Coach Amy Ayres Parratto has been the head age group coach at the Seacoast Swimming Association since she and her husband Mike came to Seacoast in the fall of 1984. She oversees both the pre‑team and competitive age group programs at Seacoast. Coach Parrato is a former coaches’ representative and current USS LSC Camp Director for New England Swimming. She is a 1983 graduate of Wellesley College where she majored in Psychology and Art. Coach Parratto also runs her own US diving team, is a semi‑active masters swimmer and very active mother of Jessica and Melissa.
I am a full time age group coach and am very proud of it. That’s what I want to be until something else strikes my fancy. It is something that I have been doing for eleven years. I don’t really have any interest in being a Senior coach. I enjoy coaching the young swimmer for the future and preparing them with good skills to be able to train and to do 10,000 to 16,000 yards a day in the future in a healthy way, not getting injured, and being successful at Seacoast — that’s what I do, I help to prepare them for the future.
This is a wonderful honor. This is my ninth ASCA World Clinic. I never dreamed that one day I would be a speaker. So, if this is your first clinic, or second clinic, you never know you might be up here one day. I’m basically going to be talking about the philosophy that Mike Parratto and I started with when we first came to Seacoast. We were hired to create a national level program from a recreational team. “Swimming World” just wrote an article about this summer league in New Hampshire. The focus of the team was recreational, summer league and we were hired to make it a national level program.
In a fairly short amount of time that’s what we did. We set our goals and we did that. We also went in with the philosophy that I’m going to be talking about — how do you keep swimmers swimming for the long term. We wanted to create longevity in our swimmers and the program so that the goals of the team would be met. That is, goals to be the best that you can be as an individual whether it be Olympic Trial Qualifier, making your first JO Championship, or making your first A or B time.
It takes time and patience to create a successful swimmer and a successful program. If you think you can do it overnight without busting your butt, you are in the wrong business. Successful swimmers and teams are not microwaveable. Mike and I like to use that term because with the advent of the microwave we are all used to popping that baked potato in there instead of waiting an hour — it’s great to have it done in a couple of minutes. But swimmers don’t work that way and programs don’t either. They are slow cookers, but they yield great success if you take the time.
There are a few factors that contribute to the longevity of young athletes in the sport of swimming. When Guy Edson at ASCA first called me to present a talk on this topic, my first thought was to talk with the swimmers at Seacoast. What keeps them swimming? I wanted to know what they thought were the areas that helped to motivate them to keep swimming. I talked to swimmers from all levels. I wondered what they thought their main reasons were for their enjoyment of the sport and what our coaches had done to keep them motivated.
After I go over the swimmers’ perspective I will talk about several areas in which the coach determines the longevity of the swimmers. I’ll refer to the structure of Seacoast Swimming and how we went about doing that to help to keep them going. As far as the swimmers’ perspective, I spoke to a number of swimmers. They ranged in age from eleven to eighteen. I only spoke to those who had started at our preteam level, from the very beginning. I had to leave out those who moved in to the area, or joined our team later. For the most part most of our swimmers are home grown. We do not have a lot of feeder teams in our area. We don’t have a team in a densely populated area. We have to create most of our swimmers from scratch. The ability of the swimmers with whom I spoke went from B-C swimmers to Junior National and Senior National qualifiers, as well as one Olympic Trial qualifier who came at seven years of age and is now seventeen.
I found five main reasons for staying in the sport and I’m sure any of you could probably pick them out. They are pretty basic. They are not in any particular order of importance. Number one, the desire to race and compete. Number two, the desire to improve. Number three, A big one was the friendships made over the years. Number 4 was the unique traveling experiences. The fifth was the fun days at practice.
My next thoughts, after talking with our swimmers, were how could the coaches help to facilitate these five reasons for continuing to swim? I drew upon my own experiences at Seacoast because that’s my only experience coaching.
