I have been involved in the sport of swimming since I was ten years old.
I swam for a small club team when I started, moved to a very competitive Y team in middle school, swam varsity all four years of high school, and swam for a Division I team in college where I was captain my junior and senior years.
Once I graduated from college, I transitioned to the other side of swimming and started coaching.
I have coached every age of swimmer, from kindergarten through college. I’ve coached USS teams, Y teams, country club teams and Special Olympic teams.
I am presently the head developmental coach of a swim team that four of my kids also swim for. As the head developmental coach, I currently work with kids who range in age from five years old to eleven years old.
I coach kids who are brand new to swimming and kids who are the number one in the state. I also coach three of my own children.
When my kids joined the swim team, I entered the third arena of swimming. Being a swimming parent.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of just being a swimming parent. This is not an opportunity I often have as I’m usually on the deck coaching while my kids are swimming.
It was a very welcomed change to be able to simply sit in the stands, just be a mom, and focus only on my daughter.
But as I sat in the stands, I overheard a mother talking about her son, who is ten years old. The same age as my daughter.
And after he had a swim where he didn’t swim a best time, where he didn’t place as high as she thought he should have, where he didn’t perform to the level she believed he should have, she said to the woman sitting next to her, I am going to rip him to shreds when we get home.
She wasn’t kidding.
It was disturbing.
Not as disturbing as what I overheard another parent saying three weeks ago at a different swim meet as he was exiting the building.
I heard a father tell his very distraught daughter, who was probably around 12 years old and who apparently hadn’t swum as well as she wanted to that day, I am pulling you off the swim team this summer. He later said to his daughter, You swam so bad you might as well kill yourself.
What the f*ck.
You may think these are extreme and isolated incidents, but they aren’t.
Trust me. I get it. It is easy as a parent and as a coach to get wrapped up in the performance of your kid. I can see where you want to focus on times, places, overall finishes, medals, etc. You want your kid to be the best. You want your kid to be in the starting lineup. You want him to have as much (or more) playing time than everyone else.
But that isn’t why your kids are involved in sports.
Sure, that’s part of it. Everyone wants to be good. Everyone likes to win. Everyone loves to get a medal or a trophy or set a record.
But the most basic reason your kids participate in a sport is because it’s fun.
The definition of fun may evolve over time.
At first, fun equals playing games. Scrimmaging. Nothing too intense.
Along the way early on, while your kids are having fun, they learn some lessons. They develop skills and become stronger without even realizing it.
And they make friends. Friends who they look forward to seeing every day or every weekend. They become part of a team. They have a sense of belonging and significance, something all human beings crave, no matter how fast or slow they are.
As your kids mature and develop, they learn to push themselves more. They realize that practicing helps them improve. They learn that by moving out of their comfort zone, they become stronger and better.
Now the fun isn’t just about playing. It’s about setting goals and working hard to achieve them. Practice becomes harder. But the results of your practice, playing well in a game or swimming fast in a meet is the fun part. So is working toward a bigger goal with your teammates.
It is on the coaching end of things that I’ve been able to rein myself in on the parenting end. A couple years ago, I was borderline psycho on the stands at Number 3’s baseball games. I was the loudest parent there. I was cheering loudly. But I was also being a backseat coach from the sidelines.
I was sure this was helping my son, but one day I asked him if he could hear me when he was pitching and his response was, “YES! And can you stop it? It’s REALLY annoying!!!”
I truly thought he welcomed my “input.”
But he didn’t. And I can only imagine how annoying I was to my son’s baseball coaches.
Something else occurred to me last week when Number 3 asked me a question while we were driving to swim practice.
He said to me, “Mom? What was your best time in the 100 breaststroke when you were my age?”
And you know what? I have absolutely no idea. The more I thought about it, I couldn’t remember most of my times at any age, and I also didn’t really remember what place I came in at any of my meets. Even the big ones.
I think this is something many parents either never understand or at some point lose sight of.
In the big picture, the important thing isn’t what place you got or how fast you swam or whether or not your team won the championship.
