Being the parent of a swimmer is a wonderful and sometimes challenging role. The most important thing you can do as the parent of a swimmer is to love and support your child, both in and out of the pool. If you are a new swim-parent, there are many resources available to you at USA Swimming to help you navigate the pool waters ahead of you. Articles and videos on understanding coaches, training, growth, development, and maturation, and the psychology of the sport are readily available to you at www.usaswimming.org.
The USA Swimming (USAS) age group swimming program is America’s largest program of guided fitness activity for children. Age group swimming builds a strong foundation for a lifetime of good health by teaching healthy fitness habits.
1. Physical Development
Many physicians consider swimming the ideal activity for developing muscular and skeletal growth. Why do doctors like it so much?
Swimming develops high quality aerobic endurance, the most important key to physical fitness. Unlike other sports, where an hour of practice may yield as little as 10 minutes of meaningful exercise, swimming practices provide sustained aerobic conditioning.
Swimming provides proportional muscular development by using all the body’s major muscle groups.
Swimming enhances children’s natural flexibility at a time when they ordinarily begin to lose it by exercising all of their major joints through a full range of motion.
Swimming helps develop superior coordination because it requires combinations of complex movements of all parts of the body, enhancing harmonious muscle function, grace, and fluidity of movement.
Swimming is the most injury-free of all children’s sports.
Swimming is a sport that will bring fitness and enjoyment for life. Participants in Master’s Swimming programs still train and race well into their 80s.
2. Intellectual Competence
In addition to physical development, children can develop greater intellectual competence by participating in a guided program of physical activity. Learning and using swimming skills engages the thinking processes. As they learn new techniques, children must develop and plan movement sequences. They improve by exploring new ideas. They learn that greater progress results from using their creative talents.
3. Preparation For Life
One of the great values of swimming as a sport is that it prepares one for life. The total swimming experience is made up of people, attitudes, beliefs, work habits, fitness, health, winning and losing, and much more. Swimmers learn to deal with pressure and stress, success and failure, teamwork and discipline.
Swimming is a self-achievement activity. There is only one person in the water in a given lane in any race. The responsibility for performance ultimately lies with the individual. How well the individual has prepared physically and mentally to a large degree determines the performance level.
By learning how to handle frustration and disappointment, swimmers gain confidence. They learn dedication and commitment. Through perseverance, swimmers learn to overcome adversity. All of these experiences tend to develop individuals who are better able to handle life’s hardships and face problems.
Swimmers must learn that not all people are born with the same natural talents. They learn to emphasize their given talents and skills. Swimmers learn that if they do their best, then there are no failures. They learn to set realistic goals for themselves which they will achieve through hard work.
The four competitive swimming strokes are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. The combination of all four strokes is called individual medley.
Each swim meet offers a variety of events and distances, depending on the age group and classification. Each swimmer will have a limit to the number of events he or she may swim each day, depending on the meet rules.
In freestyle events, the competitor may swim any stroke. The stroke most commonly used is sometimes called the crawl, which is characterized by the alternate stroking of the arms over the surface of the water surface and an alternating (up-and-down) flutter kick. On turns and finishes, some part of the swimmer must touch the wall. Most swimmers do a flip turn.
Backstroke consists of an alternating motion of the arms with a flutter kick while on the back. On turns, swimmers may rotate to the stomach and perform a flip turn and some part of the swimmer must touch the wall. The swimmer must finish on the back.
The breaststroke, which is the oldest stroke dating back hundreds of years, requires simultaneous movements of the arms on the same horizontal plane. The hands are pressed out from in front of the breast in a heart shaped pattern and recovered under or on the surface of the water. The kick is a simultaneous somewhat circular motion similar to the action of a frog. On turns and at the finish, the swimmer must touch the wall with both hands simultaneously at, above or below the water surface.
Some consider the butterfly to be the most beautiful of the strokes. It features a simultaneous recovery of the arms over the water combined with an undulating dolphin kick. In the kick, the swimmer must keep both legs together and may not flutter, scissors or use the breaststroke kick. Both hands must touch the wall simultaneously on the turns and the finish. (The butterfly is the newest stroke and was developed in the early 1950s as a variation of the breaststroke. It became an Olympic stroke in 1956 in Melbourne.)
