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What's Wrong With Swimming? -- August 3, 2004

By Wayne Goldsmith

Introduction – Why write this article?
In the past fifteen years, I have worked with swimmers, coaches, sports scientists and administrators across Australia and around most of the world. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had these opportunities and I have met some outstanding individuals who I now call friends. These opportunities have also allowed me to develop a very wide perspective of the issues now confronting the sport.

I usually write about sports science or testing or technique or coaching and do so with passion and enthusiasm. However, over the past few years, I have been having discussions with equally passionate and enthusiastic swimming people around the world that frankly disturb me. And it is the
consistency of the message I have heard in so many nations and from so many people that disturbs me the most.

So I decided to take a break from drills and heart rates and write a far more important article that has greater implications than anything else I have done in the past.

I didn’t have to think much to write this article – I just wrote down the key points from the discussions I have had with swimming coaches, teachers, athletes, parents and administrators around the world since the early 1990s.

The future of the sport hangs in the balance.
One could be fooled looking at the outstanding performances of elite swimmers around the world in the lead-in to the 2004 Olympic Games that all is rosy with the sport.

The reality is…it isn’t.

There is no doubt that with the increase in funding and focus given to high performance sport over the past ten years and the impact of sports science, coach education, recovery and training techniques that the elite end of the sport is looking fast and furious. But this represents about 1 percent of the sport. And if the other 99% isn’t going well, eventually,
even this elite 1% will struggle.

Numbers of registered swimmers are generally down around the world. That is a fact. The common response from most national swimming administrations is to drive some form of junior development initiative with a focus on non competitive swimming, fun and enjoyment, e.g. “GET SWIMMING” “TRY THE WATER” “SLASH AND FUN” type programs.

These programs have had some short-term impact and I applaud the administrations for the effort. The programs are generally based on good intentions and logical thinking but the problem is greater than just getting kids into clubs to try the sport. The novelty factor of getting wet and splashing around with some friends in a non competitive environment
soon wears off.

Getting them into the water is one thing – the bigger issue is – what are we doing to keep them in it? What are we doing to create an environment that stimulates and entertains the kids and helps them develop a life long passion for the sport?

To try and solve this issue, national associations around the world are putting in place some form of club development program: programs aimed at lifting the standards of governance, competition scheduling and athlete and family support at grass roots level. Again, great initiatives and only time will tell how effective these programs will be.

So what’s wrong with the sport?
We’ve all talked about it over dinner or over a few drinks or at meets or around pools over the past ten years – let’s get it out in the open.

Kids are different today
Talk to coaches in any country and they will tell you that it is becoming more and more difficult to “sell” swimming to kids. The traditional values that the sport embodies, although just as (maybe even more) important as they were in the past, are out of pace with “fast food” attitudes of kids and parents in this century.

Start talking about commitment, responsibility, integrity, work ethic, selfless teamwork, sacrifice, dealing with pain and discomfort, learning to deal with competitive pressures and coaches find themselves communicating with the mirror – and no one else.

The truth is – kids ARE different. The basis for that difference lies in the entertainment driven society we all face. From young ages kids are given a stimulating environment of television, video, DVD, computers, Internet, video games, on line learning, Harry Potter, theme parks – it is a great time to be a kid!

But take these kids and try to convince them that plowing up and down a pool twenty hours a week for ten years to become a national level swimmer is a pretty cool thing to do and see how far you get.

Media focus on other sports
In England and Scotland, the back five pages of the daily papers are football, (soccer).

It’s the same France, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Buy a paper when you hit LA, turn to the sports section and you get basketball, baseballand football (gridiron).



South America……………football and nothing else.



South Africa – Rugby and cricket. Central and Northern Africa – soccer.



In Australia it’s football (one of the Rugby codes or AFL) or in summer cricket – cricket– cricket.

We all love reading the sports pages but in terms of the future of swimming, what does this media focus on other sports do? How does it impact on swimming?

1. Talent drain
If you were a twelve year old in Spain or Italy or Brazil or England who had great speed, power, flexibility and athletic ability, why would you choose swimming over football?

