When Sally Swims Poorly…
How Mom and Dad Might Talk To Their Child at a Swim Meet
By John Leonard
Swim Meet conversation between parent and athlete can be either highly productive, or highly counter-productive. Your goal as a parent should be to contribute to a positive swim meet experience for your child. This is the same goal as shared by the coach and the athlete. It is important that all three sides of the triangle be working together on meet days, as well as the rest of the swim year.
As I travel the country talking to parents, and observing swim meets and the effects of individual athletes, a few things stand out for comment. The inter-relationship of athlete, coach and parent on the days of swim meets is one of the most important. To discuss this adequately, it is necessary to define the role of each person.
The athlete attends the meet to attempt to gain or affirm some progress that has been made in their development. This may take the form of a personal best time, or holding a stroke technique together for an entire race, or executing accurately a particular strategy for "splitting" the race, or any of a multitude of other possibilities and combinations. The role of the athlete is the active one. It is up to them to perform, and the meet day is a selected time to perform the experiment.
The role of the coach on meet day needs to be thoroughly understood. It is dependent upon how the coach has presented themselves in the athlete's swimming career. Primarily, for most coaches, they are the technical resource that a swimmer depends upon to help them improve. They also serve as a role model, and to a greater or lesser extent, as a motivator, friend, and co-author of the strategy or experiment being performed on that day.
The parent is the racing "support crew". The parent makes sure they have all their human needs attended to, and continues their parental function of supervising personal development. Their love, attention, and caring are key ingredients in creating a successful experience on race day.
Athlete, technical support, and human support. That's all it takes.
Now, back to the question of meet conversation. Lots of talk goes on at a meet, and coming and going around the meet. Let's focus on the conversations that go on around a particular swim, and see what can be learned from that item.
Sally is eleven years old, and she is about to swim the 100 yard freestyle. Sally is a pretty good little swimmer, and has a best time of 1:01.3. She'd like to go a personal best time in this event at the meet, and she and her coach have been talking all week about how Sally has to concentrate on keeping her stroke long and strong during the last 25 yards of her race. Sally knows she is supposed to stop and talk to Coach before she swims so she goes over to see her.
"Hey Kiddo, ready for the big swim?"
"Coach, I got it all under control, and I'm ready to go fast."
"What do you need to remember on this swim?"
"To keep my stroke long on the last twenty-five."
"Not just long, but...."
"long and Strong!"
"Right! Have a real good swim. Now, go get it!"
Sally blasts off, and gets out in front immediately. Mom and Dad cheer like crazy. Sally turns for home, and......
(Now, at this point let's consider two endings. We will take a look at each one.)
Sally turns for home and...... shortens her stroke bit by bit as she gets more and more tired, and struggles to the wall, with a time of 1:01.5.
Sally is disappointed, and she goes back to her coach choking back tears, and stands there, waiting for her to speak.
"Well, not quite what we wanted. How did it feel?"
"It felt awful! I was terrible! I couldn't do anything!"
"From here, it looked like you were only pushing through to your waist, and towards the end of the race maybe not even that far. Where should your hand finish?"
"At my suit line."
"And what did your arms really feel like?"
"I got all hot and my arms were burning at the end of the race."
"Do you know why that is? I think you haven't had enough good fast pace work yet. Next month, we'll work on that, and by the next meet you'll be much better!"
Sally leaves happy and feeling much less like the Ugly Duckling. Now, she heads to see Mom and Dad.
Most parents I talk to think that this is a tough time to deal with their children. It isn't! (The tough one is next.) All Mom and Dad have to do in this case, is two simple things:
First, deal with human things.
"Are you warm enough, honey?"
"Put on your warm-ups, and your towel"
"Do you need something to drink?"
Then, if all is well, STOP. Do not get into the race unless the child wants to. That is not your role. You are there to support.
But let’s say that Sally comes back and says....
Mom and Dad say, "Stunk? Stunk means you smelled badly. All that chlorine is kind of nasty, but I wouldn't say you stunk. What do you really mean?"
After Sally has a chance to get rid of her emotional response, you should ask, "What did Coach say?"
Now is a good time to explore this. What you are trying to do, as a parent, is duplicate the same mind-set the coach is trying to re-instill. Analyze what went wrong with the experiment. You don't have the technical expertise to offer the answers that her coach does, but by asking questions that require a technical response, you shift Sally out of the emotional context. This is nothing more than an experiment that did not turn out the way Sally and her coach wanted it to. This is perfect swim parenting. You reinforce the message that the coach is sending.
If you will simply take care of the human needs, and shift the emotional disappointment to an analytical response, all will be well in Sally's world.