The individual medley, commonly referred to as the I.M., features all four strokes. In the IM, the swimmer begins with the butterfly, then changes after one-fourth of the race to backstroke, then breaststroke and finally freestyle.
In the medley relay, all four strokes are swum. The first swimmer swims backstroke, the second breaststroke, the third butterfly, and the final swimmer anchors the relay with freestyle.
The freestyle relay events consist of four freestylers, each swimming one quarter of the total distance of the event.
Starts: In the start, the swimmer is called to the starting position by the starter who visually checks that all swimmers are motionless. When all swimmers are set, the starting horn is sounded to start the race. If the starter feels that one of the swimmers has moved, left early or gotten an unfair advantage, the guilty swimmer may be disqualified after the race for a false start. Under USA Swimming rules, one false start disqualifies the swimmer.
The technical rules of swimming are designed to provide fair and equitable conditions of competition and to promote uniformity in the sport. Each swimming stroke has specific rules designed to ensure that no swimmer gets an unfair competitive advantage over another swimmer.
Competition pools may be short course (25 yards or 25 meters), or long course (50 meters). The international standard (as used in the Olympics) is 50 meters. World records are accomplished in 25 and 50 meter pools. USA Swimming maintains records for 25 yard, 25 meter and 50 meter pools.
USA Swimming is made up of approximately 2,800 teams from all over the country. Of these clubs, nearly half have 80 swimmers or less, and a handful of teams have over 500 swimmers. A team may be comprised of any number of swimmers, parents and coaches.
Participants compete in different age groups and meets depending on their achievement level and how old they are on the first day of the meet. Traditionally recognized age groups are 10 and under, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18. Many local meets feature 8 and under, single age groups, or senior events. Team practice groups are usually determined by age and/or ability.
Officials are present at all competitions to enforce the technical rules of swimming so the competition is fair and equitable. Officials attend clinics, pass a written test and work meets before being certified. All parents are encouraged to get involved with some form of officiating.
10 Commandments for swimming parents
by Rose Snyder, Managing Director Coaching Division, USOC
Former Director of Club Services, USA Swimming
(adapted from Ed Clendaniel’s 10 Commandments for Little League Parents)
I. Thou shalt not impose thy ambitions on thy child.
Remember that swimming is your child’s activity. Improvements and progress occur at different rates for each individual. Don’t judge your child’s progress based on the performance of other athletes and don’t push him based on what you think he should be doing. The nice thing about swimming is every person can strive to do his personal best and benefit from the process of competitive swimming.
II. Thou shalt be supportive no matter what.
There is only one question to ask your child after a practice or a competition – “Did you have fun?” If meets and practices are not fun, your child should not be forced to participate.
III. Thou shalt not coach thy child.
You are involved in one of the few youth sports programs that offers professional coaching. Do not undermine the professional coach by trying to coach your child on the side. Your job is to provide love and support. The coach is responsible for the technical part of the job. You should not offer advice on technique or race strategy. Never pay your child for a performance. This will only serve to confuse your child concerning the reasons to strive for excellence and weaken the swimmer/coach bond.
IV. Thou shalt only have positive things to say at a swimming meet.
You should be encouraging and never criticize your child or the coach. Both of them know when mistakes have been made. Remember “yelling at” is not the same as “cheering for”.
V. Thou shalt acknowledge thy child’s fears.
Few experiences can be stressful situations. It is totally appropriate for your child to be scared. Don’t yell or belittle, just assure your child that the coach would not have suggested the event or meet if your child was not ready. Remember your job is to love and support your child through all of the swimming experience.
VI. Thou shalt not criticize the officials.
Please don’t criticize those who are doing the best they can in purely voluntary positions.
VII. Honor thy child’s coach.
The bond between coach and swimmer is special. It contributes to your child’s success as well as fun. Do not criticize the coach in the presence of your child.
VIII. Thou shalt be loyal and supportive of thy team
It is not wise for parents to take swimmers and to jump from team to team. The water isn’t necessarily bluer in another team’s pool. Every team has its own internal problems, even teams that build champions. Children who switch from team to team find that it can be a difficult emotional experience. Often swimmers who do switch teams don’t do better than they did before they sought the bluer water.