If you were a ten year old – tall, explosive, lean and athletically gifted in Chicago or Detroit or Dallas or Los Angeles, why would you get out of bed at 5 am six days a week to swim when you could be out playing basketball with friends after school and enjoy sleeping in?

If you were a fifteen year old in Melbourne, Australia – tough, talented, determined, strong and a great competitor – why would you choose swimming rather than Australian Rules Football which offers two-three times per week training and a chance to make a good income if you are among the top 300 players in the game?

The best athletes in the world are all playing football (or maybe basketball)! This is not to say that swimmers are less talented or less gifted than athletes in other sports but the reality is, the power of the media and the exposure football gets around the world when it comes to making decisions about which sport to choose, swimming is not the top choice for the majority of kids.

Truth is, we are being out-marketed, out-promoted and out-sold by football and to a lesser extent basketball in most parts of the world.

2. Sponsorship
Many sponsors are true philanthropists. They have a genuine desire to help and develop young kids to achieve their potential. However, these are in the minority.

The nature of business is cost–benefit, that is, if I spend this money, how does it benefit the business?

Ask yourself this question, if you had a million bucks to invest in sport, what would you do? By reading this article, most likely published in a swimming magazine or journal or on a swimming web site you are in all probability from a swimming background and therefore have a degree of bias in making the decision.

However, remove yourself for a moment from the sport. Stand outside and look objectively at the sport from the perspective of a potential sponsor.


1. The sport gets little or no publicity or media coverage outside of major international championships.


2. The athletes, outside of the real superstars like Phelps, Thorpe, Hackett and Coughlin get little or no recognition.


3. The athletes look great and present a positive image. But outside of the few real superstars in the sport, who can improve the sales of my product/service if it isn’t swimming related, i.e. swimmers can “sell” swimming gear but what about cars, televisions, breakfast cereal, air conditioners and holiday destinations?


4. If I (the sponsor) put my money into football I get national television exposure on a weekly basis, plus the print media and ground signage, players’ team gear, playing equipment and so on.



Now make the informed decision on what to do with your million.


And that’s the decision sponsors and potential sponsors all over the world have to make when swimming associations, clubs, coaches and athletes approach them for support.

3. Recognition
Whilst in an ideal world, people would do things for the pure thrill and love of what they do and to strive for excellence because of an inner drive and determination to do so - this is not an ideal world.

People are generally motivated by recognition – be that by parents, family, friends, colleagues, the public or the media. With swimming competing with so many other sports and news-worthy stories for media coverage, recognition for all but the super stars is hard to achieve.

That leaves a lot of very hard working, talented kids and coaches unrecognized, unheralded and generally unappreciated.

So here’s the common response to all this. It’s the media’s fault they don’t promote swimming.

“If the media got behind us and promoted swimming the same way they promote football and basketball we could solve all these problems” – is the common cry.

Well, here’s the news – they aren’t going to!

The culture of football is so strong that in some nations it represents a significant portion of the national identity. The industry of football is worth billions around the world and thousands of media writers and broadcasters make their living promoting and commenting about football. It is estimated that of all sport televised around the world almost 90 – yes you read correctly – 90 percent is dedicated to soccer.

That leaves 10 percent for basketball, cricket, rugby codes, motor sport, horse racing and swimming to fight over.

No matter how great swimming is as a sport, as a life skill or as a life changing experience, we will not change the culture of professional sports dominating the media landscape. And as with any landscape that you can’t change you have to learn to work around it.


Tough Question
Now here the tough question – if you feel something is wrong with swimming and that things have got to change, what are YOU doing about it?

This is not FINA’s problem.
This is not USA Swimming’s problem or British Swimming’s or Australian Swimming’s problem.


This is not ASCA or ASCTA or WSCA’s problem.

This is a problem for all of us – everyone involved in the sport.

This problem is bigger than political barriers between associations – between State and National bodies – between National bodies and FINA – between FINA and the IOC.

