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File:SinkOrSwimMirrored 7328.jpg

She also doubles as a Sexy Mentor.

"Okay, Dave, I'm gonna teach you to swim. Now don't be a wussy! (throws Dave into the lake) That's it. One arm over the other. Uh...Crap! Christopher, go save your brother. (throws Christopher in)"
Ken Titus, Titus

The good news? There's no Training From Hell with this guy. The bad news? That's because there's no training at all with this guy, at least, not before you've already survived a pretty critical situation.

The Sink or Swim Mentor is a bit of a Social Darwinist: the strong survive, so it's best to cull the weak as quickly as possible. So instead of training a student for any length of time, this mentor throws them in at the deep end, where his own life - or that of others - depends on his success.

Well, maybe that's a bit extreme. This character can exist in any type of setting, and it's unlikely that an accountant or receptionist would have lives depending on them. They might walk in the door only to be thrown an important project though, and be warned that a major client is relying on its completion.

This mentor is definitely at his most dramatic when lives are on the line though. He hands the hero the tools of the trade, be it a sword, a scalpel or a gun, and tells him to get on with it. Often this mentor is such a cool character that it isn't until Fridge Logic kicks in that the viewer thinks "Wait a minute...if the mentor's that good, why didn't he just save those people himself rather than sending a teenager to do it?"

Occasionally justified in that the main character needs to be able to cope in that kind of situation in order to progress with his vocation; a dragon slayer who needs constant instructions is going to be turned into a kebab before he can say "Now what?" Sometimes, though, it seems as if the mentor is just stoking his own ego, forcing his student to prove themselves "worthy" of their tuition. Generally, however, a benevolent mentor will remain close by during the test-crisis, ready to assist when the students get in over their heads (but not a second before). If they're really feeling generous, the mentor will craft their own realistic crisis simulation so that the students can be tested without any undue risk (naturally, the student will be unaware of that detail until the end).

Usually, after the initial crisis is resolved, the real training begins.

Sometimes overlaps with being a Trickster Mentor or a Fair Weather Mentor. In the case of the latter, chances are that the poor student won't last long. He'll be tested so constantly that he's bound to fail at some point, in which case he'll be disowned. Their reliance on testing their student secretly means that a Stealth Mentor can easily be mistaken for one of these, until they reveal that they haven't just been throwing them to the wolves. See Also, Die or Fly.

Examples of Sink or Swim Mentor include:

