An Open Letter For the Parents of Swimmers.

Dear Moms and Dads,

When I work at a swim meet as a deck official, I'm always happy to see parents there who are happy and excited to see their children compete. It's almost as cool to see parents taking an interest in their children as it is to watch kids working hard and trying their best. Your children deserve your support, and it's wonderful that you're there to give it to them.

That said, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing.

I know I've only been working as a stroke and turn judge for a year or so, but I think I've seen enough meets to be able to offer a little constructive criticism. I'm not doing this to be unpleasant, I'm doing it because I think it will help make meets more enjoyable for all of us.

A personal best is always a major victory:

It doesn't matter if they finish first, third, ninth, thirty-eigth, or dead last. If they swam the event faster than they've ever swum the event before, it's a victory. This is still true if they've never swum it before.

Cheer for your children:

Do not yell at them. Do not tell them that they're swimming poorly. Never, ever, ever ask them what the hell they thought they were doing, particularly in the first ten seconds after they get out of the water. You're paying good money to put them on a swim team that has actual coaches who can handle all of the criticism (and who know more about how to swim and how to coach than you do). You're there to encourage them, not discourage them.

Cheer for other people's children:

If you've got a pair of lungs that can rupture eardrums at fifty feet, why is it that I only hear you during a few heats? Your kid is on a team. Support the team. If you don't know anyone who is swimming in a heat, cheer for everyone. It's a hard sport, and a little support makes everyone feel better.

Be a role-model for sportsmanship:

And when I say that, I'm talking about the good kind of role-model. Most swim meets are like most cereal box contests: many will enter, few will win. Your kids are going to get a lot of practice at not winning events. Teach them to show as much grace and class when they don't win that they do when they win.

Not winning is not the same as losing:

Swimming isn't like baseball or football. The day doesn't end with one team that wins and one that loses. There are only two ways to lose in swimming. You can fail to show up, or you can give up in the middle. Nobody - nobody - who tries hard and makes it through the event is a loser. This is particularly true when we're talking about the little kids who take 3 minutes to finish a 25-yard freestyle.

Good sportsmanship means being fair to everyone:

That's why the rules are there. Most of the time, failing to follow the rules gives a swimmer an unfair advantage. An official who sees a violation of the rules but does not report it is being fair to absolutely nobody. It's not fair to the swimmers who didn't break the rules, and it's not fair to the swimmer who did. Every swimmer should know that they earned their results, whatever they are.

Respect the officials:

This area is rapidly becoming a particular area of expertise for me, so forgive me if I go into more detail here than I did on the others. Try to remember that the officials are there to make the meet as fair as it can be for everyone involved. They're certainly not there to get rich. Or, for that matter, paid. The majority of officials are parents of swimmers, just like you are.

You can complain about the quality of the officiating, and we will certainly do our best to treat you with courtesy, respect, and professionalism. But we will be thinking "if you think you can do it better, why the hell aren't you sweating your tail off on this deck" really, really loudly. This is particularly true if you're complaining about why your kid got dinged for something while swimmer X did not at a meet where there's only one stroke and turn judge for each end of the pool.

You can try to play on our sympathy, or go for feelings of guilt, but if you want to do that, try to keep in mind that you're really asking us to be nice to your kid at the expense of someone else's.

Do not bring your crying child with you to complain about a disqualification. Ever.

Have fun:

Swimming is a sport. It's recreation. It's not a matter of life and death, and it's not a religion. At the end of the day, a swim meet is about kids who are trying their best in a sport that's nowhere near as easy as it looks. Nothing more, nothing less. Try to keep that in mind.

And don't forget to be proud of your swimmers. They've earned it.


More like this

Every word applies to many other sports - I have seen all those behaviors in equestrian sports (as a judge, as a competitor, as a trainer, as audience).

Just caught this post on the top of the page whilst reading Pharyngula.

As a former USS age group swimmer, high school swimmer, college swimmer,and part-time swim coach, this post really hit close to home for me. I can't even count how many times I've seen parents giving it to the deck officials. This behavior can be abhorent, misdirected, and most importantly, result in setting a pretty poor example for observant children.

However, I do have to comment towards the deck official that has something to gain. As you mentioned, many of these officials are parents themselves. In a dual-meet format (as you see in YMCA swimming, high school swimming, college swimming, and in most age group "local pool" summer league swimming), officials can sometimes find themselves in a position to make or break a team's chances at winning (and believe it or not, I've seen it happen). In this respect, the official must be held accountable. Of course deck officials are not getting paid. Of course this is for everyone's enjoyment. But fairness is still fairness, and every competitor wants their team to win fair and square in a dual meet arrangement regardless of their age or ability.

I've seen relays disqualified for questionably false starting, resulting in the victory of said official's kid's team. I've seen skilled, year-round swimmers, who command the breastroke or butterfly turn much more skillfully than the summer-timers or walk-ons, take a disqualification due to a "one-handed touch" that wasn't one, and various other questionable calls that turned the tide, pardon the pun, in many a close meet.