This goes beyond the barriers between coaching associations and swimming associations -- yes, believe it or not, they exist in every country around the world.

It may surprise you to know that in every country, in every town, at every club, you hear the same stories:

1. Numbers of registered swimmers are down
2. We can’t compete with the other sports
3. Kids all drop out of swimming when they turn 15 to concentrate on school.
4. The local / state / national association is backward. They run meets the same way they did twenty years ago and when you ask them why they say “That’s the way we do it here”.
5. It costs too much to get pool space and there’s not much of it anyway.
6. We need a heated long course pool for year round use and it’s the government’s fault we don’t have one
.

Then you sit down with the people concerned and talk about solutions, about a positive way forward, about working together in the interest of the kids and the sport. Guess what the response generally is?

“You don’t understand. It’s different here. Those things wouldn’t work here. This town (or country) is different.”


Well it’s not different. You are the same as everyone else in sport around the world and you want the same things.
You want more kids in the sport.
You want them to stay in it longer.
And you want them to commit to all that the sport has to offer while they are in it.


Let’s be honest.

The biggest limitations to the future success of swimming are now, as they have always been – PERSONALITIES AND POLITICS. It’s the same for all sports – for all companies and governments around the world.

In swimming’s case, not only does the sport have to deal with limited resources, publicity, media promotion and now dwindling numbers, but we then add to the problem by arguing and fighting amongst ourselves over petty political issues.

I have seen rivalry between swimming clubs or between other factions within the sport – in most parts of the world I am sad to say - bordering on the type of hatred usually reserved for the major religions or warring nations.

Wake up – we are all about the same things.

Get over it – the sport (and kids and families) is suffering because of it.

If we can’t work together towards a common goal, how can we possibly compete against other sports and other activities that kids today are drawn to?

Why not just give football and basketball the names and addresses of our registered swimmers and finish the job?


Solutions – what are we going to do about it?

The solution to any problem can be generally stated from three different approaches:

1. Accept it – don’t do anything.

This is fine. Keep doing what you are doing and don’t worry about the future of the sport.
Just stop complaining about what’s wrong with it.

2. Leave it – get out of the situation and away from the problem.

Plenty of jobs in other sports and other industries. This is also fine as like an ostrich, if you can’t see the problem, then there isn’t one.
3. Change it.


Mad? Angry? Passionate? Determined? Enthusiastic? We want you! Read further.


What have we got to sell?

Think about that for a moment. What is it about swimming that we can promote as unique?

Swimming is an outstanding sport. It is a pure sport – little or no equipment required. Just athletes, swim suits, some goggles and add water!

Swimming teaches life lessons that create great people not just great athletes.
Swimming teaches teamwork. It teaches confidence and self-belief. Athletes develop goal setting abilities.
They learn how to overcome adversity. They learn how to strive for excellence.
They develop values and virtues like integrity, honesty, humility, courage and discipline.
They learn about health, physical fitness and nutrition.
Swimming prepares athletes for life.
There is nothing – nothing -- a successful swimmer can’t achieve in life.
Swimming saves lives – learning to swim can save your life and the lives of people you love.
Swimming is non-weight bearing exercise that is great for joints and cardio-vascular fitness for all ages.
So we all agree, it is a great product.

So if this product is excellent, what needs changing?????

We do!

Some suggestions to think about:
1. Not every kid has to be an Olympic gold medalist

Less than 1% of swimmers ever make it to a national team.
Fewer than 1% of those ever win a gold medal at a major international championship.
Only a very small number of those who win will become superstars and household names.

Yet, we persist in selling the dream to every swimmer at every level that nothing less than an Olympic gold medal is being successful. It’s like saying to everyone who ever held a job “unless you are a millionaire, you’re a failure.
It’s like telling every kid in school that unless he earns a PhD he is an idiot.

This is one of the biggest issues in swimming. We talk the talk about the other values and virtues swimming teaches; about developing teamwork and life skills and self-confidence, but when it comes down to it, we are about medals.

We need to turn this upside down
.

