One of the major challenges for club coaches is to keep swimmers in the sport. One of the major challenges for college coaches is less about keeping swimmers in the sport, and more about keeping swimmers in the sport and committed at a high level.
I once read that individuals participate in sports for ONE reason only.
To feel good about themselves.
While there may be different ways participation in sport allows individuals to feel good about themselves, it all comes back to that. So, if we want swimmers to stay in the sport, we have to ensure that swimmers are having experiences that allow them to feel good about themselves. If swimming doesn’t do this, they won’t swim. They’ll find another activity to engage in. SIMPLE!
For some having fun may make them happy. Swimming can do that. Swimming allows some individuals to gain a sense of accomplish. For others, it’s an opportunity to play a role, belong to a community, and be needed. Swimming can also be a way to meet people, make friends, and spend time with those individuals.
All of these outcomes lead to swimmers feeling good about themselves. If an experience is providing a positive impact on a young person’s life, there is a much greater likelihood they’ll stay in the sport. Swimming is a hard sport, if they’re not getting what they want out of it, why would they continue? It’s a WASTE of time. If someone is not getting what they want, they’re not a ‘quitter’ or ‘weak’. They’re smart and they’re choosing to spend their time doing something else that will make their life better.
Because of the challenges associated with keeping swimmers engaged in the sport, it’s worth trying to understand why swimmers may choose to continue to participate, or decide to move with their life. With an appreciation of these dynamics, we may be better prepared to provide a service that helps swimmers feel good about themselves, and ultimately continuing to participate in the sport.
Some swimmers simply want to have fun. While it’s easy to say ‘swimming fast is fun’, some kids really just want to have actual fun. This is especially true at younger ages, and this is often reflected in how swimming is introduced and practices are oriented at the youth level. However, this can be a primary factor for many individuals as they continue throughout their swimming career.
Rather than frowning upon this motivation, why not continue to keep fun as a significant thread throughout the of the swimming experience? Does doing so necessarily work against high performance? I fail to see how. Happy swimmers are fast swimmers.
5 minutes per day of straight-up ‘fun’ can keep an otherwise talented swimmer involved in the sport. It might be the difference between quitting and becoming a champion. If swimmers have fun in practice and leave in a great mood, they’re certainly going to feel good, and they’re going to REMEMBER feeling good. That’s going to keep them coming back.
Certainly, there are teams that could base their approach on making swimming fun. Within larger teams, there can be multiple experience on offer. There can be a high-performance group, and a group directed more towards entertainment. The distinction doesn’t have to be large; their just needs to be a significant element of ‘fun’ on a daily basis.
This might not appeal to you at all, and that’s the point. It’s about connecting with what each swimmer gets out of the sport, and crafting an experience to keep them involved in the sport. Remember that others are motivated for different reasons.
If you come across an extremely ‘talented’ swimmer, and they have different motivations than you, what are you going to do? Keep them engaged or let them go? That’s ultimately a choice you have to make. Just remember a small amount of ‘fun’ can keep someone in the sport.
Swimmers stay in the sport, particularly at the high-performance level, because they want to accomplish something significant. They want to develop mastery, they want to achieve a certain performance standard, they want to win. When these swimmers accomplish their daily, weekly, and seasonal goals, they feel good about themselves. They feel good about taking on challenges and they feel good about accomplishing challenges.
As opposed to just ‘training’ because ‘that’s what it takes’, the more we can gear training towards the accomplishment of competition-relevant tasks, the more those motivated by accomplishment will be rewarded. As described in Gamers, training can be set up in a manner that sets a clear path towards accomplishment.
We are competing to keep swimmers in the sport, and we are competing with every other activity that a swimmer could do. To compete successfully, we have to help swimmers feel like they are consistently accomplishing something. The delayed gratification model of ‘work hard for 6 months and taper’ is not going to cut it.
I am not talking about going best times at every meet. I am talking about creating a practice environment where goals are accomplished on a daily basis. The more swimmers can leave practice with a sense of accomplishment, the more they will feel good about themselves, and the more likely it is they’ll continue to participate in the sport.
An important aspect of practice design is creating an environment where EVERYONE can be successful. Training is often prescribed with the top end in mind, and everyone else is along for the ride. Does this sound like a situation where everyone is going to set up for success?
If we want to keep swimmers in the sport, we have to do better. We have to design practices that challenge everyone appropriately. This may require some ingenuity on our parts, as well as some hard work. We may have to change how practice is constructed and organized. If that’s not worth it, then we can’t really complain about swimmers leaving the sport.
