How to make swim checks less stressful


Not all Scouts immediately take to the water. But when they show up for summer camp, they all have to participate in the BSA’s swim check. Many take it in stride. Others do not.

Michelle Matowski remembers an especially difficult experience for one Scout who had a single goal for the summer: earn an aquatics merit badge. But the Scout’s plans were dashed when he didn’t receive a “swimmer” tag at the swim check on the first day of camp.

“When he took off his goggles,” recalls Matowski, a committee member who was attending Scout camp with Troop 1104 of Dearborn, Mich., “I could see that he was sobbing. I felt so bad for this Scout. His world just came crashing down. It was like someone took away his birthday party.”

The first day of camp can be an overwhelming experience for Scouts for many reasons: being away from home, uncertainty about what they will experience or thoughts of how they will measure up to their buddies. Not passing the swim check can be difficult, causing a disappointing or even embarrassing start to Scout camp week.

You don’t have to let that happen. Unit leaders can help their boys and girls both before and during camp to have a positive experience by preparing them ahead of time — in part by recognizing that swim checks can produce anxiety, especially for those who fear swimming in a lake or river where they can’t see the bottom.

Still, the swim check is a vital demonstration of a Scout’s ability to take care of himself in the water. And it’s important to remember that a member of the camp’s aquatic staff will work one-on-one with any Scout and recheck the boy or girl during the week if he wants to advance from nonswimmer to beginner to swimmer.

How can you reduce your Scouts’ anxiety about the swim-check process? Take these steps before the swim check.

DO WARM UP DRILLS. “A Scout leader should know who his swimmers and nonswimmers are long before getting to camp,” says Jeff Stern, committee member and past Scoutmaster of Troop 377 in the Suffolk County (New York) Council. Identify Scouts who might have anxiety around the water or with the swim-check process. Stage a troop swim night at a pool several months before summer camp and make the BSA swim check part of it.

ASK THE PARENTS. Early in the year, talk to the parents to identify Scouts who cannot swim or who have a fear of water so they’re not placed in a stressful situation by accident.

“Before you can address the problem, you have to identify who is fearful,” says Jeff Krieger, director of Strategies for Overcoming Aquatic Phobias (SOAP), a program that helps children and adults overcome their fear of swimming. “It’s something parents may not offer without being asked.”

Also, talk to the boys and girls about their comfort level around the water, while discussing requirements for Second Class and First Class advancement.

PREPARE FOR THE CHECK. Familiarize your Scouts with the process. Explain the purpose of the swim check and how it will be conducted, that each Scout’s ability will be different and that the better swimmers are expected to encourage and support those with lesser abilities.

LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE. Swimming-instruction experts say the worst thing you can do is force someone into the water who’s afraid. Scouts aren’t likely to admit their fear, but you can pick up clues by reading their body language.

“Watch their muscles when you describe the test to them on the dock. Do they tense up?” says David Smith, a Scout-camp aquatics director in the Coronado Area (Kansas) Council. “You can see the lack of confidence in their eyes as they look at the water; it’s fairly easy to spot the hesitance and stop them from jumping into water over their head.” Some signs: nail biting, fidgeting, shivering and holding themselves, wide eyes, and fear while watching others swim.

RECRUIT A ‘GRAYBEARD.’ When you identify a Scout who’s having difficulty learning to swim because of fear, it’s important to go slowly with instruction and not push them too quickly so your efforts won’t backfire.

“You want to put these kids with the best instructors, the older ones who’ve taught for years, who really love kids, know how to have fun and have a teacher mentality,” says Sue Nelson, an aquatics program specialist with USA Swimming and a longtime swim coach.

A good instructor, she says, will show Scouts that they can touch the bottom; it’s not over their heads. Then they advance to putting their faces into the water and blowing bubbles. “You take small steps; it’s all about trust, creating trust with the water.”

Krieger agrees that veteran coaches, who he calls “graybeards,” should handle swim instruction. “Find seasoned instructors who are parents themselves and know how to deal with the emotions and the brain chemistry involved in the kind of fear that makes a child dig his fingernails into your neck,” he says.

