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How to Survive Your Child’s First Year as a Competitive Swimmer

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How to Survive Your Child’s First Year as a Competitive Swimmer

Tonight I found myself in a parent meeting for first year swim parents. This is actually my daughter’s second year, but the swim 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 swim team was some new brand of hell that 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 hub for them. So here it is; a survival manual for parents of new competitive swimmers. What does all the swim slang really mean? What is proper etiquette at practices and meets? How do I avoid embarrassing the day lights out of my child while I sort through this maze? How much money should I expect this sport to cost me this first year?




You have entered a realm of new language. You will hear terms bantered about by veteran parents who assume that you have some basic idea of what they are talking about. You will probably smile and nod, then walk away wondering what on earth that 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:

Meet: 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 swimming event. This is where competitive swimmers race each other. 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. At your first meet, you will want to run screaming in to the night. Don’t despair, it gets easier. I promise.

Practice: A practice is the location where you take your child to prepare for a meet. At practice, you do not exist. You are a chauffeur. Once at practice it is a violation of protocol to communicate with the child you labored with, feed, and clothe. 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 as a team. Swimming is a team sport. Do not run out beside the pool to talk, encourage, scold, or provide for your child. They are just fine, the coach has it all under control. Bring your child, sit down, read or leave. They will be just fine.

Items to bring to practice:

The exception to your chauffeur status at practice is ensuring that your child has everything that they need at practice:

  • · A water bottle containing WATER not juice, soda, or drink mixes. Only exception might be a sport drink if you feel it is necessary.
  • · Swim goggles plus an extra pair in their swim bag.
  • · A swim bag to hold their stuff
  • · A towel
  • · An extra swim suit, clothing malfunctions happen just ask Janet Jackson.
  • · Swim cap and an extra one.

Coach: This is the person who will drive your child to victory. He or she is usually busy. He needs to focus on the swimmers not the parents. It is a violation of protocol to interrupt the coach during a practice. Email your coach, talk to him before or after practice, but do not distract him from the swimmers during practice. 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: Approach the coach while he is on the deck.






Deck: The area surrounding the pool. This is the area that is around 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 brothers and sisters 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 child 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.

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Block: 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.

Heat: 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. A heat is 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 Marti Gras beads.

A complete guide to swim league terminology can be found at

It is one of the most complete lists that I have found.

Proper Etiquette at Practices and Meets

This one really got me last year. There are certain unwritten rules to 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 that there are children present and watch your language! In the sport of Swimming, it is the Judge and referee who determine if a disqualification has been made. 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 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 that they will never make again. It is beneficial to know the rules that you and your child will be performing under. These rules are located at the USA Swimming Association website at this link:

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


What do You Have to do to Make it all Run Smoothly?

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

1. Arrive one hour early

  • Bring a backup of everything that your child usually has in his/her swim bag.
  • Goggles
  • Towel
  • Swim cap
  • Swim suit
  • Cover up
  • 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 to them)
  • 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.
  • Lots of water. Keep your swimmer hydrated.
  • Have chairs and towels or blankets for your swimmer to relax on in between events. (Races that your swimmer participates in)
  • Cash to purchase t-shirts, snacks, heat sheets, etc. I usually have at least $20 in cash on hand at a meet.
  • Bring books, Gameboys, whatever that will keep your child occupied in between events.

2. Purchase a Heat Sheet (it is like a performance program, it tells you when each race is swum)

  • Heat Sheets vary in price and can be shared
  • They are usually under $10.00 but can be as much as $20.00

3. 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 number, lane number, heat number and 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.

4. Make sure that your child is lined up for their race about two races in advance of their scheduled event.

5. Once your child has completed swimming for that day you are clear to go. However, if you wait until the end, times are posted and you can see your child’s placement in the races.

6. Your child’s race times will also be listed on your team’s website.


So How Much Does All This Cost?

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

My daughter’s team fee for winter league is $350.00.

Competition swim suit $ 80.00

Practice swim suits $100.00

Goggles (2) $ 50.00

Competition Swim Cap $ 25.00

Practice Swim Caps (2-4) $ 50.00

Towels (2-3) $ 50.00

Sub-Total: $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 (races) that your child will swim in. My daughter is just starting out so she doesn’t usually swim in more than three events 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 meet fees. Then I have to add in a heat sheet at about an average $10.00. That means that each meet will cost me about $25.00.

My daughter’s league plans one to two meets a month. Winter league lasts about five months. That means that for me a minimum additional cost of $125.00. that makes my grand total of minimum costs to be $830.00 for this swim season.

The Good News

$830.00 is not cheap. I could let my child sit at home in front of the TV for free. No wait, then she would get obese and sick and I would have the additional expense of medicines and doctor co-pays. It might be cheaper, but is it better? NO. I could make her get outside and run. The downside to that is messed up joints, knee surgery, ankle braces, and more meds. Of all of the sports that your child can get involved in, competitive swimming is the least likely to cause physical harm even over a lifetime. Swimming burns more calories than most other sports preventing obesity and juvenile diabetes. Team sports have been proven to build confidence and improve a child’s chances for adjusting well as an adult. The physical exertion of swimming helps to relieve stress which prevents having to pay those expensive Psychiatrist bills.

So get out there and learn the lingo. Study the rules. Use common sense when it comes to etiquette. You have taken the steps to learn how to maneuver the maze of the meets. You have cracked open your wallet. All you have to do now is remember that to your child and his/her future, Competitive Swimming is not cheap it is priceless.


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.

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