A lot of swimmers want a sense of accomplishment. Rather than putting it on the swimmer to do so, it’s up to us as coaches to provide the best opportunity for that to happen on a daily basis. The more we can do that, the more swimmers we’ll keep in the sport.
Playing a Role
Everyone wants to feel a sense of purpose and they want to feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. They want to make a difference. Being on a team, and playing a contributing role on a team can be a significant motivator to stay involved with the sport.
Coaches can facilitate this engagement by clearly defining a team purpose and goals, as well as concretely relating how each individual contributes to those goals. While it may be self-evident in many cases (everyone contributes to the team GPA), the more often we can communicate singular contributions, the more individual swimmers will feel valued.
For the best swimmers on the team, the role the play is pretty obvious. However, it still helps to directly communicate this to these swimmers. For those with more ambiguous performance roles, it’s incredibly valuable to specifically communicate how important they are to the team.
Everyone swimmer wants to feel needed. Every swimmer wants to feel important. Every swimmer wants to feel like they contribute. While contribution is often implied in subtle ways, the impact is magnified when we specifically communicate this one on one.
‘Suzy, the positivity you bring every day makes such a difference the atmosphere during practice.’
‘Bryan, your work ethic is an inspiration for all of your teammates.’
‘Christine, your academic success is an amazing example for your younger teammates.’
Simple statements, communicated in every so often in nonchalant ways, will stick with individuals for the rest of their lives, and they can keep swimmers swimming. Everyone wants to belong and everyone wants to make a difference. The more we can provide clear roles to all swimmers, and communicate their value, the more likely we are to keep swimmers engaged in the sport.
For some, this is hard to do. Do it anyway.
Make and Interact with Friends
For some, swimming is not about having fun or accomplishing goals. It is about making friends and having the opportunity to spend time with those individuals on a daily basis. It’s about the connection they establish with their teammates and their peers. Some swimmers just want to see familiar, smiling faces, as they might not get that in other areas of their life.
Youth are looking for a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. This can come from participating in any number of activities or any number of groups. Swimming can be one of them.
Creating the opportunity for socialization throughout the practice process can be the difference between someone swimming throughout college and moving on as an age grouper. This socialization can take many different forms. It can be 10 minutes before practice, it can be during warm-up, it can be structured into warm down, and it can take place in the locker room afterwards.
When it happens is less important than the opportunity to engage with and catch up with friends. While this process is best left to develop organically, it can be encouraged by creating opportunities and by creating a supportive environment.
As a college coach, I see many swimmers who continue to swim to stay engaged with their teammates. Without this support and the relationships they’ve established, they’d be done. The more swimmers feel they are part of a community, the more likely they are to stay in the sport, particularly during the times when it gets really hard.
Throughout the recruitment process, most recruits talk about how important the people they’ll be joining are to making their decisions, and how the people they meet are what keep them in the sport. While it may be something of a canned answer, there’s some truth to it. While it may resonate with some coaches more than others, we all will better serve our swimmers by providing opportunities to create lasting connections.
What Is Your Program About?
While all of these components should be incorporated into the swimming experience, every team will naturally emphasize one aspect over another. You can’t be everything to everyone.
Each club and each college team has the ability to clearly define what type of experience they will provide. Some clubs will focus on high-performance and accomplishment. Others will focus on having fun while others may focus on establishing a sense of community. There isn’t a right or wrong way to define the program. However, it DOES need to be defined so that you attract swimmers that are looking for what you have to offer.
Within clubs, the emphasis can certainly shift as swimmers age. An initial focus on ‘fun’ can progress to a focus on accomplishment. For larger clubs, they can even have separate, yet clear tracks within their program to cater to different individuals. There can be a high-performance track that focuses on accomplishment. There can be a track that focus on connection and fun, with a training program and commitment level that compliments these goals.
However, each track needs to be executed with the general considerations in mind. All four aspects of continued engagement should be retained. It is the EMPHASIS that differs. Even for those that seek accomplishment, connection may be equally important. Keeping threads of each element keeps everyone engaged.
As college coaches, rather simply trying to convince the ‘best’ swimmers possible to swim for our schools, we may be better off CLEARLY and PROUDLY describing what our swimming experience will REALLY be about. This happens every time we have an opportunity to describe the team and the values of the team throughout the recruiting process.
Some programs are about high-performance and will best serve those individuals looking to realize their potential. Other programs may focus on using swimming as a means to provide connection. When there is a mismatch between the purpose of the program and the goals of the individual, swimmers aren’t going to stick around. Clearly defining the purpose of the program throughout the recruiting process, as well as identifying the goals of your prospects, will help to avoid these problems.
How Do We Keep People in The Sport?
