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Recreating America’s Club Swimming System

Since 1985, the ASCA and the ASCA Office have been actively involved in trying to help the American Swim Club. Our credentials for the following discussion include:

  1. 1137 days spent with clubs ranging from National Championship teams to teams run by part time coaches with 50 swimmers.
  2. Operation of the ASCA Job Service for 16 years. Approximately 1,120 jobs evaluated, rated and reconfigured through the Job Service. They are typically full time positions and some of the highest profile club jobs in America. In the course of operation of the Job Service, we spend many hours a week on the phone with both coaches and club representatives discussing club employment issues.
  3. Endless series of USA Swimming committee meetings at 16 conventions and at least 20 other meetings where club concerns are foremost.
  4. At least four attempts by USA Swimming Committees to foster real change in the club system. None has met with anything more than token success.
  5. 86 articles in ASCA Publications since 1985 focusing on Club operations and function.

No office in American Swimming has been more active in working to create positive change in American Swimming Clubs. Now its time to do some “telling it like it is” and discussing how to make some real change and what those changes need to be.

As always, some will disagree. That’s good. Use your disagreement energy to come up with some better ideas. Do anything, but don’t sit back and say, “Well, everything is OK and anyway, its too hard to change.”

I want to tell you first of all, that if we don’t change, we are going to die a slow death. Actually, we ARE dying a slow death of our club system. It’s just not overly visible because coaches and club officers move out of the system so rapidly that only a few people are left at any given moment with a historical perspective of the state of club swimming.

So here we go.

The Problems

Lets start with listing the top ten problems in American Swimming Clubs. We’ll limit ourselves to ten because we could go to 100 or more, but they are all spin-offs or offshoots from some central issues.

  1. Lack or Club and Coach Stability

    Stability and consistency are the hallmark of any successful business. American club swimming, in large measure, has far too high a turnover rate in its coaches. Why is this? Low pay, low respect, lack of contracts, absurd work schedules, lousy economics. Very few coaches on a percentage basis, own their own clubs. Most clubs are owned and operated by a parent board. This, in and of itself, creates the problems below.

    The Need in search of a solution? Make many more clubs “coach-stable.” The athletes and families in the sport will benefit directly. The only losers are the nut-case parents who want a coach removed when their darling doesn’t make the “A” relay. There aren’t many of them. (but enough to cause plenty of problems.)

  2. Our Clubs Are Short Term Thinkers.

    I can count on one hand the number of clubs that had some sort of long term planning process in place when I came to visit. Most club constitutions have Parent Boards serving one year and then coming up for election again. Do you know any businesses that change their entire Board every year? How do you create a business plan, vision, philosophy and operational success when the leadership changes each year? Mission Impossible. The Coach owned clubs, at least those with a coach who is in tune with planning to succeed, have a better chance of a consistent operation because they do not re-invent their aims and objectives each year.

    The Need in search of a solution? Develop systems where leadership can stay in place long enough to make something work. And co-incidentally, this will aid in coach stability.

  3. Our Best People Don’t Invest in Our Clubs, and our Clubs Don’t Invest in Their Best People.

    When I ask clubs, “what is your greatest asset?” over 85% of them respond “our coach.” Yet our coaches are not “invested” in the club, unless they own it. And even then, they don’t put too much of themselves into their assistant coaches. Why? Because no one is more popular in a swim club than the assistant coach. He never has to make any hard calls, he can be a good listener, without having to say “no” to anything, and the assistant is always loved and liked and well spoken of… .so they are “encouraged” to go off on their own… sometimes with a significant proportion of the old club’s clientele, and start a new club down the street. And United States Swimming, through its Local Swim Committees, allows this to happen. “Screw the producing club member we have who is doing a good job and has been for 20 years, lets allow this other club to open next door and we’ll have another USA Swimming Club! Hooray!”

    What nonsense. Hurt your established franchise that is producing for you, so you can have a new, unproven franchise open up. This is called cannibalization, and we wind up with a lot of dinky little clubs that can’t properly pay coaches, support a pool, support a productive program, and its led by our least experienced parents and our youngest and least experienced coaches, who two years later are selling insurance instead of coaching, because it was “too hard.” Oh, and by the way, in one of the most important by-products of this, we split up what used to be dense groups of hard working productive senior training groups and put those athletes in many small, fragmented, non-competitive groups. Training Disaster for Senior Swimmers.

    And where did all those 50 swimmers go who swam on the new team? Look at the soccer fields of America.

    The Need in Search of a Solution? We need to protect our programs that are producing for USA Swimming and keep them from being cannibalized by ineffective convenience clubs that come and go. Ask USA Swimming how many convenience clubs there are, with less than 100 swimmers? Its about 80% of our club population. It is pretty darn hard to financially support a professional coach with less than 100 swimmers on a team, unless they are very wealthy. And we have a relatively new phenomenon in the last 10 years, we now have some large (numerically) non-productive (in terms of fast senior swimming) clubs who exist as glorified (or not so glorified) baby-sitting services with a lot of fees being paid in.

  4. Our Decisions are Made on Guesses

    American swimming is an anecdotal experience. Nowhere in our club system, neither locally nor nationally, do we base our decisions on FACTS. In point of case, we don’t even gather real statistics. We don’t know “real things.” So our clubs make “best guesses” on things ranging from how to train 10 and unders effectively, to how to recruit new swimmers, to how to organize an effort for a new indoor 50 meter pool, to how to develop a fee structure for our club.

    We have no developed statistical basis for any decision we make. We guess, we guess, we guess. And then we are surprised that we’re wrong. Why is this? Because USA Swimming evolved in 1978 from the old AAU and we are still using the basic organizational structure from the 1950’s and 1960’s in an 2000’s world. We still have Local Swim Committees (LSC’s) as a unit of organization for USA Swimming. USA Swimming has historically thought of its organizational units as the LSC’s. That’s wrong. USA Swimming’s mission is providing a great experience in swimming for large numbers of youngsters and from that group, creating the greatest swim team on earth, the USA National Team. No LSC does either of those things. The LSC does not recruit athletes. The club does. The LSC does not train the athlete. The Coach and club do. The LSC does not create an environment where excellence can flourish. The Club and Coach do. In short the LSC contributes NOTHING to our national mission, except another layer of bureaucratic “stuff.”

    The basic unit of USA Swimming is THE CLUB. NOT the LSC. USA Swimming needs to relate to the club. The Club needs to relate to USA Swimming. USA Swimming should be collecting, directly from the club, information on EVERYTHING from finance to training. And re-distributing this information to all their clubs who chose to use it. Real information. Statistical information. Something the club can make good decisions on. The business of the ASCA is coaches. The business of USA Swimming, is the Club.

    We don’t need LSC’s. They are a political hangover that modern communications and business have made obsolete and an impediment to Professionally run clubs. We need real information from a national base. Real information makes better decisions possible.

    The Need in Search of a Solution? We need real information to improve our club businesses from USA Swimming.

  5. Clubs Need A Base

    Swimmers come from somewhere. They come from learn to swim programs. Yet fewer than 15% of current USA Swim Clubs actually operate their own Learn to Swim Programs. So where to swimmers come from in these clubs? They transfer from other swim clubs! Like shuffling clients, rather than creating new ones. Not much of a way to grow an industry, is it?

    I am getting this figure from 1500 recent club coach questionnaires returned to the ASCA. Lets say that I am way off, 100% off… .that means that 30% of the USA Swimming Clubs run swim lessons. OK. So that leaves 70% of our clubs that don’t run lessons.

    So how do they get new swimmers? They come from “other learn to swim programs.” Yet coaches continually comment to us on how poorly prepared swimmers are when they come to their teams. Yes, likely they are.

    After all, they are not being taught in programs run by professionals. Swim Coaches run the best learn to swim programs. Why? Go back to Steven Covey’s principles “begin with the end in mind.” Professional Coaches see great swimming every day. They know what it looks like. When they run lesson programs, they know what they want the end product to look like, so they work towards that. Your ordinary garden variety learn to swim teacher not with a swim team, may see good swimming once or twice a year on TV. (if that.) This is the principle on which the ASCA formed SwimAmerica… professional coaches teaching America’s children to swim, for their safety, their health and their fun… in joining a swim team. The added bonus of course is that in all the world except the USA, swim team programs are financially supported by swim lessons. Only here do we try to make swim club finances work on swim team dues. Swim lessons creates your revenue base and your client base.

    Need in Search of a Solution? Part of the “franchise” of every club with a USA Swimming name on it, needs to be a SwimAmerica Learn to Swim program or similar. Good for the sport, good for financial operation of clubs. And it creates both new swimmers and new coaches from the ranks of the SwimAmerica coaches in learn to swim.

  6. We’re Afraid of Competition

    Gulp. Hard to say. The same people who can tell you about the wonders and joys of competition for their children, want to make sure that all clubs are USA Swimming Clubs… regardless of whether they have the same mission in life or not… ..our governance acts as if “it’s a club, it has to be a USA Swimming Club.” We ignore the fact that many Parks and Recreation Leagues around the USA exist without USA Swimming, that country club leagues and summer club leagues have gone well for decades without us. That High School swimming is arguably the most popular part of our sport and the part that is most important to the athletes in those areas of the USA where high school swimming exists.

