Preparing an Age Group Team for a Swim Meet by Michelle Bernal-Sweeney (2006)


Published


How do we prepare an age group team for meets? By having a tradition and building a tradition within the club to have the kids not just swim fast, but feel that they are part of an organization and a team that also gives back – not just to the fast swimming, but also to the environment and to the education of the athlete in themselves. So, what I am actually going to speak about today is how, on the administrative and on the coaches’ end how we achieve that for the swimmers and educate them through not just the training and the technical aspects of their stroke, but also through understanding what a team is. The understanding of the environment and how do you figure out what tradition and how do you build that environment for your athletes?

The first thing I feel that you might want to do, you can pick and choose different things, is figure out what your team outfitting is going to be. I personally, am a Speedo person. They treat you really well. I also do work with Finis quite a bit, but you have a lot of different companies to pick from. You have got Speedo, Finis, TYR, Nike, Hind there’s a million of them out there. Find someone that will fit you for your team’s needs, they are going to work with you and they are going to make sure that they are outfitting your team for what you want. They will change with what you need change for over the different years.

The next thing is that a lot of teams – it depends on what part of the country you are in – I have coached on the West Coast – I have coached in California and Arizona, Massachusetts and now Illinois. I have not been to a meet yet in Illinois. In Massachusetts, I couldn’t really find any teams cheering there. I don’t know exactly why, but if you are in California or Arizona, you will find a lot of team cheering. In Massachusetts you will not find a lot of team cheering, but you are going to find a lot of poster making. You have to maybe figure out what your philosophy is on that. Do you want the kids to be focused on cheering and those sorts of things when they are at the meet or do you feel comfortable letting them just sit around and have their I-Pods on for the next 4 ½ hours or play cards? This is something that definitely should be thought about by the administrative and coaching staff.

The next thing is team captains or leadership roles, but we are speaking about an age group – how to prepare an age group team to understand the traditions of a team. It is left up to the older peer group to help them understand that process. Having team captains or older swimmers working with the younger swimmers and showing their peer group by just the way they hold themselves on the pool deck is also very, very valuable. You want to look at your older swimmers and sort of figure out who those leaders are. Maybe swimmers who have been in the program – they may be 17 and have been in the program for the last 12 years and remember what it is like and understand what it is like to be a younger swimmer.

You also want to try and find a meet each season that you travel to and it is the team meet. It can be a local or an away meet. Find one that is away for the older kids and find one that is local and is just for the younger kids that are, you know, that are just 10 and 11. Then they say gosh! I can’t go to it again this year, but next year I am definitely going to Ft. Lauderdale, Oklahoma or whatever it may be, but that is something that gets the kids excited about – gets them to sort of work towards something and want to be with the “older kids”, but it is something that kids work towards in your program. They aren’t thinking, well this year “we aren’t really doing anything! Maybe I will go over to the other team.” They are constantly focusing on the future of what your team is doing.

The next thing is also – how do you communicate these things down the ladder. I have worked with parent run teams. I have worked with coach run teams. So, I really feel that some of the things that we are talking about you may have to run past a parent board. A lot of them really shouldn’t have to be thrown past them like meet schedule, but if you are going to change a dealership from like maybe you know, XYZ to ABC for your suits and your sweats, you are definitely going to want to throw that past your parent’s board before you do something like that. In a coach owned program you are going to want to meet with your coaching staff first. The coaching staff should always be the second people that you want to educate and teach whatever is going to be changed. If they are new, teach them and educate them because the next people that are going to be asking questions are your parents. You, as the head coach or you as the parent board are not going to want to be answering the same 365 questions. From there, you want to be speaking with your swimmers because if your parents aren’t going to be onboard and they are not going to buy into the program, then it is going to be really hard to have the swimmer totally buy into the program if mom and dad are saying,” Well, I didn’t know that or you know, remember when we were on this team and it wasn’t just like this.” The person that you really want to get to buy into the psychological part of your tradition is the parents and the swimmers will definitely follow. For the head coach or administration, you want to definitely educate and communicate to your staff, parents and swimmers the expectations of what you are looking for.

I have actually just left Bernal’s Gators and moved to Illinois. When it comes to really getting the outfitting done and looking a specific way on deck, I think that they have done it very well over the last 40 years. We used to let our parents know what the exact expectations were. You have to have this shirt in the morning; you have to have this shirt in the evenings. You have to have these shorts if you are a boy; you have to have these shorts if you are a girl. Everyone must have sweats from this age group up, we expect these caps, and we expect these suits. When we would do that we would let people ask a million questions. It is very important that people know the expectations going in, right from the beginning and not as they are going through the process. Then they feel like, you keep throwing more and more on me and I don’t know how well I can take all of this. Then they don’t totally believe in the tradition because they don’t particularly feel maybe there is one or it changes all the time.

You are going to want to decide on your outfitting (suits, sweats, caps etc…). My advice, especially because sweats and suits and start adding up with parents, is to try and find a company that will definitely be able to say to you – Yes, these sweats are going to be around for the next five or seven years. This way you know that you have it taken care of and you do not have to go back to your parents saying – now you are going to have to throw out another $150. Every year and a half and get new sweats because you want to of course, but make it as easy for the parents as possible, especially financially.

You are going to want to make your meet calendar and you are going to want to put your swimmers, parents and staff protocol into place. That can be many different things. On parent protocol I have one for practices and one for meets. Meets will be – make sure that the child arrives 15 minutes early. If you are going to be late you need to call the coach that you know is going to be at the meet and explain the situation. When I was in New England, in Massachusetts, you would get a scratch sheet during warm-ups and if the kid was not there during warm-ups you had to scratch them. So, we would let the parents know – if you haven’t called me to let me know that you are coming – I am scratching your swimmer. So, all of those things on the protocol so that they have it, give it out to them and post it on your team web site. I think the more education you can do, the better off you are going to be coming into your championship season. Especially when people are deciding – do I stay, do I come back, or do I leave? Swimmer protocols – make sure you have your caps, goggles, and communicate with your coaches. You are not running up into the stands being with mom and dad all the time, whether you are 8 or not. Parents should know that they can’t be coming down on the pool deck. I always used the thing, “I am sorry, you just cannot be on deck. It is against USA Swimming insurance. You are not insured and if anything happened, I would be really upset because I have no insurance for you and that usually gets them off the deck pretty quickly. I think the coaching staff protocol is very, very important. I try and explain to the coaching staff that even if you are part-time or full-time, you need to be just as in the know as a fulltime coach because you need to be able to give your swimmers as much as you can give them. I make the staff meetings mandatory, but as an assistant you want to try and make all the meetings because every meeting is going to be different. Usually, the meetings hit every couple of different months. This way you are in a different part of the season. Things may change, people may want to give feedback or you may want to get feedback of what your parents are saying to the rest of the staff. You want to understand all the coaching expectations for practices and meets, understand the philosophy of the team, on the water end, as an assistant coach. More than anything else, you want to make sure, are we a major technical team or are we a big yardage team? Are we going to do a lot of kicking this season, whatever it is the team is going to work on all season the coaches are on the same page. When parents come to you and they say, “Why is you know who doing a lot of yardage this year? He didn’t do that last year. You are a new coach on staff. Is that what you brought here?” No, it is what the head coach designated. We are in a new cycle so forth and so on. Now, if they go to another coach, “Hey you know Sam, I just spoke with the new coach over there and he said this – what do you think?” At least all the coaches are on the same page because the moment that a coach gives a parent different information you are going to get a lot of questions from a lot more parents because they start to talk in the parking lot. So, everyone wants to definitely be on the same page.

You want to be able to communicate to your swimmers the expectations for the season because they are the ones that have to be in that water looking at the black line on the bottom of the pool all the time. It is nice to let them know in a one on one or in a group setting as to what their expectation is for the month / season. If you are only telling the parent and the swimmer comes home and says we did this and the parent goes well, you are supposed to be doing this. The parent can sometimes start feeling like they can have a lot of say going into that situation. You want to guide the swimmers through the thought process of what your tradition is going to be outside of the training process. Are you going to cheer? What is your etiquette on deck? Do you tell them, you are going to get there 15 minutes early, everyone sits together, and I-Pods are allowed only when no one on the team is swimming in that event, or I-Pods allowed at all? Are we going to get up and cheer every time someone is up or do we only cheer for our friends? Let them understand the etiquette of saying thank you to the officials or host team when they are leaving the meet because, I hate to say this, because we are not parents, but we are the people that understand best what goes on at meets and we have to teach the swimmers etiquette. I think if we teach them from a younger age, once they get older it just becomes an automatic for them.

I personally believe in holding group meetings for educational purposes. I usually do it once every two weeks, for about ten minutes. I just take about ten minutes of their dry land time, sit down with them and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Hey, we have a meet coming up. Has everyone gotten their grids? Has everyone looked at it online? Does anyone have any questions? Did we leave off an event? Are you still on track to get your IMX score? Even on sets, we are doing these over these next couple of weeks, they may seem hard. Do you guys have any concerns about that or I have heard these concerns from some parents. I am not going to say who the parents are but you know I am concerned that you aren’t verbalizing this to me. Let’s sit down and talk about it. It is a good time to get the whole group together because sometimes, especially I would say with 13-14 year old girls, if one comes up to you and says, this is the issue of the group or this is my issue, they go back into the locker room and what you guys have talked about, ten minutes later it has gone through the telephone wire and is totally different. I think it is very important to have group meetings. I try to have parent meetings once every two months and that is just because especially in a short course season, you have one in September.

By the time you hit November, you are then talking about December / January you are then talking pretty much about championships. And to only have one or maybe even two parent meetings over that season. I also find it very important to buddy a returning supportive parent with a new parent. I just put out an email and say, to a blast of certain parents; you have been on the team for 12 years. It has been a great opportunity and experience with you guys. Would you like to help me out in this way or help a certain group out in this way and have them buddy up so that the new parents can always ask questions of a parent that you know is going to be supportive of what you are trying to get accomplished. You never know what is being said so it is really important to get a supportive parent to buddy up with the new parent and usually that swimmer is just as supportive of the parent. Try and buddy up that child or that parent’s child with the new swimmer also. This way they are all integrated with each other. The other thing, during parent meetings, we try to explain the seasonal meet calendar. It is one thing to post it online, it is one thing to email it to parents, but I think it is really important to explain to parents why you are doing it and what the purpose is. Especially if you are doing travel meets.

Travel meets become a big issue, especially if you are doing five, six or seven of them during a season. It becomes well, why can’t we just stay home? Why do we have to go there? Let me explain the reason to you. We would like to just try and get out of the LSC a little bit or high school season is done; now the whole team is together. I would like to try and get the kids away together. It all depends on the team and how old you want the kids to travel. At the new team that I am at we use chaperones. At the old team that I was at we did not use chaperones. We just brought enough coaches to take care of the situation. We always brought both sexes of coaches. I think that if you are going to go away they usually don’t go under 12 years old because then you find them having pillow fights, running around, being a little crazy. You go over the parent protocol for meets but then you also want to go over the swimmers protocol so that the parents understand if you come up and you say to a swimmer “Jane, you know you are not allowed to be up here hanging out with Mom and Dad. You have teammates swimming, or you are swimming in two events.” The parents understand why. They are educated on both ends and they can actually be supportive of you. I have had kids sneak up after going to concessions. I see him up there and I see the parent saying “No, go back down that is where you belong.” That is nice when they are 8, 9 and 10 to get them started on that so you don’t have the 16 year olds still hanging out with their parents up in the bleachers.

Now, you want to go over protocol for any travel and communicate the outfitting and the importance of a team dynamic. I think the problems a lot of times with parents are: I have paid for the tuition or the dues. I have given money to go to the meet or I have done my escrow account. My kid loves to buy a suit every time they go to a meet. I paid for all the travel. Why do I need to buy all of this stuff for the team? Well, it’s a team. A lot of times parents think this is such an individualized sport that they only see their one child getting off the block swimming. Sometimes people forget that it is a team sport. I say to parents “Two shirts, a cap and a suit. You go to the mall for a day and buy your kid a pair of jeans and a shirt and could spend more money than buying the team apparel. You would never see a soccer team in different shirts, different shorts or different hats. It is a team sport and you do not have to buy everything at once. The team that I just started coaching at in Illinois put into their registration fee for the swimmers the team cap and a team T-shirt. This way the parents only need to buy the team suit. Inevitably, they are going to be paying it. If it makes the thought process easier then that is maybe a route to go.

Where I was just at, at Bernal’s Gators, we did an email blast and we posted things on the web site. Each group also had a parent that would oversee each group. That helped a lot with the communication for the coaches. They would send out an email saying, we have a meet coming up. We wanted to remind you. Please let us know if you have changed your mind on attending the meet in the next two days so that we can get the entries done correctly. So, there are a lot of different ways parents can get communications. I have really always felt that it is important for the coaches to make the parents feel that they are there. They will be more likely to be more supportive of you doing what you need to do with their swimmer. Then you just want to maybe explain some of the changes for the season’s returning parents. Especially if you have parents that have been on the team for you know 4, 10, 12 or 15 years. When it comes to change a lot of explanation is usually a very good thing because they will walk out of the meeting talking about it. Then they will hear about it, later on. For the age group swimmers you want to communicate the expectations of the athlete and swimmer protocol. You want to have group meetings about upcoming meets. You want to explain what the practice objectives are for that cycle or week. I think that it is really important not just to say to swimmers “okay, here is your test set. This is what you are going to do.” Explain to the swimmer maybe what the test set is: “We are going to do three 500’s. We are going to do it on this pace, but I want to see you descend down.” You get the times and you can now say “Sally, you just went 7 seconds faster than your best ever 500 time. When we go to the meet in two weeks I would like to see you swim like that again but on the last 200 really throw in the legs.” Make it an educational experience. The more you explain some of those things, the more knowledgeable your particular swimmers will be. The more information they can tell their parents the happier they will be. After all, the parents do pay the bills.

Try and have new swimmers paired up with returning swimmers and that the same parents are paired up. Make sure that it is a swimmer that you feel really comfortable with, has a really good attitude and is excited about your program. Then you might want to do some team building. At Gator, we usually did team building once every 4-6 weeks. We had our parent meetings on Saturdays so the whole team could come in.

We always train as one team on Saturdays when the parents meetings are held. First we take the national and the senior swimmers and pair them up with the age group and the beginner kids. They would be buddies for the season. The seniors would teach them cheers. The age groupers would teach them the age group cheers and it just made a really good team environment. They looked up to the older kids. They knew who the older kids were. I have noticed that age groupers may watch some of the older kids swim and be like, that kid is so good. Then the parents start cheering them. The parents then say, “Maybe we should go over to that team since they are so good.” So, you definitely want to get your older kids paired up with your younger swimmers. This way you keep the tradition going. Senior swimmers, even though this is an age group talk, have a lot to do with it. I think that it is very important that you, as the coach, do sit down with the senior swimmers and explain to them that they are the leaders of the team. I know that a lot of senior swimmers sort of roll their eyes but the little kids do look up to them. In the beginning, it might be a little bit of a twist of the arm to get the senior swimmers to get involved but then they start to get into it. A year and a half ago our senior swimmers wrote cards to anyone going to age group championships wishing them good luck. These little kids were so psyched. Some of them were like “an Olympic trial swimmer just wished me luck on the card. They brought it with them to the meet. We had alumni from the team call in that had been senior national, Olympic trial and Olympians and wish the kids luck. They will go to the ends of the earth for the team and the parents get really excited. They feel like this is a very special dynamic that the particular organization might have. Have your older swimmers be captains or at least leaders. We had captains at Bernal’s Gator and it worked really well. As coaches, you have so much going on at a meet. You don’t want to say to the kids before they leave, “Please bring this sweat. Please bring this shirt. This day we are going to wear this. This day we are going to wear that. We left it up to the captains and they would send out emails. They, of course, would throw it by the coaches first and then they would send out emails. They were in charge of what the team was going to wear and make sure that they looked pretty and professional on the pool deck.

You can buddy them up outside of the pool. We have done barbecues, touch football and ultimate Frisbee and just gotten them out of the pool. There was one time, three summers ago, I had a group and we had gone out to Arizona Desert Fox with Coach Gillett and Misty Hyman. The kids got to see Misty under water. They were like, “She looks like such a fish.” One of my swimmers put together an IMAX movie day before championships. She invited some of the younger swimmers so that we could go to an IMAX theater and see what the fish looked like under water and to see how they swam. After a while the older swimmers were taking this responsibility seriously and on their own. They would even come to little kid meets and cheer them on. They have done that quite a few times at our age group championships.

So, when I was asked to do this talk, I spoke with Guy Edson and said “I think everyone has their own idea to prepare a team for a meet, but swimming isn’t just about swimming. It is about so many other dynamics. I just wanted to throw out some of these ideas to you guys today

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