Ask the Expert: What if my Scout can’t complete the First Class swim test?

Ask the Expert: What happened to Bugling merit badge?Forget about cooking, lashing or orienteering. For three Scouts in Jeff’s troop, the toughest of any of the 14 requirements for First Class is 9B: the swim test.

The three boys have a fear of jumping into water over their heads, and the Scoutmaster from Kentucky is worried it will prevent them from advancing past Second Class.

He wrote me last week looking for guidance:


I have a question on the swimming requirement for First Class. I have at least three boys who are unable to complete the BSA swimmer test as one of the First Class requirements. They have a fear of jumping into the water over their heads. It is not just at the lake during summer camp but also at a swimming pool. I’ve reviewed the Guide to Advancement but don’t really see anything about this. Since they really don’t have a disability, there are no alternate requirements that fit the situation. Are they doomed to remain a Second Class Scout?

Thanks, Jeff. Here’s what the subject-matter expert, National Advancement Team leader Chris Hunt, had to say:

Best to answer this one based on info on alternate requirements in Section 10 of the Guide to Advancement. The Scouts would either need to have a health-care professional document the fear as a disability, or the Scouts — as many others have done — will need to overcome the fear.

As Chris suggests, the Guide to Advancement is pretty clear in saying the First Class rank is meant to challenge these young men: “It is important to remember that the advancement program is meant to challenge our members; however, not all of them can achieve everything they might want to — with or without a disability. It is for this reason all Scouts are required to meet the requirements as they are written, with no exceptions.” (, Guide to Advancement)

How to overcome fears and pass the swim test

So there’s no alternate requirement for Jeff’s Scouts, but there are ways to help these boys pass First Class Requirement 9B.

In his March-April 2011 Scouting magazine cover story, “Dreading Water,” author Jeff Csatari explores this very topic. If you’re having similar issues in your troop, give it a read. He also discusses the summer camp swim check, another source of anxiety for Scouts that you may be dealing with in a few months.

What does your troop do?

Have any ideas to share with Jeff on helping his Scouts past this hurdle? Please share in the comments section.

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83 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: What if my Scout can’t complete the First Class swim test?

  1. If we are trying to prevent possible death! Why not require every scout learn Firearms safety? How to Climb and Rappel?………Being totally fearless is “Dangerous”, learning to appreciate and work with your fears is where we need to be!

    I started out in Scouts able to get in the water, as long as I held on to side of pool, eventually learned to swim, Earned Swimming, Lifesaving, Lifeguard BSA, Several Mile Swims, back when it was not required for Eagle (1980). I am quite proud of the accomplishment) and I am now a certified SAR Diver.
    I have also worked with many on fear of climbing and almost every one has managed to climb, but it takes experienced instructors.
    For the person who talks “A Scout is BRAVE” Should we require them to work through a fear? Maybe they are great with water, but afraid of heights, should we require them to earn Climbing?

    • Fact is, a fella needs nothing but himself at water’s edge on a hot day (or maybe a boat on a cold day) to be needing to swim 100 yards in a strong manner.

      There world we live in has that much more water than lead or granite!

    • my suggestions is swimming classes in a pool. Practice swimming in water that is not over their heads. Get them really comfortable in the water then try the swim test. Mine is not the best swimmer but this is what we did and it worked.

  2. Taking Swimming merit badge at summer camp has successfully helped every Scout who could not already pass the BSA swimmer test for First Class rank. Swimming was the second most popular merit badge in 2013.

  3. After thinking about this more and reading everyone’s post. There is a focus specifically on Swimming for First Class requirement. The issue I see is that this the last requirement a Scout could see for Swimming that is “required”. A Scout could pass the Swimmer level swim test, one time, and never need it again throughout their Scouting career. Swimming MB can be substituted with Hiking or Cycling for Eagle. Based on their ability level they are restricted to which aquatics functions they can do. Some Scouts do not like the water and will accept that.

