As swimmers, we live by the clock. We consider times to be everything. If we don’t drop time, or don’t drop the kind of time we think we should, we feel failure. Our teammates and parents try and console us. Our coaches give us feedback, both positive and negative. We rebound, but a little nagging voice in our head is always saying, “you aren’t good enough – you need that cut – you have to break that time”. How do we beat this? Should times be everything?

This is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve been struggling to put it into useful words. My daughter is getting older now, and she’s transformed into an age group swimmer that’s just there for the fun to an age group swimmer that has fun but also gets out of the pool and asks “did I make the cut? Did I drop time?”

As a parent, how do we answer this question? How do I tell her she added 8 seconds in a 200 free without breaking her spirit? How do I humbly congratulate her when she does perform?

Here is what’s troubling me: the pressure I see building all around me in the swimming world. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know I was a competitive swimmer for 16 years of my life. I started at age 6, and swam through college at age 22. Yes, I compete as a Masters swimmer now in my 30’s, but it’s different – there’s no pressure.

The kind of pressure I’ve noticed lately from swimmers and their parents is subtle. It’s not a cruel “get this time or else…” kind of pressure. It’s pressure you may not even realize you’re putting on your swimmer.

It’s “we’re not swimming this meet because my swimmer just aged up (or is about to) and we aren’t close to the (…) cut” or “I’ll give you $20 for every time you drop this weekend” or even worse, no words at all – just tears from mom or dad (& swimmer) after a bad meet.

If these situations seem reasonable to you, I ask you to take a closer look at the message you send to your swimmer when you cry over times together, when you skip important meets, when you place bets on your swimmer’s performance. These are all negative motivators. Here’s why…

Swimming is a process. The older your swimmer gets, and the better your swimmer gets, the smaller the increments of time they’ll drop. Yes, 8 & unders consistently drop 30 seconds in a 25, and it’s exciting and amazing. But it’s also unrealistic to expect this as your swimmer gets older. The demands of practice become higher and more tiring. The demands of school become more challenging. Your swimmer is expected to perform on and off the pool deck at a very young age. If your swimming is crying – you shouldn’t be crying. You should be helping them put that one race or one meet into perspective. Your job is big picture. Ask yourself, “What message do I want to send to my swimmer, and what message are my actions actually sending”?

Why swim a meet if you know your swimmer won’t be anywhere close to a “cut” time or goal time? What’s the point? The point is just like every other thing in life. Practice makes perfect. No matter how hard a swim practice is, or how much a coach tries to simulate racing or sprinting, it will never be like a meet. There are environmental factors you cannot replicate at practice – officials on deck, team cheers, team dynamic, the adrenaline of competing in a finals, having an official scoreboard instead of a coach calling out times on the pool deck. All of this matters. There’s no other way to learn that muscle memory of racing than to race and race often.

The reality is that the longer you swim, the harder it becomes to drop time. To expect to have “good” meets every time is just plain unreasonable. Your swimmer will not drop time every meet. That’s OKAY. If you’re concerned, talk to the coach about the training plan. Most senior level swimmers only train and taper for maybe two meets per season. That means that all of the other meets, they train right through. They keep doing double practices. They keep lifting. They don’t rest, but it teaches them that they can still race when their tired. It teaches them how resilient and capable they are, and how much potential they have for the “big meet”.

So how much emotion should you show if your swimmer doesn’t perform? However you decide to console your swimmer, make it positive. Know this: YOU ARE NOT THE COACH. I am a coach, and I still do not give coaching feedback to my two kids (I’m not perfect at this, sometimes I have to reel myself in). I leave that to their primary coach for their group. I may give a tip or a positive comment, but I try hard to just say, “go talk to coach”. Why? because I learned the hard way it’s a bad idea to try and be mom and coach. I hug them and tell them what they need to hear to pick them back up and get them back on the horse. Does my 7 year old have a clue what her performance means? Nope. But my 10 year old does. She can read my face if she gets out and I look disappointed for her. It’s a mistake I’ve made more than once and work hard not to repeat.