SWIM IN WINTER. Make aquatics part of your troop’s program all year, not just in the summer, suggests Health and Safety Support Committee chairman Hurst. “This way youths are keeping fit and developing swimming skills consistently throughout the year.” This also gives you the opportunity to spot anyone in your unit who seems reluctant around the water or who has lesser skills.

Build aquatics into your advancement calendar by having the entire troop work on Swimming merit badge at a local pool in a relaxed setting. (Some councils even arrange pre-camp swim checks.) You’ll find excellent resource material for unit leaders in Aquatics Supervision: A Leader’s Guide to Youth Swimming and Boating Activities (Supply No. 34346).

Although water safety is the top priority, group fun comes in a close second. So plan for the beginners and nonswimmers. Make sure they participate in water activities with the troop and take swim instruction. Do your best to keep them engaged so they won’t dwell on their performance in any single swim check but will tackle many new challenges and gain confidence and competence from trying.


1. Test your troop in a pool. Anxiety often stems from swim checks in lakes or rivers where Scouts can’t see the bottom and worry about being touched by fish, snakes and other water creatures. Eliminate this by conducting it in a YMCA or community swimming pool before coming to camp. Note that while swim checks may take place prior to camp, the aquatics director is expected to recheck any Scout or leader whose skills appear to be inconsistent with his classification.

2. Have Scouts with water anxiety take the swim check in smaller groups of two or three, if possible, suggests clinical psychologist William Pollack, Ph.D., “to minimize the eyes watching, the fingers pointing, the possibility of embarrassment.”

3. Arrive early at camp to allow your Scouts to blow off some steam after the drive and become comfortable with the new environment. Some Scoutmasters have been known to make their Scouts wear swim trunks under their uniforms on the drive to camp to save time in changing for the swim test. Not only is that uncomfortable, it keeps Scouts’ minds focused on something they might be anxious about. And the stress of rushing only creates more anxiety.

4. Walk the Scouts to the waterfront or pool before the swim check to familiarize them with the environment and visualize what they’ll be doing, just as golf pros walk the course before a tournament.

5. Give Scouts a pep talk before the swim check. Explain the requirements and why it’s so important that they can demonstrate their ability to float and do a resting stroke. “Be upbeat and encouraging. Tell them, ‘Hey, not everyone passes, and that’s O.K. We’re here all week to work with you, and our goal is to help everyone become a better swimmer,’” says Dave Smith, an assistant Scoutmaster and camp aquatics director.

6. Emphasize the goal of getting better, suggests child psychologist Chris Thurber. “Self-esteem is grounded in competence, especially for males,” says Thurber. “If the words ‘fail’ and ‘nonswimmer’ become part of a Scout’s inner monologue, you might be looking at adjustment problems and enthusiasm barriers. Every Scout can do something in the water, and he or she will feel good as they progress.”


All youth and adult participants are classified as swimmers, beginners, or nonswimmers based on swimming ability confirmed by the BSA swim checks. Each group is assigned a specific swimming area with depths consistent with those abilities. The classification tests should be renewed annually, preferably at the beginning of the season.

SWIMMER: Jump feet first into water over the head in depth. Level off and swim 75 yards in a strong manner using one or more of the following strokes: sidestroke, breaststroke, trudgen, or crawl; then swim 25 yards using an easy resting backstroke. The 100 yards must be completed in one swim without stops and must include at least one sharp turn. After completing the swim, rest by floating.

BEGINNER: Jump feet first into water over the head in depth, level off, and swim 25 feet on the surface. Stop, turn sharply, resume swimming, and return to the starting place.

NONSWIMMER: is anyone who has not passed the beginner or swimmer tests.


  1. I am an old geezer and I don’t have the ability to breath fast enough to swim 75 yards in a strong manner w/o taking a break (roll over on my back to catch my breath) so guess I can no longer participate in Scouting water activities? I thought the purpose of a swim test is to show you could rescue yourself. I don’t see why swimming for 75 yards in a strong manner makes you anymore able to save yourself than if you have to stop and float for awhile.

