Jun 042009

The Telegraph in England is reporting on a school in Wales that has banned kids from using goggles during their swimming lessons on the grounds that they are unsafe.

As a swimming teacher — in fact, one who doesn’t actually like her students to use goggles — I feel competent, and confident, in saying this school is insane.

It’s risk assessment gone awry. Indeed, there are legitimate reasons to discourage, or even ban, goggles from swim classes, but those were not the reasons cited here. (Rather, headmistress Lynne Williams was quoted saying, “It has been recognized by the British Association of Advisors and Lecturers in Physical Education that goggles can pose a real risk to children, and this has been accepted by the governors.”)

Personally I don’t like students to use goggles for two main reasons:

(1) They cause a lot of time to be wasted, putting them on, taking them off, adjusting them, etc. We’d get a lot more actual swimming practice in if students could right away put their faces in the water without the song and dance; and

(2) I don’t want them to become a crutch for students. For swimming to be the safety skill it needs to be, students need to know how to swim should they unexpectedly find themselves in water. As I tell the kids, “What if you fell out of a boat?” In case of emergency you should feel prepared to swim even if you don’t have all usual the equipment available; that’s what an emergency is. Barring a medical condition, there’s no physical reason human beings can’t open their eyes underwater, even in chlorinated water, and it’s my job as a swimming teacher to make sure my students are comfortable doing so.

Obviously for older kids doing a lot of lap swimming I would have no problem with them using goggles. A half-hour of pool swimming is enough to irritate anyone’s eyes. But for the little kids, they just aren’t submerged enough in a normal lesson for it to be an issue.

In any case, my “ban” (which isn’t so much a ban as general discouragement) is not because I feel goggles are unsafe. With the possible exception of goggles that are more like face masks and block the nose (thus interfering with breathing) I’ve never had a safety concern. And in over 20 years of teaching I’ve not seen any kid risk any sort of injury with their goggles. Not even from the “snapping them back in the face,” which the school alleges is such a grave concern. No kid has ever come close to doing that to himself, and certainly none has done it to another. That, of course, would be horseplay, which is already banned around swimming pools and is one of the safety rules we discuss as part of the swim lesson curriculum.

No, this school may have reached the right result but for the most wrong of reasons: a complete inability to assess risk. According to the logic it espoused I fully expect the swimming pools themselves to be closed up next since, as I’m sure it’s been noted by some health and safety authority in Britain, swimming pools are dangerous. People get hurt at them all the time. In fact, people are vastly more likely to get hurt by swimming pools generally (as well as any number of other things, all of which are surely due for a banning) than by goggles.

But then, to not ban goggles, when a teeny tiny hypothetical risk has been imagined, would require some sense of perspective. Some rational prudence to balance an infinitesimal risk with actual reward, a temperance which, sadly, is something we don’t generally see enough of these days.

Perhaps it’s already been banned.

 Posted by at 10:22 pm

  One Response to “The Goggle Boggle”

  1. I agree, and just wanted to add that the British do come up with the most beautifully anal-retentive sounding names – “British Association of Advisors and Lecturers in Physical Education” – ha!

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