We Need a Saner Approach to Swim Meets


This may be heresy, but the prevailing swim meet system in most major swimming areas is horribly broken. Swim meets are now expected to  consume a weekend – from Friday afternoon or evening sessions to late Sunday sessions.  A session itself can take 6 hours, the presence of rules that try to limit the session durations.  And I can’t really blame the meet hosts, as often they are swamped with teams trying to get in. Many meets in the Toronto area are full within a few days of the meet being announced.

To some extent, we’re a victim of our own success.  Swim meets weren’t this crowded decades ago, but that’s only because there were far fewer swimmers. And so the model of short sessions and more free time has gradually been expanded to this present time-devouring monster.

I know some will say we have no alternative. This is the price of a high population of swimmers.  But let’s look at this in more detail.


The biggest issue is simple. Between training and lost weekends to swim meet, we’re telling our children that in order to be a swimmer they can’t have a life outside of swimming. This is definitely true of high school age swimmers as they prepare for college swimming. But more and more this is happening to 11-14 year olds as well.

When faced with this choice, some leave the sport well before they’ve seen what they can do. Others may not even start if they know the commitments ‘required’.

Other downsides to this approach are that we aren’t developing well rounded athletes.  It’s not just other sports they aren’t exposing themselves to, but often they have no time for school groups such as band, drama, robotics, chess, etc.

They also have less time to just relax, or spend time with family.

And finally, this never ending schedule is extraordinarily hard on coaches and their life/work balance. We already give up many mornings and late afternoons/evening. But these meets destroy our weekends as well. I know so many coaches who are just exhausted at the end of a season.


Like any other complex issue, there are upsides to this situation as well.

These mega meets can earn an obscene amount of money. Last year I wrote about the Central Region Short Course Championship meet (here) where the host club made roughly $80,000. The fact that it was not enjoyable for the majority of swimmers was almost irrelevant. Many host clubs look to these meets for much needed cash for their programs.

The process of giving up everything else for one activity also helps many athletes buy into the training and discipline that is required at the highest levels in our sport. Once they’ve made the decision to dedicate themselves to swimming, life becomes simpler.

These meets can also help the top swimmers prepare for longer and more intensive regional and national championship meets.  Bridging to 4-day meets or longer doesn’t come easily.

An Alternative

This idea has been kicking around for years. Let’s add one session, highly focussed meets that could be held Saturday mornings. Done by noon.

The idea is that one version of the meet could consist of the 50, 100 and 200 of a single stroke. And then rotate through the strokes on different Saturdays .  Or we could have just 50s of each stroke, or 100s, or 200s.  Or 100/200/400 IM. Or a distance meet with 400/800/1500.

We’d be competing more often, give our swimmers a chance to do different events, and leave most of the weekend open for other activities, including spending time with families.

Anyone want to start hosting these?

14 thoughts on “We Need a Saner Approach to Swim Meets

  1. Some clubs here in London use afternoons as pools are often used for learning to swim classes for younger children in the morning. Specialising in strokes may not help all as not everybody is fit to do this all the time and swimmers have a 3 month window to reach national times. I think your idea robs swimmers of choice because they have to tune themselves to be at their best at certain strokes within the narrow time-span your idea provides. Swimmers need the opportunity to get qualification times for Counties for example throughout the year, they need to peak for summer for whichever is their best stroke. But if you say they only gotten 1 meet lets say every month to get a PB in their favourite stroke what if they are not well on that day and then have to wait for months to get another chance to get better.
    We have many meets going on all the time and that gives swimmers and clubs plenty of choice to compete in any stroke of their choice whenever they get accepted for a meet.
    For nationals they need to qualify within a narrow window in 50 meter pools, we need lots of competitions to give everybody a chance to qualify.

    1. Thanks for your reply Johanna. Actually, the focussed meet concept would be run far more often than once a month, and would supplement the invitational meets. It’s intended to try to make the sport more accessible and friendly, and allow swimmers the opportunity to have a balance life before they get old enough to fully commit.

      1. Hey Rick, for younger swimmer it is important to learn all the strokes, they would be tempted to specialize too early. Some meets are already specialized into sprint meets; the full weekend ones are only those which include the long-distance, e.g. 800, 1500.

      2. Johanna, good point about specialization. But I picked the kids events, so they can’t specialize unless I let them. Knowing that they have a race in an off stroke might just be enough to get them to pay more attention in practice. In fact, in a meet coming up soon, I have 2 non-BR swimmers who are in a good-natured 200 BR challenge between them. For the first time they’re both focussed on BR as they want to beat the other one.

      3. That’s a great point, and well done to get them interested, but you don’t need a specialized event to pick what strokes kids swim. Coaches can always pick strokes even in multi-stroke events

  2. I think there are some strong positives to this idea…I definitely like the idea of not sitting around in a steamy pool hall waiting for hours for the chosen event! I think most importantly it could bring some order to warm up times. I’ve never understood how a child swimmer can warm up at 8am (for example) and then be expected to perform in their race up to two hours later!!

    1. Hi Leigh. You’re right. You can’t be expected to warm up and then race hours later and do well. Not unless you have a fairly sophisticated dryland routine. And the issue is, of course, that meets aren’t really about providing a good experience for the swimmers.

  3. My club have run a 50m Sprint night (in the UK) and it’s very popular. 50m pool with only 50m races. 3 hours plus warm up. All done and dusted on a Saturday evening.

    We are based in Hertfordshire and have had entries from Kent, Berkshire, East Midlands and Scotland

    Contemplating putting in a 100’s night as well.

    Our volunteers running it like it as well as they don’t have to sacrifice a whole weekend.

    win-win really.

    1. I love this concept, Bryan! This is exactly the kind of thing that the sport needs. I just can’t believe that spending whole weekends at a pool is the best way to showcase our sport and attract kids.

  4. I’ve been swimming competitively since I was 8, and that was during the summer, when meets were easy and only 5 hours long, tops. When I was 10 I started swimming short course for a year round team, and that really changed my view of meets. I used to swim for the meets, but now they are super crowded and generally uncomfortable. I decided to compete for more than one swim team as well, so I went to two different championships. Probably the worst weekend of the year was for that short course team. We were expected to drive 5 hours and fit 1000 kids into a tiny center that wasn’t even made for swimming. There were separate pools for genders, but these got too crowded so then they separated by age. 9-10 year old boys with 11-12 girls, 9-10 girls with 11-12 boys. This year that changed back to gender division, which resulted in a LOT of missed races (also, I switched age groups). This year (I’m now 13 and beginning to take swimming more seriously) I started long course, and the meets have changed again. The school meets I went to were incredibly chill compared to the ones for more serious teams, and once we went to one that had maybe 100 swimmers at the entire meet, all 4 teams competing (my team was small, around 25 people because our school only has 500 people in it) brought like nobody. Long course meets are more chill as well, maybe because everyone’s stopped swimming and (in my area) are waiting for summer teams to start. Honestly, I miss not wasting an entire weekend. I got pulled out of school and did really bad in 2015 and 2016 in terms of grades. It’s something you never get used to.

    1. Hi Ariana, great comments and thoughts. Swimming seems to be suffering from too many swimmers in many major metropolitan areas. What you describe with your non-school meets is pretty normal, and it shouldn’t be. I love the idea of chill friendly meets as you describe with your school meets, but for teams that’s just not possible. Options are available, such as a series of mini-meets focussed on just a few events I described in the post. But the underlying problem is that the host team can make obscene amounts of money by hosting these marathon meets.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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