Why Kids Stop Swimming

This post originally appeared over at YourSwimBook.com. Sign up for Olivier’s weekly motivational newsletter by clicking here.

Names like Ledecky, Franklin, Phelps, Lochte, Le Clos and others were on the minds and lips of a billion people for a few weeks in Rio. That media attention and coverage gives local swim teams and clubs a solid shot of growth. Following the London Games the membership in USA Swimming exploded by 13% the year after the Olympics.

And while it seems we are always talking about how to spread more awareness for the sport of swimming and how to get more people into the water, it would also seem to make sense to focus on making it more accessible and enjoyable for the athletes that are already engaged in it.

When you consider that the annual attrition rates for most swim teams is at least 35% (Gould, 1987) we begin to see that even cutting into this number slightly would result in a lot more swimmers continuing on with the sport.

Here are several of the major factors that influence whether or not a swimmer is likely to stick with the sport:

1. Interest from coach that extended beyond the pool.

It’s no secret that many swimmers have a love-hate relationship with their coach. They love the results they get from practicing, but hate the hard work and strictness that sometimes has to come with it.

But when USA Swimming surveyed a group of athletes who were still swimming, as well as a group of former swimmers, the major discriminant between the two groups was that their coach had an active interest in what the athlete was doing outside of the water.

This meant that for swimmers it’s very important to have a coach who is concerned with their academics and other activities that don’t revolve around the pool.

2. An emphasis on best times (or doing their best).

While we place such an emphasis on winning or losing in the sport, swimmers who are taught to improve their own performance and to focus on making the most of their own talents and abilities was also another a major discriminating factor between active age group swimmers and drop outs.

Things like focusing on the process, learning how to appreciate hard work, and continually pushing their own limits help fuel a focus on doing one’s best and removing expectations to outcomes or the performances of others.

3. Active swimmers love their teammates.

The better respondents got along with their teammates, the more likely they were to stick with the sport, with comradery that comes with training with their friends a major factor in kids continuing in the pool.

Having an atmosphere in the pool that rewards commitment, hard work, and is also an enjoyable one where they can spend time with their friends is important to swimmers.

4. Training takes up way too much time.

It should not really come as a shock to anyone that this makes the list. It was easily the most common reason cited for leaving the sport by swimmers who quit.

It’s no secret that the workload that swimmers perform at even an age group level puts many athletes at the professional level to shame.

20+ hours a week in the pool, plus dryland, in addition the course load from school doesn’t leave the typical age group swimmer with much time to do anything else.

5. Coach is too strict.

This bleeds a little bit into the previous point about training being a big time drain, and was another common reason that former swimmers listed for dropping out.

If athletes aren’t willing to make the commitment to the full training schedule swimmers will butt heads with coaches who expect a certain level of commitment to the program.

This point is usually also the opposite of the first point about a coach being interested in what a swimmer has got going on outside of the pool; when a coach is “too strict” it usually means that other activities are forced to be sacrificed in the name of the sport.

There were also some things that didn’t necessarily make the list that was produced in the USA Swimming survey that I have seen as factors for driving kids out of the pool over the years on deck and in the pool:

6. Coaches/parents forget that it is the swimmer’s “thing.”

Yes, swimmers require structure and instruction.

But over-scrutinizing a swimmer’s performance is exhausting.

Ever had a boss that was on your butt all day long, looking over your shoulder and not willing to trust you to your own devices? When parents and coaches remove that over-the-shoulder-quarterbacking and let the swimmer own their experience it becomes their thing.

They gain control and ownership of it.

It’s not: “We swam great,” but rather, “You swam great.”

Don’t rob the young swimmer of the ownership of the experience whether it was good or not so good.

7. Early specialization.

If you show an aptitude for the sport at an early age you’ll be asked to do more. (After all, you “owe” your talent.)

Young athletes across all sports are being asked to specialize earlier and earlier. It’s all part of the arms race to build highly specialized super athletes from the cradle.

The added expectations and single-sport focus from an early age can lead to burnout, while also leading to injury—without a broad foundation of athleticism built up by engaging in other sports and activities they become great swimmers but not great athletes.

A variety in sport not only develops better athleticism for swimmers, but it also gives them a different avenue to stimulate themselves.

8. Finances.

And lastly, swimming—like a lot of sports—is not cheap.

Although the temptation for outsiders to think that all it costs is cash for a swim brief and a set of goggles, when you begin to tally up club fees, travel for meets, and time spent volunteering on weekends and doing fundraising the cost becomes quite substantial.

And the higher the ambitions, the more the costs. International travel and team dues ran Missy Franklin’s parents upwards of $100,000 the year leading into the London Olympics.

While most swimmers won’t (and shouldn’t) be subjected to such costs, even having a couple young age groupers competing at different competitions on the same weekend can run you a few thousand dollars over the span of just a couple days.

Closing Thoughts

It’s inevitable that the sport will lose swimmers over the course of the season.

Other activities will take precedent, other interests will show more promise, and coaching changes/pool closures and all those other random interruptions will cause the membership numbers to slip.