Anime and Manga

  • Lisa Lisa from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure puts Joseph Joestar through a number of grueling exercises, including placing a "breathing correction" mask that forces him to either breathe in the proper manner required to use Hamon or suffocate, and kicking him down a pit and forcing him to climb up an oil-drenched pillar.
  • Bleach overlaps this with Training From Hell, while Ichigo trains with Urahara. The only difference is that rather than having real enemies trying to kill him, Urahara and his associates attempt to do it themselves. First lesson: defeat an opponent who will kill you if she manages to land a single punch. Second lesson: We'll separate your soul from your body, chuck you in a hole, bind your arms, and make you climb out before you turn into a Hollow. By the way, if you fail, we have to kill you for safety reasons. Third lesson: Knock my hat off with your sword. Of course, I'll be trying to kill you with my sword the whole time. Urahara's reasoning is apparently that if Ichigo fails here, he'd end up getting killed anyway, so he doesn't have anything to lose.
    • However, they didn't have time for traditional training, having only two weeks to invade Soul Society single-handedly and rescue Rukia, so the more extreme "do or die" method of training was warranted.
  • Eriol from Cardcaptor Sakura combines this with the Stealth Mentor trope.
  • Gravitation: K and Tohma, while not really mentors in the strictest sense of the word, figure that the best way to promote Bad Luck and inspire Shuichi is to throw the band in front of television cameras at the first available opportunity. This continues well into Shuichi's career, with most of the jobs that K lines up for him being done on the spur of the moment. Perhaps justified (or at least Lampshaded) by both K and Tohma's assertion that a true star should be able to cope with this kind of pressure all the time.
  • Kalos Eidos in Kaleido Star subjects Sora to extremely hard Training From Hell to get ready for her roles, and at one point he even fires her when she fails to meet his expectations. To be fair, the Stage's super star Layla was subjected to similar training, and at some point she tells Sora that Kalos told her and Yuri Killian that they'd be fired if they didn't win the Circus Festival. And that was when Yuri and Layla had pretty much reached their peak of popularity and techniques, unlike Sora who still had a way to go.
  • In Katekyo Hitman Reborn, pretty much every single mentor Tsuna has had? It does tend to pay off, though - each time Tsuna goes through a life and death situation, he tends to come out with more badass weaponry.
  • Meta Knight in the Kirby anime isn't afraid to defend himself, but very rarely intervenes much beyond exposition and small pieces of advice when Kirby is facing the Monster of the Week, leaving Kirby to copy an ability and get with the ass kicking, or Tiff to figure out the problem, or on occasion with other characters as well. Tiff frequently calls him out on this, but eventually gives up.
  • In The Law of Ueki, the rules say that a god candidate (the mentor) can't help their student in battle. If they do, they get sent to Hell. The end result: A bunch of junior high school kids with relatively useless or restricted supernatural powers running around, who are essentially making things up as they go along.
    • Kobayashi more so than the others. He didn't tell Ueki anything about the tournament until the poor kid had already gotten into a fight, and even then he only spilled because Mori and Ueki broke into his house.
      • To be fair, though, Koba-sen did say he only participated in the first place to test Ueki's sense of justice, and energetically told Ueki to drop out of the tournament and live his own life the way he wanted to before suffering the Mentor Occupational Hazard.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima: Evangeline foists this on Asuna to get her to use her Kanka ability correctly. She dumps Asuna in the Himalayas, essentially forcing her to figure out the technique or freeze to death.
    • The scary part is that this was the admissions test. Asuna was left with a (presumably) enchanted bell with which to "tap out", and her refusal to do either that or die of exposure was what convinced Evangeline to start training Asuna for real.
    • To be fair, although Asuna thought she had to learn Kanka or die, Evangeline stayed in the mountains for the entire time, just in case something went wrong (presumably something along the lines of Asuna passing out from cold before being able to ring the bell).
      • However, Asuna did pass out from cold before ringing the bell. Twice. The first time her repressed memory of how to use Kanka saved her, but by all rights she should never have woken up the second time. When she did wake up she was covered in ice, unable to move, barely able to think, almost too far gone to reactivate the kanka and save herself. Chachazero even said "she was almost dead, too!" If Eva had actually been there to save Asuna, that would have been the point to pull her out.
    • Later on, Pseudo-Eva does this to Negi: either beat your Super-Powered Evil Side into submission, or die trying.
  • In Naruto, this seems to be a common form of instruction. The main character learned water walking at the boiling hot springs, weapon training always seems to include real weapons, and after a long Training Montage fails to help him perfect his ninja Toad Summoning, his Trickster Mentor Jiraiya shoves him into a Bottomless Pit hoping that the fear of death will allow him to summon a toad big enough to straddle the pit. This is seemingly averted with Kurenai since she's willing to take Hinata in decide her being weak.
    • The weapon training at least was justified, with ninja as military forces. Traditional training methods tended to involve carefully choreographed full-contact kata with weapons which could at least cripple, the theory being that until you had experienced being on the wrong side of a lethal attack a few thousand times, you weren't emotionally prepared to handle a real battlefield.
  • One Piece:
    • Luffy's Badass Grandpa, Garp, followed this Trope pretty closely as he threw Luffy down a bottomless ravine, left him alone in a jungle at night, and tied him to balloons to send him up into the sky as a child, all to make make him and his big brother (who it is hinted also went through similar ordeals) into "strong Marines". Needless to say, the minute he leaves them with a friend, they run off and become pirates when they hit their late teens!
    • It should be noted that the age that both of them left their home to adopt a life of piracy was 17. Dangerous Seventeenth Birthday, much?
    • It should also be noted said friend was a mountain bandit. He was asking for it, really.
    • Dracule "Hawk-Eye" Mihawk seems to have become one for Zoro, of all people.
  • Ranma One Half
    • Consider the ever-so-brilliant martial arts teacher, Genma Saotome. Genma's shown methods of training his son have included hurling a nest of agitated wasps at him and watching the poor bastard fend for himself, dragging him to a cursed training ground simply on the basis that it was dangerous and without finding out why it was considered dangerous, and reminiscing about how, when Ranma was a child, he routinely forced him to fight for every scrap of food he got, remorselessly eating Ranma's food if he couldn't defend it. He also admitted that he tried to "cure" Ranma's Neko-Ken induced cat phobia by throwing him into the pit of starving cats again. When told about some of this, even the borderline sociopathic Nabiki disapproves, proving that sometimes Even Evil Has Standards. Coupling this with his willingness to simply throw Ranma into trouble and expect him to sort things out, often with barely any idea what's going on or why it's happening, he could border on Fair Weather Mentor. If it weren't for his moments of Idiot Savantdom, it would be the conclusion of most fans that not only was Ranma lucky to survive, he's gotten as good as he has despite Genma's training, not because of it. And as bad as Genma is, Happosai is worse; his nature as a Fair Weather Mentor is an obvious fact.
    • Cologne is just as bad, even if she (sometimes) means well. The training for the Bakusai Tenketsu (swinging multi-ton boulders at the trainee until he can make them explode with a finger) and the Hiryu Shouten Ha (wrapping the person in "memory-metal" that will shrink, seize up, and lock down, turning him into a human pretzel if he sheds the slightest amount of heat) would be deadly if these people weren't Made of Iron, and if they end up knocked unconscious from the blows, or drowning in a hot spring, well, that's their fault. Only by learning the fundamentals of these techniques on their own can the trainee even withstand the training itself.
    • Interestingly, as Ranma's mentors are either this or a Fair Weather Mentor, Ranma himself seems to take the Sink or Swim method. For example, in the Fine Dining arc, his needs to learn to jab accurately and quickly with his utensils, and his training plan involves setting up buckets and pots of hot and cold water so that if he fails, he turns back into a man in a very restrictive iron corset. Granted, the iron corset part wasn't voluntary, but the point still stands.
  • Rurouni Kenshin had Hiko as a mentor, whose idea of training was "beat Kenshin senseless with the Technique of the Day, and then beat him senseless with the appropriate counter-technique when Kenshin attempts to duplicate the effect". He also acknowledges that he could defeat Shishio in the blink of an eye, but considers leaving the mountain where he lives as a hermit to be too much effort. (He does, however pull a Big Damn Heroes moment to help save Yahiko from getting killed.)
  • Seens to be the only way to train someone in Twelve World Story... Of course, the main character is a Jerkass so it's alright.
  • In DragonBall Z, Piccolo abandons Gohan in a dinosaur filled forest for several months to toughen the kid up for the real training (Although he keeps an eye on the kid, secretly giving him food at one point).
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • Izumi's idea of survival training is to drop off two preteen boys to a deserted island but watching them from afar in the first anime and the manga and coming back in a month.
    • And as she points out in the manga, her master's idea of survival training was to dump her in the frozen tundra of Mt. Briggs for a month. She survived by breaking into a nearby fortress for supplies. Without alchemy. And said fortress, we later learn, is staffed by some of the biggest badasses in the series. Yeah, Izumi swam.
    • Granted that said survival training didn't really have anything to do with alchemy, the one who sent Izumi out to do the same wasn't even realizing she wanted to be an alchemist.
    • In the first anime and the manga, when she threw Ed and Al on the island, she did leave someone with them to make sure they didn't starve to death. He also was under Izumi's orders wear a disguise and fight them at every possible opportunity, so yeah. In the manga, he even cooks them some fish when it looks like they're too tired to go on.
  • In Kino's Journey, Kino's mentor sent her on a journey to the original Kino's homeland, telling her to visit a specific house and tell the occupant there the purpose of her journey. Turns out, said mentor had been asked for weeks to go shoot the insane serial killer living there, but ostensibly thought it would better serve to teach Kino to defend herself and kill if necessary. Kino didn't seem to mind all that much. The time spent with her master likely explains a lot about Kino's character.