    One of the “life lessons” of Scouting is overcoming obstacles, however, having a “make it or break it” requirement like this at the mid mark of advancement could be the crutch that would make a youth that is younger than 13 to decide it isn’t worth it. I can see requiring a “overcome your fear” requirement for Life or even Eagle, but to tell a Second Class Scout, “You’ve done everything except pass the swim test”, is a recipe for a Scout that does not have the mental maturity to overcome a fear or physical ability to swim 100 yards, to quit out of frustration.

    My son was caught up in this same issue. He is very active and his body fat was/is extremely low and he had the hardest time to pass the “floating” requirement of the Swimmer level test. He was Second class for two years. During those two years he took swim lessons and was/is a strong swimmer, but was labeled as “beginner” just because of the floating requirement. As a leadership team, it took us a lot work to keep him motivated while he saw his peers advance.

    I’m not suggesting to get rid of the requirement. I am suggesting to make it a progression with the beginner swimmer at first class and swimmer level at life or eagle.

    • Problem is, James, I don’t want to wait until all my boys are Eagle until I know they have the discipline for a challenging aquatic activity (e.g. boating or snorkeling).

      I’d rather have all boys be tested early in their scouting career and know which the one or two boys I’d have to make an adjustment for (like flotation for your son).

  4. “Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.

    Who is most at risk?
    Males: Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male.”

    I understand the level of fear that some kids have but swimming is a life-saving skill. If your scout learns nothing more than how to swim after going to summer camp, it should be considered successful.

  5. I have worked with a few boys that either feared water, didn’t know how to swim, or had physical limitations.

    The boy that had the fear was my own son who nearly drowned when he was about 3. All through the years he went to swim lessons and worked and worked on over-coming his fear. He would never go past where he could touch the bottom without some sort of floatation aid. That was until he went to summer camp as a Webelos. I talked to him about the tests and each levels requirements. I talked to him about the lifeguards and what they were there for. I talked to the actual lifeguard and got permission to stay by the pool as he attempted the beginners test because he agreed that he wanted to try it even though he was scared but reassured him that if he didn’t come up after jumping in that both the lifeguard and myself would jump in and bring him up. Did he pass the test? Nope, but did he jump in and come up? Yep. And from that point on he knew he could do that and from then on just worked on his stroke to make the distance. It took him 2 years as a boy scout before he could pass the swim test and yes eventually even completed the swimming merit badge.

    The boy who didn’t swim I simply took him to the Y a couple times a week and worked with him while my own son (mentioned above) worked on improving his distance. While this boy didn’t have any fears of the water, his parents just didn’t have the money to pay for swimming lessons. So I taught him the required strokes one at a time and how to float on his back. And after a winter and spring of work by summer camp he passed and the next summer camp completed the swimming merit badge.

    The physical limitations was for one boy who did receive another option. Due to illness just couldn’t pass the distance required needed for rank. He went on to complete the hiking merit badge and is currently a life scout planning his eagle project. But each year still attempts to pass the swim test as required in hopes of taking a lake front merit badge.

    Another person I worked with was actually an adult needing to pass for a northern tier trip. No fear just a poor swimmer.

    With poor swimmers and really to stress with everyone. Find a stroke that is comfortable and doesn’t wear them out completely and take your time. This is a distance test, not a timed test. They just want to know that if you end up in water can you get back to shore or the edge – they don’t care how long it takes you to do it just that you can.

    I’d suggest small steps with the boys the person is talking about and making it fun. Jump into shallow water and go right to standing. Jump into shallow water but in a different way to try and splash more. Get family involved – make them stand near pool in clothes and see if can splash enough to get parent wet (let parent know ahead of time about this but it’s funner if kid thinks they don’t want to get wet so play it up a bit) As they start to get parent wet they move further from edge, move a little deeper in water, soon splashes will splash their face. Soon they will find it more fun than scarey. For the strokes head isn’t required to stay in the water so don’t worry about that. Also for first test with someone with fear it doesn’t say while alone in the pool just a continuous swim so have a good strong swimmer stay along side. Also practice the distance all in shallow water first – they know they can swim the distance helps. Also for those with fears I have found that pools are a lot less scarier than lake front.

