We live in a world where we universally acknowledge that children cannot make all decisions for themselves. Under 18? Can’t vote. Somewhere in the mid to late teens, after some training and certification, you can operate a motor vehicle, depending on the state. Ages of sexual consent vary in the teens from state to state.
In sports, however, we have basically a free for all. In the podcast I recorded earlier this week, Monica Strzempko mentioned that her daughter was moved into an “elite” group at age 13. I’ve seen someone in club development for USA Swimming consistently advocate for 11 year old girls to train doubles.
But can an 11 year old actually decide that they want to train that hard? Where is the line?
I can hear the arguments already against setting any kind of boundary or hard and fast rule. Every kid is different, you’ll be holding some back. Suggesting any kind of stricture on how much coaches train their swimmers will be met with overwhelming opposition.
We have to consider, however, that where we do not set a boundary, the worst operators will fill that grey area. One of the circumstances that makes swimming particularly vulnerable to abusers is that girls aged 14-16 can reach a truly elite level. In recent history, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky have both been multiple Olympic gold medalists at that age.
Ambitious coaches see then that young girls in particular can be their ticket to success. Maximizing their competitiveness at a young age is a tempting goal, and while most agree it can be destructive in the long term, who is saying what is right and wrong in this situation? Coaches are left to police themselves. I say it’s not going well.
Coaches aren’t driving it alone, Parents, of course, also want to see their kid succeed and compete. When I took over Gentofte in Denmark, I actually reduced the workload of several teenage girls on the team. I was warned: if they didn’t succeed they were likely to leave for another team that “worked harder”.
Again, I expect a lot of disagreement that we even should have a demarcation. Setting the ethical considerations aside for a moment, consider also that we face a population that is increasingly fragmented and less likely to just “do as we say” than previous generations. We ought to consider the issue of willingness to commit to our sport as coaches before we have no choice.
This post is much less a declaration about what we should do and more an invitation to discussion. What age do we think that young people are capable of deciding for themselves to be serious about sports? Where is the line between a “normal” commitment and the extraordinary commitment that requires a different level of consent?
For a starting point, I’ll suggest that 12 hours of swim training a week up for a 14 year old is a good boundary. I think that a young person needs to be 15 before they can commit to more. I even cringe while typing that, thinking that 12 hours is a lot of time in a young person’s life, while knowing there are literally thousands of “elite” 14 year olds who train double that amount of time. So where would you put the line?