In these sorts of cases, I'd have to side with the parents or coaches who confront officials. I was a coach that confronted officials and when I have a kid and if he or she swims on a summer league or high school team, I think I'll probably be confrontational then too. Of course, only if it's deemed proper and fair to do so.

Great blog though. You've found a new follower, for what that's worth to you. I look forward to reading more in the future.

Every last word of this is true of judging martial arts competitions as well.

By JThompson (not verified) on 16 May 2009 #permalink

I remember when I was a kid, my parents made me play in every single sport. I was miserable at all of them and I had no competitive spirit. I was the kid standing in the outfield identifying all the plant life. My parents made me go but didn't really pressure me because I was getting exercise and being social. The one sport I was actually good at was swim team. I was like ten years old, practically a tiny Michael Phelps, but I had no internal desire to win. I could win meets as long as my parents were there shouting, "Stop staring at the clouds, this is a race!" Good times.

I sympathize with your open letter. Too many parents force their kids into little league to project their own abandoned goals on them. I'm personally glad my parents didn't overly pressure me to be good at baseball or basketball or I would have had a miserable childhood.

"I was the kid standing in the outfield identifying all the plant life. "

Brandon, are we related? :-)) I was also identifying various bugs while out there too.

Excellent open letter...I hope it is modified and finds it way to many of the sport teams out there.

Regarding cheering for other people's kids: Very yes. I actually went to a graduation (well, commencement is the word they used) ceremony about a year ago, and there were people receiving their degrees, double major with honors, and nobody was there to clap for them. I instructed the group with whom I was attending the event to cheer, loudly, for anyone in the roster for the event who did not have their own sizable cheering section in the first second after the name had been read. Everyone who accomplishes deserves to have their accomplishment recognized. No exceptions.

Yikes that is so true!

I have survived kid sports, and finally went to my last soccer game just over a year ago.

When my oldest started out in soccer, one of the parents was finally told to stay away. He was yelling at the kids, coaching from behind the goal line, and being generally unhelpful. This was beginner seven year old kids playing three per side (oh, and they are so cute!).

Turned out that player had been a competitive swimmer in Eastern Europe.

Oh, and I need to add: be careful with some of the referees. In some sports they are only about two years older than the players. My younger son refereed soccer from the time he was 12 to about 15 years old. At the older ages he (13 and under) he was having more and more issues with the parents, and he does not like confrontation. He switched to being a lifeguard and teaching swimming when he was old enough (which is how he is going to pay for on-campus housing next year in college).

By the way, while it is common to give each kid a team a kind of trophy I really hated them. I especially hated giving a bunch a 8-year olds a trophy which was essentially a stick with a heavy fake-marble block on the end that would be a deadly weapon. I much preferred the little medals, less dangerous.

My younger son did participate in one swim meet (he was on summer swim team for two years). He got a bronze medal for the 8 and under breast stroke, even though he refused to learn to dive and just jumped in.

He told me it was the one he was most proud of because he earned that medal, unlike the one he got for Little League baseball. Because even though his team won their tournament, he realized it was not due to his talent (or lack there of, my favorite bit after that season was "Mom, I don't think I'll play baseball anymore. I can't hit or catch the ball and I always get put out!").

Fabulous post! Should be required reading for anyone in any sport.

Brandon, Dan, count me to the family. "Identifying all the plant life" was my only deep interest when I was a kid.
My parents decided that sport is healthy so I went through many years of swimming. Combined with my extremely sensitive skin, it was years of swimming and nasty skin infections. Added that my parents are doctor-avoiding types who had taught me not to whine about every boo-boo.... and out of sudden, I was shown to medical students as the nicest case of impetigo they had in the university hospital since at least WWII. I just didn't whine.
The result is that I probably still could swim to save my life but there's no force that would make me go in the water more than knee-deep. But, I'm (hopefully) starting undergrad biology next year so maybe I'll be a botanist one day:D

I am so pleased my son, now 28, wanted whitewater kayaking as a sport. Competition against others is not part of that scene and the only parents on the river where the ones helping him learn how to behave responsibly on the water. On the river it's never anything but 'group safety and personal challenge'. He tried soccer but did not care for the yelling adult coach; he said the coach was 'too juvenile'.

Thank you for bringing this subject. All of it I would address to any parent of the sport-kid.

If you are a parent and don't know how to encourage or show their approval - just take a look on other parents, meet specialist (as psychologist eg.) or read 'The 8th Habit' (by Covey) or any other book of it.

Hi, this comment has noting to do with the post but as a zoologist I wondered if you could identify this scary arachnid for me. I live in Barbados and I am certain that these are not indigenous to the island. My cat has recently brought me three of them as presents... I'd rather she didn't.