As far as racing and competing, the swimmers in our program compete in an average of only one meet every four to five weeks in the short course season and about one meet every two to three weeks in the brief long course season. Compared to other teams in our LSC we do not compete as often as most. A lot of “Y” teams and other teams might compete every single weekend. We do not do that. We say right from the beginning that we are not going to do that for several reasons. Consequently, the meets became a special event to look forward to. Because the meets are spread out there is more room for improvement, so our swimmers feel better about themselves. They don’t say, “Oh, I added time.” Most of the time, I’ll say 95% of the time, the age groupers will improve their time. Racing and competing do not become stale. For the most part our young age group swimmers, or C level and B level swimmers who have not made our Senior Championships stay fairly local when competing. Once the swimmer and his or her family have adjusted to the swimming way of life, then they might begin to go to travel meets where they stay overnight in a hotel. Then there is more of a financial commitment and time commitment.
The second area which contributes to longevity is improvement. As I just described, our swimmers have the opportunity to experience greater time drops from meet to meet because the meets are spread apart. This also gives them more time to practice. You are not missing a Saturday practice for a meet. You are getting in a good two and a half to three hour practice. I’m not talking about a nine year old. I’m talking about a twelve or thirteen year old. Obviously when they have more time to practice it leads to greater improvement in strength and technique.
Seacoast is set up in such a away that there is a steady progression so that they can see improvement. Even within a group of swimmers, they begin in one lane within the group. When they improve they move to the next lane, and so on. I’m sure many of you run your programs in the same way. Each lane becomes a little more challenging. Set up your lanes so each has some sort of status. Let’s say one day one lane has too many swimmers and you have to move Karin from lane one to lane two and you must explain to her that she is not being demoted, the lane is too crowded. Kids get incredibly insulted if you move them from a faster lane to a slower lame without explaining why. So make sure you tell them why they are being moved.
One aspect of which the swimmers spoke is something that we do and it is very important and that is time cards. (Our Olympic Trials qualifier who joined our program when she was seven said this was a very important factor for staying in swimming when she was being coached by me as an age grouper.) I would give out three by five cards after each meet with the swimmer’s events that they swam, their times, and whether it was a best time. If it was not a best time I would write good job or good effort, and then for each of the races I’d write a critique. I have a pretty good visual memory and I can remember pretty much all of their races. I would write something like, “Susie make sure you streamline off your IM turns.” Give them some positive feedback to apply in practice. It’s like a little report card. They have a little sticker on it also. The parents love it and the swimmers love it.
It’s a lot of work. Unfortunately, since having my own children it has been very difficult to keep up with this. I have 44-45 kids in my group alone so that’s a lot of little cards to write out because they take time. We have a computer program so now I print out their times and put a sticker on it, or I can write a comment.
Friendships are a key to the longevity of the swimmer. The friendships that the swimmers formed over the years are extremely important in keeping them in swimming. There are several swimmers who grew up on the team with one or two particularly close friends and they did everything with them. When they are very close, usually they are the same ability and we try to keep them together when moving them up.
Make sure that you provide the swimmers with opportunities to get to know each other. In swimming their faces are in the water and between sets you probably don’t want them talking very much because you are trying to tell them the set. So make sure you provide opportunities to get to know each other. Organize team activities, especially early in the season when you might not be as concerned about getting a practice in. For example, what we do a lot of times in the fall or spring is go for a hike in the White Mountains which are beautiful. Or we do an occasional beach trip or a movie trip in the summer. In the beginning of the season we often mix the groups up while doing a water circuit because we have limited pool time. We mix up all the different groups including our senior group, the middle group which is called the junior group and our age group program if they happen to be there. We’ll mix ages also. Some of the kids don’t like it, some do. Whether they like it or not, it’s too bad, they get used to it. They have a lot of fun and they get to know each other. It’s amazing, that even on a small team not everyone may know each other’s names and this really helps. Encourage positive behavior that will encourage friendships at your young age group levels.
Emphasize team and working together. I know that Skip Kenney talked a lot about team. Encourage working together and being respectful of each other. Keep an eye out for social conflicts and help to facilitate healthy communication. I know of a few swimmers who gave up the sport too soon because someone said unkind words such as, “I beat you,” or “you’re so slow,” and things like that. We all run across that, those of us who coach young swimmers. They haven’t quite caught on to their social graces yet. Be a teacher. Help them to learn this. They might not always have the opportunity elsewhere. I think that’s very important.