We need to make a real commitment to the process of developing people – not just athletes.
Medals do not make great people. Great people, with a strong sense of integrity, hard work, self-belief, honesty and sincerity make medals.
And then with more kids involved, kids who are developing a wide range of skills and personal abilities, kids who believe in themselves with parents who are sold on the positive benefits of being involved in this great sport, we can start thinking medals. And with this stronger platform, we can think about plenty of them.

2. Not every program has to be built on two x two-hour sessions six days a week.

Why do we persist with this twice a day/six days a week model? Because it has always been done that way!

If this type of thinking persisted in all fields of endeavor we would still be driving Model T Fords.

I am not for one minute suggesting swimming is easy. I am a passionate believer in the importance of hard work and commitment and dedication to be successful. However, there seems to be an unwritten rule that every program is about getting the swimmers to swim twice a day, every day as soon as possible in their development. Most of the world is using the same model! Are there no other options?

• Why not shorter sessions more often?
• Why not longer sessions in the afternoons mixed in with more variety in training options including homework or meal breaks as a team?
• Why not skip a full day mid week to give kids time to do other things, then go three times on Saturday and Sunday?
• What about training twice a day for three days, then a rest day, then another three days only training afternoons for three hours?
• How about putting whole family activities in place – workouts for parents, lessons for younger kids, cross training activities around the pool area and/or gym?

The people that we are alienating the most with the obsession of training early mornings and late afternoons six days a week are parents. The economics of the western world largely depends on both parents working full time. This means people who are tired, often under pressure and with no chance for their own personal exercise program have to commit to 5 am starts six days per week and maybe even have to cut out of work early to make the afternoon pick up. Over the course of a season, we then have parents who are exhausted and the demands of the sport of choice of their children may influence their health, work performance and relationships.

Swimming is a family commitment.
Parents drive kids to training and meets at inconvenient times and pay for the privilege. Parents get roped into time keeping and lane judging for no money and limited recognition on weekends and at club nights. And still have to pay to get in!

Twice a day every day might be perfect for fitting maximum training time in around school. It might be great for allowing maximum recovery time between sessions. But it is lousy for dealing with the realities of family life in this century.

3. Outdated competition schedules

Think about what we do to kids. Imagine an eight year old girl looking to become a swimmer. They join a club. They train for a while and are encouraged to go to their first competition. Mum and dad, excited about the new challenges the sport has to offer, also commit to going to their first meet.

So what do they see?

The child (and their parents) sit and watch 31 heats of the nine and under 50 backstroke, 18 heats of the 11 and under 50 breaststroke, 29 heats of the 12 and under 50 freestyle, then they (the child themselves) get to swim their own heat of the 50 butterfly which takes all of 40 seconds. Then they sit in the stands while mum and dad get to watch another 44 heats of 7 and under 50 freestyle, etc etc. This goes on for two days. And
we charge the parents for the privilege of sitting there.

This is usually done in an uncomfortable setting like an overheated indoor pool or BBQ hot outdoor pool in summer.

Now think about what the family sees when they go to soccer, football, hockey, basketball, tennis, etc.

• The child is constantly active and moving.
• The game is over in 40 – 90 minutes.
• They can usually watch the game from the sidelines for nothing in the local park.
• They only have to watch the one game – the one their child is involved in.

Again – put yourself in the parents’ position. If you would looking for a sport to choose to support, which one would you choose?

Why do clubs, districts and states and even nations continue to promote outdated competition programs for swimmers?

The answer is simple – time, convenience and money. Putting on all day meets is easy because you pay one set of pool hire fees, organize one group of caterers, etc – we do it because it is the easiest way to do it.

• Why not meets for backstroke only? Or only distance events? Or only medley?
• Why not meets for 6-9 year olds only and only hold the meet for 2 hours at maximum with all kids swimming 5-6 times?
• Why not events for 16-18 year olds only?
• Why not more fun events?
• Why not events where the total results of the team and club are the only ones that count?
• Why not encourage swimming more events by not counting any one event but
only the combined total time from swimming in all events in the age group?
• Why not have the meet going all day, but 6-9 year olds in one two hour block, 10-13 year-olds in another two hour block, and 14 years and older in another block of time, so pool space booking is efficient, but everyone does not has to stay all day?
• Why not provide other activities and entertainment for families with more than one child attending the meet?
• Why not provide age related prizes for competitors rather than just ribbons or medals to all age groups?

