Adding a SwimAmerica Stroke School by Rob Emary (2001)


An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family.  He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire. They could get by. The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said yes, but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.


When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said, “my gift to you.”   What a shock! What a shame! If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently. Now he had to live in the home he had built none too well.


So it is with us. We build our lives in a distracted way, reacting rather than acting, willing to put up less than the best. At important points we do not give the job our best effort. Then with a shock we look at the situation we have created and find that we are now living in the house we have built. If we had realized that we would have done it differently.


Think of yourself as the carpenter. Think about your house. Each day you hammer a nail, place a board, or erect a wall. Build wisely. It is the only life you will ever build. Even if you live it for only one day more, that day deserves to be lived graciously and with dignity. The plaque on the wall says, “Life is a do-it-yourself project.” Your life tomorrow will be the result of your attitudes and the choices you make today.



Building a successful swimming program is exactly like building your own house.  If you use shoddy workmanship and skimp on materials the end result will not be desirable.  Just like a house there are three main parts to every swimming program.  First, is the Foundation swimming lessons is the base for any successful swimming program.  This part of your program houses the future success of your swimming team.  Your lessons program houses the greatest number of potential athletes, and allows you to be in control the quality of who advances to the next level.  Second, the walls of your program is your Age Group swim team.  The Age Group swim team consists of the second largest group of athletes, and is where most swimmers will spend the bulk of their careers, about 4-6 years. Third the roof of the program is the Senior team.  The Senior team is the smallest group, but marks a long-term commitment to improvement and excellence.


This, of course, would exist in a perfect world.   The reality of program development is quite different. In a survey done by USA Swimming it was found that only 15% of all USA Swimming programs run there own learn to swim programs.  Most coaches would say, “so what.”  Here are the problems created by not being actively involved in running your own swimming lesson program.  There is no quality control over instruction and terminology.  Ask yourself how many times you have had to teach a new swimmer on your team how to properly do a drill, or correct a stroke that was improperly taught in a swim lesson? The blame does not lie with the swim instructor, but rather the swim coaches for not properly training and cooperating with the lessons instructors.  How often to the people that run lesson programs get to see great swimming or see drills and strokes done properly?  Being involved with your lessons program assures that the stroke technique a child learns at age 6 will be the same basic technique and terminology at age 16.  Secondly, there is no way to objectively identify and recruit potential athletes.  If you do not look at the kids in lessons how will you know whether or not any of them could be the next Ed Moses, or Josh Davis?  Put a different way assume there are 800 children in a lesson program, yearly, at the facility your team practices.   If you actively recruit 10% of those children, 80 kids, and 10% of those children turn out to be long term prospects you have brought 8 athletes up from the beginning to the Senior level.   Finally, most children drop out of lessons before reaching proficiency.  In order for a child to be able to survive in a water emergency they need to be able to swim 300 yards of freestyle.  How many swim lessons kids do you know that can jump in and swim 300?  Most parents think their kids are safe when they can do beginner freestyle, arms and kicking.  By drawing these kids into swim team you improve their skill level and aid in the mastery of water safety skills.


The challenges at my club KJ SwimAmerica were as follows:


We had more than 800 children in the lessons program and had no systematic or effective way to identify talent and convert that into swim team numbers.


There was a 75% drop out rate on our Age Group team within the first year.  Kids were quitting because they did not posses the required skill, conditioning, or commitment to be on the Age Group team.


The quality of our Age Group swimmers was so diverse some of the A and AA swimmers were not being serviced due to novice swimmers monopolizing the coaches time.


There was a need for the club to grow monetarily by keeping children involved in the program over a longer period of time, and capture the interest of lessons swimmers at an earlier age.


Our club need a way to bridge the gap between the basic skills learned in swim lessons to the more advanced skill and commitment level of the Age Group level of our program.  We needed a way of identifying talent, recruiting that talent, and developing that talent into long-term team success both in quantity of swimmers as well as quality of swimmers.  For us this was what we call Stroke Team.