Thank you for your time oh random zoologist found via Google :)

oh and yes, I know you're a zoologist not an entomologist, but you seem friendly and helpful.

By Risée Chaderton (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

btw, as a Mom, good post.

By Risée Chaderton (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

Thank you for the clarification John, :) any idea what the critter is?

By Risée Chaderton (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

I'm not particularly good with arachnids, but that looks like it's probably a tailless whip scorpion of some sort. (Those are also sometimes known as "whip spiders".)

There's at least one species of tailless whip scorpion that's native to Barbados - Phrynus barbadensis.

If you want to take a look at another blog that might have more relevant expertise, I'd suggest Bug Girl:

Hope that Helps.

Thank you for your response, now I'll go buy every can of insecticide I can find.

I can't say for sure but I cannot ever recall seeing one of these things in Barbados before, but I have noted an influx of odd South American fauna lately, folks have been saying they come across on the cargo boats, tucked away in the wood or the fruit.

Lizards that run on their hind legs and look like a cross between a common runner, an Iguana and a Velociraptor and now possibly a tailless scorpion... My heart can't take the shock :)

Again, I appreciate you taking the time to respond, I'll check out the other blog and ask my question there as well.


By Risée Chaderton (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

Thank you for a much needed and well written post. I think the most important rule is to cheer for other people's children. Cheering for all the competitors, sports people, the event itself, I feel is the act that keeps the parent's perspective in the right place, that the point of any sport is the joy of competition and personal achievement rather than winning or losing.

me again...

using you info I have discovered that yes the Phrynus barbadensis is probably the critter in question and is native to Bim (Barbados) although rarely seen and the lizard I referenced is called a Barbados Jungle Runner... who knew... possibly the cat but she wasn't telling.

I feel so informed :)

Phrynus barbadensis is still gonna die if another one crosses my path.

Thanks again your help was sincerely appreciated.

By Risée Chaderton (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

Mostly same stuff I used to tell people when my kid played basketball. However, one very disturbing exception, Mike seems to have a thing about losing. Let's call it "not winning" in swimming, he say's, it's not like baseball or football where one team wins and the other loses -- for a science writer pretty sloppy thinking, because in the common two team swim meet, it's just like. But on a deeper level, too bad with this other good stuff you can't recognize how important learning to lose can be. What I told my kids was, if you never lose, it means you never tried anything that was beyond you. Well, maybe that's not a science issue, but a spiritual one, so we shouldn't expect to find these things discussed here.

By Albion Tourgee (not verified) on 17 May 2009 #permalink

I was a synchronized swimmer but my sister raced in middle school. I vividly remember sitting in the stands listening to a neighbor lady viciously dress-down her son after a heat...he hadn't even caught his breath yet. With that sort of pressure at home, is there any surprise that he turned to prodigious quantities of pot?

Now as an adult I sometimes come across the synchronized skating parents before my hockey games and it always makes me cringe. I wonder how many of the harpies are directly responsible for their little girls developing an eating disorder or worse. Why can't some parents just grow up, accept it is not about their vicarious experience, and model good sportsmanship and a positive attitude?

Great article. Like you I am promoting sportsmanship across the world - starting in Ireland (so far so good the Olympic Council Of ireland have invited me to work with them).

Can you or your readers please send me any stories that emerge relating to sportsmanship â no matter how small or big. As Iâm looking to add sportsmanship stories onto my sportsmanship blog and eventually into the next edition of my book - a collection of short, true, stories about sportsmanship â honour & integrity, nobility & humility on the field of sport. Whether local game or top professional competition, any sport, any level, anywhere, any time â please send me your stories. I am determined to get sportsmanship back on the agenda of kids, coaches & commentators (and eventually all sports people), through video, web site, the book and emerging education programmes. Iâm working with the Olympic Council of Ireland and next stop is South Africa.

Please send me your story, or even just comments about sportsmanship
to my blog or to me directly . Many thanks and good luck.
Paul Smith

I agree whole heartedly. Children's participation in sports ought to be for the sake of the kids - not so parents can vicariously live through their kids. Loving your kids is one thing but ego-identifying with them is another.

Whip scorpeons are harmless and eat bugs. Don't waste your money on insecticide.

I fly model airplanes competitively; not as well as I did when I was younger. I figure if my stuff works like it is supposed to, and I fly as well as I can, I win, regardless of what the judges think. I recomment "Winning, the Psychology of Competition" by Stewart Walker.

Had a kid's soccor coach who explained to the kids (and parents) the first day, "When I yell at you I am not mad at you. That is just the way I am, so don't be upset." So far as I could tell, the kids believed him. He yelled a lot, and no one seemed to get upset.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Ahh, yes. The dreaded Soccer Mom or Hockey Dad. Generational serial abuse in its most visible form.


Would you feel any differently about them if you knew that people are selling them to insect hobbyists in the 'States for $29?

Intimidating looking, but harmless.

By JohnnieCanuck (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink