If you haven’t been on many swim teams, it may be hard to imagine that every swim team is fundamentally different. And this largely comes from two aspects of the team: team philosophy, and the coaches. Ideally, the team philosophy guides everything that the team does, how its members interact with each other, and it sets the expectations for each person involved with the team, including the coaches.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of swim clubs:
- Community teams typically serve the widest range of swimmers, and include developing swimmers, those interested only in fitness or the social aspect, and right up to the most serious swimmers who can compete at the highest levels. Team philosophies usually include something along the line of providing swim teaching, training and competition opportunities for all.
- Serious Swim Clubs are more competition oriented, and include from developing swimmers to the most serious swimmers. Team philosophies usually include a goal to let every swimmer reach their competitive potential.
- University type teams typically expect their swimmers to already have good strokes and a solid base. These teams expect that their swimmers will do whatever it takes to reach the top. Team philosophies are usually pretty sparse, and generally limit themselves to a drive for excellence as a person and as a swimmer
Team philosophies always sound great. Swimming must be an incredible sport where young kids are nurtured and they all eventually reach their potential as older swimmers……
Obviously, that’s not happening. But why?
Let’s look at a typical Serious Swim Club as an example. If the club is really serious about allowing each swimmer to reach their potential, then the younger swimmers should be nurtured, given the fundamentals, and developed carefully in order to ensure that they are still improving, and still passionate about swimming when they are 20 and older. In other words, the club’s job is to deliver eager, skilled and disciplined swimmers to the next level where they can reach their potential.
So why is it that so many serious swim clubs have such a huge fall out of swimmers in the early teens? Why do so many quit well before an age when they can reach their potential? Keep in mind that a US swimming study found that only 11% of the top 100 ten-year olds become top100 17-18 year olds. And that a US National Alliance for Youth Sports study found that 70% of children quite playing sports by age 13 because it isn’t fun anymore. Clearly pushing young swimmers hard is not a good long term decision. So, why does this happen? (I explore this question of how hard we should train young swimmers here.)
Much of the answer lies with the coaches and their relationship with the team. Coaches are often graded on how their team does with respect to other teams in their area, and not in how happy their swimmers are, or how good their technique is. All that really matters is how many points their team can get, or how many stars it can produce. And 10-year olds can get as many points as seniors. In other words, having fast 10 & under swimmers is great for job security. And the easiest way to get fast 10 & under swimmers is to train them harder than their competitors.
But even more than that, some coaches WANT to train young kids hard. I’ve seen young kids with overuse injuries, or get burnt out by 13. I’ve heard coaches yell at 10-year olds (“my grandma can swim faster than that”) and call them names. I once heard a head coach tell an assistant coach to publicly punish a 10-year old with pushups for doing a bad turn. Another coach loves the idea of training 12 & unders 365 days a year. It’s clear that a huge number of coaches have attitudes that clearly go against their team’s philosophies, and yet nothing is done about it.
The problem is ultimately that these attitudes produce great results, and people have a hard time getting upset with short term gains. They would rather blindly take those gains, than worry about the inevitable long term problems that come later. When a coach’s livelihood is on the line, that’s not a tough choice.
A lot of things will have to change for us to consistently and properly nurture our young swimmers. But maybe the easiest way to begin is to start believing our own team philosophies.
Parents can be a huge problem as well. A few years ago a team not too far from us had an incredibly abusive coach whose kids would start crying uncontrollably BEFORE the post-race chat. Because they knew that in that post-race analysis, he would berate and belittle them mercilessly. The team took about 3 years to get rid of him, and he promptly landed a job nearby. Unbelievably, at least a dozen parents followed him to the new team because they liked his style of coaching.