Three Modest Proposals to Improve Age Group Swimming

by SwimSwam 24

July 27th, 2016 Club, Lifestyle

John Culhane swam for William & Mary, and has been swimming in masters and open-water races ever since. He teaches at Delaware Law School, and is a columnist for the on-line magazine Slate. His two daughters swim for the Friends Select Swim Team in Philadelphia.


As the parent of 11-year-old swimming twins, and as a life-long competitive swimmer myself, I am well aware of the many good things the sport offers. Readers of this story don’t need a refresher on that topic, but for me, anyway, the sport’s benefits include: teaching the value of goal-setting, and of learning to deal with both success and failure; learning to love exercise for its own sake and developing a life-long love of the water; exposing the children to one of the few sports where boys and girls train and compete together; and teaching them the value of teamwork.

But that final benefit has been watered down (sorry!) by the way swim meets are conducted today. And that brings me to the first on my list of simple things that could be done to make our sport even better:

1. Bring back the relays! In the three years that my kids have been competing in our local USA Swim meets, only one non-championship meet has offered these team-building events. What’s that about? Many kids swim out-of-their-minds fast on relays, and working on exchanges during practice is a concrete way to show the value of teamwork. Not to mention the roof-raising cheers that only relays engender, as the kids can put aside their own rivalries and get behind each other, fully.

The only answer I’ve gotten is that, at least in our Mid-Atlantic region, the meets are so stuffed that there’s no time for relays. But who says that every event needs to be offered for every age group, at every meet? Run a sprint-only meet, with a full complement of 4 x 50 relays. Run a distance meet with 4 x 200 freestyle relays (and 4 x100 for the 10 and under age group). This isn’t complicated.

2. On the subject of team-building: Whatever happened to dual meets? Y teams understand the importance of these events, where team totals take precedence over individual efforts, but most teams in our area — including ours — have no dual meets at all. Many of the kids who finish, say, 83rd at a USA meet, can feel like real contributors in the dual meet setting. They shouldn’t have to wait until high school to experience the high of beating their arch-rival team in a meet that comes down to the last relay.

3. This is the most radical of the suggestions, and the only one that would require a change at the national level: At least for the lower age levels, move from two-year to single-year groups. It is just nuts for a girl or boy who has just turned 11 to be ranked against a foot-taller, post-pubescent kid whose 13th birthday is a week away. In fact, USA Swimming recognizes that there’s a difference, because they already publish “motivational times” for single ages. Competition and time standards for championship meets should both be divided in this way.

What I’m proposing is actually a simple step that would add almost no time to meets (one or two extra heats, at most, spread over what is now one age group), and would provide further incentive to kids trying to reach their goals.

As we know, swimming is a challenging sport that requires an astonishing level of commitment, involves lots of pain, and invariably brings disappointment at some point (no matter who the swimmer). The steps I’ve outlined above are all geared to counter all that by adding one vital ingredient: fun.

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5 years ago

I was totally thinking of a different modest proposal. Figured it’d be a good way for Phelps and Vollmer to make some extra money and get more sleep before Rio, but never mind. These modest proposals are also good.

All 300 year old jokes aside, I totally agree with 1 and 2. I don’t really have a strong stance either way on 3. I kind of feel that it’s important for kids to learn that’s it’s okay to be at the bottom of the totem pole. That feeling when you first turn 13 and you’re suddenly doing 100’s instead of 50’s and some of the people are almost two years older than you is absolutely intimidating and not necessarily fun,… Read more »

Reply to  Sven
5 years ago

I had the same thought when I read the title. The other white meat…?

Bo swims
Reply to  Sven
5 years ago

We have the younger kids doing the 4×200 up here in Canada…

5 years ago

I like suggestions 1 and 2.

3 has me a little confused. I understand the idea that an 11 year old and soon to be 13 year old are not the same. But i think competing with better kids is what drives improvement.

I think one of the major factors in my own development was when I turned 15 and I had to race against older guys that were going to or already swimming in college. Better competition brings out the best in people.

Swim NE
5 years ago

We actually tried for about 4 years in the New England LSC to use single age cuts. I love that our LSC gave it a try and studied the results to see if it kept kids in swimming longer or improved times overall. I found it to be quite motivating for kids to be only against kids who were going to be the same age at the time of the Championship meet. After studying it for 4 years, they reviewed the results and determined that it didn’t really improve the times. I can’t remember the details of all of the results, but we went back just this year to the 2 year age cuts.
In terms of 1 and… Read more »

5 years ago

How about altering the age groups? Pretty sure there are other NGBs that have odd ages. 9 and under, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15, 16 & over? There seems to be similarity with those in ages developmentally.

Bo swims
Reply to  coacherik
5 years ago

Lots of meet in Alberta use different age groups for male/female… IE Age Group Champs

Girls 10u, 11-12, 13-15
Boys 11u, 12-13, 14-15

AZ Age Group Alum
5 years ago

For #2, the AZ Marlins (now PHX swim club) host an 8 team Dual Meet weekend. The group of teams is split into 2 groups of four and your team has three dual meets over 2 days against the teams in your group. Day 3 is a championship dual that includes all 8 teams…I want to say one kid per team per event but it’s been awhile since I was 14&u. Our team was never at the top of the standings but it was still one of our favorite meets every year. it could be something worth looking into implementing in your area.

Reply to  AZ Age Group Alum
5 years ago

This sounds like a great idea. My idea was also to limit entries to 2-3 per event, to limit the size/timeline of the meet, and to make the numbers equal for teams with less kids. Obviously, larger teams would (potentially) have greater depth…but that’s how the wind blows sometimes

Bo swims
Reply to  AZ Age Group Alum
5 years ago

We did this in the early 90s. Etobicoke and North York came to Calgary and did duals against University of Calgary, Edmonton Keyano an all star team from the small clubs in Alberta. Loved the format.

5 years ago

I like 1 and 2, but I don’t like number 3. I like how age groups are divided into 2 year groups, it prepares them for 15-over meets where there can be a freshman in highschool going up against a 36 year old Olympic Champ

5 years ago

In central CA, we had a summer recreational swim league that was very much about “city rivalries and relays”. In fact, it was much closer to high school swimming in format over USA swimming. It was mostly sprint distance – 50’s of all strokes and 100’s for older age groups – along with relays. Often times, swimmers from the same USA swim club competed for different city teams (most of the cities involved have less than 20,000 population). It was a great way to promote a fast paced meet, dual meet format, and develop young swimmers in all 4 strokes.

5 years ago

Money money money. I’ve coached in several LSCs and there are only a handful of teams in each that host the kind of meets that generate revenue to fund portions of their programs. The rest of them rely upon dues and other fundraisers to make their programs work. If families can’t afford the true cost of belonging to a team then the program needs to create opportunities for them to whittle down those costs. I don’t think we need to structure the competitive opportunities for everyone based on the financial needs of a few big teams.
Your second to last paragraph is great. There is precious little imagination built into most competitive schedules. Meets are long and arduous, with… Read more »

Reply to  CoachGary
5 years ago

My kids are in the Metro area – we pay almost $4000 per kid to join the team – I have 2 kids . I dont understand how money can be a factor in deciding what events they do. I like the idea of 1 and 2 – I also think that all swim meets with the exception of championship meets should not be longer than 3 hours max! I love relay teams and sadly our club have 2 per year for the kids. as a parent I enjoy them more than when my child swims a solo event.