  • Robert De Niro's character in Men of Honor is quite literally a Sink or Swim Mentor, as he is the trainer at the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School. He sets out to purposefully make Carl Brashear's (played by Cuba Gooding) life miserable and force him to quit Diving School. This makes complete sense since he's a racist. Of course, this harsh brow-beating is what makes Carl refuse to quit until he becomes a master diver.
  • Denzel Washington's corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day could've been the Trope Namer considering all the many times he left Jake Hoyt (played by Ethan Hawke) out to sink or swim or get shot.
  • In Wanted, Fox puts herself in front of a shooting target, forcing the protagonist to either bend his shot or shoot her, which is kinda an inversion. A straight example was earlier, when she put a gun at Weasley's head and threatened to shoot unless he shoots wings off some flies.
  • Henri Ducard/Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins. They duel with real swords and in one scene beats the hell out of him.
  • During X-Men: First Class, Charles and Erik attempt to teach Banshee how to fly. At first, they let him jump out of a second-story window, into some bushes, and he forgets to scream. Their next attempt is to have him jump off of an enormous satellite dish. Charles assures him that he doesn't have to do anything he's not comfortable with... Erik disagrees. Justified in that he could, theoretically, control the metal of Banshee's uniform if anything really dangerous came along.
  • Senior Chief Ben Randall in The Guardian is quite literally this. His first test for his class is to dress them in sweat clothes and throw them in a pool where they are to tread water. If they touch the side or the bottom they fail and flunk out. His theory is that if they can't handle being in a heated pool, they have no business trying to rescue people from the open sea.