Stroke Team serves a variety of purposes in our programming.  We teach the athletes all four strokes.  They learn work out etiquette.  This ranges from putting on your goggles to how to wear a cap, what type of suit to wear, using a pace clock.  All these skills are taught exactly the same from this level all the way to the senior team, this allows the coaching staff to focus on athlete improvement and development and not re-teaching skills that were supposed to be learned at an earlier time.  The children learn starts and turns from the coaching staff, and again they are taught exactly the same at all levels of the program.  The Senior coach does not have to re-teach a turn or teach a different way because the athletes have heard the same thing since they were 6 or 7 years old.  The swimmers on the Stroke Team learn basic meet behavior through in house mini-meets.  This allows the coaching staff to manage the racing situation to specifically instruct swimmers on how to behave at a meet, how to get behind the block, and how to translate practice skills into racing situations.    The whole concept of Stroke Team is to allow young talented athletes fresh out of lessons to be developed into competent and confident Age Group swimmers without rushing them into a situation before they have basic skills to successfully compete at that level.


The nuts and bolts of what the Stroke Team ties directly into the benefits that it provides.   Stroke Team provides an opportunity for the swim coach to become involved in the consistent teaching and instruction of children from lessons to Senior Team.  What a streamline is at swim lessons is exactly what a streamline is on the National team.  Coaches need to be involved in training the lessons instructors on what is taught and what terminology he or she wants to be used.  An example in our program is how breaststroke is taught at KJ SwimAmerica.  The timing in breaststroke in our program is taught as kick, stretch, pull.  There is no difference between how this is done in a lesson setting or at the Age Group or Senior Team levels.  Another benefit of Stroke Team is we have begun to tap into the talent pool in our lessons program, and develop it into Age Group swimmers.  There have been 8 swimmers that have moved onto the Age Group team from the Stroke team in just the first year of this program.    The class is held during the Age Group practice time so they can see good mechanics being modeled by other swimmers, and measure their progress versus where they need to be at the next level.  We have nearly doubled out Team size in a years time from 83 swimmers in August of 2000 to 150 swimmers in August of 2001.  The revenue generated from the creation of Stroke Team has already doubled our yearly income through the third quarter.



How do you get started? Identifying and recruiting talented athletes is the first step in the process of starting a stroke team.  At KJ SwimAmerica we use five tools to identify talent and recruit them onto the stroke team.


Recruiting from the lesson program is the first tool we use in identifying talent and recruiting onto the team.  Swim lessons is the largest pool of potential talent that you will ever have access to.  This makes the swimming coach’s participation in training the lesson instructors even more important to your team’s success.  By training the lessons staff you have taken a step forward in helping them know what good swimming is.  Think about it, how often do learn to swim instructors get to see good swimming? Once every four years at the Olympics if that. Use your senior swimmers as demonstrators during your training. Use video footage of Olympic caliber swimmers.  Show your lesson staff what a good freestyle looks like.  There is a wealth of video material available that show drills and strokes, use this resource to improve your team by improving the quality of instruction children get before they join the team. Children in lessons have already shown interest in the sport, and a properly trained lesson instructor will teach them the correct skills and be watching for potential ability.  Tomorrow’s champions will not walk into your program they will be made over a long period of time.  They have to come from somewhere, that somewhere is your lesson program. I can tell you from personal experience, if a lessons instructor had not dared me to go out for the swim team, I would not be standing here in front of you.


Another tool that we use is banners.  You would not believe the number of calls that I receive each day regarding the advertising banners that we use.  They are up in public places close to the facilities that we use, usually a fence by the pool.  These banners are inexpensive and reusable.  We tend to recycle banners to keep the look fresh and promote interest in the program.  This gets your team name out into the communities that will house your potential athletes. You can use banners to promote all your programs and not just stroke team, swim team or lessons.  We promote lessons, water polo, synchro, and our competitive teams.  Ultimately this will bring numbers into your programs and provide a greater pool of potential athletes to draw from.