    • “have a good strong swimmer stay along side” – I think this is a very important concept! My son had been through swim lessons but was not a very confident swimmer. His first time taking the Boy Scout test, one of the older (Eagle) Scouts, who my son admired greatly, swam with and encouraged my son during the test. It gave him a lot of confidence and encouraged him to keep going when he probably would have given up otherwise. He still didn’t pass the test that time but it made it a much better experience.

      Being allowed to pick his stroke did allow him to pass his test at camp that summer. For him (and for me) the side stroke is the easiest of the ‘strength’ strokes and elementary backstroke is definitely our preferred resting stroke.

    • Excellent approach Kathy. Find a comfortable stroke and a buddy swimmer. Too often the summer camp starts out with a race-type environment.

      Temperature Shock and Tactile Experience : Recommend that some boys be allowed to get wet in the pool first, before taking the actual test. For some boys the shock of jumping into cold water after a hot summer day’s march to the swimming pool is too much shock. For some boys with learning disabilies, the feeling of the water around their armpits and groin and neck is a huge exposuer experience. Let them get wet first.

      Simply having them take a cold shower first (which the boys hate) than entering the shallow end to do supervised play in the non-swimmer section FIRST before taking the test allows a more successful event, instead of starting Scout camp week with a big F Failure, and the lable of “NON-swimmer.” OK, all you “NON-swimmers” line up over here….

      ps- I used to hate to swim as a boy. I’d never be acutally in the pool, but nearby. Later, after Scout Camp, I became a Red-Cross lifeguard primarily to keep a summer job. Secondarily to know how to not get dunked, and thirdly for the first-aid part of it. I still hate any sort of swim test, but now I do open-water swimming as a hobby. It’s all about how the total swim test experience.

  6. As adult leaders, we MUST endeavor to learn how to challenge our Scouts and their perceptions about their own limitations in a safe, productive, and encouraging manner. The advancement method provides a framework for this.

    All too often, leaders and parents seek to adapt the framework to the limitation and not the other way around. Unfortunately, this is just not a valid approach to adulthood and we are crippling our Scouts by not teaching them that sooner.

    Viva la swimming requirement.

  7. It is possible for these aquaphobic young men to complete the requirement as written; first it must be established they are capable of at least treading water and can stay afloat in shallow depths. Once they are confident this is possible, have a competent adult swimmer, preferably a lifeguard, accompany them to deep water and allow them to go down far enough to touch bottom and push themselves back up. If they can assure themselves escape is possible, and they can stay afloat once they surface, have them try the jump with the assurance the adult swimmer will be right there if needed. Soon they should be confident enough to jump in unaided.

    When I was about seven, my brother, a boy Scout at the time, took me to the lake near our house. How did I learn to swim? He threw me in. If i came up, I was swimming. It sounds cruel these days, but that’s how many of us learned.

    • The coaching is good, but won’t complete the requirement which states:
      “Jump into water over your head.”
      “Swim in a strong manner.”

      “Strong” implies not counting on an adult to climb on if your in a jam. (Which by they way, could be fatal for both boy and adult.)

  8. As one of those second class scouts that never made first class because of swimming I understand where the boys fear. As a young scout getting shoved in he deep end of a pool on a patrol outing still brings back bad memories. Although I barely passed the navy 1/2 pool swim check and retired from the navy I still am not comfortable in water w/out scuba gear (PADI certs). On water – life vest!!!!!! I’ve had camp staff work with me to no avail. So I just mark swim check as non-swimmer go about camp.

  9. Most boys are swimmers before they join Scouting. When I joined Scouting as a youth I couldn’t swim. I took Red Cross swimming classes with other very young youth. Eventually I overcame my obstacle and learned to swim. This was back when Lifesaving Merit Badge was required and I built up my strength and courage to pass Swimming and Lifesaving, a few years after my buddies completed these required merit badges. In the Requirements Pamphlet, required means required. Being an Eagle Scout is not for everyone, just like Little League isn’t for everybody.

