7 Reasons Your Highly Sensitive Child Struggles with Gym and Swimming Lessons

Does anyone else deal with tantrums, meltdowns or outright refusals to participate when it comes to the weekly swimming lesson?”

It’s a common question asked in groups of parents of highly sensitive children (HSCs). Many of us face struggles around getting our child to swimming lessons or have to deal with the aftermath of school sports lessons on a HSC, in particular those held in a gym hall. My youngest two are notably more reluctant to go to school on the days they have gym lessons.

From personal experience I can tell you that just mentioning swimming lessons in our house make my toes curl – I will be glad when they are over for all three sons! But at the end of the day it’s important that kids can competently swim – especially when you live in the Netherlands surrounded by canals…….so we need a way to cope.

7 Reasons Your Highly Sensitive Child Struggles with Gym and Swimming Lessons

Even the most sporty, active HSC can visibly struggle with the idea of gym or swimming lessons –  it’s not about the actual swimming, climbing or running about – it’s more than that.

Changing Rooms

If you are the parent that regularly takes your child to swimming lessons you probably know first hand that the changing room, where the swimming or gym lesson experience begins, is a hive of activity and a sensory nightmare: noise, bustling of children and parents for space, odours, emotions, invasion of personal space. It’s chaos in a confined space. And incredibly unsettling for a HSC.

One of my sons has his school gym lesson directly after lunch so I go with him to the changing room. Man oh man. I understand his reluctance to be there – it’s crowded, noisy, and busy. Some children use the opportunity to scream, for the sake of making noise and every parent or teacher that enters the space goes immediately into scold mode.

We have looked for a way to reduce the sensory overload for him so he now gets changed at home and just slips on his gym shoes in the changing room – then he waits in the hallway outside of the changing room until his class is called into the gym.

Tip: use individual cubicles where possible and arrive ahead of the crowd (or after the crowd is even better if at all possible) and then wait in the quietest space you can find.

Gym Halls and Swimming Pools

Once a child comes out of the changing rooms they are faced with the size of the gym hall or pool – a huge space especially for a child in the infant classes in school. And it’s a room stuffed full of activity everywhere you look. That in itself can be overwhelming for a HSC.

In a gym lesson it is difficult for a HSC to maintain an overview of the space they are in – every lesson there is equipment in a different place and the activity they are expected to do is different. HSCs like to know what to expect and to be able to picture the activity coming up. The unknown is scary and the predictable is safe.

And then there’s what goes on in a gym and a swimming pool……


The acoustics of a swimming pool serve to amplify any noise; the same applies to a gym hall. Both are large spaces which reverberate noise. And there is of course a lot of noise in pools and gyms as children squeal, shout and run/splash about.

Noise is a common issue for HSCs. Lots of noise causes a sensory overload and make HSCs feel uncomfortable, even irritated or upset. Furthermore, HSCs often experience noise as being louder than their counterparts experience it (see my post about noise in the classroom for more on that) – so the pool and gym are certainly the perfect locations for a noise overload.

Tip: look into off-peak lesson times, small groups or pools and swim schools who understand the sensitivities of HSCs.

If you know gym and swim lessons cause overstimulation note these activities as bucket fillers and leave the rest of the day as quiet as possible. 


Swimming pools smell of chlorine. Changing rooms smell of sweaty socks. Gym halls smell of sweaty bodies. There are certainly more pleasant places for the nose to be so bear in mind this factor could also make your HSC feel uncomfortable.


The nature of a swimming lesson or a gym lesson means there is an expectation that your child will perform. How they do a swim stroke or a jump is monitored, ‘criticised’ (in the eyes of a HSC) and advice to improve is given. In many cases children are working towards a swimming diploma – a test. Some children perform better than your child, which makes them even more critical of how they are doing – particularly if your HSC is a perfectionist, as many HSCs are. Many can not take a compliment well so even if they are given encouragement about how well they are doing they may not believe it.

A HSC is conscious that all eyes are on them and a common trait of being highly sensitive is a feeling of stress when being observed – HSCs perform less well when they are being watched because they are anxious about how they perform. In short, every lesson feels like an exam situation and a chance to fail.

Tip: make sure your child is ready for swimming lessons. Some children are just too (emotionally and physically) young to start and feel lost as a consequence. We delayed starting lessons with our sons knowing that they wouldn’t cope from the age of four, when it was actually possible to start.


Gym teachers and swim instructors speak with raised voices in order to be heard by the group. They can also come across as strict because of safety considerations. There’s no messing about in a pool or gym hall! These are both things that can make a HSC feel insecure and distrusting of a sport teacher. I have lost count of the number of times my sons have come home with the announcement “the gym/swim teacher seems nice but is way too strict” and they need a few lessons to get used to tone and volume before they build up a positive image of their teacher.


7 Reasons Your Highly Sensitive Child Struggles with Gym and Swimming Lessons

Last but certainly not least, HSCs are often more cautious than non-highly sensitive children – observing before taking action, so swimming pools and gyms are a minefield to a HSC.

Danger lurks in every corner and every activity. There is equipment to clamber up and over. There are balls flying around. There are rope burns to endure. There are climbing frames that are high. Things to jump over. So many things to fall over or off. They need time to observe, see that it is safe and feel confident to give things a go.

Tip: talk to the gym or swim instructor and explain how your HSC feels. If understanding is shown to your child they are more likely to attempt things – knowing that they have a safe place to go (the teacher) to if they need it.

But there’s good news too….

The good news is that the more a child gets used to these environments, the less issues they have with their lessons and that usually occurs as a matter of course as a child gets older. Patience and understanding is needed – it can take months.

There are lots of positive sides to swimming and gym of course. Aside from the obvious development of gross motor skills and coordination, your child has the chance to stop thinking for a little while and be active instead. Physical movement can be a great bucket emptier.


About Amanda van Mulligen

Mother, writer, author, blogger. Born British, Living Dutch. I have three Dutch sons and a Dutch husband and I blog about Turning Dutch and raising highly sensitive children.
This entry was posted in The What, The Why and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to 7 Reasons Your Highly Sensitive Child Struggles with Gym and Swimming Lessons

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  4. Lyra says:

    Thank you for the article! One of the ways to help the HSC cope, I believe, is to get them to start swimming lesson when they are much older and they have more experiences at the same pool. We started our HSC boy at 6 years old although most of our friends’ children started when they were 4. His lessons are at a public pool where we go rather often, and he has seen how a swimming lesson is like at the pool. So when he started formal lessons, he’s not so daunted by the environment and the expectations. Just sharing some thoughts. Thank you!


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  10. Sophie says:

    Thanks so much for this article. We just looked at a pool the other day in the hope of starting lessons for my HS 4.5yr old boy. It was very quiet when we had a look and it will be only 4 children in a class but even so, just as your article suggests he was offended by the smell and worried that he’d be ‘rubbish at it’ (his words!) and so worried that the teacher wouldn’t be able to keep him safe. Sometimes I’m not sure if his overthinking is normal or if he really is HS. But your articles seem very relevant! Thankyou!.

    Liked by 1 person

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