One of my favorite memories of swimming is the morning that my dad woke me up before dawn and made me a fried egg sandwich before driving me to a Saturday morning swim meet. We were singing along to Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” as we pulled into the parking lot, and at the end of the chorus, my dad turned and said, “Do you feel fast today, Ace?” I gave him a big smile and sang (shouted) as loud as I could, “YES I DO!”.
More than forty years have passed since that morning and I don’t remember how I did in that meet, whether I was first or last or set a personal record. What I do remember is how much fun swimming was because my parents did everything they could to support me – and then simply let me swim. If you are a parent who wants to help your child achieve their best and yet still have fun swimming, here are four tips for being a great swim parent.
Know your role
You are not your child’s coach. One of the biggest complaints coaches have is that well-intentioned parents often give their swimmers advice on how to improve their performance without realizing that the advice runs counter to what the coach as said.
Trust your swimmer’s coach. They have spent countless hours learning stroke techniques, methods for constructing workouts and drills, and they want to help your swimmer turn in their best possible performance. When you offer your swimmer pointers about their performance, you are setting up a situation in which your swimmer is forced to choose between you and the coach – and it will not benefit your swimmer. You will teach your swimmer that their coach is not trustworthy, and you’ll make it harder for the coach to do their job. You’ll also set yourself up as a “difficult parent,” which will not earn you or your swimmer any points with coaches, teammates or other parents. Leave the coaching to the people who are being paid to do it.
If your child has chosen to swim, let them be the one to take responsibility for it. You should support their efforts, but you should not be the one taking ownership of the experience. My parents would get up at the crack of dawn for practice or meets, and would drive me almost anywhere for them. They would sit in the stands for hours on end waiting for me to swim my races, and they would enthusiastically cheer for every swimmer. However, they left the decision to swim up to me.
I can remember days when I didn’t want to go to after-school swim practice or compete in a meet. I would whine and drag my feet, hoping that my parents would get me out of practice or make an excuse for why I couldn’t go to the swim meet. My parents were smart about it, though. They’d tell me it was my choice whether I wanted to go or not, but that if I didn’t go, then I was going to have to be the one to explain why I wasn’t participating. This lesson served me well not only in swimming, but in many other areas of my life because it taught me that while I have the right to make choices, I also have to take responsibility for my choices.
Listen and support
As a parent your job is to support your swimmer. This means asking questions and listening to the answers rather than doing all the talking. I was twelve-years old when I realized I was never going to be an elite swimmer. I knew I loved swimming and being part of the team, but I recognized that I just didn’t have the drive to push beyond being “good” in order to become “great.” One weekend morning, before a big meet, I asked my parents if I should keep swimming even though I wasn’t ever going to be the best at it. I told them that I felt bad that they had to drive me to practice and get up early on weekend mornings if I wasn’t going to be able to win every race. I said that I felt bad about all the money they were putting into my swimming when I wasn’t the very best. I told them I thought that I should quit.
My parents quietly listened as I spilled everything I’d been thinking, and then my mom asked, “Do you enjoy swimming?” I nodded, and my dad asked, “Do you want to keep swimming?” I nodded again. They smiled, and my dad said, “Then keep swimming, Ace. You don’t have to be the best at something to participate in it; you just have to want to do it. If you enjoy it, we’ll find a way to make sure you can keep swimming.” This was the best possible response they could have given because I did love swimming (and still do), and by letting me know that they’d support me even though I’d never be the “best” they taught me that doing things I enjoy is more important than winning.
Model good behavior
In an era when “winning is everything,” sometimes good sportsmanship gets shoved to the side. As a parent your job is to teach your swimmer how to be a generous winner and a graceful loser. The best way to do this is to model good behavior by cheering for every swimmer on the team (not just your own), by supporting the coaches rather than arguing with them, and by emphasizing the importance of being a good team member.
My parents modeled good behavior by getting involved with the team and volunteering when needed. They took their turn at bringing snacks to swim meets and being race/lane judges when our team hosted a meet. My dad volunteered to be the announcer at meets (even ones I wasn’t swimming in). Looking back on my decade of competitive swimming, I have some incredibly good memories and can see how my participation in the sport shaped the way I approach life in general. I owe my parents a great deal for being such a wonderful support system and for teaching me life lessons that have stuck with me.
And with a little effort, all parents can do the same!