Ain’t it great to be young? To see the world with expecting eyes, and not limited in any way. Your entire future ahead of you with only dreams and hope entering the mind.
This past week I received two photos from a friend. The pictures are of his two daughters standing in front of their new ‘award boards,’ put together by Mom and Dad. Brittney’s board begins with the number 9, Madison’s begins with the number 6, and both boards continue to the number 18. The first couple pegs on these boards are full of ribbons and medals, and the meaning of the boards becomes very evident. These boards are for the girls to hang their awards on over the next 10 or so years of their swimming careers.
While looking at the smiles on the girls’ faces, I started to imagine what the boards are going to look like in 10 years. And I started to imagine how happy the girls would look when these boards are eventually FILLED to the brim with so many more awards. It’s just going to be, and nothing is going to stand in the way.
Imagine what can affect their ability to fill these boards. Support from their parents (a given), coach (who will always work with the girls’ long-term goals in mind), team (this support system in training, fun, and competition is hugely important), and swimming community (people like us trying to at least show we care about each swimmer we come into contact with).
From my experience, just about all kids of this age see the sport as something really fun, something to look forward to, and as an activity in which they share time with their friends. Kids go to the pool not just to swim back and forth, but also for the social aspect, and with the belief that if they keep doing that, just about EVERYTIME they get in the pool, they’re gonna go FASTER!
The entire support system should be set up to maintain optimism for as long as possible. The parents, who always have more unselfish interest in the success of the kids, want the kids to succeed because they want to see the kids SMILE more. From the parent’s perspective, it should always be more important for the swimmers to be happy, than victorious. It’s only when the swimmer has progressed to a point where victory IS what makes the swimmer happy that I’ve seen parents WANT for their kids to win at all costs. Sure, there are plenty of parents out there who push their kids a bit too much, and we’ll never get through to them about pacing success, simply because somewhere out there, there are always some GREAT 13-year-old swimmers. Some of these swimmers will maintain their greatness for a long period of time — Amanda Beard, for instance. The trouble is the gamble we take on trying to make ALL 13-year olds like Amanda (and remember…there is only ONE Amanda Beard). The reality is that most 13-year-old phenoms do not end up being stars when they are older. The pressure is simply too great. It has driven many swimmers out of the sport. The flip side is that if there’s pressure on a swimmer to be successful at an early age, and the swimmer DOESN’T become an age-group success, he might be driven out of the sport. That same swimmer, given time to mature and improve at a more gradual pace, might become a star in high school or college or even at the Masters level. But if he drops out, we’ll never know. The trick is to keep optimism from become tarnished.
For the HUGE majority of swimmers, parents need to practice patience and pacing. Rather than striving for huge improvements, heavy workloads, and extremely high goals at a young age, strive for a paced success rate until that award board is FILLED…at age 18. Can you imaging the swimmer who improves their time EVERY year from age 6 to age 18? That optimism is continuous…improvement is expected, and builds each year. "I’ll be faster" is the mindset we want ALL kids to have. To pace this out, parents need to understand that coaches need somewhere to TAKE the kids each year. Somewhere new, something to build on.
For coaches, patience is also a very tough thing. Their jobs depend on success NOW. Each season, the swimmers must perform better than everyone else in the local community, or they risk losing swimmers to another team. Coaches are usually under pressure from boards, parents, and the swimmers to make them perform at their ultimate EACH season, and that’s a tough assignment. Most coaches, when asked whether they’d prefer their swimmers to reach full potential at age 18 or age 13, will tell you 18. Now, imagine how much you’d love your coach if the majority of your team had lifetime best times EVERY season from age 6 to age 18. Talk about job security. Improvement is expected, anticipated, and looked forward to.
This also takes a plan. Through teaching, swimmer maturation, gradually increasing workload, gradually adding cross-training, increasing intensity, a stepped approach of a bit more each year, allows the swimmer to always have something to look forward to that will aid in this improvement. Again, the goal is to fill up the board.
Teammates also play a part in each swimmer’s success. Team functions, and the building of a family, or TEAM atmosphere are hugely important. Friction and rivalries will always creep in, but that happens in every family and in every team effort. These things can not be overlooked, and should be dealt with. Kids don’t want to go to a place where other people are making fun of them, or where cliques are being developed. They want to go to a place where their friends are — a place where people respect their efforts and appreciate that all swimmers will progress at different rates, to different potentials. While there will be very FAST swimmers, and swimmers who won’t reach those loftiest of levels, the entire team needs to understand that success as a whole is based on incremental success of each individual…no matter how big, or how small. Personal best, is personal best, and should be praised at ALL levels, and all ages.
Last, not least, comes the swimming community. We all have a huge responsibility to these kids. We have to understand the challenges they will face in upcoming years. We have to acknowledge the effort they’ll be putting in and we have to appreciate that they have the opportunity to DECIDE where they spend their time. We have to create an excitement within the sport to make them WANT to stay involved. This means involved at more levels than the Olympic, ultimate, elite level. While it’s great to strive for that, and while what WE DO is so much based on associating and sharing ideas from those top athletes, we try to do it in a way that allows everyone to take advantage of the skills of THOSE swimmers.
I was truly excited to see the picture of Brittney standing in front of her award board. Her 9- and 10-year pegs are filled with ribbons and medals, and hanging just below the board is a poster of Amanda Beard. Think of the optimism and POTENTIAL displayed in this image. What if…just what if…we see a picture 10 years from now of another young girl standing in front of her award board, filled with 9- and 10-year ribbons and medals, with a poster of Brittney hanging below it. It could happen, you know.
Now, I’m not trying to put any pressure on this young swimmer. I just want to see her smiling like this in 8 years, with that board struggling to stay on the wall due to the weight of the awards. And I want to see the shelves that had to be added for the trophies. The thing is, right now, today, at her age…there is optimism. She, and all kids at that age, should feel like they can be ANYTHING they decide — athlete, scientist, astronaut, or President.
The world is wide open to kids. It’s our job as parents, coaches, and swim community to make sure we help them maintain that optimism for as long as possible.