Boys Only Training groups in Age Group Swimming by Sage Hopkins (2002)


We will be focusing on the DeAnza Cupertino Aquatics age group program – specifically on our boys-only groups.  We are starting with a brief overview of our program and an explanation of how our different businesses work.  Then we will examine the DAKA boys-only groups: how we started the groups, how they progressed and what our future plans will be.


First, we operate the DAKA swim school, which is a separate indoor facility, which runs year-round, 7 days a week.  It provides us the ability to hire a full-time, professional staff.


Second, we run the DeAnza Summer Swim.  It is an outdoor 8-week summer swim lesson program that is managed by DAKA for DeAnza College and then we split the proceeds with the college district.


Third, we run the aquatics programs for the college.  This consists of their lap swimming program, their men and women’s swimming teams and their men and women’s water polo programs.


Fourth, we have our pre-competitive swim team that is run separately from our competitive swim team.  It is offered in sessions–we have 4 sessions per year.  The swimmers go twice a week, averaging 30-40 minutes per day, depending on the swimmer’s group.


Lastly, we have the competitive program.  The main focus of today’s talk will be our competitive program.  Our competitive program has been re-organized over the past 18 months and we have broken it into three separate tracks.  In the column where you see green, yellow, white–that is our 10 & under track, where we have our swimmers that are maybe the most talented swimmers–the “early maturers”, the ones that have been in the sport a little bit longer.  This is the track where they progress the quickest into our upper-level groups.


We also have an 11-14 year-old track–the red, orange and purple groups.  These groups are for swimmers who have had a later start.  Maybe they are a “late-maturer” in the sport.  They need a little bit more time to focus on the fundamentals.


You can see that I am down here in the triangles.


We have broken up our program into boys and girls groups at approximately 11 years old.  The first group that we had as boys-only was the blue boys group.  We started this in the spring of 2000.  The original rationale we had in creating the boys-only groups and in creating and starting with that 11-year-old age range was that we were losing a large number of boys at that age.  Additionally, we didn’t have very many boys at all in that 11-14 age group.  It’s a problem with many of the programs around the country.  It was a problem in our program.  We also felt many of the boys were leaving swimming to go to a team sport where they had a little bit more camaraderie. We wanted to develop that camaraderie within swimming.  We felt that was very important.


Additionally, we felt that we were also losing boys because the girls at the same age, as a generalization, were able to train harder than the boys, train more intensely.  Maybe they [girls] are able to pick up strokes a little bit quicker.  This isn’t anything new.  Back in 1976 “” gave a great talk on coaching girls (or how to grow gray quickly).  Based on scientific research and a lot of his observations, he had stated that coaches might consider having different expectations for boys than girls.


We started with the blue boys group.  At the time we only had 7-8 boys in that age range so we gathered those boys up and started the group.  Right away we started to have a lot of success in something that we really promoted.  We have a weekly newsletter where it gets a lot of press.  We wanted all of the boys in the team to know about it.  Due to the success of how it has worked, we have 25 boys in that group, and, more importantly, in our 10 & under groups, our boys now out-number our girls.


A lot of the increase is due to retention because the boys want to go into the boys-only group, so they are sticking with the sport.  It is something that we have only been able to track for a couple of years so we are not sure–we are hoping–the train is going to continue through to the national level.


This past spring, two years after we started the blue boys-only group, we started the gold boys-only group.  There were several reasons for this.  The gold group in our hierarchy is considered a little bit higher level than the blue groups.  Usually, the gold swimmers will go right into the national group whereas the blue swimmers sometimes will go into the senior group for a little bit more preparation before they go to the national group.  So as I said, we started our gold boys-only group this past spring.


The blue boys-only group, with about 25 swimmers, was at capacity and we didn’t want the group to be any larger than that. More crucially, we had a lot of boys who were starting to bottleneck below this level.  We had a lot of talent in those 10 & under groups, specifically the white group, but again that was impacting down the line.  There were yellow-group kids that moved into the white group and so forth, so we really had the need for it.  Additionally, the bulk of those 25 kids had been in the group for about a year and a half and they were ready to take that next step.


As far as the next step in training with the blue group, the #1 emphasis is going to be on technique.  We teach and emphasize all four strokes.  There isn’t going to be any specialization, no one is a backstroker or a breaststroker.   There is an equal importance on all those strokes as well as turns and starts.  Additionally, we are going to start increasing the training component.  We are starting to get into a crucial point in the swimmers’ physical development and we need to begin getting them ready for the next group and for senior and national-level swimming.


The main difference is in the approach that we take to the groups and the expectations that the coach is going to have.  For instance, if we have the blue girls going a 20-minute set at x% of effort, the boys may have the same set broken-up differently. Maybe there will be some drills involved.  The boys will probably have a tougher time focusing on their technique for a long time so there needs to be constant reminders–whether it is stroke switching or drills into swimming or the coach giving them a lot of feedback.


