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You want more competitive swimmers? Make swim meets shorter!!

Competitors swim during the women's 200m freestyle heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games“If I had only one day left to live I would spend it at a swim meet because they last forever.” I’ve seen this on swimmers’ t-shirts at swim meets across the country, and I couldn’t agree more.

I was recently visiting with USA Swimming in Colorado Springs when we began discussing how to get more competitive swimmers into the sport. Several approaches were discussed, all with merit. USA Swimming is beginning a great new campaign called “Swim Today” to convert swim lesson kids to swim team kids.  However, there was one approach that I felt needed to be addressed: shorter swim meets would draw and retain younger kids (and parents) to the sport.

With three age-group swimmers between the ages of 8 and 11, and having swum competitively myself, I understand the current age-group swim meet agenda: spend five to six hours on a pool deck either early on a weekend morning or late into the evening on a weekday. This is costing the sport future competitive swimmers not because the kids do not want to compete in swim meets but because the parents, who may not have been competitive swimmers, do not want this big of a commitment.

Over the last couple of years, I have been able to recruit some of my kids’ friends to the swim team through conversations with their parents.  I have appealed to the benefits of gaining confidence in the water, to a healthy lifestyle, to fun with friends.  What I tend to leave out is the lengthy time commitment required for swim meets.  I would say that I have only had about a 10% retention rate after the parents’ experience a long swim meet.  Now usually they stick it out for a short period of time, but the reason I get for their kids quitting is the swim meet time commitment.

We have all heard the phrases “practice makes perfect” and “practice like you play,”  but this to me is one of the largest disconnects in the sport of swimming.  Swim practices can last one to two hours with interval training and very, very limited breaks.  Rarely does a swimmer get out of the pool during practice.  Yet at a swim meet there may be an hour between events.Start Backstroke

During high profile meets like the Olympics or FINA World Championships, the media always make a big deal out of a condensed time frame between races for athletes like Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps.  I understand this for high-caliber meets but age group kids (and parents) do not need a long break to rest.  A typical swim meet may include three to five races for each of my kids over the five to six-hour time frame.

Here is a typical meet……kids arrive at 6 a.m. to warm up for 20 minutes.  Meet starts at 7 a.m.  My son swims a race and then is back on the grass field playing baseball or football.  I don’t know an age group kid out there that can be contained to “rest” for the next race when it’s an hour away and all of their friends are ready to play.  But hey, there is good news for the parents…..you get to stand behind a starting block for two hours, time the other kids, and see your kid swim for maybe two minutes.

Something has to change.

Think about this, most other sports like soccer, baseball, and football all have the same practice requirements as swimming (one to two hours) but the games are typically equal to the length of practice and most often are shorter.  I would enjoy a maximum of 2.5-hour swim meet where coaches have to select events (and entries) that fit within that time frame.  PS:  my 10-year old doesn’t need to swim the 200 Fly. Or we could have more swim meets that have condensed time frames – baseball and basketball games are commonly held frequently throughout the week. In fact, I recently saw an article on ESPN.com where a Major League Baseball executive suggested a 7-inning MLB baseball game to appeal to more people.  The same type of thinking needs to take place in the sport of swimming!

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