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Engagement Edition, Sports A Lifetime of Swimming


By: David Speechley •  4 years ago •  



tatistically, this child is probably 3 to 7 years old in a Swim Australia Swim School in South East Queensland! Research also tells us that the ideal age for swimmers to peak is around 22 for females and 24 for males.

The challenge in Australia is that most children commence aquatics through a parental decision which in turn is motivated by the desire to educate their children as to how “not to drown”. Once the child attains a skill level where they can “save themselves” (which coincides with the current perceived standard for the child to progress to a competitive environment), the child will often drop out of a formal aquatics program due to either lack of motivation, cost versus time/effort versus perceived benefit, a move to other sports, or a decision by parents that they have attained the goal they set out to achieve.

What few aquatic programs have is a 20 to 25-year plan for their “client”, yet our school education system has a detailed plan for the child from prep to university and beyond. What even fewer do is sell and deliver a medium to long-term plan to learners, swimmers and their parents or carers. Effectively, parents and carers need to be provided with a rolling set of goals for their child and be sold on the benefits that this will derive. The plan should incorporate marketing to children and parents about the next step, the next learning goal and the benefits of staying engaged in swimming for the whole of their life.

The challenges offered to children should be progressive and sequential with recognitions and rewards for milestones. Interaction between all ages and all components of the family should be encouraged. The program delivery should be fun and overwhelmingly, focus on positive feedback and encouragement. The outcome should be that the child is a well-rounded individual and remains involved in the recreation and sport for the rest of their life at a level of their choosing. The desire to do their best should be consequential and thus best performance is achieved.

The usual swimming lesson delivery method is via a commercial swim school, commercial lessons at a council-owned community pool, or subsidised or free-of- cost lessons at a school or in a vacation program. More recently, subsidised and free-of- cost schools sport and after-school care programs have also appeared in the market, e.g. Active Australia and School Sports programs from the Australian Sports Commission.

Generally, all these deliverers utilise trained and qualified teachers, most of whom are accredited by the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association (ASCTA).

The style of”education course” or “learning program” is often developed by the individual teacher or in a multi-teacher program by the program manager. Interaction between all industry players and a commonality in the training content for teachers ultimately means the programs have a large degree of similarity when comparisons are made. A big picture overview however highlights some major deficiencies.

The programs often have a short-term approach with a focus on goals, embedded in each lesson. Even coordinated aquatic education programs may only have a forward focus towards a 10-week outcome, whilst advanced training programs undertaken by coaches of advanced swimmers may only extend to 26 weeks or at best, a yearly cycle. Many teachers and coaches will have several “levels” but a very small percentage will have a master plan for the next 5, 10 or 20 years to progress the child through the levels, provide goals, educate parents and children on the benefits and have a whole of life integrated approach. Even fewer collect and collate data to track retention rates!

Often programs will have gaps. Perhaps the swim school only extends to junior squad and has no link to any further opportunities. The local swimming club often has no learn to swim program or the masters club may also only offer training and no Learn to Swim for adults. Hence the industry ends up with a lack of coordination and a disconnection between various stages of the skill and age continuum.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the vast majority of Australians place their children in formal aquatic programs conducted by qualified professional teachers somewhere between the ages of 3 and 8. The issue is not getting children into lessons, it is one of retention and desirable goal-setting once the initial safety goal of the parent is reached.

The first flashpoint where parents and carers opt out of swimming is when the child has “learnt to save themselves”. This usually means that the child can swim the length of the learner pool proficiently (usually around 25m) using freestyle and backstroke, and probably has a basic knowledge of breaststroke, dive entry and possibly butterfly. This also happens to be the baseline for entry into a formal swimming club program.

Whilst many of the elementary aquatic skills are taught in a progressive sequence, building on previously attained skills, they are not age-based, e.g. freestyle arms would usually be taught after floating and kicking have been taught, no matter what age the learner is.

However, a good long-term program should provide examples to all participants. Adults swimming competitively combined with a junior swimming club are likely to reinforce and encourage teens to continue swimming into adulthood. A good long-term program will provide extrinsic motivators beyond the pool to encourage a person to move to the next step. For example, why not allow teenagers the “right of passage” to become junior officials such as 13-year- olds holding a stopwatch and time-keeping at swimming club with two other adults, or at 14, swimmers could be allowed into the gym and use pulleys, weight bars and resistance machines. At 15 years of age they can progress to light weights, at 16 they could act in the capacity of assistant starter or a junior official such as Marshall, Announcer, turn judge, and so on. Each age should have a “privilege” as an incentive to stay and contribute, even if they are not the best swimmer. It may also solve some of our succession planning issues currently occurring due to our aging officials! Training could also include activities such as underwater hockey, water polo, ocean swims or anything swimming related that improves fitness and skills in the water and are challenging and fun.

The proposed Swimming Australia (SAL) Junior Dolphin program is aimed to incentivise or formalise a process of encouragement to induce learners to transition to a competitive environment. SAL is seeking to develop product to engage with the grassroots (swimming and water safety area) to transition participants into a club environment with a view to nurturing talent within a long-term framework to grow the sport and enhance participation.

The ASCTA is already overseeing a swim school system as well as a coach and teacher education and accreditation scheme. They have worked closely and cooperatively with SAL for 44 years to grow the sport.

This includes ensuring that:

  • the accreditation scheme underpinning coaches is the best it can be
  • teachers are educated on the SAL preferred athlete pathways into the sport
  • career pathways for teachers into coaching are clearly enunciated
  • continuous improvement via professional development to teachers and coaches is provided
  • representative coaches are subsidised to attend major international meets
  • SAL clubs are provided with advice on coaching and teaching strategies
  • employment services and advice and support to coaches, teachers, SAL clubs and others is offered

Statistics show us that the 10-year- old age champion is unlikely to be the star at 17 years of age, or conversely the underachieving 10-year- old is most likely our champion of the future. Somehow we must keep those underachievers coming through the gate and into the pool.


ASCTA provides industry insurance, educational resources and professional development for individual teachers and coaches, aquatic managers and swim schools. Standards in the industry are improved through promoting professional and ethical conduct and enforcing this on members via our Codes of Behaviour and complaints mechanisms. They conduct education and accredited training for swimming coaches and swimming and water safety teachers.

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