In the gold group, technique is still the #1 priority, but now we want the swimmers to learn how to hold their technique under more stress.  The boys at this point are starting to grow, putting on muscle.  They are going to have awkward bodies and they are going to need a lot of reminders, challenges–whatever it takes to keep their strokes on track and to keep them progressing and doing what they need to do.  Something important that we do in the gold groups, where both the boys and the girls are at that junior high age where flirting begins, is bring the groups together every two weeks for a practice. It will usually be an anaerobic or endurance 3 practice and those are generally the best practices those coaches will see.  The kids absolutely annihilate each other, often getting best times within the sets. The girls trying to beat the boys and the boys trying to beat the girls is something that we have really seen is improving the level of effort, not just in our boys but also with our girls as well.


Additionally, the boys-only groups do a lot of outside activities with just their group.  They will go to the movies.  They will go across the street to a juice club and get a smoothie.  Sometimes they will dress up in a suit and go out and go out and have a formal dinner with their coach.  There are a lot of activities that are done outside of the pool to try and create that camaraderie and it is really working because before practice now we see a large group of 20 boys hanging around together, joking around and having fun and that is just what we were trying to do.


One of the most important things is selecting the right coach for the group.  We think this is one of the most important things.  The coach has to have the right kind of personality and let the boys be boys while teaching and instilling some discipline and focus.  The coach needs to be a magnet–someone who the swimmers are drawn to.  The coach needs to have a fun personality and be someone who the kids want to hang out with and whom they feel is cool.  The coach needs to be patient with the boys who are going to be joking around and having fun, but also have that firm hold on the group, so that when it is time to get to work, the coach can quickly get the group on task. Finally, the coach needs to be really, really passionate about getting those boys better and getting them ready for the next level–be it in their technique, their maturity, or whatever it is.  The coach needs to recognize whatever it is as swimmers they need work on and the coach needs to be passionate enough to develop those points to get them ready for the next group.


As far as what we want to do with the program in the future, we have a year or so when we can’t do much.  Our pool at the end of college is going through a six-month refurbishment, so this year the programs are all going to stay the same since the program is spread out into four or five area facilities.  The following year, 2003-2004, we have an 11-14 track in which we would like to separate the boys and girls also.  We feel the boys may be missing some of the specific stroke work and getting left behind.  We knew we needed to do something with our boys program.  We started at this point because we felt that this was the most important part of our program where we could make an impact on the future of each swimmer and so we picked the highest levels of our age group program to make those changes. We will see in the next couple of years those swimmers coming up into the national group and performing at the level that we are hoping and expecting.


The program is constantly being evaluated and evolving.  We are always making changes, looking at areas that we can refine. So it is probably something that is never going to be entirely set in stone.


Our program is really limited (because we are so large) by our facility, so when we make choices with changing groups we really have to make sure it is the right choice for that group and the whole program. We are constantly evolving it, but when we do make changes they are calculated changes and we are willing to try new things to achieve success.  Intentionally, I left a lot of time at the end thinking there may be more specific questions concerning your own program, your own situations.  At this point I would like to open up the presentation for questions.


What is the size of your program and the facility that you are in?

We utilize the DeAnza College facility, which is a 50-meter x 25-yard pool, and it has a separate diving well. It has 27 25-yard lanes.  The competitive team has between 400-450 swimmers.  The pre-competitive team also has 400-450 swimmers that we have to balance and move with those groups.


Do you prefer a female or a male coach?

Right now the coaches are both females.  I don’t know if that is by coincidence or just that they naturally have the personality we were looking for, but it is probably more the personality than the coach.


Do people move from the blue group to the gold group during the year and when do you do that?

As far as move-ups, we do those in the fall only.  We want the coaches to have a fair and set amount of time with each kid.  Generally a swimmer will have two years in a group. That is what we are shooting for.  If a swimmer is rocketing through everything, then we will take that into consideration. If they are just getting better so fast that we need to move them then we will.


Do you separate the pre-competitive and the competitive swimmers, especially at the novice level?

The answer is yes we do.  We actually treat them as two entirely separate teams.  Two entirely separate businesses.  Or pre-competitive program starts with the barracudas. To join this group, a swimmer needs to be able to swim a 25 of freestyle and backstroke.  This group is for 10 and unders only.  In the 11-14 groups, these first groups are 30-minute groups.  The ruby group is a 40-minute group.  I said that we treat them as separate businesses and not as a feeder program.  The reason is that we want the pre-competitive program to be the best possible pre-competitive program it can be.  We don’t want to compromise it by thinking the competitive team is more important. We want to make choices about the pre-competitive program based on that.  We are obviously going to have a high amount of retention from our pre-competitive to our competitive teams.  We realize that.


The pre-competitive program is something that is scripted out.  There are six swimmers to one instructor in most of the groups.  It is divided into sessions (four per year), where the instructors actually have each practice printed out for them and they have a lesson plan they work from. It is the same each time–similar to a structured swim lesson program.  Right now in our current structure, the only place we are separating boys and girls is in the 11-14 range in the blue and in the gold groups.  We are considering switching it with the pre-competitive program.  We are not sure that it would make as positive an impact as switching some of the competitive groups.  So we are probably going to make a change there first before we tinker with the pre-competitive program.