  10. First, the best scout I ever knew never had Second Class. Why was he the best? He recruited me into our troop! 🙂 If boys were more obsessed about connecting their friends with a troop or crew, and less bothered about advancement, we’d have much more vibrant units.

    Second, fear is usually a maturity issue. Most boys by the time they are 15 or 16 can rationally face and overcome any of the fears they had at age 11. In my son’s troop we don’t believe “First Class First Year”. One of the dads tried … it didn’t give us any more boys graduating with Eagle. Never say “doomed.” Contrary to contemporary advancement heresy, IT IS PERFECTLY FINE AND REASONABLE TO TAKE FOUR YEARS TO EARN FIRST CLASS. In the mean time, boys can earn lots of merit badges, so that when they actually deserve First Class, earning the upper ranks will involve mostly responsibility and service.

    Thirdly, DO NOT CUT CORNERS ON THE TEST. Being sure of your boys’ swimming abilities serves one purpose: forestalling death.

  11. I am a swim instructor as well as an adult leader in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. I have learned in my 10 yrs of teaching kids how to swim that no one swims the same. Be it from a fear or a skill, we are all different in the water. I offer my knowledge to scouts off the clock so that they can simply pay the swimming facility fee and not the full swim lesson price. This tends to fix the cost problems. Then I asses each kid to determine what is causing him problems. Is it floating, swimming, swimming a distance/stroke? Then I will meet with him on a schedule that gets him to the point of passing the test. I have, at times, told the Scoutmaster that the boy has passed the test and can save himself if ever put into a situation of need, but that I would not fully trust that he could save ME and himself. I feel that is what the Lifesaving MB is for. As with all my lessons (scout or otherwise) I want the student ready to start learning the next level even if they are not ever going to that level. It does not have to be competition worthy style swimming, but it should have to allow them to meet the minn standards set. As a side note: I know a boy that aged out of Scouting as a Tenderfoot cause he would not take the swim test. He went to many hikes, camps, etc and had a blast. Scouting, to me, is not always the rank. It is what the boys develops into because of the good values and experiences he had while a member.

  12. before I was even a Cub Scout, I drowned and had a fear of the water. No problems during Cubs, but when I became a Boy Scout, my mom saw all the water activities my troop did and water opportunities and gave me an ultimatum:learn to swim or quit Scouting. That gave me the motivation to learn to swim.

    Since that ultimatum, I’ve earned Swimming Skill Award, Swimming, Canoeing, and Lifesaving MBs, done two 50 milers afloat, earned BSA Lifeguard, and made to many rescues to remember.

    Swimming IS a life skill.

  13. Nothing says a leader cannot swim next to the boy to give support and give them a sense of security. IT WORKS try it

  14. When I was in college there was a boy who was deathly afraid of the water. He had a desire to learn to swim to survive. By spring he was able to swim 1/4 mile. Every stroke was for survival. He never was able to enjoy swimming but he could survive. With this approach I have been able to get a few scouts through the swim test anf the 1ST Class test. I told them I was going to teach them to survive in water. I did not expect them to enjoy it. All of them learned to pass the Jump in over your head and swim 25 feet. Then turn around and swim back. Once they were able to survive this they wnt on to pass the summer camp. I have had 2 that could not float. Their molecular build was too dense. With lungs full of air the went down.

  15. I was stuck at Tenderfoot for a year because I was afraid of the water. At one point, the fear was overridden by motivation to be promoted. It took three cycles of swimming lessons at the YMCA, but I made it and I regard this accomplishment more than I do my high school diploma.

    I’m now both an Eagle Scout and a Silver Award Venturer.

  16. I was critical above of swimming along during testing. I want to be clear that this could be a safety issue if a kid is really afraid, if you all feel pressure to pass the test, you are in deep water, and guards are some distance away. (E.g., you are testing in a private pool with minimal supervision.)

