Competitive Swimming is In Crisis Unless…


Competitive Swimming is in crisis…..UNLESS…..

By Wayne Goldsmith

There is no doubt that Competitive Sport around the world is in crisis.

In some places, particularly in rural and regional areas, some sports – particularly the traditional Olympic sports are dying – or are already dead all together.

Competitive Swimming is one of those sports experiencing significant declines in the number of kids committing to training and racing.

In response, National Swimming Organizations around the globe are looking for new ways to deliver the swimming experience to children and families.

However, it is fair to say that swimming has in general been slow to react to this crisis with the majority of swimming administrators and coaches continuing to the do things “the old-way” and hoping that the participation trends turn around by themselves.

The key to helping competitive swimming to not only survive – but to thrive – is to look at the “end-user” experience.

What is the actual experience that your “end-users”, i.e. the kids who swim in your pool – (and their families receive) – when they arrive at your pool or gym?

If you’re focused solely on competition, on always chasing qualifying standards for higher and higher level Meets, on pushing and driving kids along the competitive swimming “pathway”, on early specialization – chances are your swimming Club is one of those who will not survive in these rapidly changing times.

If however, you’ve built a swimming environment which is founded and grounded on the principles of engagement, excitement, entertainment and coaching effectiveness and you’re providing a family friendly opportunity for kids to “fall in love” with the experience of swimming you’re on your way to being a swimming success story.

How Stop the Competitive Swimming Drop Out Phenomenon:  Five Useful Tips!

  1. School teachers don’t teach advanced calculus to 11 year olds. And they don’t teach simple arithmetic to 17 year olds. Tailor your coaching and swimmer development activities to be appropriate for the age and “stage” of the kids you’re working with.
  2. Adapt your training and competition structures to the changing needs of the swimmers in your programs. If your training and / or competitive structures do not change as the athletes in your sport grow, change, mature and develop, expect to see a significant drop out rate. For example, competitive swimming carnivals must become more flexible and better targeted to meet the changing needs of swimmers as they grow and mature.
  3. It’s no good coming up with a great solution to the wrong problem. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the drop out phenomenon. It’s about listening to each and every swimmer in your team and working with them to develop effective solutions to the problems and challenges they are facing.
  4. Be open to new possibilities. There are many new, innovative, creative and highly effective ways of developing speed, strength, power, flexibility, mobility, core-stability and other physical qualities in swimmers. Just because a swimmer can’t commit to the “usual” or “standard” traditional training routines and practice schedules, doesn’t mean they can’t be extraordinary. It is up to the coach to find ways to help the swimmers in their program be successful and to fit the program to the swimmer – not force the swimmer to fit the program.
  5. Take time to understand the rationale behind the Swimmer Drop Out phenomenon and more importantly take time to understand the unique developmental changes each athlete is experiencing particularly through early to middle adolescence. Seek to understand – then build to build a flexible, empathetic swimming program tailored to adapt to the changing needs of your swimmers.

Remember – the only swimmer who can not improve – is the one who is not there. Let’s get them excited about the sport first….then worry about times and medals later.

Wayne Goldsmith


Wayne Goldsmith has been an influential figure in world swimming for more than 25 years.

He led Swimming Australia’s National sports science / sports medicine program for many years and has spoken at numerous national and international swimming conferences in the USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, The Philippines, New Zealand and Australia.

He has written more than 500 articles on swimming, swimming coaching, swimming science, triathlon and swimming performance which have been published in books, magazines and online all over the world.

Wayne has been a staff writer for Swimming World for the past ten years.

Wayne lives, writes and coaches on the Gold Coast, Australia.

Click here to contact Wayne.


  1. The best way in at least the U.S. is for USA swimming to foster some sort of deal with lenders so that pools can be built. Go to any bank and they will look at your numbers but pretty much tell you to take a hike even though your numbers show it can be supported. The SBA in particularly is guilty of this.

  2. Warren Phillips

    Andrew Jones. Alex stumbled across this. Thought you may be interested. Warren

  3. Dan Galante

    How about the fact that kids these days want to stay home and play video games than go out a play a sport

    • Joe DePerry

      Agreed, they also don’t know what the hard work is. They expect everything to be handed to them, and if not, they want nothing to do with it.

    • Caryn Steigerwalt

      Joe – they’re entitled to the -pursuit- of happiness. Tell them to get in that pool and start chasing their dream!

    • Jenn Ferguson

      I disagree. Imho, kids stay home and play video games because it is no longer safe to just let them run free outside. Many kids prefer to be active.

    • Joe DePerry

      Jenn Ferguson living in fear is the whole problem. And saying it is not safe outside is an excuse. It is just as safe as it was 20 years ago. The difference is, the media and social sites, like this one, make everything public and blow it up. School shootings, bombings, train crashes, bridge colapaes, mass murders, etc. Have been happening for a loooong time. You just see it more because of media and social outlets. This right here is a problem, making excuses for children to stay home and be secluded from the world.

    • Joe DePerry

      You think it was safe during the great depression of the 1930’s for kids to be running around free ? They were not staying home inside playing video games.

  4. avatar

    Thanks for the great thoughts.

    I’d like to add a view about the comments on building “more pools” – at least outside the U.S.

    In many parts of the world the numbers of kids in competitive swimming is around 40% less than it was 20 years ago. Yes – you’ve read correctly. 40%

    In some places – believe it or not – it’s even worse.

