no capability in it. Now, ISR is done at very, very, very young ages. And there, it can take 40 to 50 lessons to get a child to actually do this mechanism. And what I've seen in my practice is that if very young children don't practice, often, they lose it. The younger the child is, the more often you need to practice. My opinion on the whole thing is kind of two things. One is that there's no ability to communicate with a child as to what is happening to them. And so there have been cases in which this causes trauma for a child, and very real problems later on in the water for the child. But the other part of it too, is that a child should not be submitting to the water. If they're not capable in the water. We're giving them a false sense of security. And if they can't walk anyway, then why do they need to notice swim? 

Melissa Ebken  13:06  
Okay, and to clarify, this is for floating on your back in the water, not for swimming. 

Selena Willows  13:11  
Right? So they'll roll over? It's a survival mechanism, right? So they teach them to roll over onto the back if they ever fall in. But why is the six month olds falling in the water? Right. That's my opinion. That's my opinion. And there are ISR instructors all over the place that will absolutely disagree with me. And that's fine. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. But as far as I'm concerned, until a child is able to walk to the pool, open the gate, whatever. There's not necessarily a need for this. And it doesn't stick another part in. So no backstroke yet? No, right. They're not going to be doing that yet. Anyway. Right. So yeah. Yeah, so ISR is very impressive. Very, very impressive. And I think that, you know, there are absolutely circumstances where it has definitely saved lives. Absolutely. I just don't know that the financial implication, the time implication, and the rest of it when you have a child who is not mobile anyway is necessarily worth it. And I think it depends where you live to. Right? Absolutely. In Canada, we don't have as our instructors. They are few and far between because our winters are so long that no child is going to remember anyway, from one season to the next. Whereas states like Florida, you know, Hawaii, stuff like that, where the water is there all the time, and people are swimming all the time. I can see how it would be possibly worthwhile, you know, in a different in a different setting. Sure. Yeah. 

Melissa Ebken  14:44  
So what is your mission? 

Selena Willows  14:46  
Oh, my mission. So my mission is to change drowning rates. I want those statistics to change. And I think it's possible I think that we've been stuck in these same numbers roughly right. I mean, we report every year on these, these numbers of numbers of children who have fallen in the water. And that that one to four age group is, is, at most risk of drowning. That's where we see the most problems. I would actually say that it's more two to five, but the way statistics are broken down, we don't have those numbers, right. It's one to four is the numbers we get. But I would like to see that number change. And, and my mission is to get the information into parents hands, because parents are the first line of defense against this. They're the ones that are there all the time. You know, we don't have lifeguards sitting in our backyard pools. We don't have lifeguards when we go to barbecues. We don't you know, we don't hire a lifeguard when we're having a family swim. And parents are the ones who are there. And if they have the right information and the right knowledge, know how and confidence in their abilities, then then we can potentially, you know, eradicate this problem completely. I think. 

Melissa Ebken  16:02  
Yeah, yeah. And I have some adult friends who said that they just refuse to teach their children how to swim because they don't want them in the water. They just don't want to take a chance. And then I also have adult friends that say, I cannot go boating, I cannot do these things because I never learned how to swim and I wish I wouldn't have. So I mean, I get parents have to do what their gut tells them is the best in raising their child absolutely should always listen to your guts in those things. But how would you speak to an adult who's never been taught how to swim? How would you start to teach them? 

Selena Willows  16:42  
Yeah, so you know, I, I taught adults for a long time. It's not my area of expertise, I'm going to be honest, adults come with a lot more baggage than I have patience for a lot of the time to be honest, you know, if I'm being 100% with you. That being said, it's a mental game, more than it is a physical game. And understanding that is going to get you a long way. Because it's not just about can I float? Can I move in the water? It's can I stay calm? Because there's breath involved? Yes. And so if you can't stay calm in the water, there's no service to you learning to swim. 

Melissa Ebken  17:23  
Right. Because it won't make a difference anyway. 