Make swim practice the best part of their day. If swim practice is the best part of someone’s day, they WILL keep swimming. If swimming helps someone feel good about themselves more than other activities, they WILL keep swimming.
Regardless of what you choose to focus on, there are some basic environmental considerations that can make a big impact on each swimmer’s individual experience. All of these considerations may seem fluffy or counter-productive to some, particularly those who pride themselves on their high standards. However, these behaviors are not at odds with performance. They are performance-enhancing.
Not only will swimmers be happier and more likely to remain in the sport, they will swim fasters. Even if they didn’t enhance performance, it’s worth remembering that swimmers that quit don’t swim fast…ever.
A small smile goes a long way. Our presence as coaches can make a big impact on how view their experience. As moods and emotions are contagious, our smile and our body language set the tone for the atmosphere on the pool deck. A friendly, welcoming environment is going to keep swimmers coming back.
Holding swimmers accountable to incredibly high standards and being friendly are not mutually exclusive. If you’re demeanor is friendly, is that going to hurt or help with retaining swimmers? Believe it or not, some people don’t like interacting with unfriendly individuals. When given a choice, they won’t. I also find it hard to believe that smiling is going to hurt performance, so what is there to lose.
For some, they might not get a smile all day until arriving at swimming. That could be what keeps them in the sport.
When a swimmer ‘struggles’ of ‘fails’ or ‘doesn’t exactly what you’d like, you have choices. You can either dwell on the failure and make them feel bad about it, or you can help swimmers re-focus on the positive aspects and what they’re going to improve.
In both cases, the failure is going to be acknowledged. However, the response is going to be very different. Most individuals can only handle so much failure, and most fail to use this to make progress. Everyone needs help in believing they can be successful during challenges of any type, and that is a critical role that coaches play.
It’s not ‘that wasn’t so bad’, it’s let’s find a way to be better. Honesty is critical, yet honesty does not need to be delivered with negativity. Honesty needs to be delivered as opportunity for improvement. When framed the right way, most individuals can tolerate some pretty unpleasant feedback. This is a skill that can be developed. It’s a skill that’s critical to ‘good coaching’.
This is not about being obnoxiously positive. It is about taking the attitude that progress can be made and situations can be improved. This is a learned attitude and coaches can facilitate its development in swimmers. Beyond developing this life skill, simply being in a positive environment feels good. For many, they aren’t exposed to positivity much in their life. Swim practice can be that place if we choose, and it will keep swimmers coming back.
Swimming is a hard sport. There will be many times where swimmers are struggling. While it’s easy to get frustrated with swimmers and ‘blame’ them for their poor performance, this is the worst decision we can make. If swimmers are failing, they ALREADY feel bad about it. You don’t need to make it worse.
If practice or competition is going poorly, it’s probably because some other aspect of life is going poorly. We want swimming to be a great part of the day, not an aspect that compounds prior problems.
What swimmers really need is encouragement. When swimmers are struggling, one of our main tasks is to COACH them through the process of overcoming challenges.
Unsurprisingly, overcoming challenges is a great source of pride in athletes. The greatest opportunities for improving self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-worth are when swimmers are struggling. This is when the impact of encouragement, support, and guidance of a coach can be quite dramatic.
Swimmers want to feel good about what they’re doing. Overcoming challenges is the perfect opportunity to facilitate that response. As coaches, are ability to support and encourage swimmers through these challenges can often be the difference between success and failure.
Help Swimmers Feel Good About What They’re Doing
This is the bottom line. In everything they do, the more we work towards making swimming a positive experience and helping swimmers feel good about what they’re doing, even when they’re driving us crazy, the more swimmers are going to keep swimming.
Sometimes this is really easy to do. Sometimes it is really hard to do.
Set practice up for the them to be successful as often as possible. Be positive in all your interactions. Encourage swimmers as often as possible. Regardless of how you train swimmers, how you organize your practices, the type of swimmer you coach, or the goals of your program, these tenets should underpin daily interactions.
Whether you coach 5-year old novice swimmers or work in a ‘high performance’ environment, the same rules apply. Every Olympian I’ve ever been around appreciated positivity at practice. They also appreciated encouragement. At the end of the day, they wanted to feel good about the work they’re doing.
Providing them with this support will NOT compromise performance. It will enhance it. There are some that can survive negative environments. No one suffers in a positive environment built on honesty and trust. Certainly, the same can be said for the youngest swimmers as they’re introduced to the sport.
While coaches can’t be everything to everyone, we can work to incorporate these ideas into daily and weekly practices. The more coaches can have elements of fun, connection, accomplishment, and contribution, the more likely they will be to develop individuals that want to stay engaged in the sport throughout high school and college.