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JCC Swimming: Parent Education: The Awesome 8 Year Old

I have never met a coach who didn’t want all their athletes to be the best they can be.  

I have never met a parent who didn’t want their child to be the best they can be.  

So why do we have so many conflicts between coaches and parents?  The simple answer is that each sees a different path.  

Let’s take the case of the unusually advanced 8 year old whose parents want their child to swim with the next group of 9-12’s.  “After all,” the mom says, “my son is faster than half of the kids in the next group.”  (And she is correct.)

Why wouldn’t the coach give a wholehearted “Yes,” and say, “I’ll move him up right away.  In fact, I believe he can make the send off intervals that the 11-12’s are making so I’ll put him there.  In a year he may be ready for the senior team.”

Why not?

Because every good coach sees the importance of long term progressive development and views their young swimmers as long term endeavors.  Coaches should take a patient and a progressive approach to the development of their young swimmers.  Coaches want swimmers in the program through their teen years and into their 20’s when they are physically mature and have the greatest potential for life changing participation.

Ask an adult who dropped out of swimming by age 12 or 13 what they remember from the sport and chances are, they remember very little.  Now ask an adult who swam through college what they remember and chances are they will tell you it was one of the most important life changing experiences of their life.

So how do we keep a swimmer in the sport that long?

Many parents also will echo the importance of long term development.  However, they just want to speed it up.  There is a sometimes verbalized refrain, “The better he is now, then the better he will be in the future.”

This is not true in most cases.  Parents who are otherwise well-meaning, sometimes push their budding stars to excel too early at almost any cost.  And that cost is frequently failing to finish the long term.

Parents should take note: A 2001 study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of American kids who sign up for sports quit by the time they were 13.  The reason?  They said it wasn't fun anymore. 

A study done by the ASCA staff years ago and repeated several times since shows that only 17 to 20% of the aged 9-10 swimmers ranked in the top 16 are still swimming at the national level 5 years later.  USA Swimming also did a study using the all time Top 100 list and found that only 11% of the top ranked 10 and unders are still ranked as 17-18 year olds.  

What is the primary reason we lose swimmers?  The number one reason according to a survey done a few years ago is simply that swimming stopped being fun.

And what are the elements of fun?  Friends, caring coaches, and absence of undue pressure from mom and dad to achieve their goals for the child.

When we move an 8 and under to an older age group we…:

  • …take them away from their friends.  (“Friends” is the number one reason why young swimmers stay on the team in the first place.)

  • …take away their opportunity to be the leader of their peers.  Good coaches build core groups of swimmers around leaders and move those core groups up through the program very nearly together.

  • …take the edge off of that wonderful, playful, crazy style of an 8 year old – because now, they are with older swimmers who usually do not share the same traits as an 8 year old.

  • …place tremendous pressure on the swimmer because now it’s not about having fun and being with friends, now it is about the serious business of work and achieving the goals mom and dad are setting for the child.

  • …change the progression and move the swimmer to a program which they may not be able to handle physically, developmentally, or mentally.  Dryland training for an 8 and under is vastly different than for an 11-12 year old.  The amount of fundamental kicking is less for an older age group swimmer.  The amount of stroke work is also less for an older age group swimmer.  Skip a proper progression of these and you risk developing an incomplete athlete.

  • …provide less time for games and relays.

  • …ignore the fact that the 8 year old may be better than the other 8 and unders because he is simply older biologically and developmentally than his peers and in all likelihood his peers will catch up to him at some point and many will pass on by.  When that happens it is very difficult for the swimmer to understand why they aren’t so “good” anymore and lose interest in the sport.

  • …identify the 8 year old as a “talent” with tremendous pressure to live up to it.  Some parents even identify their young swimmers as “our talented little butterflyer” or backstroker or breaststroker, etc.  The problem is, as swimmers grow and body proportions change, they frequently lose their ability to be very good in one specific stroke.  If their identity is attached to a stroke and they lose their stroke, then they lose their identity.  Good coaches don’t create specialized age group swimmers and try very hard to create well rounded IM swimmers.  When parents push a certain stroke upon a child, it adds to the stress.

  • …place the child in a socially difficult situation.  Chatter among swimmers between sets and before and after practice – the so called “locker room talk” -- may be very inappropriate for an 8 year old to listen to.

  • …change the focus of the coach as the coach now has to take special care for an under-age swimmer in the group who might not make all the intervals or understand all the instructions.