Selena Willows  17:25  
Not gonna make a difference. What we see is that people who, children who don't learn to swim early in life, so when I say early in life, I am typically talking before their developmental milestone around age five or six, right, and there's developmental milestone that happens in children's brains around five or six. And people who do not learn how to swim before that developmental milestone, who are afraid of the water or have anxiety around the water, worry that kind of thing. That that fear, worry, anxiety becomes more ingrained during that developmental milestone. And then what we see is that even learning to swim later on, if they haven't dealt with the feelings about it, the emotion behind it, it can be much harder to overcome later on in life. And these people end up some very competent in the water. But because those feelings are still a little bit there, because they stuck, right? They can, they can panic more easily. And as bipeds, we are not very good at getting ourselves over the water once we panicked, like crazy this morning. 

Melissa Ebken  18:30  
Yeah, the enemy will do just about anything when it comes to survival, right? 

Selena Willows  18:35  
Yeah. And in the water our body doesn't even do anything useful in the water. When we're when we're batching. You know, 

Melissa Ebken  18:41  
We're in the down position, we're probably making ourselves straight up and down and flailing about, 

Selena Willows  18:46  
Yeah, we're bobbing up and down. It looks like we're climbing a ladder, you know, and, and it's, we're not able to, to see or perceive help coming our way. And so, yeah, we're not very good at getting ourselves out of it, unfortunately. 

Melissa Ebken  19:05  
I do have a question about gymnastics if you're willing to or foray in that. When I was a kid, I was terrified of doing a handstand. I never had an accident. I never fell. I never had any kind of trauma that would explain it. But even still to this day, you know, I did cartwheels and all that. Yeah, I tried a cartwheel not too long ago after not doing one for years. And I do not recommend that. But, I was terrified of doing handstands. 

Selena Willows  19:41  
Yeah, so for some people, it's the idea of falling over the other way. Right? If you don't have if you're not up against a wall. For some and this is a really interesting thing is for some, if you were not put upside down as a child, and that's a feeling that your body may just not want. We saw years and years, I coached gymnastics for years and years and years. And what we often saw were children who weren't able to do somersaults, that kind of thing, when speaking with their parents, never was this child upside down, not ever, right. And I actually encourage parents to hold their kids up side down, hold them up side down, it's fun for them. And it gives them a sense of, you know, all the ways in which we can be in this world like a little bit more and, and what it feels like to be upside down. Because if we don't have that feeling, a lot of people have never been upside down and never will. 

Melissa Ebken  20:40  
Interesting. Yeah, we had a swing set, and I hung by my feet all the time on this, and I had older brothers, I was held by my ankles all the time. It's just always been interesting to me. Yeah, it's, yeah. But what other high fear sports do you have experience in? 

Selena Willows  21:01  
So those are the two main ones. I actually, in my, in my swimming career, in my, in my coaching career, I actually worked with the Canadian military for some time, and we did cold water survival training. And so a lot of the not a lot, sometimes we would have someone, an adult who would come in for cold water survival training, who couldn't swim. And so then it's a whole other layer, right, that we have to put on top of that. And, you know, children and adults are different in their fear and the way it manifests and the way they communicate it in the way that they overcome it. So, it's always been interesting to me to see, you know, how the children do versus how the adults do and yeah, that coldwater survival was an interesting decade of my life as coaching that. Yeah, 

Melissa Ebken  21:49  
Yeah, I bet. I have a little bit of that. I was in the National Guard for 10 years and on basic army basic training, or if you did an afternoon of yeah, so it wasn't anything really focused or intense, just a general exposure to it. But I remember the first question was who has never learned how to swim? And they were taken off and trained differently. 

Selena Willows  22:14  
Yes. Yeah. They are definitely needed in need of different training. And then, and then into the cold water? Yeah, yeah, this course was. So when I got there, they did actually didn't have a curriculum at all. They just did testing, they did cold water testing. And so I came in, and I built a curriculum. And then I administered it for 10 years, and we had, it was several weeks of training. So they'd come in once or twice a week for an hour for training. And then at the end of it, we had our, our test day. Yeah. 

Melissa Ebken  22:48  
Interesting. So to parents that have young children or considering having children soon. What advice would you like them to have? What do want them to know? 