IX. Thy child shalt have goals besides winning.
Most successful swimmers have learned to focus on the process and not the outcome. Giving an honest effort regardless of what the outcome is, is much more important than winning. One Olympian said, “My goal was to set a world record. Well, I did that, but someone else did it too, just a little faster than I did. I achieved my goal and I lost. Does this make me a failure? No, in fact I am very proud of that swim.” What a tremendous outlook to carry on through life.
X. Thou shalt not expect thy child to become an Olympian.
There are 250,000 athletes in USA Swimming. There are only 52 spots available for the Olympic Team every four years. Your child’s odds of becoming an Olympian are about .0002%.
Extinguishing burnout/10 steps to stay a happy swimmer
Tips for Parents
How can a parent tell if his or her swimmer is vulnerable to burnout? Any or all of the following signs should tell you that you need to sit down and talk with your child and his or her coach.
* Constant tiredness
* Behavior problems
* Not functioning well in school or at home
* Weight loss and/or changes in eating habits
* Frequent injuries
* The swimmer’s insistence that swimming is a higher priority than family time or schoolwork
“The most important thing the parent of a swimmer can do is to tell the child over and over to have fun,” says Keith Bell, Ph.D., author of The Parent’s Guide to the Proper Psychological Care & Feeding of the Competitive Swimmer (Keel Publications, 2000). “Your role is to love and accept your child unconditionally, to support him or her in every way, and to let your child own his swimming. Swimmers who get those things from their parents won’t burnout.”
Burnout/10 Steps to Stay a Happy Swimmer by Martha Capwell Fox
Back and forth, you slog listlessly down the lane. The black line on the bottom looks endless. Your arms feel like lead, your legs like petrified wood. Your mind is blank, and your heart is heavy. You’re not having fun.
Everybody has a bad day in the pool now and then. Not only is it nothing to worry about, but a day when every stroke is a struggle can actually help lift your swimming to the next level –if you push yourself through it. But if every day is a bad pool day, if you have to drag yourself to practice (or your mom or dad do), if you just can’t get into a workout and your enthusiasm and excitement have fizzled out, it’s time to think about what you’re doing, both in and out of the water. And why. You could be headed for burnout. But before you’re so sick of swimming you feel like quitting, take these steps:
Bed Check – Americans are stingy with their sleep, and active teens and preteens actually need more than eight hours a night. Not sleeping enough can wreck both your progress in the pool and your enthusiasm for swimming. It can be tough to fit in swimming, school, studying and some fun into a day, but don’t trade sleep time for TV watching, computer games or on-line puttering.
Rest Stop — Overtraining is a major cause of burnout. You’ve got to give your body time to recover from workouts, so don’t do more pool or dryland exercise than your coach advises. Take at least one day a week away from the water altogether, and don’t use the time to exercise!
Speak Up — If your coach or the calendar says it’s time to move up to the next level, but you don’t think you can handle it, say so. “I think it’s essential that young swimmers feel in control of what they’re doing,” says Laura Cox, a coach with the Alamo Area Aquatic Association in San Antonio, Texas. “Kids want to feel challenged and should be encouraged to seek challenges, but only they can tell when it’s too much.” A lot of young swimmers who stay at their old level for a few extra months quickly find that they want that new challenge. On the other hand, says Cox, kids who are forced to move up before they feel ready are often the ones who quit swimming altogether. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your coach alone about this, ask a parent, another adult you trust or even an older swimmer to go with you. The real point is you taking responsibility for your swimming.
Step Up – On the other hand, maybe you’re sick of swimming because you’re not challenged enough. It’s easy to get into a comfortable rut, but stepping out of your comfort zone regularly makes you grow both as an athlete and a person, says sports psychologist Alan Goldberg, Ph.D. Stretch your limits, he suggests and discover you can do more than you thought you could. You’ll get excited about swimming again.
Find the fun – “I don’t think anyone will burn out as long as they remember that swimming is a game, and games are fun,” says sports psychologist, writer and coach Keith Bell, Ph.D. “Everyone involved has a responsibility to make sure that swimming is fun, even in intense training.” One way to do that is to remember that setting a goal is what makes an activity into a game. “Every time you get in the pool, you can play a game if you set yourself some goals,” says Bell. “I think goals are tremendously important in practices and workouts, because a goal is an excuse for a game. And even if you don’t reach your goal, it’s okay as long as your game was interesting and fun.”
