How Many DQs is Too Many in A Recreational Swim League?

Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

By Alan Karickhoff, Swimming World College Intern

Among the forested hills and valleys, the farms covering the flatlands, and the rivers flowing into Lake Erie, 10 suburban cities compete in the Northeast Ohio Suburban Swim League. The competition spans eight weeks of the short Northern Ohio summers, and it offers just over 1000 young swimmers a place to improve their aquatic talents.

The “League,” as it is referred to in the decades-old by-laws governing the season, runs as a recreational league with goals to “provide boys and girls an opportunity to participate in competitive swimming, enabling them to improve their skills and abilities and instill in them good sportsmanship and team loyalty.”

Though the by-laws state that “team interaction and self-improvement are desirable goals in growing towards adulthood and interaction in life,” some young or new swimmers may be put off by the strict rules involved in competition and practices. An identity crisis arises as the league wants swimmers to learn proper technique through sticking to USA Swimming rules, but still identify as a recreational league open to new and developing swimmers.

In the first dual meet of the season, five officials surround the pool deck, waiting for the moment to fill out the first of the many DQ slips clipped to their clipboards. Starting off the meet are the 13-15 boys’ and girls’ medley relays followed by the 11-12’s, 9-10’s, and finally 8 & unders. In the older age groups, the officials only catch a few improper breaststroke kicks and a couple of one-hand touches from the flyers. Eventually, however, the 8 & unders are directed behind the blocks.

I imagine the officials shake their arms loose and stretch their fingers to prepare for the parade of inexperienced bodies about to dive, fall, into the water. Seconds after the backstrokers take off, six-year-olds are already on their stomachs looking for the wall at the other end. A collection hands from the white-shirted officials rise to the sky, blocking the view of parents in the bleachers cheering on their first-year swimmers.

Next, the breaststrokers dive, fall, into the water flutter kicking their way to the surface. Another round of hands rise along the pool deck. Then, the flyers make the jump into the pool, some seconds before the breaststrokers touch the wall. More DQ slips are filled out, ensuring no relay finished legally. The freestylers finish the race strong, only stopping a couple times on the lane lines to catch their breath.

The SSL is a recreational league, but operates like a USA Swimming club team. Are five officials necessary for every dual meet? Should 11-12 year olds be swimming the 200 free? Are 100s of strokes too demanding of 13-15 year olds?

In 2013, when I was a coach for the one of the SSL teams, the Willoughby Stingers, I heard complaints from coaches about the numerous disqualification slips they would receive after each event, not just the from 8 year olds. Swimmers that appeared legal, or legal enough, in practice were unable to record times in dual meets because of the strict officiating. Myself and other coaches were left with a DQ next to names instead of an idea of how much they improved. There seemed to be a disconnect between the League’s goals and the goals of the coaches.

Through an email correspondence with Matt Parrish, the head of coach of the Chardon Sharks, I discovered this identity still exists. The Sharks just won their first SSL Championship after being in the league only five years, but Parrish said he still feels like “the black sheep in the SSL.”

“There are somethings in the SSL that I have been trying to change since entering the league. It has been a constant struggle to make my voice heard and listened to … and just when I think a change is coming, our outdated “by-laws” tend to get in the way,” Parrish said.

Though Parrish is new to the SSL in Northeast Ohio, he is far from being new to the sport of swimming. He comes from a competitive swimming area in metropolitan Detroit where he earned multiple age group state records and achieved All-American status 21 times as a high school student-athlete. His swimming career continued on scholarship at the University of Tennessee (earning All-American honors twice) and now as a masters swimmer still placing highly in the championship meets for the 35-39 age group. Alongside his swimming career he has been coaching for 19 years for multiple teams with varied skills levels.

Parrish brought his expertise to the small town of just over 5,000 people and rocketed the interest for competitive swimming in the area. Alongside coaching Chardon, he is also the head coach of the Geauga YMCA Otters Swim Team. When asked how he balances the unique coaching schedule with his home life, he responded “I don’t balance swimming with my home life, swimming is my life. My daughter swims and all of her close friends, as well. If I didn’t enjoy every practice and every meet, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Despite the experience with swimming and coaching, Parrish finds that some of the points he makes to promote a more inclusive recreational league go “on deaf ears or are met with resistance.” One concern is that because 16-18 year old swimmers can’t compete at champs, they skip dual meets and steer clear of the team.