I will also insert vocabulary words into practices. I’ll use words that they have not heard and I’ll help them to learn the new words. I’ll say this is like school in the pool. I’m talking basically about eleven years old and younger.
Traveling, they love traveling. Maybe the parents’ pocketbooks don’t, but many of the older swimmers mentioned the opportunity to travel to meets around the country as well as traveling on training trips. They know that the widening of their horizons, meeting new people, learning about different areas of the country, and an opportunity to test their limits is important. Also, getting involved in USS/LSC camps is important. I happen to be the LSC camp director for New England. We are always pushing it. It is such a great opportunity especially since those camps are geared towards the ages where we see the most drop out. So these are a great motivational input for them. A lot of our athletes have had the opportunity to qualify for the upper level camps at the Olympic Training Center and that’s a great motivational factor. If you have an athlete who qualifies send them. It’s a great opportunity to learn and meet new people and challenge themselves.
The last area that the swimmers mentioned — and some of the coaches out there will go “Oh I hate doing this” — are fun days at practice. The swimmers also spoke about relays, challenge swims, unusual sets, and games. Try to build some aspect of fun at all levels of your program. Even Mike, who pounds out the yardage and has really tough practices in our Senior group, somehow creates some fun aspects once in awhile. We have a birthday risk we do, which is just like a get out swim. We schedule it once a month and everybody’s birthdays are celebrated. I’m sure a lot of you do something like that. But, for example, if birthday risk was on the calendar and I decided we weren’t going to do it that day because that day is not so good the kids get really mad. If you are going to schedule a special day, make sure you do it, or don’t schedule it and just surprise them.
Another other aspect of fun we run at practice is the USS partner program which is really great. We will only run it in the summer because when we use our older swimmers their time is so limited. They get in there and they’re training their butts off and then they have to go study. We don’t want to take away from their time training because we have only a certain amount of practice time, so we only do it in the summer. When they are done with their practice, we hold it on Wednesdays in the morning. They spend about forty minutes with a partner, or two partners, who are young rookie swimmers. It’s a lot of fun for the younger swimmers and our older swimmers also get a lot out of it. It gives them a new perspective on their own swimming.
Well, to conclude the swimmers’ perspective aspect of my talk, I’m going to go over some advice that the swimmers asked me to present. I condensed it a little bit. When I was gathering the information they felt that they really wanted to have the coaches that I was speaking to know about what they felt was helpful and not so helpful. In the helpful area there are four things that I narrowed it down to. First, get to know each of your swimmers as individuals. Don’t treat them as just your team, but your team and individuals within your team.
Number two, take time to be receptive to swimmer’s ideas. That is, listen to them, not necessarily to change the practice, but take time maybe after practice to listen to them. If you notice that they are dragging in practice, take them aside after practice and see what’s going on. Maybe something’s going on at home. Give them a little attention.
Third, be enthusiastic and aware in practice: be aware of what they are doing for repeats, be enthusiastic during a T-30 test, get along the side of the pool, wave, jump up and down, make yourself look like a nut.
Number four, this sort of relates back to number two — take time to talk to your swimmers after practice. Talk about swimming or anything else. I think it’s really important to talk to your swimmers about just silly stuff like what they did yesterday, about a birthday party everyone went to, about something else besides swimming. Get to know them.
The areas that they thought were not helpful: Number one, don’t do anything else but coach during the practice. Don’t talk to the parents during practice. Don’t ride a stationary bike during practice. We have a coach who does that. He’s an iron man triathlete. He’s obsessive. I like him though. Number two, don’t swim with your athletes. He does that too. Don’t swim with your athletes unless you think its a special occasion and you’re doing some sort of fun game. Number three don’t be negative. There I am being negative. Don’t be negative in your comments to them. Number four is a big one, don’t sit down during practice.
Question: Are these your younger kids who responded to this, or is it more from your older kids?
Answer: It was a combination, mostly from the more experienced ones, but they’ve all been through the group that I coached so they have a little perspective on it.
Question: Why don’t they like a coach to work out with them? Is it with a coach who’s coaching?
Answer: Yes. I think it’s different with the younger swimmers. Sometimes you might want to get in with them. Let’s say you have a real beginners level and you want to get in and help them to do flip turns, that’s totally different. I’m saying don’t get in to do a real workout.
