Planning for Growth: Be Ready for What you Wish For by Tammy Hopkins (2005)


Introduction: We are all interested in developing the kind of program that our speaker this morning has been fortunate to have a large roll in. From my distant view, it is a program that develops youngsters to enjoy the sport and make it a lifetime sport. It has been a program that has started kids off in the right way with the fundamentals and a joy for what they do. I think our speaker this morning, who has been the head age group coach with De Anza Cupertino Aquatics for the last five years, has had a lot to do with the development of that team’s incredible age group program. On the west coast, it is probably the premier model of a developmental age group program. We are very fortunate to have Tammy Hopkins speaking to us today on the subject: “Growth – Be Ready for What You Wish For”. I will still wish for it, but she is going to give us the way to handle that growth.

Coach Tammy Hopkins: Today, the talk is going to focus on planning for program growth – specifically, in competitive and pre-competitive programs. I am going to give you an overview of what DACA’s program is, and then I will be talking about the policies that developed along the way through some pretty dramatic growing pains.

DACA runs and operates seven separate businesses. Each is operated independent of the other, and each program, based on what is best for that particular program, is designed for excellence. We make the decisions regarding our swim lesson program based on what is best for the program – not necessarily as a feeder for the next level of the program. Of course there is carry-over and follow-through to our competitive and pre-competitive programs, but we do not base our decisions on those programs.

We have seven programs:

1. We have an indoor, year-round swim school that runs approximately 2500 swimmers through it per week, and we do that out of a 12 yard by 6 yard facility.
2. We have two, summer-only swim lesson programs that we run out of our De Anza College site and Saratoga high school site.

3. We have a year-round club water polo program.

4. We have a coached adult lap swim.

5. We run the De Anza College men’s and women’s swimming and water polo teams and also help to fund those programs.

6. We have a pre-competitive swimming program with more than 450 swimmers.

7. We have a competitive swimming program that, at this point, has grown to about 800.

In a nut shell, that is kind of what we do. This talk developed as I was talking to my husband, Sage, and our executive director, Pete Rakovich. We have had just an explosion in numbers, particularly within the last three years. We have run into a lot of growing pains regarding how to plan for staff. Focusing on and thinking about how our team’s infrastructure can handle the growth with respect to taking care of the membership in appropriate ways so that all the numbers fit into the pool has been a huge challenge. DACA is a staff run program. We do not utilize parent volunteers in any way, with the exception of them being timers at swim meets or helping us to run a swim meet that we are hosting.

About five years ago our competitive program had between 250-300 swimmers, and our pre-competitive program had about 150. Three years ago, there was a point in time when our main facility, which was a 50 meter facility with a 25 yard diving well, was completely shut down. We had to go into downtown San Jose which is at least a 20 minute drive
(more than that with traffic), and we lost a significant portion of our membership due to our facility shut-down. This explosion in numbers has happened just within the last three years. Five years ago when I started, we had six competitive coaches and five pre-competitive coaches on our staff in that one 50 meter facility. Now we have grown to 800 competitive swimmers, 400 pre-competitive swimmers, and this last week we had 200 new swimmers come for try-outs. At this point in time, we don’t have the space to fit all of them in. We now have 17 competitive coaches and 20 pre-competitive coaches on staff. Fourteen of those seventeen competitive coaches are considered fulltime coaching staff members. We run our competitive and pre-competitive programs out of two facilities in that one 50 meter pool with a 25 yard diving well. We have an additional 50 meter facility out at Saratoga high school, and we do not consider our second facility to be a satellite program with a separate head coach running under separate rules. The staff is all part of the same program under the same guidelines that we run at De Anza College.
The bigger your club gets, the more you are going to need your own attorney. We went out and sought one of the best non-profit attorneys in the business to review our by-laws, and he suggested some very important changes. We had our membership vote actually to change our bylaws, and it got separated into two types of membership. We have non-voting general members, and we have a voting Board of Directors which consists of 5-7 people. They are self-perpetuating, and they have no term limits. Of course with no term limits you need to make sure that the people that you do have on your Board are people whom you entrust emphatically. We have one Board Meeting a year, and our board – at least to this date – has always been completely supportive of our Executive Director and the direction in which he wants our program to move. We also have a second attorney that deals with us on a day to day basis who helps with general legalities in regard to hiring, terminations, and contracts – things that come up on a daily basis. When you get to be a certain size you have certain members threatening lawsuits and all kinds of things happen, so we have this second attorney that we work with on a regular basis as well.