When you made the change, did you do it all at once, did you do it progressively and what was the response from the membership?

We did do the change all at once.  We feel it is important that whenever there is a change like that that we don’t to baby the kids in. We don’t want to tease them along.  That program started the way it was going to run that very day and it has been running the same way since.


Are the boys-only and girls-only groups run at the same time?

They are at the same time, though we don’t do them side-by-side.  There have been a few times when they were side by side but with the gold group there is constant flirting, kids pinching each other and kicking each other, so to keep things focused, we separated them into different spots in the facility.


When do you bring the male and female swimmers back together and is there an adjustment period?

The first two swimmers to complete the boys-only training groups have just moved into the Senior group (high school age) this year, so it is a little early to tell with the program being so new.  One thing we are considering is possibly splitting into boys and girls at the senior and varsity levels.  At issue is what to do with the boy who has no background in swimming and swims :47 in a 100-yard free at his high school championships, but can’t swim 5 x 100 on 1:30 short course.  The swimmer is obviously somebody with a lot of talent, but also somebody who needs to be helped along to develop.   


How have the girls reacted and what has gone on there?

Our Head Age Group Coach, Tammy Hopkins says she thinks the girls reacted positively to the switch.  DAKA has always been known, at least locally, as having fast girls, and that was part of our reasoning for wanting to increase the number of boys, so the girls have stayed somewhat strong. 


How many coaches do we have on staff – do they coach more than one group?

We have 12 full-time coaches and, looking at the competitive and pre-competitive programs, we have about 80 part-time people.  Each group is offered at multiple times, I should point out.  As far as the coaching, we want each coach to have a high-level group as well as more of an entry-level or novice group.  We feel that is important with the coach and their development. For instance Tammy, who coaches the gold girls, also coaches green and red and orange groups as well and that occurs across the board with all of our staff. 


What ages do you move swimmers into the senior program or national program?  Do you hold swimmers back or move them ahead if they are more talented?

As a generalization, the senior group is for high school swimmers and older.  I don’t know that we have ever had anybody under high school age in there.  In the girls national group we are looking at high school freshmen; in the boys national group, freshmen or sophomores.  Of the boys that did move into the senior group, one is a sophomore and one is a junior so maybe they are late-maturers.  Both of them were fairly new to year-round swimming.  I think it was their second year. 


Since you only have 7 or 8 boys in most of your groups, how did you justify to your membership having triple or quadruple that number in the girls groups and having the coaches of the girls have larger numbers of swimmers to coach?

First, we don’t really justify anything to our membership.  One reason being that we don’t want them to be comfortable in that position.  Second, we are a professional staff and this will really be hit on tomorrow and you will understand why I can say that and be completely honest as we get into our structure.  We will always take polite feedback and input, but we will make it very clear to the parents that they don’t have any input as far as the running of our program. 


Is your retention rate with boys higher now or is too early to tell?

The retention rate is definitely higher.  I don’t have the specific number or percentage to tell you.  In the white group and yellow groups, we are retaining a lot more boys than we used to because they want to move up into the blue boys group so we are seeing those groups really swell. We have had to add a second and a third group offering for those. 


Do you have the gold group swimmers for three years or so?

Generally we want the kids to be in a group for about two years and hopefully at that point they are ready to move on, so it is usually about a two-year period depending on how young they were when they moved in. 


Are there problems associated with having the boys-only and girls-only groups in the facility at the same time?

Right now, we do have the groups in at the same time.  They are just kind of in different places and once they are out of sight of each other, especially the junior high kids, they forget about the other people.  In a smaller facility where you maybe only have eight lanes available to you, would it be worthwhile to have them in there together at the same time?  I think yes just from the standpoint that those two groups need different things taught to them, different expectations.  The boys are maybe going to need a little bit more stroke work.  The girls are going to catch onto things quicker and then train while working on the strokes where the boys will need to go through things slower.  Maybe you could start them at different ends of the pool.  That is really a situation, you would have to workout at your facility.  In this gentleman’s program, for the last year, he had separated boys in one lane and girls in another coached by the same coach and they have seen their retention rates elevate based on that.  In some programs, the sexes are separated because the girls want to work hard and the boys want to play and that will happen.  That is again why sometimes two coaches can help there. 


Has there been any impact on team morale and team unity?

It definitely has improved, especially among the boys who have really come together.  We have had a lot of morale and unity at the upper levels.  That is something that in the senior national group, we have always had. We want all the kids cheering, and teammanship is something that is very important.  We have started to emphasize this in the age group program in the last year and a half and we have seen it improve dramatically. 


Are there any downsides to separating the practice groups into boys-only and girls-only?

That’s a good question. Tammy? Downsides? She said that she really couldn’t think of any down- sides.  Absence has made the heart grow fonder and when the kids get back together at those meets they really have a lot of fun.  Thank you again very much.



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