The Trials of Teenage Swimmers: A Guide for Parents and Coaches.

By Wayne Goldsmith | In Hot Topics

Every week I receive at least one email from a frustrated parent or coach that goes something like this:

“Dear Wayne.

My daughter (or son or swimmer if the email is from a coach) is in her mid teens. She has been swimming for over five years. She was successful as a freestyler when she was younger but she has not done a PB for some time and as result she is now feeling down, un-motivated and frustrated.

She works really hard and she finds it difficult to stay motivated when her team mates - some who do not train as hard as she does – keep doing PBs and winning medals at swimming competitions.

She is talking about giving up.

What can I do to motivate her and keep her swimming?

Signed,

Concerned Parent (or Coach).

This article is a summary of what I have learnt about this issue over the past 20 years. I sincerely hope it helps you.

Issue Number 1: Not every swimmer can be an Olympic Champion.

The first thing to accept is that not every child can be or should be an Olympic champion. Some kids are great at mathematics. Some are outstanding writers. Some are brilliant musicians. And some are amazing swimmers. Accept your child for the incredible human being they are regardless of whether it takes them 50 seconds or 150 seconds to swim 100 freestyle.

Solution: Encourage your child to find their passion – to find the thing they love to do. If they love what they do, they will persist with it and persevere during the tough times. If that passion happens to be swimming – great: chances are they will become very very good at swimming. If that passion happens to be music or dance or study or hockey, then give them the same love, support and encouragement.

Issue Number 2: Your child is not a swimmer. They are a person who swims. There is a huge difference.

It is dangerous to define anyone by what they do. The reason for this is simple. If they can no longer do the thing they are defined by, their self image, self confidence and feelings of self-worth can suffer incredible damage. Many teenagers who were very good as young swimmers and who then find they are no longer excelling in the pool in their teens often find themselves grappling with difficult emotional and self-image issues. In the worst cases, this can lead to more significant psychological problems.

Solution: Be reluctant to think of your child as a “swimmer”. Don’t introduce them as “John the swimmer” or “Susie the butterflyer”. Swimming is just one aspect of their life and it is important to keep everything in perspective and ensure that their life is always in balance.

 

Issue Number 3: Your child is not a freestyler or backstroker or any other stroker if they are under 15 years of age.

Another huge mistake parents and coaches make is to categorise young swimmers as a one stroker too early. There is no such thing as a world class 10 year old backstroker.There is no such thing as a champion 11 year old butterflyer. There are just kids who happen to swim one stroke a little better than they swim the other strokes.

Solution: Forget medals, trophies and accolades. Swimming is something you would like to think your kids will do for the entire lives. It’s a great way to stay fit, healthy and even one day it may save their life (or the life of someone they love). Encourage them to develop great technique and outstanding skills in all strokes then see what happens as they grow, develop and mature.

Issue Number 4: Sometimes you have to accept the fact that it is over.

This can be a tough thing to deal with but sometimes you just have to accept it is over and swimming is something your child did when they were younger.

This can be tough for swimmers, coaches and parents to accept, particularly knowing how many long, hard training sessions, early mornings, weekend swim meets, time and money have been invested to get this far.

Remember that the coach and you as a parent want nothing more than to see your child grow as an individual and become all they can be. Also remember that if your child can walk away from swimming without an Olympic Gold medal but with a great sense of discipline, self-confidence, a life-long affinity for water, a habit for fitness and a healthy life style, then the journey has been very much worth it.

Solution: Make sure that the decision to retire is the right one and it has been made for all the right reasons. “I don’t like the coach” is not a good reason to retire. Nor is “I don’t like Steve the naughty boy in my lane”. Retirement should be the end result of a thoughtful, un-emotional, logical, methodical process which challenges the swimmer to be honest with themselves and others about the real reasons behind it.

 

Issue Number 5: Sometimes focusing on the problem only makes the solution harder to find.

This is a very common problem. For example,  ”Julie” was a great backstroker when she was young. For some reason – (and there are millions of reasons why kids stop improving) – her backstroke times stopped improving. So, the coach added more backstroke to her program. And still no improvement. So he added more backstroke to her program. Still nothing. So she moved to another coach who gave her nothing but backstroke and still her times did not improve. Finally after three years with no improvement in backstroke, she gave up, heartbroken and disillusioned. This performance plateau is very common and every swimmer experiences it at some time.

Solution: If the swimmer has been classified as a “backstroker” for some time and is getting frustrated about not improving in backstroke then don’t-do-backstroke! Encourage them to focus on IM or butterfly and to forget all about backstroke for six months. This “de-pressuring” the situation often is the catalyst to not only great improvement in the other strokes but when they return to their main stroke quite often it has also improved.

 

Issue Number 6: You might be part of the problem.