Another worry is that 100s of strokes instead of 50s intimidates the casual swimmer who might only be able to make two to three practices a week. His third issue is the alarming number of DQ slips. Seeing a swimmer work hard all summer just to see a DQ next to his or her name is unsettling for both the swimmer and the coaches.

“To see a DQ by your name (especially younger swimmers) tends to tarnish the sport and usually turns kids off swimming,” Parrish said.

As the SSL figures out its role in competitive swimming and its identity as a recreational team that tries to function under USA rules, Parrish says, “I want the best for my swimmers, all my swimmers…Swimming is probably not going to pay the bills for most of these swimmers, but the life lessons, the constant struggle and working toward and achieving goals helps sets life lessons and helps structure each individual’s life.”


  1. avatar

    Our family tradition was to celebrate a DQ by going to Dairy Queen after the meet. DQ slips are simply a way to teach the kids how to improve their strokes and should not be seen as a “punishment” at all but rather a learning opportunity to be rewarded. Better that the kids learn proper stroke technique than to continue to have illegal strokes.

  2. avatar

    Just a quick note….the recreational league I coach in does not dq 8 and unders until mid way through the season. Enough time to grow stronger and learn more about the complexities of our sport without scaring them away.

  3. avatar
    Scott Gibson

    As an official for a summer Rec League in California for the last 8 years my policy has been to write up those swimmers who are hitting ( or near hitting) qualifying times for our Time Trials. That way families don’t plan for that extra weekend only to find their swimmer DQ’d because they didn’t know they needed to correct a sroke. We let the “Rec” swimmer swim and correct the Competitive swimmers stroke.

  4. avatar
    Paul Windrath

    Imagine if we graded tests in schools the way we handle mistakes in the pool. You get one wrong in a 100 answer test and you get a big ol’ ZERO. Maybe we should consider giving time penalties instead of a complete failure.

    The rules the officials enforce are NOT cast in stone and could change tomorrow. Consider that In the 50s, freestylers had to touch the wall with their hand. Or, until the early 90’s, backstrokes had to stay on their back. AND, OMG, until the “modern” era, breaststroke swimmers had to keep their head above the surface of the water at all times and could not, dare I say it, dophin kick off the wall.

    Maybe it is time to look at rule enforcement a little differently, so it becomes a teachable moment with an incentive to erase time penalties instead of a complete failure that ends in tears.

    Just a random thought for the future.

    Paul Windrath

  5. avatar
    Tracy McCarthy

    All sports have rules. All rules are enforced so the game, or meet, as in swimming are fair. There is nothing new about this. There are very few times in the ssl, (where my kids have swam for 17 years) that the young kids even know that they have DQ’d. The officials let the coaches know what needs to be worked on for the next meet.

  6. avatar

    As a summer league referee, a few years ago I tried to squash all these below age 10 in the early season, but asked the clerks to give the DQ slips to the coaches so they could correct these. I got reprimanded for doing this as they said scoring would be affected. So instead I quizzed officials much more closely especially if they were not USA swimming certified and I had the time and many DQ stayed in my pocket.

    This should be about the kids having fun.

  7. avatar

    In this particular SSL league, it is DQ to the extreme. It is like a game.. I watched an official get handed a prize for the 1st DQ of the day. A duckie, like the heat winners get. I was speechless.

  8. avatar
    Bill V.

    Every summer recreational swim league seems to have one of these overly concerned, “don’t hurt the kids” types, who pushes for a different set of rules for 8-and-unders, even though it’s a terrible idea.

    TWENTY years ago, I was head coach of a large recreational team for five summers. One year, our league was in the middle of its own discussion about DQs and 8-and-unders. There was an effort to soften the rules for the little kids, and not everyone agreed.

    Our club distributed a flier, internally at first. It was a friendly, one-page guide to the role of the DQ in our sport, and it presented protocol for handling DQs. The header was “Disqualification: Education, not Punishment!”

    That year we hosted an officiating clinic. We invited new parents interested in officiating, as well as experienced officials, and they came from all the pools across the league.

