Knowing the Basics of Age Group Swimming
September 9, 2019
Written by Michael J. Stott
FACT: Many successful aquatics programs subscribe to the philosophy of fun, fitness and competition. The premise is that if the activity is fun, kids will come...if they come, they may get fit...if fit, they can compete well.
Critical to the fun component is parent acceptance, understanding of the sport and responsibilities to child and team. Buy-in can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy personal and athletic growth. This month, Swimming World shares some thoughts from five successful coaches on how all parties can maximize and enjoy the swimming experience.
“I view all who join SwimAtlanta as customers. For the younger kids, our main goal is for them to have fun, learn good stroke mechanics and hopefully pick swimming as their lifelong sport. My biggest goal for the older kids is to make them feel comfortable and confident in me and our program.”
— Chris Davis
Chris Davis (founder, SwimAtlanta; 9x junior national champions; coach of five Olympians)
"I view all who join SwimAtlanta, whether it be 9 or 18, as customers. I want them to buy and be successful with my product. For the younger kids, it is an educational process-a gradual one that takes years to fully comprehend. Our main goal is for them to have fun, learn good stroke mechanics and hopefully pick swimming as their lifelong sport.
"I'm not sure you can do that with the parents and swimmers of today by putting demands and expectations on them at such an early age. My biggest goal for the older kids is to make them feel comfortable and confident in me and our program. Kids have choices, so I want them to be a customer of mine for a long time.
"That said, once they get to my group, we have expectations and guidelines to help them become the best they can be. If a swimmer starts to vary from those guidelines, I have a meeting to re-evaluate their goals and make sure they match. Occasionally, they do not. Then I try to find a group conducive to match what they are trying to get out of the sport."
“I tell parents of age groupers on a regular basis that there is more to life than swimming. You can be completely engaged and have a discussion about swimming, but don’t make it the focus of the kid’s life every day.”
Richard Shouldberg (assistant Olympic coach, 2x Olympic advisory coach, 18 Olympians)
"I tell parents that their children must come to practice ready to engage physically and mentally. To not do so is unacceptable. The keystone event to all my training has been the 400 IM; my goal is to prepare athletes to swim in college. If they do the right things regarding nutrition, hydration and rest away from the pool, they will be able to swim at the university level.
“The secret is to get to know the individual as a person and what makes them tick. Doing so allows you to analyze their progress and be in a better position to challenge them. As a coach, be prepared to teach and to adjust to the needs of the athlete. The swimming is the easy part.
“I tell parents of age groupers on a regular basis that there is no more to life than swimming. You can be completely engaged and have a discussion about swimming, but don’t make it the focus of the kid’s life every day.”
“The point of an age group program is to teach the kids to LOVE, LOVE, LOVE swimming. It is to teach them to be great teammates, to place work ethic above results and to appreciate the process.”
Dana Kirk (head coach, Dana Kirk Swimming; founder, PASA-DKS, an affiliate of Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics; 17x NCAA All-American; 2009 Olympian)
"For the age group parent, the main thing to keep in mind is that everyone-coaches, officials, etc.-is in this activity for the best swimmer outcome. At PASA, we believe in teaching the foundations-slowly, if necessary. I tell my kids and parents that swimmer results as an 8 and under, 9-10 or even 11-12 have very little influence on results as a 15+ athlete when it really matters. Kids grow at different times; they mature at different rates.
"The point of an age group program is to teach the kids to LOVE, LOVE, LOVE swimming. It is to teach them to be great teammates, to place work ethic above results and to appreciate the process. We want them to celebrate ANY best time OR technical improvement, not just the one where they earn new cuts. We want them to fail, to learn to deal with disappointment, to learn to communicate, face fears and to build strong relationships with teammates and coaches where they feel comfortable addressing all these big and scary emotions. If they learn these skills in the age group program, then they are much better positioned for the senior program.
"To the parents of a senior swimmer, I say, 'Let your swimmer go. Always be their biggest fan, but let them be the driving force.’ When we talk to our team about parental involvement, we start with A LOT of communication and emails to the younger kids, then less and eventually try to communicate almost exclusively to parents through our senior swimmers.
"Jay Benner, my coach at Tacoma when I was in high school, said that my parents always listened and said ‘yes’ to his requests regarding practices – triples in the summers! – and meets. They trusted me to get my schoolwork done, get to practices an deal with it when I planned poorly. My mom only had to step in once during a particularly bad period of senioritis. Other than that, it was on me, and that made a huge difference. I knew they trusted me, and I didn’t want to abuse that trust.