Other issues that come along when planning to grow into a larger club are financial audits. They actually just passed a law that yearly audits are required, so make sure that you keep your finances in impeccable order. Audits are extremely expensive, so save all of your receipts. They go through everything with a fine tooth comb, like every expense of every swim meet you go to.

Developing staff policies is a really important part of making things work. We have developed an employee handbook that talks about all of the rules and regulations: time off days, sick days… things along those lines. All of those things need to be documented as well. I have worked for smaller programs, and when you have smaller staffs, it is a lot easier to let things go and let people take more time off than maybe what is really in their contract. Vacations need to be done in writing. There are requests that we keep on file. Sick days run the same way. With sick days there is paper work that needs to be handed out which should be kept on file as well. We also keep employee files which have become increasingly more important as hirings and firings become more frequent. In those employee files you are going to want to keep the documentation of all of those days that your employees are taking off – for whatever reason. You want to document any personnel issues with regard to being late to practice, not showing up to practice, not showing up for a swim meet, and any disciplinary meetings that you may need. All of this is done for your own protection. Something as simple as stating swim meet arrival and departure times is pretty standard but extremely important. It is a little bit more challenging when you show up to a swim meet and have 250 – 300 swimmers there. Kids don’t always know who the other coaches are. There are a lot of children on the team who have been swimming there for a year who do not know who I am, and it is unacceptable for a child or a parent who is new to the program to show up on deck and wonder where their coach is and for our response to be, “I don’t know where the coach is”. Therefore, we have a standard set policy that the coaches are to arrive 10 minutes prior to warm-up time.

We also have required staff meetings which are held every two weeks. With large staffs you cannot get information flowing by word of mouth, so we have written agendas at each of the staff meetings with things that we are going to go over for each of the weeks – things that are significant to the program. It is also a time that we can iron out the kinks if there are issues at either facility which is something that we can solve then and there. Taking daily attendance is also really critical to our program and our billing system. Coaches take attendance and turn it in every month. We keep those attendance records on file, and it helps when there are discrepancies if people say that they have or have not been in the water for a particular period of time. Keeping track of coaching certifications is also a must! You have your coach’s safety training, your CPR, and your first aid. When you have a large staff and you have different people taking the courses at different times and expiring on different dates, it becomes increasingly more challenging to keep track of who actually is certified to be out on deck. We take care of all of our certifications in September. Every coach completes all three courses every year whether their first date has expired or not. Make sure all policies that you have for your staff are given both verbally and in writing.

We have a season-starting staff meeting at the beginning of each year where the agenda is probably 30 pages long. We review all of our policies, and they might be new to some people who are new to our program. In order to make sure no one slips through the cracks, we require everyone to be in attendance. We want to prevent coaches from saying: “Oh I didn’t know – no one ever told me that”. I have this thick agenda and everybody is required to be at this particular staff meeting. Attendance is something we value greatly.

Another portion of the program that we have had to change and tweak a little bit is our membership policies. First and foremost, everything that comes into the program with regard to membership applications is done through our office. Our office is not one that is able to accommodate personal appointments. We are able to answer phone calls, and we attend to everything that needs to get done. We are there from 9:00AM-3:00PM; however, we do not let membership come into the office. Everything is done by mail such as membership applications, welcome back forms, monthly payments, things along those lines. We do not accept anything on deck. Although most of the information comes directly to me, I do not take it on deck. It must to be mailed.

