Debut Day At A Swim Meet Where Some Have Been Treading Same Old Water Too Long

Young swimmer - by dad

One of our sons raced for the first time at a schools swim meet today after a Peaty sized portion of porridge and the packing of a kitbag with the new suit he’d chosen himself.

He came away smiling, not because of the bronze medal around his neck but because he’d had a day off lessons and fun with his teammates, he’d soaked up the moment and got to do a few of those things he’d seen looking over dad’s shoulder (splashing water on face before race, adjusting goggles, just in case, and so on).

Fear not, I don’t intend to write copious words on the Little Lord nor his bro, nor school meets … but, it having been some years since I had a close encounter with this particular grassroots level of event, some of what I saw reminded me of the journey swimming has yet to make. No names, no places, just a general observation from behind the window (complete with a blind – they were kind enough to leave the shutters tilted to a reasonable level of openness) to the entrance hall that offered the only viewing place for spectators (me and a few grandparents was about it, in between three waves of enthusiastic pre-school/kindergarten children allowed to clamber all over us to get a peak of the action on their way to their swim lesson):

1. No adult directly supervised from the deck of the main competition pool the warm-up of some teams with swimmers as young as 12 in the water.

2. Swimmers:

  • a. half of the teams (even though there was plenty of bench space overlooking the competition pool) sat on benches out of sight of the main pool. The result of that: hardly any of them cheered for their teammates/took part in the meet beyond their own moments; the opportunity to learn more about the importance of ‘team’ than simply being told ‘you’re a team’ was missed.
  • b. many did not dry down and put a shirt or other clothing on in between races – and no coach or teacher appeared to tell them to do so.
  • c. many kids sat around the deck between races on their mobile phones – they were far more elsewhere than in the meet. This would not have been allowed in a maths class … yet, I saw no coach tell a swimmer (12 to 16 years) to put their phone away.
  • d. not a single race was won by the swimmer displaying the best technique. The winners tended to be the biggest and most prolific energy wasters in the water. Generally, it looked as though there had been little emphasis on technique at the programs the swimmers came from (that said, the better examples came from a school linked to a specific swim-excellence program)
  • e. lots of DQ moments went unchecked (faulty takeovers, one-hand turns on breaststroke, using the same arm twice in succession on backstroke to finish a race, jumping out of the water before racing had finished and so on). No-one wants to see kids get disqualified but if you don’t teach the basics straight up, all is lost. Habits count (and cost).

3. Coach awareness:

  • a. a trivial one: there was just one window through which spectators could see the swimming; there was a lot of free space round the deck … and yet, the coaches of one team opted to stand right in front of that one window, like it was a wall and the grandparents and me were irrelevant invisibles at the party. I raise this awareness issue because it feeds into the next point
  • b. when said coaches spoke to boys almost as big as them after races, they stood back, made eye contact and talked in an unexcited manner. Faced with girls and younger children, the coaches, unknowingly and not in a deliberate sense, in all probability, hovered over, leaned into, spoke more deliberately to those swimmers. For some of the children, it looked as though they felt slightly fearful of the moment (even if that was never the intention of the coach). In many cases, the coach only needed to have sat down on the bench and brought himself to athlete eye-level for the short chat to have turned into a different experience for the young swimmer.
  • c. there were no butterfly races at the meet yet one team warmed up almost entirely on ‘fly. This could have been deliberate for reasons such as ‘we treat this meet as a workout, no more’ through to ‘if we do ‘fly, we’ll scare the other teams into believing we’re stronger’ and ‘if we do ‘fly in warm-up, the other teams will stay out of our lanes’. I have no idea but I do know the pool was stacked, not quite to the level of China’s summer public-pool boiling dumplings but enough to know that all teams would have to share lanes.

Awareness and fairness and teaching both count.

I made some other observations that I’ll be sending to folk working in positions that afford them the power to trigger improvements.

Overall, what struck me most was that this might have been a moment in the 1960s or 1970s but for the use of compression suits and goggles: it felt familiar, even the facility not far from the conditions I swam in as a boy barring the level deck sides and barring the fact that I recall more awareness in my own coach at all times beyond the few when I called him ‘dad’ and the word was lost in the cacophony of other names he enjoyed and endured.

I imagined things would have moved on more. They haven’t. All races were over 50m (disappointing, though probably because some in school competition would struggle with the likes of 200m swims – and time and pool hire are factors, too). Some things are more avoidable; demand better planning and purpose. Much of the activity today was for the moment, with no process and goal. That struck me as limiting – and limiting in a way that is wholly avoidable regardless of resource and funding (the wages being paid to teachers and coaches is another question, of course – and more on that, and the theme of ‘you get what you pay for … and sometimes less/sometimes more’, down the line.

On the plus side: the atmosphere was friendly, the officials and volunteers made it so and the kids, on the whole, came out smiling and glad to have been there (they cannot be expected to know that the experience could have been all the more enriching). The pool manager approached me politely to remind me that photos were not allowed, for athlete safety reasons, but if I wanted to take a quick shot of my son, I could do so as she observed. I was happy with that: nothing bigger than athlete safety.

Beyond the obvious delight of watching one of our sons soak up his day in the pool, there was this to savour, too: I walked into a pool, sat and watched some swimming without being greeted by recognition or suspicion. A total unknown. There’s much to be said for that 🙂

Meanwhile, SwimVortex will be returning to this theme at some stage in connection with our wider series on the state of swimming.

What things do you see at your local meets that leave you feeling the swimming experience could be so much better than it is?

You can write in your name or with your name and a request for confidentiality to Should we wish to publish your views, we will contact you before we do so and inform you of context.

One of our sons raced for the first time at a schools swim meet today after a Peaty sized portion of porridge and the packing of a kitbag with the new suit he’d chosen himself. He had a fine time – and dad had some rare time to sit and watch swimming (grassroots competition) as a total unknown. Here’s what struck me…


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