Question: Would you object to it if you were coaching for example and a coach was working out with the group.
Answer: yes. That was actually one of the particular situations. I was coaching and one of the other coaches was swimming. But, that’s teenage girls giving that feedback actually.
This next area is what the coach can do to directly promote longevity. Number one, run a solid program from top to bottom. Make sure that all the levels of your team are in sync. That is, that the coaching aspect of the team and the administrative aspect of the team are working together toward the same goals. At Seacoast we have always had fairly clear lines of communication. Of course we have our occasional message lost, and so on, but over eleven years it’s been fairly smooth sailing.
There’s one major reason for the success of our program. Seacoast is not run by a parent’s board. Mike and our team president work closely together in making important decisions concerning the running of the team. All the coaching decisions are made by the coaching staff. We don’t usually run into the problem of having too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s pretty much a dictatorship. What Mike says goes. The coaching staff is hired and supervised by the head coach. Compared with some of the other teams in our LSC, Seacoast is probably one of the few programs with a very consistent coaching staff over the years — we’re talking over eleven years. I believe the swimmers and their families stay with the program from the first level to the top level because of this consistency. The parents feel secure and confident in the staff, so the children feel more secure and I think that’s a big part of it, the sticking with it for the long term.
I’ve seen several talented swimmers in our area hop from team to team for various reasons. Those particular swimmers may be at a disadvantage. The swimmer may have difficulty putting his or her trust in a coach because that coach might leave the very next season. Trust is very important for the long term development of swimmers. I’m sure many of you have had athletes who have been swimming for many years with different clubs and coaches. It’s very difficult to get their trust in what ever your philosophy is on training.
The next area in which the coach has direct input as far as the longevity for your swimmers is concerned is parent education. Right from the beginning, Mike and I have emphasized the importance of parent education at Seacoast. We educate the parents from day one as to how the program is set up and why it is set up that way. The American Swimming Coaches Association, and this is not a commercial, has been a major influence as far as our own philosophy in providing excellent written information for our parents to read. John Leonard’s “Parent, Coach, Athlete” handbook is always in stock. We’ve also handed out the “Parent’s Handbook” by US Swimming and I guess they have a new one that’s pretty good. It’s a little bit more updated and we’ve got to purchase some more. We don’t have many parents’ meetings. Perhaps, two to three per year at the most. We usually don’t have a big turnout, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. For the most part, it’s pretty good, because if they have lots of things to complain about, or concerns, they’d be there, hopefully. So we put out a lot of information for them.
In our meetings we always try to include some educational aspect along with the normal details like practice schedules, meet schedules, and son on.
As a staff we’ve always tried to make ourselves available to the parents, except during practice, or five minutes before practice. That’s a big no-no. I’m very patient, I think, with parents. But when it comes to five minutes before practice and I’m trying to set up the pool and so on, they know to stay away from me because I’m not very nice five minutes before practice. If there is a problem we’ve tried to steer away from confrontational interactions because they are not productive. Rather than have tempers get out of control and cause a scene in front of other parents or swimmers we attempt to spot areas of difficulty before they turn into an explosion. Private meetings are sometimes set up or an appointment is made to talk over the phone. Luckily we haven’t had to put out too many fires concerning parents concerns. Constructive solutions for everyone involved is a goal, but keeping in mind that the head coach makes the final decision.
So you might wonder how all this affects the longevity of the child in the sport. Well it greatly affects them. The better educated the parents are as to how you run your program and the better the communication, the happier that swimming family is going to be. Remember to be very positive with the parents and to keep in mind that they really are the consumer. They are not the enemy. I remember when I first started getting into coaching I felt that a lot of the parents were like the enemy. You really cannot take that stand. You have to work with the parents, but you have to let them know who runs the swimming part. You’re the coach and you take care of the swimming and they take care of the loving and the raising of the children. But, once they’re in the pool area they are your swimmer.
