Skip to main content

How to Survive Your Child’s First Year of Competitive Swimming

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Swimmers prepare to dive off the blocks.

Swimmers prepare to dive off the blocks.

Surviving Your Kid's First Year as a Competitive Swimmer

Tonight I found myself in a meeting for first-year swim parents. This is actually my daughter’s second year, but the team she was on last year did not have parent meetings, so I wanted to see what I could learn. I was impressed.

If our team last year had provided this type of forum, I would have enjoyed my daughter’s new sport much more. Last year's swim team was whole new type of hell I found myself in. I was completely lost. As I looked around the room this evening, I saw the shell-shocked faces of parents around me who were also lost. Before my brain could stop my mouth, I heard myself volunteering to write this article for them. How do we navigate the mazes of competitive swimming and avoid embarrassing the daylights out of our children?

Here's my survival manual for parents of new swimmers. In this guide, I’ll cover the following topics:

  • What does all the swim slang really mean?
  • What is proper etiquette at practices and meets?
  • What can I do to help things run smoothly?
  • How much money should I expect this sport to cost me this first year?
Young swimmers chat between races. Note: swim caps, goggles, and clothes to stay warm between their time racing.

Young swimmers chat between races. Note: swim caps, goggles, and clothes to stay warm between their time racing.

Swim Terminology

You have entered the realms of a new language. You will hear terms bantered around by veteran parents who assume you have some basic idea of what they're talking about. You will probably smile and nod, then walk away wondering what on earth the person just said. I was fortunate; I made friends with a veteran who translated for me. Here are some of the terms that puzzled me. Before you know it, you will be speaking swim slang yourself!


A meet is not something that you eat or when you say hello to a new friend. A meet is an adventure in confusion and anarchy. A meet is a competitive event where swimmers race. It's the swimming equivalent of a match or game. Swimmers are paired for races based on age groups established by the USA Swimming Association. The National Age Group divisions are: 10–under, 11–12, 13–14, 15–16,17–18. The events are broken down by age, gender, and stroke.

At your first meet, you will want to run screaming into the night. Some can literally last from early morning until after sunset. Don’t despair—it gets easier. I promise!


Practice is the pool where you take your child to prepare for a meet. During practice, you do not exist. You are a chauffeur. Once your child is at practice, it's a violation of protocol to communicate with the child you house, feed, and clothe. But don’t take this personally. If your child was on the football field, you would not want a parent running around on the field with water bottles, towels, and snacks. It would prevent the team from practicing together.

Swimming is a team sport. Don't run to the side of the pool to talk, encourage, scold, or provide for your child. They are just fine; the coach has it all under control. Once you’ve dropped your child off at practice, you can sit down and read, chat with the other parents, or leave. Your kid will be just fine.

In addition to your chauffeur status, your other role is ensuring your child has everything they need at practice.

What to Bring to Practice:

  • A water bottle containing WATER. Don't give them juice, soda, or drink mixes. The only exception might be a sports drink if you feel it is necessary. Gatorade might be the most famous, but other drinks with electrolytes are great as well, especially during longer workouts.
  • Swim goggles
  • Swim cap
  • Towel
  • Cover-up or parka
  • An extra swimsuit, in case clothing malfunctions happen
  • Technical equipment like a snorkel, kickboard, or fins
  • A swim bag to hold everything. It's a good idea to have an extra swim cap, goggles, snack bar and towel in case something breaks or they're too hungry after practice to wait until getting home to eat.


This is the person who will drive your child to victory. They are usually busy and need to focus on the swimmers, not the parents. It is a violation of protocol to interrupt the coach during practice. Email or talk to them before or after practice, but don't distract them from the swimmers during it. If you want everyone, including the other parents sitting politely on the designated bleachers, to look at you as if horns are sprouting from the top of your head, then approach the coach while they are on the deck.

Fins on the pool deck.

Fins on the pool deck.


The area surrounding the pool. This is the area that is about three feet around the pool, sometimes more, sometimes less. Parents are not allowed on the deck during practice or meets. In fact, one of the biggest faux pas committed by families at meets is assuming that it is OK to allow younger siblings to “play on the steps” of the pool during a meet. It is not. It is dangerous for the small ones and distracting to the swimmers. You and your child will most likely be publicly humiliated on a loudspeaker if you allow your other kids into the pool. The only persons allowed in the pool or on the deck are the swimmers at the time of their races. They start their races on the block.

Swimmers launch from diving blocks into their respective lanes.

Swimmers launch from diving blocks into their respective lanes.