    We want “everyone” to have a USA Swimming Club. Regardless of what they stand for. Regardless of what their aims are. We worry about the competition if another organization (like a super YMCA?) decides to operate a “different kind” of national program.

    USA Swimming Clubs need to stand for something. One of the things we need to Stand For and Be, is about Professional Coaching for your child.. the kind of coaching that can effectively manage the entire swimming career of your child. The sort of coaching that can ensure that the child will not be subjected to “little league baseball” mentality of sport, in any competitions. The sort of coaching where teaching can come first, not swim team management and lane monitoring.

    High school swimming is wonderful. Lets’ support it and the place it plays in our swimmers lives. So is summer league. We should learn some from summer league… .but we can’t BE those things, we have to BE what we are… and what we ARE, should be professional coaching for those who want to seriously excel in our sport.

    When we try to be all things to all people, we fail in being anything to anyone. USA Swimming Clubs should stand for the finest in coaching and Youth sport.

    Need in Search of a Solution: Don’t expect or want everyone to be a USA Swimming Club. Let some clubs do their own thing without the USA Swimming name attached. Make sure the use of the USA Swimming brand stands for something special. Make it special and desirable to own a USA Swimming Club. Make it the premier brand. Don’t worry if other brands form. Some people buy Fords. Some buy Mercedes. Some ride bikes. Let people chose.

    And the same is true within USA Swimming. Allow clubs some freedom in their operations, to be themselves. Again, “simultaneous Loose-Tight principles.”.. .allow clubs latitude to operate differently (and tell us what they are doing, so we can all learn and benefit) within the framework of rigid adherence to the defined mission of USA Swimming.

    This will allow the creative coach and volunteer leadership to grow and bloom.

  7. Business and Coaching Skills Don’t Always Mix.

    There are a number of coaches in American Swimming who are capable of world class coaching and world class business skills.

    But they are few and far between. And heaven knows they are talented enough to not need much help from the rest of us. And most of the rest of us, can either coach real well, or we can run a business real well, but we can’t do both real well, at least not for real long periods of time.

    So Boards complain of poor organizational, communication and Financial skills of coaches and use that as an excuse to meddle in the operation of the swim club. (often with results that seem to improve things, at least short term.) Their complaints are often valid.

    Many of our best coaches gravitate to college coaching. Why? No parent hassles like in club swimming, and no real need for elaborate business involvement or skills. Just Coach Baby. Or at least, that’s the dream picture. (college coaches will largely tell you that they discover that its not “really” true, but its true enough that I very RARELY see a college coach “go back” to being a club coach.

    Need in Search of Solution? How do the pro teams do it? A General Manager runs the business of the club, top to bottom and delegates the Coaching to a Head Coach. Both business and sport sides are well looked after. We need that in our clubs.

    The catch? Money. We have to pay two big salaries to operate this way. The solution… go re-read the learn to swim section above, or operate multiple facilities with unified leadership.

  8. Accountability. We have none.

    Once you are a club member of USA Swimming, you are good to go forever. You won’t receive much, but then we won’t make many demands on you, either. Just pay your bill every year.

    On our Boards, we have volunteers in key positions. Hard to fire volunteers, isn’t it? Who’d do it? So we lack accountability there as well. In fact, since we’re not real clear on what we’re supposed to be producing, we don’t have any measures to tell us if our club is “doing well,” “doing poorly” or “not doing.”

    When we evaluate our coaches, we do it… .how? From the calls we field here at ASCA, people “say” they want their coach to develop all the warm and fuzzies… you know, “help children to be better people” and all that… . And coaches surely do achieve that, in many cases.

    Problem is, we can’t define it. Can’t agree on how to measure it. So all we have is a “feeling” and one person’s experiences and thus, “feelings” about that coach may be different from another’s… So how DO we tend to evaluate our coaches? On odd things we “say” we don’t care much about, like Junior Olympic titles won, national success, And how fast our own child swam and how well Suzie likes our coach. Wow. Scary. Imagine you… being evaluated like that… .if you let it happen, you may deserve what you get.

    And Don’t Worry. Your club won’t suffer if you do a lousy job. It will still be a USA Swimming Club. Conversely, if you do a GREAT job, how are you going to prove it? Against what criteria, what facts? Again, don’t worry, because USA Swimming won’t hold you accountable when it comes to rewards, either. You won’t get much more if you do a great job for our organization. You’re not going to be held accountable.

    And after all, if you WERE accountable, and had the facts in hand to prove what sort of job you did do, you’d be secure in your job, you’d have the evidence of how worthy you are of a raise, and your club would have evidence of its value to USA Swimming. But then, they might expect USA Swimming to do something for them to reward their club.