  • A Zen parable tells of a burglar who promised to teach the trade to his son. He takes the son to a rich and well-guarded house and shows him the way into the center of the house. Then the father excused himself, went outside, and promptly raised the alarm, alerting the entire house to the intruder - and sauntered on home. At dawn his son arrived, panting and exhausted but alone. "Why did you do that to me? I had to use all of my wits to get out of there!" The father said, "And that was our first lesson on burglary."


  • In P.N. Elrod's Quincey Morris, Vampire (Better Than It Sounds), Dracula is the epitome of the Sink Or Swim Mentor when Quincey wants to know how to turn into mist like Dracula does. The Vampire simply tossed Quin off the castle. When asked why, Dracula admits to the reader that's how his father taught him how to swim as well.

 Dracula: Well, I was remembering that when I was a child my father decided to teach me how to swim by grabbing me and throwing me into the river.

  • Discworld's Granny Weatherwax is often the benevolent version, especially with Tiffany Aching. According to Granny "witching school" (ie the world) gives you the exam first, and then you spend the rest of the time finding out whether you passed. And everything is a test.
    • Early in A Hat Full of Sky, when Tiffany is engaged in wholly unjustified paranoia about the witch she's been sent to train with, she tries to tell herself that Granny Weatherwax and Ms Tick wouldn't have arranged it if it was dangerous ... and then realises that they probably would, on the grounds that if she couldn't cope she'd no business being a witch.
    • Also note Assassins' Guild tutor Alice Band, who punishes overconfidence in her students by sending them on missions to observe Sam Vimes. In Night Watch, Sam obliges her by ensuring that student Assassin Jocasta Wiggs ended up literally swimming or sinking - in the Ramkin family's cesspit.
  • From E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, the appropriately named Mentor of Arisia is an example of this trope. Though Mentor does relent and give the protagonist some training in psychic combat, he generally avoids directly aiding his students and criticizes them for asking him for help or advice when they don't really need it. And since he's effectively omniscient, he always knows whether or not they really need it.
    • Mentor's psychic combat training is a perfect example of this trope. He "trains" Kinnison how to defend himself psychically by continuously psychically attacking him. The justification is that every mind is unique, so each person must develop his own method of defense. And the best way to develop callouses is to hit the tender part over and over. Though he does scale his attacks to Kinnison's ability to survive them.
  • Gall the moss man is this to Peter in The Child Thief by Brom. He rescues Peter from a wolf but leaves it to Peter to kill. Keep in mind that Peter is only a few weeks old at the time.
  • Juffin Hally from Labyrinths of Echo does it all the time, in part because he's a great practitioner of magic, but not very good at theory, in part because his mentor did the same with a very impressive result, and in part because he tries to get Achievements in Ignorance from the apprentices, so he makes everything look trivial. His way to teach a lesson starts with an offhanded mention of "one more possible solution" to the current problem, continues with sending an apprentice into action with a very vague idea of how they're going to do the job and ends with "See? You can do it easily... and there are old and supposely smart wizards who still for some reason think it's impossible".

