Swim Parents: Your Stress and Expectations Are Contagious

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for swimmers and their parents by clicking here.

As a swim parent who wants the best for their little swammer you know that it can be very difficult walking the fine line between being too involved and being too aloof with your kiddo’s performance.

For young swimmers who are get particularly excited or over-anxious it is helpful to understand that part of the reason they are feeling this way has to do with how anxious the parents are before competition.

As it turns out, the stress and anxiety we feel about our swimmer’s performance trickles down into how stressed and anxious they are.

Research performed at Ithaca College sought out to see just how much of an effect there was. The researchers worked with a group of youth athletes, ranging from 6 to 18, in a few different individual sports, including swimming.

The day before a big competition the athletes and the parents were both given questionnaires to see how both expected the athlete to perform, and how they were feeling in regards to the upcoming meet.

If you have been around these parts, and read through either this guide on swim parenting or this research on the mindsets of elite athletes, the results won’t be too surprising:

  • Athletes who were the most stressed out and anxious (with anxiety measured in terms of worry, physical symptoms—tense muscles, and concentration disruption) had parents who really wanted their kid to beat the competition, or “to not lose to others.”
  • The age groupers experienced concentration disruption the most when their parents were more interested in seeing the athlete out-perform the competition compared to achieving a personal best.

Winning might be everything—as the quote goes, but the expectation of it doesn’t help athletes get any closer to achieving it. Focusing exclusively on winning creates an environment where the young swimmer is physically less likely to make it happen.

SEE ALSO: 36 Ultimate Practices for Competitive Swimmers

“You might think that’s a really positive thing for the child, but that’s creating a lot of worry [for the kid] as well. I don’t think parents are necessarily thinking about that kind of thing,” says Miranda Kaye, study co-author and professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.

The Take-away

Swim parenting is no joke—you don’t need me to tell you that. Between fundraising, the costs of a full season of training, driving to early morning workouts, marathon swim meets, dealing with injuries (ahem– swimmer’s shoulder), it can be tempting to begin to feel like the seemingly never-ending sacrifice should be considered an investment.

As a result you might feel yourself putting more emphasis on winning in order to see a return.

But if you want the best for your child, the research continues to show that a relaxed, hands-off, let-the-kid-own-the-sport is best for creating an environment where they will not only have more fun, but also excel both in the short and long term.



Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES & CLUBS: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which includes a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

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3 years ago

I grew up training (between the ages of 10 and 16) with an athlete that went on to win an Olympic medal as part of a relay and medal at various championships (including world short course). He had, without question, the most laidback parents of anyone in our training group (which for the most part consisted of around 20 athletes). Both parents occassionally helped with the team with officiating etc (as was required of all parents) but didn’t seem to take it particularly seriously – in fact they let their son skip training and occasionally pull out of competitions at short notice which I seem to recall drove the coaches ballistic.

Some of the other parents talked about this swimmer… Read more »

HB Swim Dad
4 years ago

I think the key is to be a part of your child’s swim experience without stressing the child out. For example (as others have noted, and I agree), if the club or coach is not properly coaching, leave your child out of that discussion (there’s nothing they can do about it anyway) and start talking to other parents or observe other clubs. Just like discovering the best school for your child, no single club is perfect for all swimmers and some clubs are downright inferior. The adage “let coaches coach” has the correct intent, but it assumes this coach is competent. I watch my children’s coaches very closely to ascertain that the coaches are passionate about helping the kids. I… Read more »

6 years ago

I find this conversation interesting in that I have “backed away” from my 10-year old at meets and she has excelled without me… She has jumped major gaps in multiple events without my last second reminders about streamlining, Dolfin kicks, breathing patterns, etc. Her coaches are strong and giving her the freedom to take their guidance and own her performance has been life-changing for me. As a coach and collegiate swammer, I thought i was helping her; I thought I was accelerating her through the learning curve. I didn’t realize that my pervasive presence before and after her events told her that I didn’t trust her competence and abilities.
While coaching competence may vary, sometimes coaches balance their behavior… Read more »

