How To Raise A Champion

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2015 Year In Review issue of SwimSwam Magazine.

Story by Donna Sizemore Hale.

Much has been written about the role parents play in the lives of their Olympians. We have all seen those famous clips of Debbie Phelps as she intensely watches Michael race. And everyone who viewed Touch the Wall watched Missy Franklin show viewers her parent’s support and love. However, most of us embark on this wonderful swim journey with ordinary athletes with extraordinary passion. This article is dedicated to you – the moms and dads across America who are creating life champions and raising kids who will change the world, thanks to the powerful lessons they learn from swimming. They will become doctors, scientists, teachers, lawyers, and CEOs. They will coach teams, teach their kids to swim, and become leaders in their communities. They will be life champions.

Your role as a parent is critical. It starts the day they put those goggle on and compete in their first lollipop race. As all parents know, it’s a commitment that lasts a lifetime. Here are some important factors every swimming parent should consider as you help your children embark on this life-changing journey.

Redefine Champion

Most of us think about Olympians, Junior National qualifiers, and record breakers when we define champions. If you’re one of those parents, take a deep breath, pause, and immediately redefine success. Winning does not necessarily make you a champion. All you need to do is watch the news each day to find successful athletes who are not champions. Champions are role models in and out of the pool. They support their teammates, honor their coaches, and bring respect to our sport. They are the kids shaking hands at the end of races, embracing their opponents who just beat them, and are joyfully passing on their love of swimming to the next generation. They inspire others to become great people and great athletes.

Swim mom Marianne Thiede, who swam for both the University of Alabama and the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, summed it up best when talking about her daughter Megan, who is a freshman on the club swim team at the University of Colorado Boulder. Marianne said, “Megan’s motivation has always come from within. She sets her goals, and then she works on achieving them. In my mind she is not a champion when she reaches those goals. She is a champion for putting her mind and body to work on those goals.” Megan Thiede is the champion any swimmer can become. All you need is a strong work ethic and a big heart.

Choose Great Role Models

There have been too many incidents in the news in the past few years about coaches who have been poor role models. Choosing a coach is one of the single most important decisions you can help your child make as a swimmer. The amazing role models in swimming are in every corner of our world. As a parent, you should place character above all else when looking for a coach and a team. Choosing a team that values what an athlete does in and out of the pool should take precedent. Paul Richards, head coach at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, explains this well:

“Do the right thing, simply because it’s the right thing to do. There is no need for recognition or praise.”

This is the mantra all parents want their children to embrace. The NCAA has a wonderful commercial that puts this into perspective. They publicize the importance of academics and career preparation for student athletes. Even the kids who make it to college swimming will all eventually become leaders outside the pool.

A great coach will be one of the most influential people in your child’s life, especially as they reach high school. When you total up the number of hours a senior level swimmer spends with a coach, you will be amazed. A great coach is there for the elation of the best swims your child will ever have. But the coach is also the one on deck with your child when they have to cope with their worst swim moments ever. I watch this dynamic over and over again as a swim mom with my daughter and with her teammates. The pool deck may be packed, but these moments of learning between a coach and swimmer are priceless. It is as if everyone around them is invisible – a coach keeps teaching and the swimmer keeps learning. How the coach teaches swimmers to deal with failure is every bit as important as how they celebrate success. I have seen coaches scream and yell as if the child wanted to do poorly. Swimming, just like life, is about learning from mistakes and moving on.

Sportsmanship Matters (A Lot) 

One of the first things my now 16-year-old swimmer learned at four years old is to never exit the pool after a race without shaking the hands of your opponents. She now teaches young swimmers to do the same. Chad Craddock, head swimming and diving coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore, expressed this sentiment in a recent conversation about what matters most. He stated, “It all starts with our mission. We take that part very seriously. As coaches, we stress the importance of sportsmanship, which includes respect of fellow competitors. We expect our athletes to be friendly and hold the values of our program at all times.” Coach Craddock is right. Nothing disturbs me more as a parent than to see an athlete throw goggles, or refuse to shake an opponent’s hand or congratulate a fellow swimmer who has just performed a lifetime best.

On the flip side, it reminds me why my child swims when I watch the heartfelt embrace of two competitors at the end of an impossibly close race. An important lesson for all athletes to learn is to celebrate the success of their teammates and competitors. In the sport of swimming, friendships are formed that last a lifetime; and not just with teammates, but also with fellow swimmers who wear different logos on their caps.

The Sport Belongs to Your Child

As any coach at any level of swimming can attest, parents can be difficult. I know, because I have been one of those parents. But through the help of my extended swim family, I have come to realize I am only along for this ride. I have come to consider it a privilege to parent an elite athlete. If your child swims 50,000 yards a week, is regularly rising before the sun, and making the sacrifices to swim, you are the parent of an elite swimmer. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Bill Marlin, has been the chairman of Potomac Valley Swimming since 2013 and is head coach of The Potomac Marlins. He is also an alum of the Penn State University swim program and my daughter trains in his senior program. Marlin explains “In addition to the kids I have that will go on and compete for a top level D1 program, I have swimmers who just want to enjoy their high school years and then pursue club swimming upon graduation or choose to swim for a D3 program. That is not only okay, it’s awesome. I also have others who struggle to figure it out along the way. However, I do know this. There are many life lessons to be learned from swimming and amazing life skills to develop that may not lead to gold medals, but will help shape the child for life after swimming. A parent’s role is to find out what your child truly wants and then support them in their dreams.”

The key words in Marlin’s advice are “their dreams.” Much has been written in the last few years about helicopter parenting. Many parents, myself included, want to protect our children from failure. Marlin says allowing kids to fail can sometimes be more important. In reality, our job as swim parents it to help our kids learn to deal with disappointment. Your child’s identity should be based on more than just their swimming and hopefully it helps give them a new found passion. Forget about the destination, mom and dad. Enjoy the journey.

Teach Them to Give Back

Many kids who compete in USA Swimming also take part in a summer league. This is the place where many children fall in love with the sport. As swimmers get older and compete at higher levels, many swim year round on their club teams. However, a large majority still make time for summer meets. I know many people question why this is important. From my own experiences, I think it is where we start teaching our children to give back to the sport. They serve as junior coaches, cheerleaders, and role models for the next generation of USA swimmers. If you are lucky, your child swims for a team that also emphasizes helping the community. My daughter and her Potomac Marlins teammates have learned so much by hosting Special Olympics swim meets and raising money for causes such as breast cancer awareness and research, and the Wounded Warriors Project. The most inspiring college coaches teach their athletes these same values. As Coach Craddock notes, “I ask my athletes to not only give back to the sport, but to the community as well. The expectation is that they grow as people and these skills carry them through life.”

Enjoy the Journey

 One day not too long from now, your child will be grown and you will miss getting up at 4 a.m. and searching for an open coffee shop. Rebecca Matthews, NCAA Division II Champion in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and a senior at Lynn University, shares her experience: “A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer. Being able to enjoy practice and have fun at meets, while working hard together as a team, is what truly matters to me. Swimming is my passion and I love to share it with others.”

Swimming is fortunate to have tens of thousands of wonderful athletes just like Rebecca competing every year, and the sport is growing. When your child takes off their cap and goggles for their last USA or NCAA meet, there is only one thing that matters. Did your swimmer enjoy the journey? Swimmers don’t get a second chance to relive the incredible experience of club or college swimming. Although there are opportunities to experience the sport after retirement through Masters or coaching, the memories they are making will be frozen in time, captured in videos and photos, and embedded in their hearts. Support them and love them unconditionally throughout this journey. And when this chapter ends, be sure they reflect back and think what a wonderful ride.

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