Make sure that your staff is knowledgeable about all of your policies. Everybody should be available to answer questions. Things get extremely overwhelming when everything is directed to one person, so make sure that they are up-to-date on everything that is going on in the program. All of your team membership policies need to be included in your application. We do not allow new swimmers to get in the water – even for that week try-out period that USA Swimming allows, until we actually have their applications in hand. Also, within the application there is a signed document that says, “I have read and understand all of the DACA policies with regard to volunteer hours or late fees”. If at any point in time someone comes back and says, “I didn’t know…that I was going to get fined for not paying my bill on time.” You can then go back into the file and find the policy signed.

Our billings are done on a regular basis. We put them out on the 25th of each month. We have come up with the following policy: if we do not receive dues by the 20th of the month, there is a $25.00 late fee. We are really pretty flexible. We will go a couple of months before we send anyone to collections, but you have to realize that when you are dealing with mass volumes of people, just a little deterrent like a $25.00 late fee sometimes is enough to get them to remember to pay that bill on time. We also have policies for in-activating from the program. It is mandatory that the inactivation be done in writing for backup for their protection and ours. We will not accept a phone call saying, “My child is not going to be swimming any more.” There is also a $25.00 late fee if they fail to notify us by the 20th of the month. That may see a little harsh, but it is better than us requiring them to pay the entire month’s fees. We have waiting lists for our groups, and I have 25 kids who would be willing to pay that month’s fees. It is unacceptable for a parent to forget to inform me for two months that their child was not going to be swimming; therefore, we do attach a late fee if they forget to tell us that they are not going to be swimming with our program. Coming back to the program after they have been gone for a period of time also requires a form that is very easy. They download it off our website, mail it in, and the process is the same as the registration.

We offer most of the levels in our program several times. For example, we offer our red group, which is the entry level group for 11-14 year, three different times at our De Anza College site and three different times at our Saratoga site. Jumping around from time to time and facility to facility is manageable with the smaller program but with larger numbers, it gets to be impossible. The time that it takes to allow people to jump is unbelievable, so we have attached a $25.00 transfer fee. The transfer fee causes people to think about their schedules a little bit more. The jumping still happens, but it happens a lot less frequently.

We do not have any organized fund rising and as I stated before, DACA is a coach run program. We do not expect a lot out of our members. One hour per month of membership is all that we require. We are attempting to enforce in our written policies that there be a $50.00 per hour buy-out fee or a $25.00 no-show fee for hours that they may have signed up for but did not come to. We are still working out the kinks with regard to our volunteer policies. Our record keeping has not been up to par, so billing people has not been something that we have been able to do just yet.

In our LSC we have assigned lanes during meet warm-up. You go to a meet and DACA may have four or five lanes assigned. Our parents, in turn, are responsible for timing in these lanes. If you think about how much manpower that is actually going to take…putting new people in those chairs every hour…working with 100 volunteers a day…figuring out exactly who is in those chairs and when…that is a definite challenge and something to consider. Record keeping on deck is something that needs to be organized and carried out very carefully.

Our policies with regard to discussions between parents and coaches or membership and coaches generally need to be scheduled. Appointments need to be formally scheduled. Our coaches work at De Anza College –from 3:30 to 8:15 at night, and there are groups getting in the water back to back, so our coaches do not have time to have conversations with the parents. We ask if it is a quick question and let them come out on deck. If it isn’t, they will be sent back to the stands and told to make an appointment. They can call the office, and I will contact the coach directly and have them return the parent’s call.

