Swimming Is Too Cheap and Too Expensive

Swimming is a sport of privilege in the United States. That is not to say that everyone in swimming is rich, in fact quite the opposite (especially the coaches). The sport as presently constructed is extremely expensive. 

It is important to note that when I say "expensive" in this context, I'm not just talking about the almighty dollar. In fact, the expenses you can't put in a savings account far outweigh those that you can. Let's take a look at a few of the ways that swimming bears a huge cost for so many of the people that pursue it seriously:

The Swimmers

What is a "swimmer" in the United States? The vast majority are school age children. Therefore we can't talk about them without considering them as part of a family unit. Also, since they aren't in most cases expected to be full-time earners, we don't quantify their time in terms of the money they could "make".

But their time is valuable. We put public resources into their education for that very reason. So, every hour that they spend in the pool is time that cannot be spent doing something else. Every minute spent commuting to and from practice and to meets near and far costs valuable time.

Their participation is also extremely demanding on their families. Unlike a country, say like Denmark, where I used to coach, that has a wonderfully functional public transportation system and is generally safe to ride your bike from place to place in, Americans depend on cars for transportation. Parents of swimmers will therefore often spend inordinate amounts of time in cars. That time is another expense.

The Coaches

If many coaches seem unsympathetic to those costs, there is a reason for that too. Somehow despite the crazy expenses of swimming, many coaches draw very modest salaries. In exchange for those salaries, they are often expected in many cases to do the jobs of two or more people.

Consider your best local club swimming program. In order to pay their coaches even a modest salary they need to fill their lanes. As a college coach, it was not atypical for me to attend club practices at some of the best club teams in America where one coach presided over 30 or more swimmers. This is far from a club problem, in fact "elite" college teams stockpile huge rosters of swimmers as if some of them have an expiration date.

Now, would you consider it a good educational environment for a child if a math teacher had to preside over a class of 30 or more students? Many would not. What if your math teacher also responsible for teaching that huge group in an environment where she might need to leap in to save someones life. 

Why do teams charge the same fee for membership even as groups grow to huge sizes? The quality a coach can deliver to a particular athlete drops off exponentially past a certain point. if I were to guess, this point is around 12:1 athletes to coaches, but thats probably being generous and it could be 10:1 or 8:1.

So let's do some math on a single group of 30 athletes being coached for two hours by one coach. If the coach is delivering personalized feedback for the entire two hours (an impossibility, but let's just run with it anyway), and somehow spreads herself evenly, every athlete gets four minutes of personalized instruction.

What are you paying for?

The reality is that on many swim teams, despite the huge costs in time from swimmers, families and coaches, there is too little value making it through to either side. Both sides bear responsibility for how to fix this broken model.

On the swimmer side, families need to think about what they actually want to get out of participating in swimming, and how much that should cost. In many cases, there is likely too much of that cost equation that comes in the form of time and too little in the form of actual currency.

For coaches their is a need for re-calibration as well. Too often coaches pile on another practice, another competition, another week of the year without thinking about how incredibly expensive each of those things are for everyone involved. As coaches we need to demand and deliver efficient, valuable training, instead of always more.

We also need to stop agreeing to be the swim coach, the strength and conditioning coach, the sport psychologist, or even the director of operations (the list sometime goes on) for a team. Because no human being can do all these jobs really well. 

Swimming can reach even greater heights if we come together and realize that we are both spending too much and too little on it. 

Want to get more out of your swim training?