Courtesy: Andrew Sellers
I was recently reading a thread on Facebook that comes up frequently at this point in the year about recruitment and placement of new swimmers. It’s always interesting to hear the different voices on how year-round clubs should be structured, the pros and cons of pulling swimmers from lessons versus summer league, and the best ways to accomplish these tasks. Three distinct groups seem to evolve in these conversations. Some are concerned about the “eliteness” of their team, others view their team as a community service, and still others who think about their team as a business. Plus, whatever shade of gray in between.
The original post in the thread was relating the sort of eye-rolling experience we have all had as club age group coaches, that eight-and-under parent who has decided their child is a swimming prodigy. You then dump them in the water and you quickly realize the child is closer to being saved by the lifeguard than swimming in a meet.
One commenter made a simple post: “This is why you hold tryouts.”
I cringe at the word “tryout”, and as a coach, it’s like nails on the chalkboard. I also feel like it is gatekeeping our sport.
Early in my career, and fresh off leading several 10 and unders to the Ohio LSC Short Course Championships, I decided to coach summer league. My club team had recently replaced a head coach that had built the club program locally, so we were down numbers-wise. Additionally, this was an Olympic year so we wanted to be visible as a program locally to maximize recruitment of new swimmers.
The local summer league as a whole was very big in the community, but even this team was down in numbers. One of the things I noticed was that the standards for the team were missing, but there was still a description of “a tryout.”
On the team’s public recruitment night, I had several parents, new to the sport, ask me about what would it take to make the team? I was flummoxed by the question. I mean, I thought you paid your membership fee to join the swim-club, and then the team fee, and that was it. Afterall, the last time I remembered joining a summer league team, it seemed that simple.
I quickly got on our website and added some simple requirements:
- Be out of a diaper
- Jump into the water unassisted
- Be able to make to the side of the pool
I also made one more important change, rather than tryouts, I began referring to the entry process as an “evaluation.”
This change of language was not purposeful at first, but it would be later. When the fall rolled around, I was placed in charge of the year-round club team’s “tryouts.” They never were tryouts since we took everyone within reason. The club team placed swimmers primarily based on ability. This was done for safety purposes, and as a general rule, we also kept swimmers roughly grouped by age.
My new summer league parents were very hesitant based on seeing the word “tryout” in our year-round flyers at championships, but were enthusiastic about continuing swimming beyond the summer league season. When I changed our second round of flyers to use the word “evaluations” and included our evaluations on the same night as open lesson evaluations, I truly saw the power of a word.
There were more swimmers at our “evaluation” than there was at our “tryout.” While roughly half of those who came to the “evaluation” wound up joining the team, which was comparable to our “tryout” numbers, the foot traffic was enough for me to stick with the language throughout my coaching career. I nearly doubled the number of athletes at a small club team in a rural environment by switching from “tryouts” to “evaluations,” from about 50 swimmers to about 95 swimmers. Parents were more apt to see what club swimming was about and to make a more informed decision about the sport when they saw the event as a measure of their child’s skills rather than a point-of-success-or-failure.
The word evaluation invokes a sense of inclusivity that tryout does not. Evaluation is also about finding a baseline. Tryout also implies one group is better than the other, more important to the team, the community, or the health of the sport than the other. Not every swimmer is on an Olympic track, and that’s okay.
One of the commenters on the Facebook thread said that a tryout is a “safety issue.” I find this to be a weak excuse personally. What is safe is knowing how to swim. Being on a swim team, while competitive, is still teaching a child how to swim.
Many of your club swimmers will go back to swim summer league and high school. Both of those environments are about the camaraderie of athletics with their friends. What attitude are we teaching them if we are othering a group of swimmers? While certainly no head coach (I hope) has the intent of creating these groups by using the word tryout, it can still be an unintended consequence. Furthermore, the attitude of ‘othering’ prevents you as a club from serving the community and generating new revenue streams. Your elite senior-level swimmers might pay more but also have the highest overhead cost. If parents feel like they’re walking into a requisite hyper-competitive world, they might be less likely to enroll their other kids in your lessons program, instead taking them to the local strip mall swim school.
If the simple change of a word from “tryout” to “evaluation” could cause you to start the pre-competitive team, or a lessons program, or just attract that one extra swimmer that makes your club more financially sound, then it’s an easy change. None of these will win you LSC championships today but that next Olympic swimmer could be in your lesson program rather than in the lesson program of the team across town.
About Andrew Sellers
Andrew has been active in the aquatics world since he was eight years old, coaching all the way from learn-to-swim through to the club level as a head coach. He has run both small and large teams throughout his career. Currently, Andrew is a passionate urban educator and high school swim coach.
“I am a big believer in building equity and community through sports and education. A big shout out to those swimmers, teammates and coaches who continue to shape, educate, and mentor me!”
Personally I think this gives too much weight to a single word, when there were probably other factors at play. We should probably expect a fluctuation in the number of swimmers from year to year (with an increase over time). There were probably other factors too (which may or may not have had anything to do with the word “tryout” vs “evaluation”).
Swim Clubs are a business and this is a great article on the importance of branding and marketing. Head coaches and boards that ignore the business will no longer have a club. The base foundation is the most important level as it pays the bills and ensures the viability of your club for the next ten years.