But by having coaches who pay a little more attention to the athlete’s goals and interests outside of the pool, promoting an environment where the athlete can succeed and perform to their best, and creating an atmosphere where they can hang out with their friends we can save at least a few of those swimmers from hanging up their swimsuit.


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Coach
5 years ago

Not clear which is meant to be a pro that keeps kids in the sport and which is a negative that contributes to their leaving. Assuming 1-3 are positives that keep kids involved and 4-8 are negatives?

MCMFLYGUY
5 years ago

i’d be interested to see the finances that missy’s parents are talkin about. Team dues shouldnt be all that expensive, but if they are traveling to every meet she has been in then yeah thats alot for them, worlds, pan pacs, olympics (which i know first hand isnt cheap). 100,000 seems a little much.

SWIMMER
5 years ago

Kids quit swimming because of overworking in middle school. Doing 8 grand a practice before you get to high school is why kids burn out.

Injured swimmer
Reply to  SWIMMER
5 years ago

Agreed. That overwork (whether in the pool or in the weight room) also often leads to young swimmers injuring shoulders, hips, or backs–all caused by the strain put on them from overuse, especially if their technique is incorrect and is overlooked by the coach.

roadtorio
Reply to  Injured swimmer
4 years ago

Yep, I know several swimmers that hurt their Backs during the middle school years…all girls actually.
Yet they kept working just as hard. And all but one are doing worse in HS than they were pre-injury.

Jack Baker
5 years ago

And yet – when coaches are criticized about their program – way too many go on the defensive and blame the kids lack of interest on something else?

I had a great conversation with a college swimmer who swam from the time he was 7 until college. He still loves to swim – but doesn’t miss all those practices and dryland sessions – just like many football players don’t like hitting drills or sprints.

I wonder how many clubs are “parent owned” or “coach owned”. The parents need to step up and take control – but their ego gets in the way as well – as many of the parents who are on the board are the parents with the… Read more »

Coach JB
Reply to  Jack Baker
5 years ago

Cue Coach complaint article from Baker. Give it a rest or do something about it – get involved with your LSC and help. Your whining accomplishes nothing.

Semi-retired Swim Mom
5 years ago

I think the saddest thing in USA swimming is the number of kids who quit cold turkey in their early teens and don’t pick up another sport or even go on to find another passion. Some of them even turn away from HS swimming. My daughter was very lucky. When she began to lose interest in the highly competitive program, her Coach did a great job of talking with her about other ways she could use her talents and the benefits of swimming in a step-down program. Our club is small/midsize, so it has been easy for her to remain friends with the swimmers in her old group, but her Coach’s attitude and the way the step-down program is designed… Read more »

Bayliss
5 years ago

Long distance, short rest= painful shoulders, injuries and 🙁

drew
5 years ago

I hated swimming towards the end.. just was tired of the monotony of it, staring at that black line lap after lap

had nothing to do with the work load.. I started swimming kinda young and was decent at it.. was just burnt out on the sport

I was always pretty good at other sports.. but when I went to bolles, obviously I had to focus solely on swimming

sophomore year, I swam high school season and ran track in the spring.. decided to finally quit that summer and go play football my junior year

PsychoDad
5 years ago

These reasons why kids quit, in my opinion:

1. They “discover” other sports. Football, basketball, baseball (ok, maybe not baseball) are all much more fun for a 12-13 yo buy, for example. Swimming is boring.
2. Too little or too much push by the parents. Many parents lose interest when they figure out little Billy will not go to Olympics. They push too hard when Billy is 9-10 year old and then when Billy is not the fastest anymore, they lose interest and they are disappointed.
3. Coaching – coach plays favorites, does not care about the team/swimmers, does not know how to communicate and motivate.
4. Billy is just not fast or talented enough and he… Read more »

sad mom
Reply to  PsychoDad
5 years ago

we just couldn’t afford it anymore. the expenses – even the school. now my boys have to quit but they love to swim and are good at it

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  PsychoDad
5 years ago

Well, when I was a kid the most I heard 11 to 12 doing was 5,000 yards. However, the girls that can go to senior nationals around 13 or 14 were then pushing 10,000. At age 12, I did what a lot of kids did year round novice swimming which was at the most 2,000 yards a practice. In some states like California about half the age group swimmers switch to water polo which can be more fun since its a team sport.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  PsychoDad
5 years ago

Well, when I was a kid the most I heard 11 to 12 doing was 5,000 yards. However, the girls that can go to senior nationals around 13 or 14 were then pushing 10,000. At age 12, I did what a lot of kids did year round novice swimming which was at the most 2,000 yards a practice. In some states like California about half the age group swimmers switch to water polo which can be more fun since its a team sport.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  PsychoDad
5 years ago

Well, when I was a kid the most I heard 11 to 12 doing was 5,000 yards. However, the girls that can go to senior nationals around 13 or 14 were then pushing 10,000. At age 12, I did what a lot of kids did year round novice swimming which was at the most 2,000 yards a practice. In some states like California about half the age group swimmers switch to water polo which can be more fun since its a team sport.

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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