Live Action TV

  • The Doctor from Doctor Who tends to treat his companions like this sometimes. Especially Doctor number 1 played by William Hartnell.
  • Claude, from Heroes, while trying to teach Peter Petrelli how to use his powers, pushed him off the roof of a skyscraper to try and activate his flight ability. It didn't work, but he got better.
  • Dr. House has proven to be this sort of teacher in the fourth season, running a two-month "interview" that involves throwing the applicants at the nearest mystery disease and standing back until they solve it. Subverted in that this strategy got a patient killed.
  • NCIS: Ziva's father, in a not-at-all-funny or even particularly heroic version. Apparentally, he drove his children blindfolded into the middle of the forest and had them find their way out.
  • In the Lost episode "Hearts and Minds," Locke ties Boone up and leaves him in the woods with the monster approaching. (Of course, it's vague how much of this truly takes place and how much is a hallucination.)
  • In Psych, Henry often uses (or attempts to use) sink or swim methods on Shawn; justified in some ways, as Shawn is a huge slacker with a history of giving up when the going gets too tough, and this is sometimes the only way to get him to follow through on anything.
    • Of course, it seems he's a slacker in the first place because the harshness of his dad's sink or swim teaching basically beat it into him that unless he's better than the best, the effort wasn't enough. Irony.
  • Dr. Cox in Scrubs is mainly justified in this approach; he wants his interns to learn, as quickly as possible, that lives depend on them, and that eventually they must rely on their own skills rather than outside assistance. Despite his Dr. Jerk persona though, he's one of the more benevolent variations on this mentor. He's usually standing by, ready to help if absolutely necessary, rather than leaving the interns on their own to cope with the pressure.
    • Though Cox's help would be partly motivated by the fact that he is legally responsible for the actions of his interns and early year residents.
    • In seasons 8 and 9, JD has become this. It comes up explicitly in season 9 that he picked it up from Cox.
  • On Titus, Christopher Titus's Jerkass father holds to a philosophy that his kids will be tougher if he doesn't protect them from their mistakes in any way. As an example of how far he takes this philosophy, a flashback shows him refusing to prevent a kindergarten-aged Chris from playing with an electrical outlet. When Chris gets shocked, his father simply says, "Bet you're not gonna do that again."
    • In another flashback, he is shown, quite literally, to be a Sink Or Swim Mentor. When the time comes to teach Dave to swim, he picks him up, tells him not to be a wuss and tosses him in the water. When Dave begins to sink, he tosses Christopher in and tells him to save his brother.
  • In The West Wing, campaign staffer Donna Moss asks campaign manager Will Bailey for a promotion. Will responds by handing her a piece of paper with a short statement and introducing her to a crowd of reporters as the new campaign spokeswoman before walking off without another word.