    In response to the ongoing debate about DQs, we distributed our flier at the clinic, and brought out three very well coached 6-year-olds. The kids nailed every bullet point about DQs, including how to react to them.

    It was a good reminder to the grown-ups about the abilities of young people. They’ll understand it if we do a good job teaching them. If there is a problem with too many DQ slips or with how people react to them, maybe the coaching staff has some work to do, but the parents and kids also need to be on the same page.

  9. avatar

    I ref YMCA meets. I’m sympathetic with kids who might be dragging their arms along the surface a bit toward the end of a 25, 50, 100 or 200 fly, depending on age. So, they might get a bit of break from me on that. But, I’m going to DQ every kid I see doing one handed touches on breast or fly, doing breaststroke or freestyle kick in fly, taking two strokes on their stomach going into a backstroke turn etc. I’m going to recommend DQ any relay false start I see (two officials need to agree on all relay false starts for us) even if there are 8 and unders.

    I sure I’m not the only one who learned how to swim fly correctly after being DQed a lot. The young kids usually don’t get upset when you DQ them as long as you aren’t a jerk when you explain why to them. Most of them want to learn and want to do better.

    One more thing. It’s really not fair to the kids who are swimming properly not to DQ the kids who aren’t. One of our summer league meets was decided by 4 or 5 points, and the refs did not DQ anyone, even kids doing things like freestyle kick while swimming fly. A team of 100 or more kids shouldn’t lose a meet because the refs don’t enforce basic rules.

  10. avatar

    As the Parent Volunteer Coordinator for Chardon, I just wonder how do you fairly officiate when the head officials running the meet are handing out adult Capri Suns and Jell-O shots. They want to be taken serious and maintain USA Swimming type rules , but act like they are on spring break. This is what I sent out to our parents a few days before the SSL Champs: Alcohol is strictly prohibited. We are there representing the city of Chardon, therefore we want to set an example for not only other communities, but our children as well. Alcohol has no purpose being consumed at a YOUTH SPORTING EVENT! If you choose to drink, then we just have one question….Who is driving your children home????

    • avatar

      I think that wasn’t the officials, but the power couple from Willoughby that need to move on.

  11. avatar

    I’m grateful to see fresh, great, head coaches enter the SSL in the past few years. For too many years the SSL in NE Ohio has been held hostage by some parent boards, when the coaches should be leading. The officiating and SSL board have seemed to be very personal in previous years, sometimes DQing teams just because of who they are, instead of infractions, even though they are kids. As I said above, hopefully there will be a shake-up, led by great coaching and newer, more involved parents.
    Otherwise USA Swimming is going to steamroll through the area, leaving just USA and the Y, where a decent number, and number of decent, kids, have had their excitement sparked across all strokes, and continue to bring in siblings, friends, and neighbors. Thankfully the kids aren’t aware of the politics behind the aging dinosaurs who need to step down.
    If swimming in NE Ohio wants a real boost, it needs a place for kids up through high school (not just 15) to stay involved, and that includes places to race, and to have fun.

  12. avatar
    Steve Van Beek

    The problem I most often see is Summer league is that overzealous S&T officials are concentrating on marginal swimmers. You are supposed to judge each lane equally; instead, they are looking for infractions resulting in a disproportionate number of DQs.

  13. avatar

    As a very involved parent (and official) who was also a 7 year swimmer in this league, there are several points I have to make and several questions I have about this article.

    1. If this is an article intended to debate the impact of DQ’s in summer swimming, why did you not interview one official? This article should have been written after interviewing officials with differing mindsets on this subject . Or at the very least, it should have been written from multiple perspectives. Why only interview one coach? Why not speak with other coaches, parents, officials or even swimmers?

    This article appears to have been written for the sole purpose of furthering one person’s agenda.

    2. You quote “Myself and other coaches were left with a DQ next to names instead of an idea of how much they improved.”

    This is a coaching issue. The coach can choose how to approach this with the swimmer and as a coach, you should be timing them. Are you trying to claim that a 10 second time drop with a DQ for a one hand touch doesn’t give you any idea of improvement? In other words, the one hand touch benefitted the swimmer by 10 seconds? Wouldn’t a good coach correct the mistake with the swimmer and then highlight the much faster time?