Every time I have suggested to a parent that they might be part of the problem I have either been abused, ignored or dismissed as not understanding the situation, told “but Wayne, you don’t know our daughter” and many other things but the facts are sometimes the parents are the source of the problem.

Solution: Stop being part of the problem! An eight year old is different to a three year old. A teenager is different to a nine year old. As your kids change, so too does your relationship with them.

When they are young swimmers your role is to love, guide, help, support, encourage, protect and care for them. In many ways, you are helping to drive their involvement in swimming. However, when they are teenagers, your role as a parent (or coach) changes so that you play a support role and they must take responsibility for and ownership of their own training, preparation and competition. Want to really help your teenage swimmer? Step back, do less and give them the opportunity to drive their own swimming careers.

Issue Number 7: You can’t be objective about your own child.

This is something else which is difficult to convince parents to accept – but you can’t be objective about your own child. You can’t love something so much, care about something so deeply, be attached to something so closely and at the same time be objective when making judgements about the things they do.

There may be one hundred children in the pool all swimming up and down but you only see one of them. In this environment it is difficult to know what is real and what is perception. In the past twenty years I can count the number of parents I have met who have successfully coached their own children to international success on one hand.

Solution: Form a “performance partnership” between you, your child and your child’s coach. In this partnership, each partner has an important job to do. Your child’s job is to prepare and perform to the best of their ability. Their coach’s job is to work with the swimmer and ensure they realise their potential. Your job is to provide a supportive, loving, values based environment which gives your child the opportunity to be all they can be.

Issue Number 8: The Problem is not always a swimming problem.

This is particularly true when you are working with teenage swimmers. Think about what they are going through. Gender issues, growth and development issues, social development issues, sexual issues, studying hard, making the transition to adult-hood, thinking about their careers, learning to drive, building relationships…and trying to swim fast. Quite often a problem with swimming performance is reflection of a problem (or problems) in other areas of their lives.

Solution: Make sure you know your kids and are in touch in some way with every aspect of their lives. Keep in touch with everything they are doing, what they feel, who their friends are, what they are passionate about, what subjects they enjoy most at school etc. It is only when you know your kids that you can know what the real problem may be.

 

Issue Number 9: Changing Coaches will only help if the Coach was the problem.

Every week I get an email asking me to intervene in a young swimmer’s career and to give advice about how they can improve. And every week I give the same answer…”go and talk to your coach”.

A lot of parents and swimmers will change coaches hoping to find a breakthrough in swimming performance. In some cases, there is no doubt changing coaches can have a positive effect but, changing coaches will only help if it was the coach who was the problem in the first place. If the problem is time management, attitude, a lack of life balance, over-parenting, the lack of a strong work ethic or some other problem, then changing coaches will not help. Swimmers with “baggage” will take that baggage anywhere they go.

Solution: Create and sustain a great relationship with the coach. You should feel comfortable meeting with the coach and discussing your child’s swimming. And be honest about your child’s character, habits, attitudes and values. Changing coaches is sometimes the chosen solution when kids just don’t want to work hard and are looking for an easier option. There can be many reasons for changing coaches – make sure that if you make this decision that it is for the right reasons.

 

Issue Number 10: What you are experiencing is perfectly normal and natural.

Many of the emails and calls I receive from worried and concerned parents of teenage swimmers are quite emotional, moving and full of frustration and pain. And it is perfectly normal and understandable. In most cases the parents want nothing more than some help, some ideas and some guidance to help them and their child deal with a challenging situation.

There is no magic, miracle solution to dealing with the trials and tribulations of the teenage swimmer. There are no supplements, no creams, no special equipment, no vitamins, no swim-wear, no gimmicks, no gizmos – there is nothing you can do or nothing you can buy which will – by itself solve the problem. It takes patient, perseverance parenting and the commitment to never stop trying to be the best mum or dad you can be.

Solution: Keep loving them.

Summary:

  1. If you are the parent or coach of a teenage swimmer who is going through a tough time and not improving, please be assured you are not alone. I have spoken with hundreds of swimming families around the world over the past twenty years and what you are going through is very very common and very very normal;
  2. The key message is that it is unwise to closely connect your child’s personality with their performance - that is, it is dangerous to define a person by what they do. Your child is not a swimmer. They are a remarkable human being who chooses to swim as one of the things they enjoy doing;
  3. And accept that what happens is sometimes just what happens. We all want the best for our children. We all want them to be happy, successful, healthy and to enjoy every moment of their lives. If they win the Olympic Gold medal great. If they don’t - hey – we will love them just as much and be with them every minute of the wonderful journey that life is.

Wayne Goldsmith – sincere thanks to Debbie, Graeme, Mark and Greg for their input putting this together – that makes it over 100 years of coaching experience behind this article.

© 2012, Wayne Goldsmith. All rights reserved.

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