    • David: you can swim the first 75 yards using breaststroke, sidestroke, or even trudgen – all of which allow you to keep your face out of the water and breathe freely.

      There certainly is a difference between being able to swim 75 yards and to tread water indefinitely, though.

    • The purpose of the test is two-fold, to classify ability; deep water-chest high or shallow. The second is to check confidence. Can the scout swim without anxiety and for a lengthy period of time when not touching the bottom. These two items; recorded on a buddy tag help lifeguards identify scouts that might need extra attention. This can save lives. As an old geezer too and also a lifeguard for 34 years, I have confidence in the current system. Also, our scouts pool swim for 10 weeks every winter; free community lessons and Troop pool games to build their skills and confidence. We test on week 10 and had 32/32 scouts 6/6 leaders pass all levels of the tests; works for us.

  2. I understand the need for a Swim Check but I’m an avid Ocean Swimmer, absolutely love the water, spent time in the Navy and met Navy Swimming Qual’s and then entered the water in Wyoming Lakes for BSA Swim Check requirements and failed them due to the cold. Why can’t warmer water Swim Checks meet the requirements?

    • Mike, I have been swimming most my life has you, I spent time in the service as well, even a stitch in Alaska’s Winter Survival School. Warm water would be great should that the be case if the water the scout might have a mishap in. Example, scout passes a swim test in a pool (allowable), but as in your case you failed as have I at scout camps do to cold water on the first day, and not being prepared for it. Should a scout who has passed the swim test in a pool, happen to be on an outing which involves say a rafting trip and happens to fall into the water which in most rivers the water is from snow melt, now what does he do until the rafting safety person gets to him and his body now feels the cold water. A scout should be able to maintain himself until help arrives or gets himself to shore. Unfortunately row, sailing, canoeing or kayaking does not take place alot of time in warm water. I take my troop out for Polar Bear Swims, or wading for those that are not swimmers so they can get a feel of cold water. Also Chip Hart explained it as well above. By the way I failed in water temp at 32 degrees

    • you get tested in the water you’ll be swimming in. If you can’t swim in cold water, that’s a good thing to find out.

  3. Sometimes the aquatics staff needs to be a little more aware. Most of the camps my troops, that lived near sea level, attended were over 5,000 elevation. Doing the swim check within an hour of arrival does not allow acclimatization. I’ve seen outstanding swimmers “fail” under such circumstances.
    For others, just the excitement was enough to make them a little fearful.

  4. As a BSA Lifeguard I conduct swim checks for my troop each year and I will be an aquatics instructor at my my councils summer camp this year. I have had plenty of people freeze up and sink like rocks in swim test and have learned to anticipate which scouts will have trouble. A piece of advice to leaders attempting to teach scouts to pass a swim test, a lot of the times the biggest issue is jumping in, scouts are afraid of submerging and not coming up. A good way to eliminate this fear is to have them jump several times on to a guard tube this will create a muscle memory and will help in the learning process.

  5. Agree with all of these points. However, I have observed that boys (and adults) sometimes have trouble swimming to their normal level when they arrive from sea level and have only an hour or so go acclimate in a camp that’s a mile or more in altitude. Perhaps the swim check as part of the check-in procedures should be delayed, maybe even until the following morning, even if it means adjusting a packed camp week schedule.

  6. So how do you get a scout to get in the water without throwing him in? I have a scout that has done the swimming lessons at the last 3 summer camps, but spent most of the time NOT in the water. He always has an excuse for why he won’t get in and the camp staff (rightly so) won’t force him in. He has access to a swimming pool to practice in, but goes out of his way to find other things to do.

  7. While you’re enjoying the water, keep alert and check the local weather conditions. Make sure you swim sober and that you never swim alone. And even if you’re confident in your swimming skills, make sure you have enough energy to swim back to shore.

  8. Can a scout complete the BSA swimmer test on his own (individually) at a local YMCA with a certified life-guard, with no unit leader present? Is there an authoritative source which addresses such an arrangement?

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