Over recent weeks I have been coaching some young children with varying levels of ability, fitness, skill accomplishment and experience and it’s prompted me to write on this topic.
In addition to this I have attended a number of competitions which were pitched at different levels.
The main reason underlying most children’s commitment to training is to compete. It is important for children to enjoy their competitive experiences and come away feeling positive about themselves; for this outcome to occur it is imperative that children are introduced to competitions which are ideally suited to their level of development. Exposure to competitions beyond their capability is highly likely to end up with a negative experience, due to the fact that the child will be drawn way out of their comfort zone, with the risk of suffering feelings of anxiousness and inadequacy.
Prior to initial exposure to competition the young swimmer needs to be prepared and equipped with the skills that they will need when in a race. The elementary and junior squad levels are where children develop sound technique, become competent with racing skills like starts, turns and finishes, become familiar with the basic competition rules and routines at a competition.
During the early stages of learning and accomplishing a reasonable level of competency across the board it is good practice for the coach to create race scenarios from time to time during their practice or training sessions.
No competitions until they can start reasonably well and keep their goggles on.
The skill of starting from a dive or backstroke start must be taught from early on as every race is going to begin with this skill. In the process of teaching the children to dive (start), the associated skill of keeping their goggles on must also be taught.
No entering and competing in races which require turning until they can turn competently and legally.
Children must be able to do the turns which relate to each of the strokes that they are going to do when they race.
No entering and competing in races until they can finish correctly and legally.
Similarly, with starting, there are particular skills required for finishing a race, especially from a legal aspect. Some examples are finishing to touch the wall whilst remaining on the back for backstroke, touching the wall with both hands at the same time when swimming breaststroke and butterfly.
No entering and competing in races until reasonably competent at the technique of the stroke and are prepared adequately to comfortably swim the distance of the race.
Being accomplished at the technique of the stroke and having the fitness to swim the race distance are key factors before committing to a race. Often swimmers who have difficulty swimming breaststroke or butterfly compete in such races when their capabilities from a technique perspective are not up to standard.
It is the responsibility of coaches to prepare their swimmers for competition (regardless of the level) with the knowledge that they can perform to a suitable standard technically and legally. The coach has an obligation to advise parents, children and families as to which competitions are the most suitable for each, individual considering their age and stage of development. Parents and swimmers should follow the plan set by the coach.
It is equally important that the coach is present at the competitions to provide support and guidance for their swimmers, as this will assist them to learn from and enjoy the experience.