Waiting lists are also something that you need to organize – be it by group, by level, by age, etc. In various groups we have had up to maybe 120 kids waiting to get in. The most popular groups in our program currently are our novice levels, and those, over the last year and a half to two years, have been extremely difficult to get into. One of the ways that we have handled the added work load that extra numbers bring in is to simply spread the work around. Since we do have a large full-time coaching staff, we have come up with a system of committees. I have delegated a huge portion of that work which at one point in time all came under my umbrella. We have a volunteer committee, and it is their task to coordinate all volunteers and to keep accurate records of everything, which continues to be a work in progress. We have an official’s committee charged with recruiting officials, setting up clinics – things along those lines. In our zone in Pacific Swimming – there is a rule that you need to have one official for every 25 members, or you get fined. We have yet to make that mark, so that is something that we are continuing to work on as well. We have a swim meet committee that works on all swim meet preparation and organization whenever we host meets, and we usually do one meet that is open to the LSC each year. We have a series of duel meets, excuse me, inter-squad meets that we have throughout the year as well. There is a swim meet set-up committee – this one sounds really funny, and it actually developed this year because I am no longer able to carry the tarps and heavy items out on deck, so the committee arrives early to the meet. They pick the best spot. They set up the area for the coaches, and they set up the area for the swimmers. These are their responsibilities.

We have an administrative support committee. Their main role is to help work on billing. Each month we mail out 800 bills. They need to be folded, stuffed and stamped, and that takes a lot of time. We have members of our coaching staff that come in to do that as well. There are certain times of the year where the phones are a little bit more challenging than others. They come in and assist with phones. Any other busy type office work is what they assist with. We also have a team social committee – the larger your team gets – the more challenging it is to get everybody together to do one big fun thing. We usually like to do two or three all-team events each year. We have rented out ice skating rinks – gone to raging waters – things along those lines, so they set up large team events. They also set up group events, so the red groups from both of our facilities will get together and go play miniature golf, or whatever they plan. We also have a new family welcome committee that is charged with getting our brand new families familiar with the sport of swimming. Each new family to the program actually receives a phone call from me, and all of the registrations come to me directly. I have the initial contact and conversation with them. A few weeks after they have been involved in the program, they get a follow-up phone call. “How is everything going? Do you have any questions about the program?” This committee also sets up new families coming into swim meets – welcoming them to the swim meet – making sure that they are comfortable – getting them in with some families that kind of know the ropes, and being available to answer any questions.

We also have an information support committee. We have various types of brochures and information that is available describing all of our programs. We like to keep that information stocked at both of our facilities, so that committee is charged with making the copies of all of the information and making sure it is always in stock. Keeping emergency binders with all of that critical information up to date is extremely important as well, and it is a very big job. I have people who are responsible for this job at both facilities. Both facilities actually keep track of every single member in our program which is important because we do a lot of jumping. Sometimes we have combined group practices, so making sure that all the information is accurate – correct and current at both facilities and at our office as well, is critical.

Communication with the membership becomes again – another challenge. A few years back it was easy for me to just go ahead and accept phone calls and answer all kinds of questions. You need to find a way to streamline that process. We use our main site which is our website, as our direct source of information. Our website is kept current on a daily basis. We have access to that in the office so as things occur, like practice time changes, etc., they can be changed immediately. Another form of communication we have is group files. Each group in the program has a file cabinet with each swimmers name in it. We put out general handouts of the Swim Meets, which are available on the website – sign up today – things along those lines. The coaches are also required to give out calendars of upcoming swim meets, group socials, etc. which is another form of communication with our members. We also send out announcements in our monthly billing which we know will go directly to the parents without getting lost in the swimmers swim bag! We also give out a season guide each year which is filled with every ounce of information with regard to our membership policies: how to navigate the website, what to eat at swim meets, how to enter swim meets, etc.

One of the other challenges that we have had to contend with is scheduling. We have our membership numbers. We have two facilities to put them in. How do we make the most of our facilities? We use every ounce of lane space that we have at every facility, and we use every amount of time. The earliest that we can get a group in the water is 3:30, and our lanes are really structured. We have lane maps at each of the facilities which describe where each coach and group should be. Certain groups may have four lanes, and I allow those groups to get larger than groups that have three lanes. You are going to have to plan for that. Be creative with how you plan.

