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Time (and Impetus) to Move Outside Our Comfort Box

By John Leonard

The latest and greatest Game Plan devised by the USA Swimming Staff under the wonderful leadership of Executive Director Chuck Wielgus sets an ambitious goal……”Build…Increase Membership. Goal: We seek to increase membership by at least 20% by 2012.”

Two key strategies under this umbrella goal are “Create a Centralized online Registration System” and “Develop bridge programs that seek to transition youngsters from learn to swim programs to competitive teams”

Lawdy, Lawdy, I AM A BELIEVER!

If we want to grow the sport, lets stop yakin’ and GROW THE SPORT! Great goal. Great strategies.

Now allow me to stop cheerleading and think of what this will mean in terms of needs:

  1. Some more pool time for most clubs. (start getting creative…you may not need even a 25 yard pool for a bridge program from lessons to team. I teach my novices in a 12 yard area of the pool. Better control. Better focus. Better teaching results.
  2. Capable, exciting, child-loving (as opposed to just “sport-loving”) new coaches. Don’t need to be young. Don’t need to be old. Just need to be dedicated to helping young and new swimmers improve. Start thinking who might fit that mold for your club.
  3. More swim meets. More SHORT swim meets. More Swim Meets that are great opening experiences to our sport. Since 20% bigger registration immediately implies 20% “new” swimmers, the chances are they will be “B” and below level athletes when they start out.
  4. More entry level swim meets raises the next issue…..more entry level OFFICIALS.

And therein lies our next great challenge in raising our numbers. Because volunteerism is down. Number of new LSC officials are down. Getting parents to volunteer to do officiating is down as the economy demands a greater and greater premium on compensated employment. Many LSC’s cannot today, appropriately field officials to run the number of swim meets we already need.

So, whither the future?

In exploring this, I went to a man who doesn’t “ask to be asked,” the redoubtable John Wilson of Athens, Georgia, USA Swimming Vice President and himself a world class elite meet official, who came up through the officiating ranks in Ohio, where, in those days, one just became “an official” and not all the fancy titles we have today. His reply to my question was immediate and fair. “how hard is it to officiate a novice meet?”

Clearly, not too hard. Know the strokes. Know what is legal. Understand it. Watch the water. Be fair. Be reasonable. Be aware of the philosophical concept of “if its giving someone an advantage not allowed in the rules, it deserves a disqualification”

So, John, we make it easier for parents to be officials?

Well, not so fast. We have no evidence now that the “difficulty” of becoming an official is the key problem. It may be, because how long does the average parent officiate?

Well, the average child is probably in USA Swimming for about four years….so the average parent probably officiates about 3 years, at best. Not enough time to climb the big meet pyramid. Or any pyramid.

So, what’s the answer?

Use a different population.

Who, like Martians?

No, worse. Or better. Teenagers.

Huh? Teenagers?

Yes, teenagers. In one of our fastest growing and most significant competitors, soccer, kids officiate for kids. Bigger kids for little kids. Teenagers officiate soccer matches between little kids. All the time. As a matter of course.

They have energy, knowledge of the sport, a keen sense of fairness, and oh, did I mention….energy?

Also, they are more familiar with the internet than most of us are with our own face. So an online course and test to certify teenage officials who have either left the sport on a daily basis, or are summer only swimmers, or “high school only swimmers,” make a GREAT source of new officials for our coming expansion.

They know swimming. They love swimming. They already know most of the rules. (especially how to swim the strokes) and they do the concept of “Fair” a lot better than some adults.

And, they need part time employment. Whether they volunteer at officiating novice and “B” level meets, or whether we pay them a minimum wage, they are the best possible help we can recruit to help fuel our growth.

And it will put a young, fresh, “cool” face on our officiating at the entry level meets….not the very serious, very formal face of adult officials…and in case you haven’t noticed, the coolest “sports” for kids are skateboarding, wakeboarding, snowboarding, etc. where no parents are around, no parents know anything about the sport, and no parents interfere.

It’s a fantastic idea. I hope our USA Swimming Officials group will set about creating an entry level “swim official” test that we can use as we grow to our new “raise you 20%” goal. Its the way to go. Back to the future.

Kudos to John Wilson. Our “out of the box thinking” award of the year.