Sell your program, and continually educate your swimmers and parents as to why you do what you do. Don’t feel insecure. If you have confidence in what you’re doing go with it and let the parents know why you’re doing a T-30 test. If a parent has concerns and says, “Well my Johnny is going to be so tired. He is only nine years old, how is he going to swim for thirty minutes?” Many of you run swimathons. “How is my nine year old going to swim for two hours?” Well they don’t have to swim for two hours straight. They can get out and go to the bathroom if they want. Present what you are doing with enthusiasm and be confident with it.
Teamwork — swimmer, coach, and parent working together. One of the reasons that Seacoast has had such a high level of retention is because everyone gets to know each other at all levels of our team, almost like an extended family. It has become a little more difficult the larger we’ve gotten, but if Mike or I hear a parent complaining about working at Bingo, or working at a meet, we emphasize the positive aspects of that work. Examples of a positive aspect might be getting to know other parents at the bingo. For many families both parents work, they don’t have time to socialize and meet other adults. Now that’s a good time for them to meet other people. Many parents have said to us, “Gosh I really had a great time at Bingo. It’s not that bad. I made some good friends.” We might also point out that their child is working hard in the pool and the opportunity to be a positive parent role model is at their fingertips. During the same conversation you might also mention that the coaches work hard on the deck to help all the swimmers be the best that they can be and if everyone is doing their part the swimmer, the coach, the parent, it’s easier to reach a higher level because you are all working together as a team.
Seacoast runs several long course meets during the summer and it’s a lot of work for the parents. I’m sure many of your teams probably run meets. One of the things that parents are proud of is our concession stand. They take great pride in it. While our swimmers take pride in their swimming, our parents take great pride in their concession stand. They don’t just order donuts and candy and throw it out there. They have fresh blueberry pancakes with Maine blueberries. It is great. They make real fruit salad, not from a jar. I mean they are sitting back there cutting up each piece of fruit. They are really working hard and they are proud of it. It is a lot of work, especially for certain people on our team. A lot of coaches in our LSC know that it is the best concession stand.
To reflect back on our main topic, does teamwork help the swimmers to stick with it because the entire family is involved? Yes.
The next topic is the team structure. How I think the way we set up our team helps to create the longevity and the sticking with it. MIke and I believe that one of the main reasons why we have a strong senior program is because of the group structure we started with right from the beginning. Our senior swimmers still have room to improve and to increase their training load. They have not done it all yet.
The main sacrifice for setting up the program in this manner is that our 12 and younger program is not terribly fast yet. But at the same time, talented swimmers are not held back. We always work on technique, but we also have them train hard and test their limits. When we have talented 12 year olds, we might have them swim with our senior group, but they would no do all the yardage. Jenny Thompson is an example of this philosophy.
The first level of our team is called Age Group II. This group is a pre competitive program that practices 2 days per week for 45 minutes. The age range is from 6 to 11. The second level is called Age Group I. This group is the first competitive level and practices 3 to 4 days per week for 75 minutes. The ages range from 7 to 12. We have two levels of our Junior Group. Junior II practices 4 to 5 days per week for 75 to 120 minutes and consists of ages 11 to 13. Junior I practices 5 to 6 days per week for 120 to 150 minutes. The top level of our team is the Senior Group. This group involves the highest level of commitment on our team. The swimmers practice 6 days per week, for five morning practices and six evening practices are available. Mike asks his swimmers to attend 3 morning practices per week, if they live close enough to make it to school on time. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the swimmers do an exercise circuit for 60 minutes and swim for 90 minutes. On Tuesday and Thursday they swim for 150 minutes. On Saturday they swim 180 minutes in the morning and 120 minutes in the early evening.
Within each of our groups are either 2 to 3 different intervals for a set of different distance on the same interval. In this way, all leavels of our swimmers are pushed to swim hard. Our objective is to increase yardage per minute through the season for each group.
Each level of the team is progressional as far as practice time in minutes, number of days, intensity, training load, and travel commitment. In recent years, when moving swimmers up a level, we have utilized a “traditional” approach. For example, if a swimmer is moving from Age Group I to Junior II, we might have that child swim Monday and Friday with AGI and Wednesday and Saturday with JRII. If the staff feels a swimmer is ready to take on the new challenge, but he/she seems nervous or unsure, we will utilize the “transitional” approach until that young swimmer has grown more confident. We have always tried to move a swimmer up a group with at least one or two friends.