Every coach knows how much team-building exercises can increase camaraderie among swimmers and strengthen team dynamics. But when your team consists mostly of teenage swimmers, typical team-building exercises — like sharks and minnows — could fall flat.
Instead, some swimmers turn to more dangerous activities, like hazing. Colleges all over the country, from Brown to Lehigh to LSU have been accused of hazing incidents, which can include coerced drinking or other harmful activities. Not only can these activities be dangerous, but they’re often detrimental to team building too, in spite of being ostensibly done in the name of “team building.” In at least one case, Western Kentucky, hazing activities have given administrators an excuse to cut a program.
These problems aren’t likely to go away on their own, and young, elite athletes, by their nature, are often predisposed to push boundaries. This means that saying “no hazing” doesn’t always solve the program.
The other part of the picture is for coaches and captains come up with alternative team building activities that don’t require swimmers to participate in illegal, dangerous, or harmful activities, but that can still be considered fun, even by teenagers and young adults.
- Free Food Events
One thing can be said of all teen swimmers, and of all teens everywhere: They love free food. And, to be honest, who doesn’t? One quick and easy way to ensure teens stay after practice and talk to each other is by bribing — er, gifting — them with food. Whether it’s a team breakfast after a Saturday practice, ice cream on a Friday evening or a trip to a restaurant together, free food events promise to set a good mood that encourages bonding outside of typical practice hours.
While wild goose chases aren’t usually a good thing, they can be for your swimmers. GooseChase is an app that allows you to enter in different tasks or objectives, and then allows your swimmers to compete to finish the elaborate scavenger hunt first. You can even choose from pre-entered challenges, and you have the freedom to make it as elaborate or simple as you want. Jason Pullano, coach of Granbury Swim Team, said his only requirement is that every member of the team has to be in the pictures used to mark a challenge completion. You can take this idea one step further by allowing the swimmers themselves, or at least the team captains, to help come up with the challenges.
- Water Polo
Having a game for part of or the whole practice is the perfect way to take advantage of swimmers’ inherent competitiveness while still having fun. A game of water polo, for example, allows for a less individually focused practice while still getting plenty of exercise (especially if you’re serious about playing by the rules of traditional water polo — they’ll be sore the next day). It’s okay if your swimmers aren’t super good water polo players – there are lots of variations that require less technical skill but are still fun. If your team is inclined for other sports like basketball or ultimate frisbee, give that a try too.
- Seasonal Events
If you’re looking to get away from the pool for a bonding activity, you can always take advantage of the seasonal activities offered by your community. Whether it’s going apple picking, exploring a waterpark, making s’mores, or having a hot chocolate movie night, you can find activities your swimmers can even do on taper. You can also encourage swimmers to plan an event themselves, so they are more involved in the process and working together from start to finish.
- House Cup
Depending on the time you want to commit to team-building activities, you can take internal competition up a notch with a Harry Potter-style House Cup. By dividing your swimmers into smaller teams and having them compete to win an exciting prize, you can encourage bonding among members of the smaller teams. Your House Cup tournament can be pool-based, with elaborate relay races, land-based, with games like capture the flag or wheelbarrow, or some combination of the two. You can use this competition to encourage positive behaviors – like incorporating grades, attendance, or service hours into the scoring. You can even raise the stakes for the last event to end the activity on an especially enthusiastic note. Have the different “houses” come up with logos, banners, and even team gear.
- The Amazing Race
Send swimmers on an amazing race throughout the college campus. This bonding activity could work really well if new students arrive for training before their orientation and aren’t familiar with the campus. Team captains or upperclassmen can help develop the different challenges, which can vary in intensity and silliness depending on the personalities of the team. If you want to go all in, you can even put clues in envelopes and embrace the world traveler theme, putting different “destinations” on and around campus. Make some of the destinations food based, and you’ll get even more enthusiasm.
- Community Service
This activity not only improves team relations, but it also helps the community. Coaches can charge their team to find and organize a community service event. University resources are typically available that outline volunteer opportunities in the area, or team members can embrace the task and develop their own event from scratch. Working together to solve problems will build teamwork and help them establish their natural leadership order and develop leadership skills – an important part of college athletics. Encourage the team to work through the challenges that will inevitably face them on their own, while remaining available for guidance in a pinch.
- Drink Pong Tournament
Disclaimer: You should not drink alcohol before you are 21, or of legal age in your locality. Luckily, a “beer” pong tournament can be played with any beverage, so anyone can play without feeling pressured to drink alcohol if they don’t want to. This activity is also up to interpretation, but essentially team members can compete using a beer-pong-like setup individually or in teams, using a bracket system to narrow down a tournament champion. If someone really doesn’t want to play, they can watch in the audience or act as a referee or scorekeeper. Athletes love to compete. Getting them to compete in something that doesn’t really matter and that isn’t swimming can help build those boundaries – and adding a little college flavor to it doesn’t hurt either. The key to keeping it fun and safe is to let everyone participate on a level where they feel comfortable and safe when it comes to what’s in their cup.
- Go, team, go!
With this activity, your team can bond not only with each other, but with another sport on campus. Teams coordinate to watch the game of another team (for example, swimmers watching a volleyball match), and then that team watches your competition in return. You can take this activity to many different levels, from having a competition for most school spirit to having a party afterward to celebrate newfound friendships. Coordinate with other teams and make this part of the athletics department culture.
- Game of Thrones
In the first season of this award-winning television show, Tyrion Lannister plays a drinking game with Shae and Bronn. Luckily for us, this game can be played with alcohol for members over 21 and with other beverages for those under 21 or who don’t wish to drink. In this game, everyone sits in a circle and goes around making a guess about another person in the game. If the guess is correct, the subject of the guess drinks, while if the guess is wrong, the person making the guess drinks. While the guesses from the show are very GOT, this game can be a lot of fun with simpler guesses. For example: “Emma, I believe you started swimming when you were six.” You can round out the game by watching an episode from the show or maybe a more lighthearted movie. It feels cheesy, but this can bring the beginning of emotional vulnerability to your team, and that emotional vulnerability can help them bond more strongly.
The key to teen team-bonding is that it’s not a one-stop shop. Including a few activities throughout the season can consistently encourage your swimmers to hang out with people outside of their friend group. Plus, these exercises are just a lot of fun!
Ultimately, it becomes about establishing a positive team culture, where teammates support each other. A positive team culture means athletes want to participate in team activities and don’t have to be forced to participate in.