Neither parents, nor coaches, can MAKE a child be a great swimmer.  We can only provide the environment with the proper emotional support (parents) and challenges (coaching) in a well crafted progressive program aimed at the long term development of the child (coaching).  It looks like I have reduced the role of the parent to that of providing emotional support – correct!  That’s what you can uniquely provide and that is what is most needed from you.

Next time you come to practice, bring an extra towel for your child, and bring a book for yourself.  Allow your child to get lost in the fun of a practice with their buddies while you simply watch them for the sheer joy of it without worries about their swimming future… or, just get lost in your book.

By Guy Edson, American Swimming Coaches Association

JCC Swimming: Parent Education: The Myth of an Overnight Success

Real Success is a Result of Establishing Building Blocks Over a Long Term Development

When Mary was 12 she qualified first in the preliminaries at the championship meet.  Never before had she qualified for a championship final. 

“WOW!” 

“That came out of nowhere.” 

“Unbelievable.”  

Such were the comments that Mary received.  Her coach, though very excited, was not at all surprised.  Mary’s “overnight success” had been a long term developmental process in the making for 6 years.  Only now had Mary begun to tap into her potential.

Mary began swimming at the age of 6.  When she turned 7 she began swimming at the local year round club.  In her first year, Mary swam 2 days a week with the beginners’ group where stroke technique was the primary focus.  The group was designed with a lot of kicking and drilling and FUN!

In the summer Mary swam primarily with her summer club but still continued to practice with her year round club 2 days a week as her parents and year round coach were seeking consistency in coaching and the continued encouragement of the year round coach.  Mary remained in this group for 4 months following the end of the summer season building upon her skills and aerobic base while laying down the first block of her foundation.

In the early spring of her second season, Mary moved to the next developmental group in her year round program.  She was now legal in all four strokes and displayed the strength, desire and ability to move up.  At this time she began swimming 3 days a week.  The emphasis remained on kicking and stroke drill work with a bit more intensity aerobically and lots of FUN!  Most of the stroke drills were repetition for Mary.  As she grew stronger and more aerobically fit, Mary was able to do the stroke drills for longer durations with greater proficiency.  In a sense, this was a review for Mary, only a bit more demanding.  She spent 2 years in this group.  She maintained very consistent attendance during both the short course and long course seasons while still being able to enjoy her rewards in summer league swimming as well.  The second layer of cement was drying.

In the fall of the next season, Mary moved into the next developmental group.  Due to her consistent attendance and much repetition in the previous group, the transition into this group went smoothly.  It was quite challenging, but with sound fundamentals, she was able to take on the new challenges and up the ante aerobically.  She was now practicing 3-4 days a week for 1 and ½ hours per practice.  Most of the stroke drills were repetitious in nature but there were added steps to each drill and more conditioning while performing the drills.  In her first season with this group, Mary had 100% attendance over the holiday training period.  With this commitment she immediately added another block to her foundation.  At this level Mary was now becoming more accountable for her swimming, more frequently making stroke corrections without a coach’s request, knowing and staying on intervals and beginning to keep a log and knowing her best times. 

During the long course season, Mary, again regularly attended the recommended number of practices, continued to improve and learn stroke drills, and aerobically improved her ability to train due to the challenges of long course training.  She repeated this cycle in her 2nd year with this group adding one day per week more consistently.  The foundation was growing ever stronger.

In Mary’s 5th season, she entered the top group in the age group program.  Her stroke drills were very proficient though she continued to improve them and make stroke corrections.  She was aerobically very fit coming off a summer of long course training and high attendance percentages throughout her time in the sport.  Because of these, she was very well prepared for the rigors of the training at this level.  At this time she stepped up her attendance to 5-6 days a week and in her first year in this group won an award for 90% attendance for the year.  This was a big goal and accomplishment for Mary.

Now in her 6th season and a top 3 finisher at a championship meet, it comes as no surprise.  All of Mary’s coaches have participated in her “overnight success” over the past 6 years.  Each season she has made all the necessary adjustments and raised her level of commitment.  Some came more easily than others, mentally as well as physically.  As she grew and matured, as she became more aerobically fit, and as she faithfully built her blocks and securely cemented them into place, Mary’s “overnight success” could only be explained as PREPARATION. 

Mary always participated in meets along the way and usually improved yet never set the pool on fire for many to notice.  She was patient, she had very loving and committed parents, and she listened to her coaches.  She quietly and cheerfully built her blocks, with a broad base, one on top of another, that has become a solid foundation for many successes to follow. 

Congratulations!!

By Nancy Hennessy, Gator Swim Club, Gainesville, FL