This is the platform where the swimmer starts the race. It may be raised, or flat. Blocks can also be permanent or removable. Some pools have blocks only on one end, and others have them on both. In some swim leagues, it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their child is at the designated starting block at the time of their heat. The swimmer will bend over and grip the front edge of the block and launch themselves into a dive. Starting from a block is a great way to knock time off your race, though it can be scary for younger swimmers! Don't be surprised if a swimmer falls off before the timer goes off at some point during the meet, especially if it's cold!


In most races, there are more competitors than there are lanes to swim in. That is when you have the race broken out into heats. Heats are an extension of the one race. Ultimately, the swimmer with the fastest time across all heats is the winner. Some meets will have heat winners as well. A heat winner will not usually receive a ribbon. Most often when a league gives heat winner awards it is a nominal item like Mardi Gras beads.

IM (Individual Medley)

There are four competitive strokes your child will have the opportunity to compete in. They are backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle (crawl). There are individual races and various distances they can compete in, and then there is the IM. This is an event where all four strokes are swum in succession.

An example is the 200 IM. For this event, your child will start on the block and swim 50 meters of butterfly. Upon completing the first lap, they will transition to backstroke, then breaststroke and finish with freestyle. Think "fly, back, breast, free" and you'll always know where they are in the event!

A complete guide to swim league terminology is available from SwimGym.

Proper Etiquette at Practices and Meets

This one really got me last year. There are certain unwritten rules in practices and meets that you are, more often than not, going to figure out by mistake. If you follow by example, you could very likely be grouping yourself and your child with the people who have no manners. At every meet you will see someone who is just plain rude. I find this to be truer during summer leagues when more neophytes are present. In the past year, I have been amazed more times than I can count by the behavior I have seen adults display at their child’s sporting events. Everyone is there to see their swimmer swim. Be respectful and try not to block another parent’s view. Let the shorter viewers get closer; if you are tall, you can see over them.

Basic etiquette applies first and foremost. If you would not do it in front of your Grandma, don’t do it in public. Remember there are children present and watch your language! In the sport of swimming, it is the judge and referee who determine if a disqualification is valid. There is no recourse if you disagree. Even if you see a swimmer commit a rules infraction, it doesn’t matter unless the judge sees it. It is poor sportsmanship to make a scene about it.

Do not berate your child for getting a “DQ” (a disqualification i.e. an infraction of the swim association rules). Everyone learns more from their mistakes than they do from their achievements. Every swimmer will at one time or another get DQ’d. It is not an embarrassment. It is a blessing. That is one mistake they'll likely never make again. It is beneficial to know the rules you and your child will be performing under. These rules are located on the USA Swimming Association website and are updated annually. There is a complete version and a 'mini' version, which may be easier to navigate.

Knowing these rules will help you and your child as they advance in this sport. You are not only setting an example for your children, you are responsible for them and their behavior.

Making Sure Everything Runs Smoothly

Meet times are given well in advance. Plan to get to the meet at least one hour early. Don’t panic when you walk into the facility as it can be daunting the first few times. Follow these little steps and stay calm. You will do just fine.

Pack the Meet Essentials

Make sure the backups you prepared for practice are still in your child's swim bag. There are a few more essentials for a meet.

  • Bring at minimum two Sharpie permanent markers (you will need to write your child’s race number, heat number, lane number, and name on them somewhere visible).
  • Pack a cooler with healthy snacks and water. Sometimes venues have snack bars. These do not provide the type of high quality nutrition that a swimmer needs to perform at their best.
  • Bring lots of water to make sure you keep your swimmer hydrated.
  • Have chairs and towels or blankets for your swimmer to relax on in between events (races). If your child has to get in and out of the water several times in just a few hours they might want to keep using the same wet towel.
  • Make sure you have cash to purchase things like t-shirts, snacks, or heat sheets. I usually have at least $20 in cash on hand at a meet.
  • Bring books, Gameboys, whatever will keep your child occupied in between events.

Purchase a Heat Sheet

This is essentially like a performance—program, it tells you when each race swims. These vary in price. They're usually under $10.00, but can be as much as $20.00 and can be shared.

Locate Your Team

  • Set up your cooler/blanket and chairs with the rest of your team.
  • Have your child check in with the coach.
  • Print your child’s race, lane, and heat numbers as well as their name, on their arm or leg where they can see it.
  • Keep track of what race is swimming. This is easier if you are with the more experienced parents on your team.

Get Ready Early

Make sure that your child is lined up for their race about two events in advance.