A third tool is kick testing.  We use this kick test in both our regular lesson program and in our school lesson programs.  The purpose of the kick test is to make a correlation between natural kicking ability and swimming potential.  Once an athlete has basic freestyle the lesson instructor will time the swimmer for 13 yards of maximum effort freestyle kicking.  That time is recorded with the other times and turned in to the team manager.  I then compile all the results on a spreadsheet and then percentile rank them according to their grade in school.  We recruit the top 40% of children in their respective sex, and grade group.  A letter on team letterhead is then sent to the swimmer letting the parent know that their child has some natural swimming ability, and that it would be worth their while to join the stroke team to develop that potential.  The interesting fun fact about this testing is that of the 400+ children we have already tested every team, 132 athletes on the stroke team, all of them tested in the top 40%.  This also lets the parents know that there is a professional coach involved in their child’s instruction and progress.


The most effective recruiting tool that we posses at KJ SwimAmerica is inactive mailings.  Four times a year we mail materials to children who have been on the team, but have dropped off for whatever reason.  20% of those children come back to swimming and stay on the team.  These children already have some skills, and some idea of what being on a team means.  The stroke team provides these swimmers with an opportunity to develop their skills and be taught commitment more slowly, resulting in a lower drop out rate.  A child’s interest in anything will ebb and flow over time, there have been many times where a child who said they hated swimming on one day has come back and made a major contribution later on in their swimming career.


As far as reaching a volume of people school flyers and lesson programs provide us an opportunity to reach a mass of potential customers.  This activity allows coaches to form relationships with local elementary schools and use the school as a delivery system for program information. At KJ SwimAmerica we have access to 7,500 students in the Broward County school system.  Out of that number we get around 1% per year or 75 students participating in one or more of our programs.  Some schools yield better results than others.  Getting into the schools with lessons as part of the PE curriculum allows the coach to develop basic skills for water safety as well as identify potential athletes.  This is a great community service item, as well as an opportunity to find swimming talent.  School flyers also allow you to promote your other swim programs as well.  The great thing that happens is we are trying to recruit stroke team athletes, but we end up adding to our lessons and water polo programs as well.


Once you have the bodies on the stroke team what do you do with them?  There needs to by a systematic program that provides stroke instruction and competitive experience.  From an instructional standpoint the class is short, 30 min.  This allows the stroke team swimmer to receive stroke instruction in a compact format that fits their fitness level and attention span.


Two key elements of our entire stroke team are using the same drills and terminology in lessons as we do on the stroke team.  Those drills and terms are fundamentally the same on the stroke team as they are on the rest of the competitive swimming program.  It is essential that a swimmer is taught the same basic skills and technique from day one of their lesson experience until the last day they participate on the team.  Our team and lesson staff meets to make sure that we are all using the same drills and terminology to make sure the children and athletes are receiving the highest quality instruction possible.


The stroke team athletes warm up, usually with some type of swimming, about 200 yards, or dryland activity, push-ups or sit-ups.  The daily instructional schedule is the same throughout the program and is reinforced by the mini-meets that we hold twice a month.  If the stroke team is working on free, back and fly, the next mini-meet will include those strokes.


Team building is also important at this stage and after every practice the swimmers do some sort of team cheer.  This is fun for the coaches to make up different cheers and different ways to do the cheer.  Some days it is loud, and some days it is a whisper cheer.  Mix it up and have fun.