  • In the musical Camelot, Merlyn is taken away from Arthur's fledgling throne very early in the play, leaving Arthur alone to sort out the founding of the Round Table, his impending marriage, and the general prosperity of the kingdom. As Merlyn is leaving with the nymph Nimue, he bemoans that he cannot even remember if he warned Arthur about Lancelot and Mordred.

Video Games

  • Suzu-sensei, in Lifesigns, has a nasty habit of springing operations on the player character. As if that wasn't bad enough, she's also a Fair Weather Mentor complete with Yandere traits...which raises the question of why she's still employed, never mind left in charge of other doctors.
  • Dwarf Fortress - you can only learn something by doing it. Need some crucial task done, but have no qualified labourers? No problem - throw the unqualified labourers at it, until they learn, or get eaten by fish. This applies to all skills and professions, starting with mining (Here's a pick, get going.), through hunting (Chasing down prey and wrestling it to death? Sure.) to fighting. (No, the ultra-mighty champion wrestlers are under no compunction not to crush your throat in your first sparring session. Deal.)
    • Though it should be noted that as the ultra-mighty champions wrestlers have more experience, they have a much lower chance of accidentally seriously wounding their sparring partner. It can still happen, but it's definitely less likely. Of course, some players equip raw recruits with the sharpest and and nastiest weapons in the entire fort, lock them in a room to spar, and refuse to let them out until they're either dead or champions.
    • Arguably, gameplay is pretty much this, althoug there is a good tutorial on the wiki now.
  • Phoenix Wright decides to take up this approach with his successor Apollo Justice in the fourth game. He actually respects the guy and knows he's got potential, but goes out of his way to offer no direct help so Apollo stays self-reliant.
    • Which does make sense as in the first game, Phoenix did rely a bit too much on Mia for help. During the last case, Maya can't contact her spirit leaving Phoenix to try to figure the solution himself.
  • Kreia. Sith assassins, Bounty Hunters, mercenaries, an entire criminal organisation, and two Sith Lords. She throws them all at you to make you strong enough to wipe out all vestiges of the old Jedi Order, ending with her, so you can build a new order upon the wreckage, free from all the old constraints and preconceptions. And she does it all because she loves you.

Visual Novels

  • Fate/stay night: "Super awesome training isn't going to help you any, Shirou. Instead, I'm just going to beat the piss out of you until you react quicker." - Saber, summary. Actually, Tohsaka is a bit like this as well. Magical training amounts to making him open his Magic Circuit properly then saying "Go project stuff. No wait, don't. Somehow win without having to."
    • Saber was trying to teach Shiro that he would never stand a chance against Servants, although he never quite grasps that fact. As for Rin, projection magic is extremely dangerous and overusing it would permanently cripple Shiro at best. And this is Rin we're talking about, so...
    • Kiritsugu didn't even teach Shirou he didn't need to create a new magic circuit (something that could have killed him every single time he did it) every time he wanted to use magic.
    • And from the Spin-Off, Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya, although usually played for laughs. How should we teach Miyu how to fly? Throw her out of a helicopter and see if she can figure it out before impact!

Web Comics

  • Klaus Wulfenbach from Girl Genius shows aspects of this towards his son. It could be seen as Training From Hell, but the tests aren't training; they're a blatant attempt to kill Gilgamesh if he can't take the heat. And Badass Bookworm Gilgamesh is up to the challenge.
    • To be fair to Klaus, he'd...well, he'd probably be sad if Gil couldn't hold up.
  • Jones of Gunnerkrigg Court plainly told her student she's going to instruct, but not spoon-feed ready solutions. Maybe this only means she doesn't feel it's her right to, but the detached precision is so much in her style that Annie suspected Jones is a robot and some fans suspect she's a goddess.
  • In Panthera, you could argue that this is the relationship between Tigris and Onca. There's distinctly more "Sink Or Swim" than "mentor", though.

Western Animation

  • Jake the Dog in Adventure Time. Played quite literately too.
  • Xavier: Renegade Angel, remembering his own youth, decides to alter his old childhood memories by imagining meeting his older self back then. He ends up being this to himself. It makes as little sense as it sounds.