You will notice on the handout that there are two entry levels in our competitive program which are our red and green levels, and in general, most of those groups practice four days a week for 45 minutes. We have been able to move things around which allows the groups to get in and out of the water for the same amount of time only going three days a week for one hour and charging the same membership fee for that. We have also made the diving well at De Anza College, which is a seven lane, 25 yard diving well into a pool for swim practice with ten lanes that are 20 yards in length. We actually had them paint lines on the bottom of the pool the 20 yard way which is something that works out great for the pre-competitive swimmers. We are able to put more bodies in the water that way. Making things work for all of the groups in your program is very important. Is it okay to swim six kids per lane? Once you get to a certain level that becomes increasingly more challenging, but most of your novice groups are not going to be lapping each other with six or seven kids per lane, so it is something that is doable.

Our biggest challenge now since we have just had a very recent membership explosion, is coming up with a way to talent ID kids. We have almost 300 swimmers in our entry level competitive groups who know how to do all four of the competitive strokes, but gosh, how do we get these numbers up to the next level? That is our goal right now. That is our plan this year. We have got to figure out a way to make these numbers really start to perform, because at this point in time we don’t feel that we are quite up to par with where we should be.

These last five years we have gone through an awful lot of growing pains. We’ve found that the more recruiting you do, the more that you go out and try to get those bodies in the water, the more you have to plan. Try to avoid the pitfalls that we have run into and the problems we have encountered. Plan for these numbers. Plan and start to think about what you are going to do. How are you going to get the kids in the water? Think about all of that and just be ready – be ready for what you wish for.

Questions: What do you do when you have kids move up levels? A. We do that four times a year. We have a group move up in December, one in April right after far Westerns, one in June at the beginning of the summer, and one again in September. The move-ups are done with forms as well. For the athletes who are encouraged to move up by their coaches, they are handed what we call “priority move-up forms”. With this form, they are given a choice of the times that are available. The parents check off their top choices and mail it in.

Q. How late at night do you run your program? You start at 3:30, but how late do you go? Also, if you don’t have fund-raising, how much are your dues? A. We go until 8:15 at night – that is when our last groups get out of the water. As far as our dues structure, we start at $74.00 a month for the 45 minute groups that go four days a week, and it kind of just goes up from there. We are fortunate enough at this point that our competitive swim program is not our big money maker. Everything is kind of designed to be that way. Our swim school makes the money to pay salaries and cover things along those lines, so I would say we are equivalent with the other programs in our area regarding our dues structure.

Q. You said at the beginning you had around 200 people that had just gone through tryouts – you don’t have 200 spots to put them in? A. Right. Q. Can you talk a little bit about how you organize the tryouts and how you determine which of these 200 people get your ten spots? A. They are organized. There is a piece of paper that they fill out. We start promptly at 7:30 pm. The people who arrive get a number on each of the forms that we hand out. The swimmers are called down by numbers in groups of four. We have several coaches that work on the evaluations. Some of the groups have lots of space. Some of the groups don’t. With regard to the spots being filled, it is the luck of the draw.

Q. How do your kids enter swim meets, have control over what they enter, and determine if they are entered correctly? A. We have certain coaches in our program that actually print out the meet forms, circle the events, and hand them back to the parents to ensure that the athlete will be entered correctly. Some coaches do that, and some don’t. It is also a challenge to actually try and get all of our kids to the meets. Right now we are only able to get probably 300 of those competitive swimmers into a meet. Trying to actually get them to fit into a meet that is already full is nearly impossible.