    3. You quote the by-laws as saying, “team interaction and self-improvement are desirable goals in growing towards adulthood and interaction in life,” yet you claim that DQ’s are contrary to that mission.

    I do not understand this at all. How in the world is giving a free pass to new or young swimmers helping them grow to adulthood??? My experience as an adult has shown me that I do not earn my salary by doing my job incorrectly. The goal is to GROW. How are the kids supposed to grow if they don’t learn to correct their mistakes? Or if they aren’t even told that they’ve made any? Should we be teaching these kids that if you can’t follow the rules, the world will change them for you? And where do you draw the line? So we don’t DQ any 8 & unders, but then we DQ them all when they turn 9? Perhaps we should just give them all a trophy and sleep in on Saturday mornings.

    DQ’s teach valuable lessons, including the fact that sometimes your best isn’t good enough. And guess what? That is life and aligns with the mission of this league.

    Side question, what in the world would the conversation look like if it was still the good old days where an official placed a red ribbon on the blocks of the lane that was DQ’ed? How did any of us survive the humiliation?

    4. This paragraph:

    “The SSL is a recreational league, but operates like a USA Swimming club team. Are five officials necessary for every dual meet? Should 11-12 year olds be swimming the 200 free? Are 100s of strokes too demanding of 13-15 year olds?”

    Ridiculous. Anyone with experience in USA Swimming KNOWS that this league is not run like a USA team. The officiating is not the same either. But this is still a COMPETITIVE swim team and as such there are requirements, the most basic being that the swimmers need to swim the strokes legally.

    Yes, 5 officials are necessary. Everyone seems to forget that the parents (volunteers that we beg to help, I might add) are learning too, and there are either 6 or 8 lanes being covered with each lane divided into 3 zones. This minimizes what the officials have to watch because it can be overwhelming, especially if their sole exposure to swimming has been a 2 hour video. Having this many officials also provides an opportunity for veterans to educate new officials, some of whom have zero experience in swimming. It is no longer typical to use clipboards and pencils. There are headsets and there is a lot of discussion and mentoring taking place that coaches and parents are unaware of. In my many years of officiating in this league, I have yet to meet a parent who DQs just to DQ.

    Regarding the events available yes, 11-12 year olds should be swimming the 200 free and no, 100’s are not too demanding for 13-15 year olds. Most year round swimmers developed their love of this sport at summer swim team. Of the over 1000 swimmers in this league, the skill set of each swimmer varies considerably. This is another coaching issue. If there is a concern with certain events and ability, this is between the coaches and the swimmers. The kids need goals and the sense of accomplishment that comes from improving and being able to successfully swim new events. This also helps them to determine their strengths. Plus if you cut everything down to 50s only, you will lose a lot of higher level swimmers who are still staying in shape for their winter teams while having fun in the summer. Those swimmers are huge motivators and very inspiring for young and new swimmers. Again, this is a COMPETITIVE swim team.

    5. What exactly does this mean? “Swimmers that appeared legal, or legal enough, in practice were unable to record times in dual meets because of the strict officiating.” I would love to see a definition of “legal enough”. And the strict officiating? According to one coach?

    I disagree that just because things have always been done a certain way, they have to remain that way and I am aware that some of this mindset exists in this league.

    But it kind of amazes me that a whole article was written debating whether or not strokes should be swum legally in a competitive swim league.

    • avatar
      Alan Karickhoff

      Hi Jen!

      You raise some great points and I love the feedback! I completely agree that an article that takes alternative viewpoints would add much greater depth to the story. Unfortunately, I was under a word constraint, so I could only elaborate on one perspective while still giving background on the SSL for those who are unfamiliar with the league that I’m sure we both know and love.

      Matt Parrish’s perspective grabbed my interest because Chardon just won a championship after many years of dominance from Mentor and Highland Heights, and also because he said he feels like “the black sheep in the SSL.” As someone who stands out from the crowd, Parrish, provides dialogue to a highly debated, story-worthy topic. It certainly received more attention than my previous articles, which I encourage you take a look at! I hope others saw it more as a short story worth thinking about rather than pushing an agenda.

