Swim parent-child relationships are tricky and tend to be a mine-field to navigate.
Ultimately, your parents want what is best for you: to swim well, to be happy with your performance, and to have fun.
This desire can manifest in some well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful behavior. Coaching from the stands. Putting undue pressure and anxiety on you before your races. And even making the sport a little unfun.
This email isn’t designed as a comprehensive guide to swim parenting, but rather, will help you (mainly the swimmer, but also the parent) with some actionable steps that will help you swim fast and have fun while helping move past the worry of disappointing your parents.
Swim parenting and swim childing
The bond between child and parent is intense and very unique. The most crucial aspect of this relationship is the child looking to the parent for unconditional love and security.
When swimmers begin to think that this love rests on how they perform in the water, bad things start to happen when it comes to anxiety and performance.
The sneakiness of this added anxiety of failing a parent doesn’t even need to be explicitly said:
- Are you going to win this race?
- Why didn’t you beat the swimmer next to you?
- It didn’t look like you tried very hard. I spent a lot of money for you to come to this swim meet.
A parent doesn’t need to flat-out say, “I will not love you if you swim like hot garbage” for the threat to that love to feel real. It’s the under-current of intent that translates into a threat to the love and security kids need from their parents.
Natalie Coughlin’s parents understood this. So did Michael Phelps’ mom, possibly the most well-known swim mom on the planet.
The fear of failing or disappointing our parents is deep-rooted, can result in an exploding amount of anxiety, and of course, is not always very rational when viewed objectively.
Then again, since when are the things that we fear or feel rational or logical?
Let’s start by writing down the reasons that you do the sport.
This is a great exercise for you to do regularly to keep your mind in the right place.
When completed, you will have something to keep you motivated and focused on the right things at the pool.
This exercise will also be a powerful reminder to your folks of the nearly endless number of reasons to swim that aren’t ever reflected on a clock or on the backside of a medal.
We are going to do this by getting in touch with your why.
Touching base with the why(s) is helpful when swimmers start to get overwhelmed or even burned out with the sport. Often when we are feeling frustrated it’s because we’ve fallen off the path of purpose. We’ve become disconnected from our why.
When you hear a swimmer say that swimming isn’t fun anymore this is typically the cause.
Instead of working hard, having fun with their friends, and enjoying the benefits of the sport, they are getting caught up in the stress and expectations of others.
Grab a sheet of paper and reflect on why you participate in a sport that requires nine million hours of training a week in pools that deaden your body hair and leave you perpetually smelling like chlorine:
- Because working hard is fun.
- I like to see what I am capable of.
- Training and racing with my teammates are fun.
- The friendships I develop on deck and in the pool.
- Because it helps put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.
- Because having abs is kinda neat-o.
And so on.
Write these down and put them on the fridge. Add some fancy doodles. And a title: Why I Do This Silly, Glorious Sport Every Day.
The perks of swimming aren’t always readily apparent when performance is the only metric. When the line between success and failure are drawn between the clock, what others expect, where we rank with other swimmers, we lose sight of what matters in the water.
Best times, records, medals…
All these things fade in time.
The lessons and experiences you pick up in the pool are the things that matter most. Full stop.
If your parents are stressed about the big meet or your next race, the stress will trickle down to you.
Even though we look at the big names in the sport for inspiration and as role models, the people closest to us are the ones who influence us the most.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in stress and expectations. Both are highly contagious.
If, on the ride to the pool, your parents are fretting and visibly nervous about your races, it’s going to make you a little nervous.
When they start asking you about your pre-race routine, whether you are prepared, if you are going to beat the swimmer in the next lane; it’s going to water that seed of doubt you already have in your mind.
It makes you wonder if you actually are prepared. If you have it in you to beat that swimmer. If you have worked hard enough.
(What gets talked about gets focused on.)
Some parents are under the impression that by stressing or inducing anxiety into their swimmer that they will somehow motivate them into performing better.
That it will force them to “care” more.
This is never the case.
If your swimmer didn’t care before, they won’t care now that you’ve decided so for them.
The reality is that they already do care, they are already super nervous, and adding more stress over-heats their focus and mindset and takes them from focusing on what they need to do to how you feel.
In moments of anxiety and insecurity, they need something reliable to keep them anchored. They need to know that they can relax and swim their best without worry of what will happen after the race.
Performance improves when swimmers are confidant, loose, and focused on their own preparation.
Not when they are tense, stressed and worried about what others think or feel.
Leave the sport at the pool.
Swimming conversations should be avoided at home. You’ve got enough stuff going on in your life without having to talk and worry about the sport when you are away from it.
This has been made more difficult with the proliferation of social media and swimming news websites, which can give young swimmers a tether to the sport 24/7.
Make the car ride home and the house a swim-free zone.
Here’s Olympic champ and breaststroke assassin Adam Peaty with why he keeps home free of talking about the sport:
“At home we have a rule where we don’t talk about swimming at all,” Peaty notes. “Sometimes I go downstairs and my mum and dad are watching one of my races and I tell them to switch it off. If I start seeing that, I can’t stop thinking about it all night which means you are losing energy where you should be gaining energy.”
The only thing you need from your parents is the most important thing in the world.
What do you want from your parents more than a motivational speech or last-minute coaching advice?
Love and security.
The simplest, most important things in the world.
When you have this stable foundation, it frees you up to chase after your goals with reckless abandon.
Instead of tensing up and worrying about disappointing your parents, you can dive into the water with your whole heart and a clear mind.
All you want to hear from your parents before and after a race, good or bad, is, “I love you and I’m proud of you.”