The next component of the stroke team is the mini-meet.  This is the place where the swimmers practice the basic racing skills they need in an instructional environment.  These meet are just the stroke team kids from our team, and occasionally we allow our age group swimmers to participate.  We try to keep the time of the meet down around 45 minutes.  If it looks like the meet is running slow or taking too long we will cut it short.  The reasoning behind this is we want the stroke team swimmers to race, but also stay interested and active as much as possible, not to mention to keep the parents active and interested as well.  No matter what the age range of the swimmers we will do 25’s and 50’s of strokes and occasionally a 100 IM.  We usually do free, back, and either breast or fly.  There are between 40-70 swimmers at these meets. We give out heat winner awards and meet participant awards on the spot.  As the kids race we record their times, and after the meet I compile the times and post them on the team web page, along with their improvement.  We often have some type of talk or instructional time with the kids before they race.  We will sit them down in a group and ask them questions about the strokes or racing that directly pertain to what they will be doing on that day.  If you tell them what to do they may do it, but by asking they are reinforcing that they know what they need to do on their own.  Make for a more self-reliant swimmer.  This also is an opportunity to educate parents as to what to expect at a meet, and how to behave at meet.  I would much rather have to ask a parent to sit down on the bleachers and cheer at a small in house meet than to have to ask them to sit down at a large USA Swimming meet.  The swimmers are learning how to race, and the parents are learning how to be a good swimming parent.  This is also a good time for parents to see who their children are involved with and what they are learning as well.


The stroke team is not supposed to be the end of the line for athletes, but rather a stop over between lessons and the Age Group team.  This is supposed to be a place where coaches can develop the athletes to be well-disciplined, well-behaved, committed, fast Age Group swimmers.  There are some basic factors that coaches consider when deciding whether a child is ready to advance to the Age Group team.  This relates to an article that George Block wrote regarding the four components of leadership and communication.  This is a good tool to use to evaluate where your athletes stand in relationship to their training group as well as their stranding in regard total team development.


The first level is the operations level.  At this level the swimmer is learning the basic how to’s of swimming.  Another way to describe it is competency.  This includes basic stroke mechanics, starts, turns any item that requires doing.


The second level is cooperation.  Cooperation refers to the ability of a swimmer to perform skills with competency and help the coach by being an enthusiastic participant.  This includes areas of listening to instructions and practice attendance could be called the mastery of followership.


The third level is leading by example.  This is where the swimmer is confident in there abilities and can begin to exhibit those skills and perform for the benefit of new teammates.  This is the key ability that coaches look for when considering swimmers moving to the next level.


The fourth level is leading by voice.  With young children this is a unique skill indeed.  This is the credible swimmer that is competent in skill and is able to help others with encouragement and friendship.  As I have tried to monitor where each swimmer functions within their practice group I have found few vocal leaders at all.  This is a skill that can be cultivated in young athletes, but will be most useful at the Senior and College levels.


At KJ SwimAmerica the stroke team is at the operational level, but within that framework I have noticed swimmers fit into these categories within their group.


Why should you go home and start a stoke team in your swimming team? Look at the benefits that it has to offer.  Stroke team provides a consistent pipeline of athletes from the lesson program to the Senior team level.  This includes consistency of instruction when coaches actively participate in the training of the lesson staff.  Secondly, you are considering the long-term investment that a parent will spend in your program.  The total investment that a parent will spend on training from lessons at age 3-5 to Senior swimming ages 15-18 is close to $12,000 in dues alone.  This does not include money spent on equipment or meet entries.  If you as a coach can hold on to 10 athletes for the 13-year duration of their swimming experience that is $120,000 into your program.  At KJ Swim America our stroke team brought in over 14,000 in the first three quarters of 2001.  From a total team standpoint the stroke team concept will help in providing Age Group swimmers with a better background of stroke instruction as well as basic meet and workout behaviors.  This will add to the overall success of your swimming program.


Ask yourself the question what type of house are you building?  Is the foundation you build in your lessons program broad enough and strong enough to support a successful Age Group and Senior team?  If you do have a large lesson program and you are actively participating in your team’s success at that level you have already taken a step in the right direction.  Starting a Stroke Team will provide a valuable connection between the foundation you have built with swimming lessons and the house of success that you wish to have on your swimming team.

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