When Your Child's Races Are Done

Once your child has completed swimming for that day, you are clear to go unless the coaches want them to stay until the whole team has finished competing. However, if you wait until the end, times are posted and you can see your child’s placement in the races. If you do choose to leave early, your child’s race times should be listed on your team’s website!

Swim cap and goggles. Chances are your child will need at least two of each through the season!

Swim cap and goggles. Chances are your child will need at least two of each through the season!

So, How Much Does Competitive Swimming Cost?

So now you know how it all works (and the overachievers may even have made flashcards of the terms). You are ready to take on the chaos of a meet, but first, you have to pay for it all. Yes, swimming, like every other sport, is far from free. The cost starts to rack up with the swim team itself as all swim teams charge a fee. This is a quick tally of what I expect to pay this year:

  • Team fee for the winter league: $350.00
  • Competition swimsuit: $80.00
  • Practice swimsuits: $100.00
  • Goggles (2): $50.00
  • Competition Swim Cap: $25.00
  • Practice Swim Caps (2–4): $50.00
  • Towels (2–3): $50.00

Subtotal: $705.00

Now let’s talk about the meets. There are fees for each meet. Fees vary and are usually set by how many events your child is in. My daughter is just starting out so she doesn’t usually swim in more than three per meet. Generally, this fee is around $5.00 per event. That means that I can expect each meet to cost me about $15.00 in fees. I have to add in a heat sheet which averages about $10.00. That means that each meet will cost me about $25.00.

My daughter’s league plans one to two meets a month. The winter league lasts about five months. That makes for a minimum additional cost of $125.00 for me. This makes the grand total minimum cost $830.00 for this swim season. If you don't have to replace suits or other equipment, or choose to not attend some of the meets yourself, the overall cost will be lower.

The Benefits of Swimming Are Priceless

$830.00 is not cheap. I could let my child sit at home in front of the TV for free. No wait, then she runs the risk of getting obese or sick and I could accumulate costs for medicine and doctor co-pays. It might be cheaper, but is it better? No! I could make her get outside and run. The potential downside to that is messed up joints, knee surgery, ankle braces, and more meds.

Of all of the sports your child can get involved in, it is very unlikely competitive swimming will cause physical harm, even over a lifetime. Swimming burns more calories than many other sports and helps prevent juvenile obesity. The physical exertion of swimming helps to relieve stress which prevents having to pay potential expensive counseling bills. Additionally, team sports have been proven to build confidence and improve a child’s chances of adjusting well to adulthood.

So get out there and learn the lingo. Study the rules. Use common sense when it comes to etiquette. You take the steps to learn how to maneuver the maze of the meets. You have cracked open your wallet. Just remember that to your child and their future, competitive swimming is priceless.

Enjoy the swim meet!

Enjoy the swim meet!

Do You Have Any Questions That I May Answer for You?

Mom of a new swimmer on November 04, 2019:

Thank you for taking the time to clarify this for all of the newbies. I found it very helpful, UNTIL...I read the last bit about sitting around watching TV, and how that can lead to juvenile diabetes. You may want to edit that.

Juvenile diabetes, otherwise known as Type 1 Diabetes, is not caused by inactivity or excessive food intake. It is an autoimmune disease that has no cure, no prevention, and no known cause. Yes, exercise can help keep blood sugars down, however it is insulin therapy through multiple daily injections that will keep a person living with Type 1 alive.

Although some may get offended and fly off the handle at you in making this mistake, I will instead enlighten you in the belief that I shared knowledge.


A tired parent of a 10 year old Type 1 Warrior.

Catherine on August 16, 2019:

Ugh just added all the fees for year long swimming for my eight year old daughter, and it will be $2,000+. This is crazy. :-/ I agree with you that it is the best sport but still. In France it was way more affordable

Kevin Bishop on September 09, 2018:

I grew up swimming competitively. Now I’m geared up for my 7 year old (just starting freestyle). I was dumbfounded by the costs! I had never thought to ask my parents what they were paying for me to goof off with my friends in between events! Thank you for your excellent response to my question, "Are these fees for real?"

Ryan Henderson on January 16, 2017:

Loved your insight thank you.

Graham on December 07, 2016:

This is a fantastic article with the cold hard truths about becoming a swim parent (I didn't notice any references to morning practices when it is only you, your swimmer(s) and cabs on the road) and all that goes on outside of the pool itself that you have now signed up for without having a clue how much your child being a swimmer has actually committed you and your whole family to. Perfect mix of reality and humor. Thank you. Graham - Calgary, Alberta, Canada. University of Calgary "Dinos" Swim Club.