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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James Marshall
5 years ago

This applies to many other sports too. James Counsilman in “The science of swimming” syas there is no need for under-10s to be part of a formal club structure. Yet too many clubs try and “professionalise” the young person’s swimming. They take the fun out of the swimming too early in a race to win age group medals.
The point about doing many other sports is relevant: but play here is important too, rather than “compete” in many different sports.

malcolm
5 years ago

Research has shown the drop out rate is due to term that is often misunderstood namely Burnout, so what is burn out? it can be seen in three ways 1. leaving the sport due to reduced achievement. 2. the athlete becomes disillusioned and will often resent the sport. 3rd ” physical or mental exhaustion. or to put into a basic form 1. not moving forward as others behind overtake. 2. Boredom with the training, competition and often the coach. 3. Due to many other actions taking place in the athletes life around this period they are either stressed out or just plain tired. Unfortunately coaches, and I am one, often ignore the feelings of the athlete and do not consider… Read more »

Scott
5 years ago

As a lifetime competitive swimmer, I swam for 13 years 1970 -1983 and yes it was hardcore. By standards today it would almost be considered abuse. I trained 8 times a week with school. 10 times a week in summer time, we also ran and lifted weights. I admit that it consumed me and took me away from doing any other sports or music etc. I will also say on the flip side, it gave me all the discipline I have in my life today. I have life time frienships from all the years of swimming. Swimming is not for everyone it is the real deal. I also think one of the problems are the parents trying to be the… Read more »

Amic
5 years ago

My 16 year old brother stopped swimming because his coach told him that he wasn’t tall enough to get recruited by a D1 school…

Step down proponent
5 years ago

My daughter stopped swimming on a USA team this year. I think she would love a step down program if any of the USA teams in our area offered them, but it haven’t seen such. As a 13/14 age group swimmer, the commitment became too much for her and she was at the point where she had to choose between swimming and everything else (other sports, school orchestra, math team, Girl Scouts, school activities, summer sleep away camp, etc.). Her club team was great in that they encouraged the kids to explore other activities. She was fine only doing 1-3 practices a week depending on what was happening that week compared to her peers 5-6 practices and she remained relatively… Read more »

gobears
5 years ago

IMO, part of the problem is that USAS largely rewards clubs on the basis of its fastest performers (who are mostly going to be your kids who want to pour their hearts and souls into swimming). That leads coaches (and other swimmers) to devalue swimmers who may be less interested in investing everything into the sport. Not everyone wants to be Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky.

If we want swimming to be more popular, we need to make room for various types of swimmers. For some kids, summer league or high school swimming is their favorite part of swimming. I’ve seen many USAS coaches devalue these programs as if it’s USAS or nothing. That is a mistake. USAS can be… Read more »

Mom
5 years ago

I have the opposite problem. My daughter has coaches who don’t take her seriously because she is “young.” It means so much to her, yet the coaches take it too lightly for her liking. She is in her fourth competitive year, and is begging to be pushed, challenged, and taken seriously, yet is constantly dismissed. She comes to me as a parent to help make sense of why her efforts and achievements are constantly being dismissed and overlooked. What am I to say? And why aren’t her coaches listening to her pleas for more?

Jojo
6 years ago

There isn’t any one perfect way. But, we know that a kid who enjoys their time in the water will usually come back. It is the coach’s responsibility to develop a culture that weaves fun into hard work so that the athlete learns through experience that pushing yourself is intrinsically enjoyable.
I live in an area that doesn’t invest a lot into swimming, however, there are a number of teams to choose from and we share 2 facilities so there’s a lot of “talk”. When I hear parents complain about any of the scenarios mentioned in the comments, I am shocked that they keep their children in that environment. Harassment, profanity, ridicule, disgust- I’ve heard and seen it all.… 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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