      Fortunately, by publishing an article online, it can open up discussion between those across the swimming world – the discussion I was unable to provide in the initial article. Comments, I feel, are just as much part of the story as the initial writing. They add more layers and encompass more of the entire picture. I only address your comment specifically because you have specific questions about my article rather than just your experiences, and I hope I touch on all your points.

      In regards to your second point, I do, briefly, mention the difficulties a DQ slip brings to some coaches. I hope this wasn’t too distracting from the rest of the piece, as it is just a small additional feature to consider. As a coach, I never considered my primary responsibility to time every swimmer diving or jumping into the water. My concerns revolved around many other things before marking down each time. To name just a few: their safety, their goals, their enjoyment in practices and at meets, and their improvement. I was often frustrated without times included in Meet Manager from those who were disqualified for easily fixable infractions. It is programming issue rather than a social issue.

      Your third point builds off the second a bit and I 100% agree that one of the goals for the young swimmers is to grow. I wouldn’t want to alter the meet results by ignoring clear infractions of league rules, and I don’t claim nor believe DQ’s are contrary to the mission. Nowhere do I mention we should never disqualify 8 & Unders, but I understand your point. There are certainly six year olds capable of swimming a length of fly without worry of disqualifying and it would not be fair to see another who isn’t legal beat them and score higher. I recall when I about 10, I dove off the blocks at the Willoughby pool for a 50 fly as the head of the heat but I must’ve zoned out and came up doing three strokes free until I saw the guy next to me. That certainly calls for a disqualification.

      However, I worry that new swimmers, whether they are six, 12, or 15 may be discouraged to continue swimming if they swim in exhibition heats, heats that cannot earn points, and fail to see a time next to their name meet after meet because of a slight flutter in their breaststroke kick. It’s likely they work every practice thinking about the anomaly, but sometimes it takes kids longer to get their body to respond the way their mind wants it to respond. I don’t suggest policy changes, but I love discussion and I’m glad to see my article has inspired some.

      In your fourth point, you quote one of my paragraphs, or rather a series of questions. Perhaps it came off as rhetorical questions, but I’m genuinely asking the community what they think. I was a “stronger” swimmer in the SSL, so I never encountered some of the issues I bring up now. Despite being a “stronger” swimmer, the 100s certainly intimidated me in my first year in the 13-15 age group, but it also felt like a natural progression. Looking at other recreational leagues, you may notice, however, that very few include 100s of strokes and even fewer include 200s for 11-12 year olds, which begs the question if the SSL should still include the longer distances. Without them, the meets would certainly move quicker!
      But, I think you provide great recourse to my questions. It’s certainly plausible that shortening the events to just 50s may drive better swimmers away from the league because of a lack of need to stay in shape for the winter season. At the same time, however, one might consider that great swimmers might love the short events that they don’t have a chance to swim on their USA team and may be looking for a fun atmosphere that they don’t have to take as seriously. Shorter events may also attract the kids who didn’t get a jump on swimming when they were seven or eight, and struggle to finish anything other than a 100 of backstroke or freestyle.

      Finally, down to the fifth point questioning my comment about being “legal enough.” It was light humor, intended to gain a chuckle, directed toward swimmers who nearly have a legal stroke. For example, sometimes you may see them swim without error but other times they struggle to remember what they were doing the last time they were legal. It’s an on and off legality that coaches notice in some swimmers. It can also be a discrepancy between what an official sees and what a coach sees. As you say, some officials have limited exposure to swimming, and so notice something peculiar about a stroke that might not be legal. Even professional officials at the Olympics face the same issues, which has created many changes in how certain strokes are swum.

      To conclude my rather lengthy reply, and I apologize for the length, I hope I addressed most if not all of your concerns. I also hope that taking this reply into consideration, you can re-read the story with a perspective that doesn’t view it as debate between whether or not strokes should be swum legally, but rather as a story that calls into question the identity of a recreational swim league and its inclusivity to entire communities. I don’t know of data that says prolific disqualifications or longer racing requirements discourages new swimmers, young or old, but it may be worth discussing as a community rather than dismissing. One thing is for certain, EVERY coach and swimmer greatly appreciates the time and effort parents and other volunteers put into creating a safe, competitive, and fun environment for hundreds and thousands of young swimmers. Thank you for your comment and thank you, especially, for the time you devote to a place I called a second home for many years.