The actual meet format can be one of a million choices, the point is that unless parentsand kids are presented with competition formats that are entertaining, innovative and less demanding on family time, we will have a battle putting together any types of meets in the near future.

4. Outdated rewards systems

So think about our 8 year old again. Imagine she (and her parents) survive six or seven years of these two-day torture tests we call competitions. She is now a teenager with an enormous range of choices to make – school, boys, maybe part time work, other sports, other activities, etc.

When she was eight and swam well, she was rewarded with ribbons and medals.
Now she is a teenager and swims well, she is rewarded with the same ribbons and medals. And she still has to sit for two days watching 57 heats of the nine and under 50 backstroke!

Meanwhile her friends are out enjoying life, earning and spending money, spending time working on extra credits for school etc.

Is it any wonder most competition programs read:
EVENT 1: 35 HEATS NINE YEARS AND UNDER 50 BACKSTROKE
EVENT 2: 29 HEATS TEN YEARS AND UNDER 50 BUTTERFLY
EVENT 3: 1 HEAT 16 YEARS 100 FREESTYLE (and there was only five in the heat so they combined it with the next age group).

Sound familiar?

Coaches, clubs and administrators often ask, “Where do all the swimmers go when they get to 15 or 16 years of age?” Does the question really have to be asked?

If you were designing another product, i.e. other than swimming, to sell to kids, would you design the same product for eight year olds that you also then hope to sell to sixteen year olds?

Even if you designed the same product for both age groups, would you sell and market it the same way to both groups?

Yet this is what we do. And we do it all over the world. And we all wonder, “Where are the kids going when they turn fifteen – sixteen?”

We blame school. We blame other sports. We blame hormones. We blame parents.

Well guess what, It’s our (the world’s swimming community’s) own fault.

We basically plan and conduct meets for our own convenience and not to meet the needs and demands of the people we are trying to attract to the sport and keep them in it, i.e. “you fit into our way of doing things or go somewhere else”.

More and more people won’t (fit in) and they will (go somewhere else).


Summary

The easiest way to go insane or die bitter and angry is to hold on to your passionate beliefs, resisting all change and wait for the world to change its way of thinking to yours.

If you believe something is wrong – do something about it.

If you believe more needs to be done – do it yourself.

If you want more media coverage of swimming – get to know local journalists and feed them good news stories. And if they say "no," ask them again. And again. And again. The “squeaky wheel gets the most oil”.

If you don’t like the politics of the sport get yourself on to a committee and change things.

If (coaches) your swimmers are leaving your program for another sport, challenge yourself to change your program to be a more stimulating environment – one that is more in touch with the entertainment driven lifestyle kids now face all over the world.

Get behind your coaching association and help it drive forward. Take an active role in the decision making process and lobby them to get things happening.

If (administrators) registrations are falling, challenge yourself to revamp and revitalize your competition programs and offer a “product” that is appealing and stimulating to swimmers AND their parents and families.

Support your State and National associations. Lobby them, help them, and give them ideas, help them with fund raising, and work with them.

Forget the past – or we have no future.
Unless we – as in the entire swimming community from the coach of the outback under seven stroke development class in Australia to the President of FINA pull together and work cooperatively to come up with a solution and more importantly work with determination and commitment to put that solution into practice – sadly, in my opinion, the sport of swimming will be under serious threat within ten years.

And here’s the scary final thought: everyOlympic sport is in the same boat! If we don’t demonstrate a strong leadership role in this and take control over our own destiny then we will not only have to face the challenges of the major professional sports, but we will also have to deal with cycling, rowing, athletics and all the other sports as well as they come to terms with the same issues (and maybe act faster).

The future is yours – take it.