Q. You mentioned that 6 x 12 yard pool and 2500 people going through that program. My questions are what is the temperature of the water; how deep is the water; what is the coach-to-swimmer ratio; how many groups do you run through the water; how long and do these people go? A. The Coach to swimmer ratio is 4:1. We have 4 instructors in the water at one point in time. The depth of the water is 7 feet at the deepest end. It is a very small pool. The temperature of the water is approximately 90 degrees, and it is enclosed by a bubble – not a structured facility. Classes are a half an hour one day a week.

Q. Do they sign up for a month plan or two month plan? A. It is sectionally. We have four sessions per year.

Q. What is the fee? I believe it is $11.00 per lesson, and we do prorate fees if they start the session mid way through.

Q. These kids that get turned down – do they come back? A. No. If they inactivate from the program, they go to the back of the line. We do actually have a lot of people. They will go away for the summer for three months, and they will pay just to keep their spot in the program. It is unfortunate, but that is the way it has to work.

Q. What was the main element in getting our program to explode? A. There were many things. For our competitive programs, we don’t advertise at all, but we do advertise for our swim school and our summer swim lesson programs, and we have a very large carryover from those programs. Within the last couple of years we have realized a little bit of success in competitive swimming, and word has gotten around as well.

Q. Is there regular coach’s education that you do for your staff? A. Sage Hopkins, my husband, actually does his area once every two months or so. We will sit down, and there will be a topic that Sage will go over with our staff. We have general open discussions as well.

Q. How many other clubs in your area? A. Quite a few. We are 8 minutes from the Santa Clara Swim Club; Paolo Alto is about 10 minutes up the road. It is a very densely populated area. We are very lucky in that way.

Q. How do you advertise….what avenues do you use? A. We distribute just a basic ad in parenting magazines. There is a local Parent’s Guide magazine that comes out. We have advertised in school districts. We put out announcements for our summer swim programs. There are flyers that go out. Sage actually handles the announcements regarding our swim programs.

Q. You say you have four new groups a year. I am hearing there are close decisions. What specific kinds of things determine your decisions, and how do you deal with the parents that are not necessarily in agreement with those decisions? A. The coach is the only decision-maker here, and the decision is mainly determined by ability. If a child is not ready to jump to the next level, we don’t allow it. Often we have parents who disagree with our decision. If that is the case, I will actually go down and observe the swimmer for a week or so in their practice element. It becomes my decision at that point in time if there is a discrepancy between what the parent wants and what the coach wants.

Q. How high does that move-up process go in your program? Are you talking age group program now, or does it move right on through to the top? A. That goes all the way up to the top level. Once we get to kids moving to either Sage’s pre-national or Pete’s national group, there are some pretty lengthy discussions amongst the staff with regards to things they can handle in practice and things that they have accomplished at swim meets.

Q. Can you give us an example of a scenario when you had to override a decision….when a coach felt that a swimmer was not ready to move up and you overrode that decision and moved him/her up anyway? A. It doesn’t happen too often. There are very rare cases. We do have some coaches in our group that work with lower levels that (one in particular) is very intense about having them come to practice every single day. That doesn’t happen to be part of our program’s philosophy with regard to younger kids, and that happens to be one of the biggest problems that we run into. If I view that a child is ready, I say to the coach: “Look…this is our program’s philosophy. You know that. You haven’t moved them up because they are only coming to practice three days a week instead of four a week.” Those are usually the circumstances that I override.

Q. How many athletes and practices does each coach handle? A. That depends on the coach and the level of groups that they are coaching. Obviously, they are going to get fewer groups and if they are coaching at higher levels for groups that are working on swimming an hour and a half or an hour and 45 minutes. The average is probably three. There are a few coaches in our program that work primarily with 10 and under athletes that are coaching maybe 140 kids.

Q. What is the coach-to-swimmer ratio as they go up through age groups? A. A lot of that depends on lane space, but in general, the groups are 25:1.

Q. Do you see a problem in the future with being too top heavy? A. Absolutely. It is a very real problem to us right now.

Thank you.

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