Has swim training lost the plot?

The rising cost of youth sport participation is slowly lowering skill levels by forcing coaches to focus on metabolic training rather than instruction in developmental groups.

Note that these thoughts are based on my personal experience in swimming, but since all youth sports operate within the same economic framework, developmental levels will be affected in the same way though perhaps to different degrees due to specific facility and equipment needs.

It's no secret that the economic model supporting youth sport participation in the United States is under pressure. The egalitarian sport-for-all philosophy that at one time made participation in youth sport almost a right of passage for American youth has all but disappeared from the social landscape. It has been replaced by programs that cater to a shrinking number of families. There are no sports where equipment is becoming less expensive, and no sports where finding volunteer, short-term workers is getting easier. There is no place in the United States where the cost of participation is dropping, and no place where sport facilities are getting cheaper to use for training and competition. In short, youth sports are becoming less and less available to a growing segment of society.

But this isn't news and it's been documented by just about everyone who writes about youth sports. What is hardly ever talked about though is the effect this has on the quality of instruction at the developmental level of some, if not all, sports.

Clubs are naturally reluctant to rely on fee increases alone to make ends meet so they work the other side of the equation by increasing participation at the developmental level. Sports with limited training space end up with crowded facilities and higher athlete to coach ratios, which gradually but inevitably leads to a compromise in the quality of instruction. This is especially obvious in a sport like swimming where the space to conduct programs is both limited and expensive.

Although the loss of quality from overcrowding is obvious in the abstract, recognizing it as it happens is not always easy. Having a lane full of young athletes churning up and down the pool looks…orderly, and it sounds like something useful is happening, thus masking the lack of instruction that should be taking place.

There is no way a coach can work successfully with a large group of mostly new athletes. If practice sessions for the developmental and elite levels look almost the same then some of those athletes are not getting what they need. And it's a good bet that it's the developmental group that is suffering.

One of the economic realities of swimming is that the developmental groups in a club program need to attract enough participants to support the club's elite level athletes. Not only are the needs in terms of space, time, and coaching resources different between the two, so are the peripheral expenses such as equipment, competition fees, and travel.

Developmental groups are more cost effective. In one two-hour block of practice time several of these groups can be serviced. In the same two-hour block only one elite group can be scheduled. Economically it makes sense to have as many athletes as possible in the lowest levels of the program.

But this comes at a price.

Crowded development groups make instruction difficult and inefficient. Coaches of these busy groups will naturally tend to lean toward training rather than instruction because it is easier to organize. New athletes in these groups become part of a darwinian scheme where precocity is mistaken for talent. Those who don't make it get lost in the crowd; those who do make it get moved along into more advanced groups.

Clubs that have burgeoning developmental programs may be economically sound but without adequate space and staffing for these groups they eventually end up being large but unproductive in terms of performance. Youngsters who went through the minimal skill instruction at the developmental level become mediocre achievers without the movement foundation and skill repertoire they need for high performance. They may look like they have the skills but they are operating at the very edge of their ability and are rarely able to come close to their genetic potential later on.

New models needed?

The economic model employed to deliver youth sport programs varies depending on the context in which they're offered. Municipal or school-based recreation programs are usually cheaper than their club-based counterparts, but they are also perceived as being of lesser quality or lower level in terms of performance. And sometimes it's not simply perception, they are marketed as a less competitive option to high powered local programs. But no matter the context, costs are rising and calls for a new model to deliver youth sport programs have been heard for many years.

It's hard to imagine how clubs could fix this. When faced with a choice, financial stability has to win. It demands attention; consequences for ignoring it can be dire. It affects each club specifically and requires discrete action.

The reduction of instructional effectiveness resulting from the current models requires no immediate response but nevertheless represents a threat to the future of the sport. It will have to be dealt with by someone at sometime. But Who? And When? And most importantly, How?

Current economic models used in the delivery of youth sport programs offer no clues as to how this can be changed. The most common ways programs are organized in the United States are all based on a pay-for-play concept i.e. athletes (families) pay the cost of participation.

In the list below, the non-profit and for-profit models are essentially the same thing. Both have to be operated as businesses so any real difference in participation costs would be artificial and non-sustainable.

The public-private partnership might be a candidate for a new model. It's been around for quite a while with teams forming partnerships with school districts, colleges, and some community recreation departments. Unfortunately these partnerships are sometimes a hard sell to the public entity. In many sports, swimming especially, programs are operated at public facilities as stand-alone, non-profit or for-profit businesses.

The community-based model is usually seen as an alternative youth sport opportunity offered through recreation departments. While the participation costs for these programs are lower they are not the full service, year-round experience that a typical sport club offers. As a result they are perceived as lower quality and are sometimes used as a feeder for full service clubs.

  1. Non-profit: Youth sport programs run by non-profit organizations, with the goal of promoting sport and physical activity among young people.
  2. For-profit: Programs are run as businesses with the goal of generating profit.
  3. Public-private partnership: Youth sport programs are run through a partnership between the government and private organizations, with the goal of providing high-quality sport programs while also generating revenue.
  4. Community-based: Youth sport programs are run by local community organizations, with a focus on providing sport opportunities for young people in the community.

The cost of youth sport participation is an existential problem for two reasons: First, rising participation costs are creating a divide between those who can pay for the experience and those who can't. The segment of society that can no longer participate in what has long been considered a social good, an adhesive binding various cultures and groups together in a common experience, is growing. Soon only the wealthy will be able to afford the ever increasing costs.

Second, balancing the budget is forcing sport clubs to oversubscribe enrollment in the developmental levels of their programs. This damages the quality of skill their athletes acquire. This is a slow, almost invisible, process, but one that will have devastating effects on U.S. international results.