Here’s an email that I received from a Masters swimmer — and my reply. Although the reply is addressed to an adult swimmer, the same information would apply to age-group swimmers who are new to swim team.
I have been swimming for many years, but have only recently joined a Masters team. I am clueless about the pace clock, and all the swimmer lingo about sets and sendoffs. But most of all, I’m not sure about the etiquette. I’m used to swimming by myself in a lane, and now there are sometimes 5 of us. Help! — Anita
You’re not alone. Joining a team is a big step for most swimmers, and the experience can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re used to swimming laps at your own pace, in your own lane.
Learning the etiquette is key (more on that in a minute), but equally important is deciphering the "culture" of your lane. At any given Masters practice, you’ll find that each lane has its own personality, based on the personalities, goals, and abilities of the swimmers in that lane. Your lane-mates may have been swimming together for months or even years. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and habits (both good and bad), and they’ve no doubt learned how to work together as a team to get everyone through the workout and to do it well.
During your first few times with a new group, it’s probably a good idea NOT to lead your lane. Talk with Coach before practice to see if she can recommend a lane where you’d be near the middle or end of the pack. This way, you can remain in relative obscurity while you learn the coach’s lingo and suss out the spirit of the group. Try to be sensitive to who the alpha swimmer is in your lane, and to how decisions are made in your lane. Most Masters lanes, whether they realize it or not, have a leader — or at least a democratic way of making decisions. If you’re observant, polite, and express eagerness to learn, you should slip seamlessly into the group.
One thing that irks Masters coaches and swimmers alike is the newcomer (and, alas, this is often a Type AAA triathlete or a fitness swimmer who’s used to swimming solo in a lane), who pops into a lane of his peers (speedwise) and announces that he’s going to do XYZ even though Coach has asked the rest of the lane to do ABC. This swimmer’s XYZ usually calls for humongous paddles, a pull buoy, and lots of freestyle with no rest. This swimmer will say, "Don’t worry, I won’t get in anyone’s way," but that misses the point of participating in a Masters practice.
If you’re sharing a lane with other people, you need to swim the workout that’s been assigned to that lane, and you need to work with your lane-mates as a team to get everyone through the workout in the way Coach intended. If you’re faster than everyone else in the lane, this may mean that you get a little more rest than you’d like between intervals. If you’re slower and getting lapped, it may mean that you have to swim 150s when everyone else does 200s. The idea is to work as a GROUP within your lane, and not to have five swimmers and three different sendoffs.
Masters swimmers are generally very welcoming and accepting. But, you need to realize that you are the newcomer stepping into an established unit. You’ll be welcomed, but you need to work extra hard to fit in. Having impeccable swim manners will help immensely!
Here are ten rules of the road:
1. Circle Swim. In most pools, this means swimming on the right-hand side of the lane. If you swim down the middle, you can bonk someone’s head… or injure someone’s shoulder… or mess up someone’s concentration.
2. Just before you reach the wall, and ONLY if there’s room, you can move to the center of the lane to do your turn, but make sure you push off along the NEW right-hand side of the lane. If you push off on the OLD right-hand side or in the middle of the lane, you mess up the person who’s swimming behind you. Remember: As you come out of your turn, it’s up to YOU to watch out for the other people in your lane.
3. Don’t stop in the middle of a length! If you do this, you can cause a pileup behind you. Try to keep going to the end of the length.
4. If someone catches up to you, don’t stop in the middle of the length to let them pass. Swim to the end of the length and immediately get over to the far right so they can pass. Push off after they’ve finished their pushoff and are a couple yards away from the wall. It’s not good etiquette to push off so soon that you hit their feet.
5. If you’re the one who wants to pass, be patient. Don’t swim over top of the person, or try to speed around them. You could injure yourself or someone coming the other way. When you want to pass, gently tap or tag the toes of the person in front. This is the sign that they should stop at the end of the length and let you pass. All it takes is a tap or two. It’s rude and annoying to keep hitting the person’s feet!
6. Don’t tailgate! Wait 5 seconds before you push off behind someone. Then, if you catch the swimmer ahead of you, tap their feet and go ahead of them at the end of the length. It’s annoying if you stay right at their feet and don’t signal to pass (that’s called drafting). Or, worse yet, you keep hitting their feet every time you take a stroke.
7. No pulling on the lane lines! Fuggetaboutit. Just don’t do this, OK?
8. Start and finish each swim at the wall. If you finish by stopping two yards from the wall, you prevent the people BEHIND you from finishing at the wall. Also, chances are good that you’ll lose a lot of races. Swim races are won and lost by hundredths of a second. Practice a strong finish — right to the wall — every time you swim, and strong, fast finishes will be automatic when you race.
9. Be aware of the others in your lane! Let your lane-mates finish their swims at the wall! Even if you have eight people in your lane, the last person has the same rights as the first person. Everyone should be able to finish at the wall and finish strong. So get out of the way after you finish! If you’re first in the lane, make sure everyone else gets out of the way for the final swimmers.
10. If you are leading your lane, you have responsibilities. Be a leader! That means you should have your goggles on and be ready to push off when Coach says, "Ready, GO!" It means you have to understand pace clocks and sendoffs, and you need to be clear about what sendoffs Coach wants you to make. You have to keep track of how many laps you’ve done. This is easy if you’re doing 25s or 50s or 100s, but you have to be more aware on those 200s, 400s, and 500s! You have to keep track of how many swims you’ve done. This can be a challenge if you’re doing, say, 20 X 25 or 10 X 50. One trick is to get your lane-mates to help. Do a group countdown. Get everyone involved in keeping track. You have to make sure everyone in your lane has a chance to finish at the wall. You need to encourage your lane-mates. Be a leader. Be aware of how others are doing. You need to set the example for speed and perfect technique, then help others along by encouraging them. You need to start the high-fives at the end of a tough set and at the end of each practice.
It may seem that life was a lot simpler when you were just swimming laps on your own, but there are HUGE advantages to practicing with a team, so it’s worth all the effort it takes to learn the lingo and master the basics. Your coach and teammates (and that darn pace clock) will push you toward being a faster, stronger, more competent swimmer. You’ll make tons of friends who will encourage you and keep you headed toward your goals. Just be patient and stick with it.