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Swimming groups have often been a source of drama and emotions for swimmers, parents, and coaches. When I was an age group swimmer, our team was too small to really have set groups, so we were more divided by “little kids and big kids”, then the big kids were separated by intervals. Today, teams are bigger and maybe dare I say, a little more sophisticated, so often your swimmer will be grouped by some sort of color or fish/animal related to the team mascot. When we lived in Florida, my daughter was placed in with a certain type of shark. In Memphis, younger swimmers are sorted by fish and older swimmers by team colors. The older you get, the bigger deal a group “move up” gets.
In my experience, most coaches are reluctant to move swimmers up mid-season, so often group move ups will happen at the end of short course/beginning of long course season in spring, or the start of a new short course season in the fall. Sometimes coaches will evaluate mid year around December since the short course season is longer, but those are usually case by case and not a sweeping team-wide adjustment.
With pools now starting to slowly reopen, coaches are going to face a difficult challenge – do they keep the same pre-covid groups, or continue on with move ups as planned before the shut down? With all swimmers starting from scratch, maybe this is a situation where swimmers continue with their previous groups for 4-6 weeks and then regroup. These certainly aren’t normal circumstances.
But what about under normal circumstances? How can you tell if your swimmer is in the appropriate group? Is it just a swimmer’s age? Their times? A lot of thought and considerations go into grouping swimmers, so before you march down on the pool deck and give the coach a piece of your mind, consider these factors.
Age. Yes, age matters – but so many parents of younger swimmers get wrapped around the age of the swimmer equating with a certain group they “should” be in. At our team, we have 10 year olds that span 4-5 different groups of swimmers from our most novice to our “pre-senior” level. The ability level of swimmers is so varied that you can’t simply say, well my kid is 10 so they should be moved up. Beware, you may be pushing something your swimmer isn’t ready for. On the flip side, you may have a swimmer that is ready in every way to move up but age. A lot of teams will put a restriction on some groups for athlete safety – something like “swimmer must be 11 years old for this group”. Why? You don’t want to push a young swimmer developmentally to engage in exercise that their pre-adolescent or teen body isn’t ready for. Be patient in these situations, and know that the coach has these rules in place to protect his or her athletes from physical injury or emotional stress.
Times. Times are looked at for athlete progression, but maybe not in the way you may think. When choosing a group for a swimmer, coaches are looking at time improvement and consistency throughout the entire swim season, not just one single amazing time posted at a meet. When I look at a swimmer’s potential for a move-up, I’m more concerned with their times/endurance in practice than in meets. Has the swimmer shown success in making certain intervals throughout the season as the sets get longer and harder? Have they started leading the lane? When I see the sets of the next group up, do I think that swimmer will make those sets or get consistently lapped by stronger swimmers? Yes, dropping a significant amount of time in most events is an indication that the swimmer’s training is working and they may be ready for a move up, but it’s not the only factor to watch.
Attitude. Does your swimmer show up on time to practice? If they’re late, do they hustle or do they need to be told to get in the water? Do they come to practice prepared with all of their gear? Are they respectful to the coach and other swimmers in the lane? Do they have to be told to stop horsing around? When given a set, do they put forth effort or do they lag behind? (As a coach, you get to know your swimmers and their abilities pretty well, and it’s easy to tell if they’re behind because the set is new and challenging or if they just don’t feel like being there). Do they have the capability to lead the lane, but choose not to? Do they talk back to the coach about the sets given or frequently get into arguments with the coach or other swimmers? These are all factors under consideration, from a maturity standpoint, if the athlete is ready to move up.
Cognitive Skills & Self-Discipline. These will look different for different age groups, but let’s take the example of the 10 and unders I typically work with. Part of being a swimmer is learning the different parts to meets and practice – skills the coach (should) be teaching. For example, do they know the basics of using a pace clock? Can they figure out simple intervals or do they need to be told when to go? Do they understand circle swimming? Do they leave the wall on time? Do they wait at least 5 seconds behind the swimmer in front of them before they leave the wall? When they come into the wall, do they move to the right side of the lane to allow others to finish? Can they pass without completely running over one of their teammates? When they are given a set, can they digest it and execute it or do they need the coach to repeat it several times? At meets, do they know the starting sequence without being prompted by a timer, official, or coach? Do they know how to follow the event sequence and show up for their event on time? Do they show up to warm ups on time? If your swimmer struggles with these things, it may be more beneficial to keep them in an environment where the focus is more on instruction than endurance until they can master those basic swimming skills.
Physical vs. Emotional Capabilities. Let me use my own daughter as an example here. She is a hard worker, she likes practice. She comes on time (as long as the mom taxi hasn’t failed her), can digest a set the coach gives her, and executes that set. She doesn’t slack off when she doesn’t feel like being there. She knows to tell me if she’s too tired and needs a day off. She can lead her lane on certain sets. Endurance wise, she could move up to the next group and make the intervals. I know from watching her the practice would be hard, but she could do it. So should she have moved up at the end of the short course season? In my opinion, no, not yet. It would have been best to continue with her current group through the summer. Why? Emotionally, she still wants practice to be more fun than business. She loves it because she gets to interact with her friends and coach. Sometimes, she breaks down emotionally before a hard set (though she never makes a scene, you can see her in her face she may be fighting tears). Developmentally, she’s skinny and lanky – her body and muscles may not be ready for more intense sets and dryland just yet. In short, her motivation right now is that swimming is fun, and moving up too early before she’s mentally ready to commit to something more may ruin it for her. Talk with your swimmer and coach about what motivates them and what they’re ready for before pushing them forward.
There are SO many factors to consider here when making the decision to move a swimmer up, I definitely have not covered them all. Self-image and self esteem, interval progression, goal setting, understanding of stroke mechanics (can your swimmer complete all 4 strokes legally?) and swim math, time management skills… the list goes on and on. If as a parent you are unsure about whether or not to talk to the coach about your swimmer’s progression, start by talking to your swimmer and finding out what motivates them and how they would feel if moved up. Think about it this way – maybe your swimmer, like mine, could physically complete a harder practice – but is it more beneficial for their self esteem to move them up and have them anchor a lane, sometimes getting lapped by more advanced swimmers – or leave them where they are and let them enjoy the feeling of confidence and accomplishment it may bring them to be a lane leader and be the “top dog” in their group for awhile? You never want to put your swimmer in a situation where they are constantly on the bottom. When and if you decide to approach the coach about a decision made about your swimmer – approach it as an open conversation, not an attack on their judgement. Ask the coach what they may be seeing in your swimmer during practice that you may miss from the stands. Share what you see at home that the coach may be missing on the pool deck. Open communication is always best.
If you really want to read up on the factors that contribute to different swim levels and groups, Progressions for Athlete and Coach Development is an older but great book put out by USA Swimming that goes into great detail about different training levels and what to look for in swimmer progression (buy it used!). Yes, this is an affiliate link, but I promise to never recommend something that I haven’t used myself and feel provides real value. It was very helpful to me as a new coach and swim parent.