    It’s okay to do that during instruction, with plenty of supervision, practicing in shallow water, or deep water if the aquatic staff approve. You really want the boy to be confident of this test in himself. Sometimes the problem is more stage fright because on day one of camp the entire troop is watching. (And you notice all those folks the most right before you’re about to jump!) It’s often better to say, “Hey, let’s come down tomorrow and practice in the beginners area when there aren’t so many people. Then when you’re ready, you can ask the aquatics director to let you try. No rush. No worries.”

    Again, this process may take YEARS. That’s okay.

  17. if a Scout has a true fear, Scouting may give him the inspiration to overcome it himself (with help of course) or he can see someone who can perhaps diagnose it as a true phobia, giving him the eligibility for an alternate, but even more so, perhaps he can see someone who can help him overcome (or at least lessen) the phobia. Either way, the scout is getting some help and support instead of maybe hiding his fear until too late and something happens…

  18. Swimming is not only a lifelong activity, but a lifesaving skill. Our school district has swimming 100 yards non-stop as a graduation requirement. Although we’re at least 80 miles from the coast, the requirement has been in place for over 25 yrs. Likewise, my high school had swimming as a requirement. As a swimming MB counselor, sport diver, and ocean operator, I see it as a life skill. Aren’t we supposed to be “Prepared for Life”?

    As for a lack of body fat being a hinderance to floating…not so much. My youngest, who will be crossing over next month, literally has <2% body fat, and swims competetively, plays olympic development water polo, sport dives and can handle himself in a 6 foot breaking surf, all 70 pounds of him. The oldest (13) does the same and will earn the aquatics outdoor badge this summer. (It's technique, body fat helps, but a lack of it doesn't hinder)

    That being said, both boys did not take to the water naturally, and required significant coaching to get a basic crawl down. I advise patience, fortitude and when able, professional instruction. Incentivising the skill was successful for both of them. Watching mom, dad and their friends have a blast at a water park did the trick.

    Strong swimmers have two things in common, a lack of fear in the water, and the ultimate repect for it. Overcoming fear IS a life skill and being able to swim 100 yards, float for 10 minutes and understand how to get out of a bad aquatic situation, might just prolong that life.

  19. I’m enjoying all the advice. I am involved with two Troops and their associated Packs. On Troop/Pack I am COR, the other Troop ASM and Cubmaster of its Pack. We are in Hawaii. I’ve never come across this issue, but someday I might. The biggest problem that we have is getting people to do the sign offs. In the Troop where I am COR, and where my son is, we have 17 ASMs so that is not a problem, in the other Troop where we have 5 ASMs and only two are really active, including me. But the majority are now 1st Class and above. Both Troops are in the same neighborhood and there is a public pool equidistant between the two Troops. The next biggest problem is getting the boys out of the water.

  20. Our Troop had a young man that had a problem with the swimming mb. We had the ASM work with him, no luck. We has a brother-scout help him, he was still struggling. The whole Troop came over and cheered him on! He did it! He went on to Eagle. If a boy is struggling, don’t jus try once. Keep trying different things to help until you find one that works. The boys should know that they can work through an issue.

  21. I have helped several scouts over come their fear of the water – I do this by asking them what is their fear – justify the fear and coach them in over coming the fear. If they are afraid of water over their head we work in an area where they can’t touch the bottom but can hang onto the edge. I show them what to do when they start to panic – lay on their back and relax – I closely monitor them and talk them through the fear. I also let them know that I wouldn’t let anything happen to them. I also tell them I will work with them to pass the test and set three goals for them.
    1 Pass the swim test
    2 Become comfortable in the water
    3 Be able to go down the slide at the local pool (it has about a 4 foot drop)

    All of the scouts I have worked with has been able to do all three and now love to swim.

  22. The swimming requirement was my last requirement for First Class, way back in 1973. My problem wasn’t fear. My problem was that I was so skinny I sank to the bottom. I finally passed, then went on to make Eagle.

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