I’ve thought a lot about this and how to talk about it with parents and swimmers, because I believe it’s a very important topic. I see so many 12 and under kids under so much pressure to perform so they can move up to a certain group or swim in a certain lane with a certain interval, and my personal opinion as a former swimmer, mom, and coach is that at that age, the number one goal is that your kid thinks swimming is FUN. As they get older, yes, times matter. They matter for college, for self-esteem, for personal growth – sure. But swimming isn’t all times. Even senior swimmers need to have fun at practice, otherwise it becomes a love/hate relationship with the sport. It becomes something they do because they know they’re good at and once enjoyed, not because it’s something they still love. I see so many teenage swimmers burn out over frustration with their times because they think that’s all that matters.

Here’s a truth about myself I discovered over the holidays. My dad asked me to clean out some of my childhood boxes he was storing in my old room and in our basement. I found several containers of old swim ribbons and medals and had fun looking through them. What I didn’t realize is just how fast of a young swimmer I was. I was honestly surprised, because I know my best times ever, but I can’t specifically remember what ages I broke certain milestones or times. I was a sprint freestyler, and I found two pretty telling medals: Age 13 (so 13-14 age group) – 50 free – 25.12 (scy). Age 13, same meet – 100 free – 54.00. Both of these events I won 1st place at our very big Christmas meet we did at the University of Pitt each December – as a 13 year old on the bottom end of my age group. To compare today, I would have tied for 2nd place in the 13-14 age group at the recent meet my daughter competed in this December, 20 years later.

Now consider this – I swam another 9 years after that meet at age 13, until age 22. You would think at that rate I would have made Olympic trials or maybe competed at NCAA’s – not even close. From age 13 to age 22, I dropped less than 2 seconds and less than 1 second in the 100 and 50 free, respectively. That’s it! I essentially came to a point in my swimming career that instead of seconds at a time, I dropped 10th’s or 100th’s of a second at a time. I inched my way down. I never broke :52 in the 100 free and never broke :24 in the 50, individually (relays, maybe). I still swam in college in a division 1 school. I still made the “A” relays. I still had a successful swimming career, but for nearly a decade I barely dropped time. What I’m saying is that this is more normal than your child becoming an Olympian someday. It’s a hard truth, but it’s a common truth.

At our meet in December, we had a 12 year old swimmer that wanted desperately to break :27 in her 50 free. I gave her some advice, pumped her up, and she went to race. Instead of breaking 27, she dropped 1-100th of a second. Just one. That’s like forgetting to cut your fingernails. She was disappointed, but here’s what I told her. “You have proved to yourself that a low 27 isn’t a fluke, You’re consistent, you can race this. AND – you still dropped time. Yes, it was small, but it was important. This is how you know you are maturing as a swimmer, when you drop tiny increments at a time while you hone your technical skills. Keep your head up, it was a good swim. Every hundredth counts now”. Then I sent her to her primary coach for more specific feedback on her race.

As a parent, I believe (and you can, as always, disagree with me) your role is support. Support your swimmer, support your coach. It’s okay to have concern and skepticism if your swimmer goes long periods of time with little to no improvement, and it’s also okay to schedule time with the coach to talk about this. There may be an underlining reason for this like puberty, social pressures at school, team dynamic at practice, etc. But for the most part, take a hard look at your expectations and the limits of your swimmers age, ability, work ethic, motivators, and natural talent before you start crying over a bad race.

I found one more thing while cleaning out my parents basement, and I can honestly say I have NO idea what meet or time period in my life this came from, but I will say this – I am not a saver, I’m a pitcher. I’m not sentimental, I rarely keep things like cards, notes, or even my kid’s artwork unless it was particularly great or cute. But for some reason, I saved this card from my mom and dad after (I’m assuming) a particularly disappointing big meet. I must have felt it was an important message. In my 16 years, I saw a lot of examples of “bad” swim parents. Whatever differences I ever had with my parents as a kid, teenager, or even now as an adult, the one thing I was always thankful for was that they were “good” swim parents. By this I mean, they kept perspective, and always said and did the right thing for me when it came to my swimming career. This is how I got through disappointment and struggle – with support. Sorry (not sorry) mom, prepare to cry…

My final message: trust the process. Trust that there is a reason for success, for failures, for aging up, & for missed cut times. Don’t lose perspective, and encourage your swimmer to do the same. Swimming isn’t just about the clock, it’s about practice, persistence, growth, dedication, athleticism, and most importantly – fun.