    Of course, if you weren’t doing the job, you might be in jeopardy. And so might the franchise of your club. USA Swimming might decide to buy back the franchise and sell it to someone else who can have a better shot at doing the job as required. Gosh for a minute there I got carried away and forgot we’re not a franchise system. The club next door to you can be as good or as lousy as it wants to be, and still be called a USA Swimming Club, JUST LIKE YOURS. Sorry.

    Need in Search of a Solution? Be serious. Be accountable. Be good. Or be gone.

  9. Club Swimming Has To Be Important

    This one is simple. Being important in American 2001 is being on TV. Splash TV is a good start. Its on the wrong channel. Bubba watches the Outdoor Life Network. Bubba’s kids generally don’t swim, and won’t. We need to be on Nick, and some of the other “cool channels” for kids. We aren’t now because we didn’t have enough cash to buy our way on. At least we’re on TV somewhere, and that’s a good start. Now lets get better. Lets get on the right channel. Lets improve the programming to appeal to KIDS we want to recruit to the sport, and lets do it consistently, not features on some of our very fine volunteers. We love the volunteers, but they’re not recruiting kids to swimming by being on TV. We need KIDS on our TV show… ten year olds, who other 6-9 year olds want to emulate. The best Splash shows have focused on cool kids. Lets do more, do it better. And keep the college teams off of there… .we’re not trying to promote college swimming by itself, we want to use TV to build our sport, and the kids come to swimming at the Clubs. Need in Search of a Solution: Club swimming on TV makes it important. If club swimming becomes “cool” and important, money will follow. Good start from USA Swimming. Now, lets get a “real number” of what it costs to be in the right place, learn from our programming development, and come to the USA convention with a budget resolution that will allow the House of Delegates decide if being on TV is more important than another set of Committee Meetings. Want to invest in the future of our sport, or a weekend away from home in Colorado Springs?

  10. Leadership. As in, we need some.

    Who leads American Swimming Clubs? Chuck Wielgus… no, he leads the national office of USA Swimming… selling our sport, organizing our national effort, marketing USA Swimming. Making sure Dennis Pursley has the resources he needs to bring home those Gold Medals from Greece that keeps our sport in the limelight sometimes. John Leonard at ASCA? Heck no. He’s supposed to be raising our level of coaching through Certification and Education of our coaches. Dennis Pursley? No, he’s the Medal Man. Keep the national team strong and productive. That’s plenty to do with the world challenging us a every level.

    Fact is, since the beginning of USA Swimming, NO ONE has been in charge of improving American Clubs. No one. Ever. Why? As I stated earlier, the business of USA Swimming has been seen to be the LSCs, not the clubs. That’s WRONG. We need someone (actually more than one) whose job it is to help the clubs get better each day. Need in Search of a Solution? We need to borrow a page from American industry and create “Brand Managers” for our clubs.

    Maybe by demographics… .clubs over 200 swimmers are a “brand” with similar problems, needs, and potential solutions. Clubs between 100-200 swimmers with a full time coach is a “different brand” and clubs below 100 swimmers may be perfectly happy being small and cozy and with a part time coach. Maybe they don’t need or want a brand manager. Or maybe, they do.

    And the brand manager has to be TERRIFIC… .a coach or General Manager who has been there… been successful with that brand himself… who comes to the position with credibility. A person who can provide LEADERSHIP to each brand of club and help them, daily.

What We Should Want The USA Swimming Club of the Future to Be.

(A Summary of Sorts.)

  1. Stable. Stable coaching, stable leadership. Very low turn over.
  2. Predictably productive in terms of serving youth and producing fast swimming.
  3. Professionally coached and managed with increasing standards across the board. Our coaches are the best in all of sport and all of the world.
  4. Holding a USA Swimming Club license has economic value. Not everyone can be a USA Swimming Club. A license is meaningful.
  5. USA Swimming clubs can chose to make decisions on facts, because we have the measurement devices in place to make that practical. And this is supported by:
  6. Our national governing body, USA Swimming, is in the club business. They provide brand managers who work to improve the clubs in their brand.
  7. USA Swimming Clubs are accountable to USA Swimming to meet established standards, or their license can be bought back by USA Swimming and sold to someone else to serve that part of the country. This does not imply geographic restrictions.
  8. USA swimming gets American Club Swimming on TV and in the media as the vital link in the production of the worlds greatest sports team in history, the USA National Swimming Team.
  9. USA Swimming allows and encourages experimentation with meet formats to recognize that competition experiences are fundamental to the success of our sport, and these experiences must be exciting and enhancing for the child.
  10. A “franchise system” either legally as such, or a licensing system that provides for 1-5 above, where the most productive clubs can be properly rewarded by USA Swimming for their commitment and productivity relative to the goals of USA Swimming.