"At my site, we want the swimmers to stand up for themselves and to build off of what we started in the age group program. We want them to fail and to fail often, but in a safe, regulated environment so we can discuss and learn from it. Every season, we do a set designed for the kids to fail and to fail hard. If they fail, then they succeed because they won’t be as afraid of taking risks and failing on sets from that point forward.
"I want parents with kids joining my senior program to know that we have two main rules: make good choices and figure it out. When you leave my program, I want my swimmers to have the confidence in themselves to be dropped in any room, under any circumstances and be able to succeed."
Mark Bennett (head age group coach, Clovis Swim Club; NCAA All-American; ASCA Level 5 coach): "Here are some thoughts for parents and swimmers facing their first year-round competitive swimming experience
“Learn the program mission and values: Many teams will have this prominently displayed on their home page, handbooks and maybe even on a T-shirt! Teams exist for various reasons. Some value participation, fun and fitness. Some value excellence, commitment and competition. Others value teamwork, character development and life skills. One team's values cannot be quantified as better than another. However, published mission statements and values can tell you a lot about what is expected from you and your swimmer in the upcoming years.
“Find out the expectations of your child’s new swim group: Does the team have a practice attendance requirement? What equipment is needed? Is there an anticipated behavior or code of conduct for the swimmers and parents? What are the requisites for your child to be promoted from one group to the next? What is the competition schedule? Every club will answer these questions quite differently depending on the setup of their groups and how the stratification of those groups works to develop the whole swimmer. If your child does not plan to practice or compete very often, you may find yourself in quick conflict with coaches who believe that your child should be at practice every day and signing up for every meet.
“Communication: Most teams will use the following means to communicate team news, practice schedules and updates: email, website, newsletter, phone applications-like Remind-bulletin boards on the pool deck, parent meetings, etc. Pay attention to how your team communicates and when, so you can be on top of any information that will help you and your child navigate the upcoming opportunities to compete, learn and grow! If those avenues of communication aren’t clear, find out who to contact. Many teams will display a contact number or email for their head coach, office staff member or board member who handles this task for the team.
“Find out how YOU can help your new team: Most teams host swim meets, social events and fund-raisers on a semi-regular basis. It is most likely that all of the people who are helping with these events are the parents and are volunteering their time to make your new team the best experience it can be for all young people involved. It doesn’t take someone who is extraordinarily gifted to help make these events a success. It DOES take someone who cares about their child, their child’s activity and the success of the team to make them happen! Find out how you can step in and step up. Parents who care are absolutely necessary to support team goals, vision of the coaching staff and, most importantly, the dreams of every young person striving to achieve their swimming goals.
“Paying attention to all of these suggestions will help mitigate some of the uncertainty around joining a year-round swim team, and enhance the opportunities for growth and fun for both parent and child in a first step to a lifelong passion.”
Kailey Morris (swim school director, Chelsea Piers, Conn.; 3x NCAA All-American at Penn State)
“There are multiple emotions that come in to play when a child joins an age group program for the first time. From a coach perspective, it is important to treat each new child as an individual and to customize the initial experience to the child’s personality. Prior to the first practice, I suggest a coach meet with both parent and child. Doing so allows the coach to gauge the child’s personality and open up the lines of communication with the parents. Making the child feel welcome is critical. New swimmers can expect to be nervous/excited/anxious. One way to soften the emotions is through a formal introduction to the appropriate training group. Feeling included in team activities from the start can go a long way to enjoyment of the wonderful sport of swimming.
“Parents, think of this first experience as a learning year. Competitive swimming can be complicated, so ask questions when you have them and attend any information meetings the team may have.
“Transferring to a different team is most successful when it is swimmer- and not parent-directed. When the swimmer is 100 percent on board, a face-to-face meeting with the new coach where team philosophy, training methods and communication are discussed will set the stage for a successful new beginning. Open communication between all three parties will help the coach and new swimming become comfortable with one another through the transition period to new training. It will also best facilitate parent support of the child, coach and the new program. It is a given that parents should be 100 percent supportive of their child and their new coach.”
Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach whose Collegiate School (Richmond, Va.) teams won nine state high school championships. A member of that school's Athletic Hall of Fame, he is also a recipient of N!SCA's Outstanding Service Award.