This is a great article that underscores the importance of taking the "long view" in regards to parenting swimmers. It reminds us to focus more on our role as "support-parents" rather than that of "sports-parents".
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.”
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
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
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.