I enjoyed talking with one of my children’s former coaches this morning about championship meets. My question was what can parents do — or not do — to help their kids at the big meets. Coach Tim Hill, now of the SHARKS Swim Club in the Houston area, asked me what it was like at the PAC 12 championship meets sitting in the stands, compared to the big meets during our club years. He’s clever that way to get me to think about it myself rather than telling me the answers.
The big difference was rooting as a team with the other parents at the college championships. The scoreboard has our teams listed in order of points and you can’t avoid it. We were competitive not with the top teams on the scoreboard, but the ones right above and below us. The parents of each college dress up in school colors, have props like light-up necklaces and pompoms and create team cheers. We’d have a pre-finals function with drinks and snacks in the hotel lobby. When our kids walked through the lobby to get on their buses or vans, we’d perform our team cheer and make a tunnel for them to go through. It was fun and filled with laughter embarrassing the heck out of our kids.
We cheered for each other’s kids, felt disappointment when someone didn’t have a good swim together as a team. Up in the stands, we watched our kids cheer for each other, on their feet on deck or at the blocks, rooting and caring sincerely how their teammates swam. Yes, we wanted our kids to get best times and make it to A finals, but there was less focus on that than being part of a team.
At USA Swimming meets, the focus was on individual swims and the team score wasn’t as important or often didn’t exist. We definitely cheered for each other’s kids, but it wasn’t as intensely a team experience as the college meets. The focus was on our own children. We wanted them to get personal bests, improve and get that cut.
At age group meets, Tim explained that parents have a lot of expectations because they’ve got “blood and money” invested. “It’s your baby and your money.” Often meets are away and you’re paying for hotels, plus the suits and entry fees. It adds up, not to mention the family’s time commitment, and if our children aren’t improving, we want to know why.
Tim also explained that swimming is a lot like real life and there are a lot of variables. The stock market doesn’t go straight up, for example. We aren’t 100% every day in our jobs or relationships — and our children aren’t going to get best times at every meet. Our children may be tired from homework, not feeling well or not on their game. He discovered that Tuesday afternoon duel meets for high school, kids may swim better than at USA meets on a weekend. They’re fresher for one thing. By the weekend, the kids may be tired after a week of school, practices and homework. Also, it’s a race with winners and losers. There’s immediate feedback. They may go to a USA meet and be seeded 80th and wonder if they even want to swim because they know they don’t have a shot at finals.
Parents need to be supportive and not start questioning in the stands if the taper was right, if another kid is getting more attention from the coach or why their child isn’t improving. If we are questioning the coach in front of our kids, they will start to lose confidence. So much of swimming is feeling confident, Tim said. If we focus too much on performance and don’t realize it’s a process with ups and downs, we may put too much pressure on our kids. When the meet is over and we still have questions about “why” then go directly to the source. Ask the coach questions at the right time.
Tim mentioned that there’s a lot more opportunity for kids to improve during daily practice than at a monthly meet. When asked by a swimmer if Tim thought he could break 50 seconds in the 100 free, Tim asked him, “What have you been doing in practice to get there?”
What differences do you see between college and age group meets?