Reply to  jojoNV
4 years ago

I swam competitively in the 1980s and early 90s. My father was very tough on me. There were good reasons, we were one of the only Latino families on our team; he moved to the US from Latin America for a better life and thought this was the way for us to better ourselves. I don’t agree with his ways and don’t pressure my kids with swimming in the same manner. I am just pointing out that many parents feel that swimming can be a way to a better school or even life It did work out for me, but I have seen it not work out for many on my kids’ swim team who have dedicated themselves to the… Read more »

6 years ago

As a former swimmer myself, I can say that the high expectations my dad set for me each meet caused me a lot of anxiety and nausea. I was already nervous enough with my own expectations for myself, and feeling like I would let down my parents if I swam badly only made it more likely that I did swim badly. I don’t think my dad meant to cause anxiety for me, but I just think he didn’t realize how much he could’ve helped if he would’ve just sent me off before each meet with a simple, “Have fun and do your best!” And yes, I was a competitive, elite-level swimmer. But it is the coach’s job to coach, not… Read more »

6 years ago

There are too many condescending articles aimed at parents lately. Would Swimswam please remember that parents pay for the experience as well as run the meets on a volunteer basis. We give up a lot to make this sport happen at a club level. It’s time for this very great site to drop it’s parental tone toward parents.

Reply to  Don
6 years ago

Well said Don. I doubt the G.O.A.T.’s mom just sat back and watched when he was a young age grouper…….He turned out to be a pretty good swimmer.

Reply to  DHSwim
6 years ago

Actually Michael Phelp’s mother is repeatedly on record as sitting out in the front hall, not even watching her son break his early age group records.

Reply to  Canukian
4 years ago

Source please

Reply to  Canukian
3 years ago

That’s probably because she was SO ANXIOUS about it she couldn’t even bear to watch. I doubt she just hung out in the lobby during all his meets prior to that point, either.

Not saying that it’s beneficial to be all up in your kids face about their swims, I just think you’re misinterpreting the point of the anecdote of her not watching those particular swims as being indifferent regarding the result.

Reply to  Don
6 years ago

I would recommend taking a step back and reread the article. The Take Away says it all and from what I can tell, there is no condescending tone in this and from what I can tell, many of the swim parent articles here. Some of these articles are written by swim parents, former and current. Wickham herself admits to be a helicopter parent in a former life. This article cites scientific research, the author is taking this topic seriously in an attempt to help educate swim parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.

Not all swim parents are as grounded and educated as yourself. Swim parents hold an immense amount of influence on a young swimmer, as does a coach or older… Read more »

occasional traveler
Reply to  coacherik
6 years ago

I completely agree that this article is neutral, avoids being condescending, and brings value to the swim community. I am also inclined to give Oliver the benefit of the doubt because he generally tries to go with inspirational positivity in his writing. Unfortunately I think I understand where Don’s comment came from, because like him I see an offensive pattern of negativity towards parents at SwimSwam and articles like Oliver’s can easily get lost in that noise. Everything I write below concerns that overall pattern rather than Coach Erik’s comment, which is accurate and well-considered.

The worst offenders are Wickham’s earliest articles, which made sweeping assumptions about parental incompetence contrasted with coaching infallibility. Imagine that at some point you… Read more »

Reply to  occasional traveler
6 years ago

First off, I think the tone of both your responses are a tad defensive. The article – written by a swim parent – does nothing except attempt to help you become a better swim parent to your child. It isn’t calling anyone out. If it hits close to home, then I guess you could either get ticked off; or you could think “hey, maybe I need to look at my behavior.”

And as a long-time age-group coach, the argument that parents pay a lot, volunteer a lot, etc doesn’t hold water. So what you’re saying is that if a parent gives so much to the sport, it’s right for that parent to interject himself into the equation in an… Read more »

Reply to  occasional traveler
4 years ago

Totally agree with Occassional Traveler on this one. I think Oliver’s article is fine but that Don has likely become a sensitive parent and the recurring SwimSwam theme of ‘parental incompetence contrasted with coaching infallibility’ may have contributed to it. The idea of the infalliable coach contributed to a culture that has led to fortunately rare but not rare enough extreme cases in swimming, gymnastics, and other sports, and we need to remove that pedastal. Most coaches are doing their best and most parents are doing their best. Some are good at it, some aren’t so good at it, and all of us on both sides of that can and should seek to continue to improve. Improvement requires acknowledgement of… Read more »

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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