    If you’ve got 40% fewer people eating at your restaurant, you don’t need another new restaurant….you need different food, better chefs, more engaging servers, better decor, fresher ingredients etc. etc.

    If you’re offering poor quality coaching, the same old boring two day Meets which go 7 am – 7 pm over weekends, dull competitive programs, little or no engagement with families…then building another 10, 100 or 10000 pools will not make any difference.

    I come to US regularly – have done for 25 years – so maybe I don’t understand swimming there but around the rest of the world, the number of kids actually training for and competing in swimming is dropping rapidly.

    In some countries, national swimming organizations are even changing the way they count members to hide the alarming fall in competitive swimmer numbers, e.g. in some places swimming organizations ask moms and dads and grandparents to “join” their swimming association as members – whereas in the past they’ve only counted competitive swimmers.

    We’re seeing the same patterns in gymnastics, diving, rowing – and all the big “time-commitment” Olympic sports. Junior sport in general is in trouble across the globe.

    As someone who’s been involved in swimming for a long time – frankly – I am very worried about the future of the sport – and unless we all take this very seriously we may face some very, very challenging times ahead.

    Really appreciate your comments – the fact you’ve commented means you must be the sort of committed, dedicated, hard-working, passionate people that make the sport the remarkable experience it is. Keep up the great work.

    Thank you again.


  5. Merry Burns

    Wow what a great article! Thank you!

  6. Lisa Pennington

    Pools closing in more rural areas is a huge problem. Only 2 pools in our area and the high school pool (that the entire area utilized for high school meets) was demolished a couple years ago. We are left with only our YMCA pool which is a 25 yard six lane pool. We need water.

    • Marly Zea

      Not only in rural areas, come to Miami and try to find a pool for high school season… it is horrible, I do not know how high school swimming survives

  7. Kellie Bliss

    Build great pools and inspired coaches. It’s a tough sport – celebrate & merchandise the grit! Get more adults to swim for daily exercise and you’ve then built in your generational support system. It’s intimidating if you’ve never done the backstroke. Make it a warmer welcome for all ages!!

  8. avatar
    Jay Green

    That’s a pretty bold claim to make without providing any data to back it up whatsoever. I’m not saying you are wrong, it’s just inappropriate to say something so outrageously broad without any evidence.

    • avatar

      Thanks Jay.

      When I’m not working with swimming I am a sports consultant who works with coaches, Clubs, sporting organizations, governments and others around the world.
      The number one consulting engagement I am getting at the moment is to help sports to find ways of turning around the dramatically declining numbers they are experiencing in competitive sport. Most of my professional life is focused on this – and I’ve started a web site specifically dedicated to this issue as I feel it’s so important –

      The data about the decline in competitive sport is available on many sites including the Australian Sport’s Commission’s Ausplay report, Sport New Zealand’s web site, Sport England’s web site to name but a few.

      Like I said – I don’t know what’s happening exactly in the US – but the data on the global trends on sports participation and competitive sport is available – happy to send it to you.



  9. Carole Machol-Atler

    I’ve seen some highly motivated kids drop out due to crappy coaching. And I can say this because I once was a summer league coach. Make it fun for the littles … they are the future. Year round swimming for the younger set is burning them out way too soon.

    • Krisztina Napolitano

      Exactly. Our coach at PPSC sets the little ones up for success. There is no screaming, yelling, just all over encouraging.

  10. Rob Allen

    Not to mention the loss of most men’s college swimming programs due to title 9. Kids don’t have the big kids coming back to inspire them

    • Diane Pavelin

      Men’s swimming isn’t being cut due to Title IX. That’s what AD’s use as an excuse because they don’t want to admit the real reason why is more money is needed to maintain football and men’s basketball.

      I’ve never seen money cut from men’s minor sports go directly to fund only women’s sports. But I’ve seen funding increased for football and men’s basketball after men’s minor sports have been cut.

  11. avatar
    John Bradley

    Spot on analysis. Only a few teams can survive the mode of “only the Strong will survive” in the years to come. Teams have to offer fulfilling options for all levels of kids, not just the ones at the State or above level.

  12. Adriane Grau Foster

    Food for thought. My daughter loves swimming and has a beautiful, effortless stroke. But her team is very competitive. I know that swimming for the rest of your life is more important than the elusive medal, and so does she. But the comments of parents and kids on the deck make it clear that not everyone is on the same page.

    • Polly Hassman Cohen

      The best teams make room for both kids. If you ever move to Maine, look me up!

  13. avatar
    Dave C

    I was quite surprised by what I saw overseas in coaching. In Hong Kong, I met numerous kids training 3 hour practices at age 8-9, every day. One hour of technical coaching and they were seeing time improvements far better than hours of monotonous swimming.
    The approach to the sport was to use it as a time filler and resume builder to get into the high school they wanted. Once that was achieved, the sport was dropped entirely. The Chinese schools operated separately from the international schools, which were separate from the clubs and national program. A small environment made such an amazing level of disconnect.
    It just gave perspective to how different our programs were in the states.

  14. avatar

    You missed one important element to why some kids drop out…. the COST of swimming is a very big deterrent, my son swims and is OK but we have spokken on many occasions about pulling him out as it just costs so much…… training, pool equipment , racing bathers (we don’t buy the expensive suits as we just can’t afford it), competitions, petrol yo get to comps, accomodation for comps. It all adds up so yes Cost is a very big part of people dropping out.