Be human – It’s great to expect great things from yourself. It’s even okay to try to do well partly because it pleases people who matter to you, like your parents, your coach, or your teammates. But sports psychologists say that constantly refusing to accept anything less than perfection from yourself is a sure setup for burnout. And so is measuring your self-worth by how well you do in the pool. Don’t beat up on yourself when you fail. You learn more from failure than success.
Remember the Real Rewards – “Swimming is a richly rewarding experience that you can have every day of your life,” says Bell. “Swimming does amazing things for your body, and research suggests that those things can help you lead a long, healthy life. Swimming is one of the few sports that people can continue to do well their entire lives. That alone is an enormous incentive to keep it fun.
“Look for the rewards that are less tangible than a medal,” he says. “My wife (Sandy Neilsen) won three Olympic golds, and I’ve never won a race anywhere near that level. But Sandy never got any more out of swimming than I did, and we both still love it, and we both still swim every day. Discover and hold onto all the things that swimming gives you.”Swim for yourself – If you’re swimming because someone expects you to, or getting the message that winning races is the only reason to swim, you’ll either have to find your own reasons or another sport. Swimming is demanding – of your time, your body, and your spirit – and ultimately if you’re not doing it for yourself, and having fun in the process, you’ll burn out.
It’s a Choice, Not a Sacrifice – Speaking of those demands, it helps if you think of what you do, and don’t do, to be a swimmer of choices, not sacrifices. “Don’t confuse not getting something good with getting something bad,” says Bell. For instance, if you pass up a Friday night out with your friends so you can make an early Saturday practice, that doesn’t make practice a bad thing. “Making choices is part of life and growing up. Sooner or later we all have to decide between options,” he says. “In my opinion, the choices we make to be swimmers are all good things.”
Get a Life – That said, remember that there’s a world outside the pool. Swimming may be a big part of your life, but it shouldn’t be your life. Don’t use swimming as an excuse to neglect schoolwork or your family. Cultivate some other interests. Spending time on an enjoyable hobby refreshes and recharges you. Make some friends who don’t swim. They’re the folks who will be cheering you on in the stands.
The Parent-Athlete Relationship
Competitive swimming programs provide many benefits to young athletes including self-discipline, good sportsmanship, and time management skills. Competition allows the swimmer to experience success and to learn how to treat success and failure as two sides of the same coin, while becoming healthy and physically fit. As a parent, your major responsibility is to provide a stable, loving and supportive environment. This positive environment will encourage your child to continue. Show your interest by ensuring your child’s attendance at practices, by coming to swimming meets and volunteering for your club at swim meets, or by participating in fundraising, etc.
Parents contribute to the success experienced by the child and the team. Parents serve as role models and their children emulate their attitudes. Be aware of this and strive to be positive role models. Most importantly, show good sportsmanship at all times toward coaches, officials, opponents and teammates. Remember that you are teaching your child at all times.
Be Enthusiastic and Supportive
Remember that your child is the swimmer. Children need to establish their own goals, and make their own progress towards them. Be careful not to impose your own standards and goals. Do not over burden your child with winning or achieving best times. Let them know that first they are the child you love, and second, a swimmer. Tell them you will love them whether they swim well or not, and ask only that they give their best effort. Learning about oneself while enjoying the sport is the most important part of the swimming experience. The swimming environment encourages learning and fun, which will help your child develop a positive self-image.
Positive Parenting Tips
Your child needs your emotional, physical, and financial support. Be liberal in providing this support.
Support but do not push your child.
Understand development – long-term development as an athlete, and growth and development as it impacts performance.
Be realistic in terms of expectations; factor in age and skill level; be aware of your child’s perception of your expectations.
Emphasize performance and effort, not just outcome. The athlete only has control over his/her performance. Define and measure success as giving maximal effort and as personal improvement.
Keep winning in perspective. Do not bribe.
Give plenty of encouraging and rewarding statements. Criticize sparingly.
View swimming as an arena in which to teach your child about commitment, hard work, and coping with adversity.
Work to form an effective Coach-Athlete-Parent Triangle