Selena Willows  22:59  
Other than hold your children upside down. Yeah, so don't be afraid of of putting water in a child's face. That's a big one, right, your child can't learn how to hold their breath and how to manage all of that, if they haven't experienced it, and, you know, when you consider that our children are in water for nine months before they come out, it's a perfect time right from the start, right from the start and bathtime wearing a face cloth over their face. Or you know, when you're rinsing hair, dump a cup of water, and you know, make sure some goes over the face. And then once you feel comfortable, get them underwater, get them submerged. And I can even give you a little two second if you're okay with it a little how to. Okay, so any child under the age of 12 months, but even more than that, I've seen this up to 24 months even in children when you blow in their face, a strong sharp blow, so they actually shut down their airway. Beautiful thing. So they'll shut down their airway, and you're gonna see it, they're gonna like that. I have no idea what that is look like that's gonna be interesting to watch. So what you do is, say 1, 2, 3 go. So you'll notice that I'm squeezing. So this gives the child a tactile cue. I'm saying it, so I'm giving a verbal cue. And then when I say go and with a young child, you're gonna blow put them under and back up. And that's it. Once you get up, you're going to open your mouth and take a breath in. Now the reason you want to this is you want them to mimic? Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Melissa Ebken  24:45  
I did notice on your website, you have a downloadable guide, The Ultimate Swim Guide for Parents, Five Things to Know for Success. And how I'm sure that's a great resource that people should download. And don't worry, folks, the links are in the show notes to the website. And that'll pop up there on the website so you can get a hold of that. Yes. And yeah, this has really been interesting. I've learned a lot today. Selena, thank you for joining us. 

Selena Willows  25:16  
Thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much for having me. 

Melissa Ebken  25:20  
Any last thoughts you'd like to leave with us today? 

Selena Willows  25:23  
Sure, absolutely. I'd love to talk about the program that I have, that enables parents to teach their own children to swim, you know, we talked about how getting this information to the parents hands is of the utmost importance. And, you know, I have this this incredible program that like I said, we've been doing it for eight years now. And we have 100% success rate in children two and a half and up. So in just 10 lessons, 10 practices of under 10 minutes, your two and a half year old is guaranteed to be swimming with this program. Wow! Yes, right, because we've stripped away the choreography. And we've added in all the emotional support both for the parents and for the children. And so basically, the, the program is called Swim To Me. And in it, I teach the parents how to teach their child to swim and self rescue. And we give you all the water safety stuff. And we give you all the communication stuff, right for the children who are for the parents who are thinking my child's not gonna listen to me. I give you all of that, it's all in there. And we support you. It's fully supported. So you'll have access to me throughout the program. And what I'm doing because I really, really, really feel like this is really important for all families is twofold. So one is Melissa, I'm gonna leave you with a coupon code, so that listeners can get 15% off the program. And the other thing is, I want everybody to know, this is a lifetime access program. So if you have more than one child, and one of them is of age now, you can hop in now. And it's no extra cost down the line. You still have the support, you have everything through all of the children you need to teach. So we packaged it this way, because I truly believe that it is of the absolute importance that all children learn to swim and children are expensive as it is and when we start adding more to the family it gets more and more expensive. And so I wanted to make sure that there was something for families who had multiple children and could jump into a program that will allow them to each other children at one price. 

Melissa Ebken  27:25  
Selena, that's amazing. And thank you for that coupon code. 

Selena Willows  27:30  
You're very welcome. 

Melissa Ebken  27:32  
All right. It's been a pleasure. It's been enlightening and it's been fun. So thank you so much. And I look forward to diving deeply. See what I did there? Into what you have to offer. 

Selena Willows  27:46  
Thank you so much, Melissa. It was great chatting with you.

🎶 Episode Outro: Thank you so much for tuning into today's episode. If this encouraged you, please consider subscribing to our show and leaving a rating and review so we can encourage even more people just like yourself. We drop a new episode every Wednesday so I hope you continue to drop in and be encouraged to lean into and overcome all the uncomfortable stuff life brings your way. 🎶