Most teams never win the championship. The majority of swimmers never set a record or come in first place. Most players aren’t voted MVP and very very few go on to play any sport professionally.
If being the best and winning was the only reason anyone ever played a sport, there wouldn’t be too many people involved in athletics on any level!
As a former swimmer, I know from personal experience that challenging myself, setting goals and achieving (some of) them, realizing I was tougher than I thought I was, learning to move out of my comfort zone, making friends, laughing my butt off, and being a part of a team that almost literally became my family was what made swimming fun for me.
As a parent, I want my kids to be successful at whatever sport they participate in, but mostly I want them to have fun. The kind of fun I had when I was on the swim team.
As a coach I want the same thing. I want my swimmers to be successful. But more importantly, I also want to help them develop a lifelong love for the sport of swimming.
While the goals for a coach and a parent may be the same, the roles of a coach and a parent are different!
Your job as a parent is not to sit on the sidelines and direct or berate your kid. It is not your job to quiz your kid in the car and bark orders at him while you are on your way to practice.
What is your job as a parent?
1. Teach/encourage your child to take responsibility for him/herself.
When your child is in the pool or on the field, it is up to him or her to pay attention, to focus, and to do the things his coach is asking him/her to do. If your kid is going to truly be successful in a sport, the drive/motivation/effort needs to be internal.
Stop packing your kids’ swim bags or baseball bags or whatever bags. They can do this! Even when they are five years old! When your kids are encouraged to take responsibility for their equipment/water bottles/etc, they are learning that all aspects of the sport are their responsibility.
I tell my swimmers all the time, I can tell you what to do, but I can’t get in the water and make you do it. You are your biggest coach!
2. Stop trying to coach your kid. And relax.
Your kids’ coaches are the experts.
I see kids on the baseball field who make errors, and the first people they look at are their parents! NO! Look at your coach! When the inning or the race or the game is over, talk to your coach. Your coach will give you feedback to help you do better next time! That’s why he/she is there!
The same thing happens in the pool. There are children who, in practice, get to the wall and look directly over at their parents for guidance. Parents who have never ever been involved in any way in the sport of swimming before who are on the sitting on deck telling their kids how to move their arms.
It’s very frustrating.
And while these parents think they are helping their kids, they aren’t.
Neither is the mom who has spreadsheets and graphs at home of her kid’s swim times. (Yes, I met a mom who actually does that).
Trust your kids’ coaches, and let them do their job.
3. Don’t quiz your kid after practice or before a game.
There is only one question you ever need to ask your kids after a game: Did you have fun?
When dropping your kids off for practice, I know it may be tempting to fire off a bunch of directions at them. Keep your eye on the ball! Be aggressive! Work on your streamlines!
Just as you don’t want your spouse to nag you about things, your kids don’t want this from you either.
If you really can’t help yourself, ask this question: What is something you want to focus on today at practice? or What is something you think you did well at the game today?
This question helps your child to self-reflect and think about something he/she can do to play his/her best. And it helps your child learn to take ownership of his/her performance.
4. Let your kid fail.
YES. This is the most important thing of all.
Your kids will learn more about real life, more about being resilient, more about perseverance, more about sportsmanship and grace and humility, and more about themselves through failures than they will through constantly succeeding.
Failure isn’t unhealthy for your kids. But a parent who constantly tries to rescue them from it is.
I know it’s tough in the moment, but those moments don’t last forever, and your kids come out stronger, smarter and better for it on the other side.
5. Be present.
Put your phones down. Watch your kids. Sure, pictures and videos are nice. But most of the time you bring your phone to a game or a meet, you end up doing something else on it. It distracts you.
And you know what your kids want the most when you are at their games and meets and practices?
They don’t want pictures or videos for you to put on Facebook. They definitely don’t want to look over in the bleachers and see you staring at your phone.
They want you to witness that home run first hand. Even if it isn’t a home run or anything spectacular, your kids want your attention and and they want your support.
And as their parent, that is the biggest gift you can give them.