Advice From A Former Lifeguard & Swim Instructor

Every summer — usually by early June — I read an article with a sad, heavy heart about a kid dying in a drowning accident. And it’s never just one kid. We’ve all read the statistics.

This post is not about statistics, or pointing fingers, or blame, or shame, or grief. I am not a parent. I am not qualified to tell people how to parent their children. And no one is qualified to blame a parent for their own kid drowning. We have no idea what that is like. We weren’t there. We cannot even begin to imagine what that experience — and the aftermath — is like.

I am, however, qualified to talk about swimming. I was a competitive swimmer for ten years. I started teaching swim lessons when I was 14 years old. I started working as a lifeguard at 15.

Drowning is a heart-wrenching topic to discuss, but I don’t think water safety has to be. I hope that this post will do more than just reinforce everything you’ve heard time and time again. I hope it will shed new light on things you’ve never considered, and I hope it will encourage you to enroll your kids in swim lessons this summer — and not out of fear or worry, because it’s something you want them to be able to enjoy for their entire lives.

Teach them to swim

The obvious first step in ensuring your kids learn about water safety and knowing they will be safe in or near water is teaching them to swim. Swim lessons are a great tool. Despite being a popular summer activity, swim lessons are actually offered year-round. In the summer, they are usually set up in two-week increments. Kids will attend lessons 4 or 5 days a week for two weeks, and then can enroll in the next session. During the rest of the year, swim lessons are usually offered one or two evenings a week. This might actually be a better alternative, particularly for working parents, as these lessons are usually in the evenings.

Check out the pools and community centers near you to find out what the options are. You don’t necessarily have to wait until summer vacation — which may be the busiest and most inopportune time — to check swim lessons off your list!

I used to think that everyone learned how to swim as a kid, and then found out that I was lucky that my parents could afford to send me to kids camp every summer where I not only learned to swim, but got to participate in so many other fun activities. It didn’t occur to me that there were people who didn’t have access to pools or couldn’t afford swim lessons until the pool I worked at decided to do a free swim lesson event.

It. Was. Packed.

The pool I worked at was in a low-income community and we had heard from many families that they would love to put their kids in lessons but the price of our lessons was too high, so we put on this event. We had to do the lessons in shifts because there were too many kids to even fit in the pool at one time! It was a hit. We started offering discounted swim lessons to low-income families after that.

Please check at your local pools or community centers to see if they offer something like this. If you are actively involved in your community, please reach out and see if you can coordinate something like this — it really makes a huge difference.

If swim lessons just aren’t in the cards right now, you can still get your kids more acquainted with water and water safety in your home. You can use the bathtub, or buy a small kiddie pool, and teach them these two things:

  1. How to put their face underwater and blow bubbles (i.e. not get water up their nose).
  2. How to float.

If you have a big enough bathtub or pool, teach them how to roll from their front to their back and float like a starfish with their arms out. If they are able to put their face underwater and blow bubbles (and not plug their nose) and they can float on their front and their back, that is a great foundation for being safe in the water and learning how to swim.

Do my kids need private swim lessons?

Absolutely not.

Private swim lessons are great if your kid is an advanced swimmer, or if they have special needs and require one-on-one attention. If your kid is just learning the basics, private swim lessons are not a necessity. Kids need breaks when learning to swim, so having a group lesson where kids swim one at a time to the instructor gives your kid a chance to take a break. In a one-on-one lesson, your kid is probably getting a little bit more swimming time than they would in a group lesson but the instructor will still need to let them take frequent breaks.

Group lessons are great for many reasons. They are usually pretty affordable and they can be really fun. Kids usually make friends really quickly in these lessons, or take lessons with their siblings or friends, so when it’s not their turn it’s pretty much free play time — which is when they are learning the most. They are also able to test their boundaries — which is harder to do in a one-on-one lesson where the instructor has their eyes on them the whole time.

Kids often step or fall off the platforms during group lessons and this is no cause for alarm. Instructors are taught never to turn their back on the kids, and to never be more than an arm length or two away so they can easily grab a kid who has fallen (or more likely jumped) off the platform. Yes, your kid might step off the platform and struggle under the water for a few seconds before being “rescued” but this is actually a helpful tool for determining your boundaries.

The instructor can only say so many times “Don’t step off the platform. You won’t be able to touch the bottom”. For most kids, this might be an abstract notion until they try it themselves and realize that they cannot touch the bottom and their swimming skills aren’t yet good enough to keep them afloat. This helps them create their own boundaries and recognize their own skill level and comfort zone.

Should I force my kids to take swim lessons?

If your kid absolutely does not want to have anything to do with swimming or swimming pools or water, that’s okay. It is okay for them to take the time they need to expand their comfort zone. Obviously, you know your kids so if forcing them to take a lesson is going to end with them having the best time of their life, then do that — but if they are absolutely paralyzed at the thought of swimming, here are some alternatives:

  1. Of course, the bathtub/kiddie pool in the backyard is still an option. Work within their comfort zone.
  2. If you have other kids who are taking lessons, ask if it would be okay for you and your frightened kid to watch the lessons from the pool deck and maybe put your feet in the water. They probably won’t want you sitting right next to your own kids (because kids are easily distracted by having their own parents nearby) but they might have a place where you can sit and dip your toes in.
  3. If you don’t have other kids who are taking lessons, ask if you can bring your kid to a group swim lesson and just watch as a spectator.
  4. If you want to enroll your kid in swim lessons but you’re not sure if they’re ready, see if the swim lesson program has a refund policy –or if they would let you reschedule for a session later in the summer if it turns out they’re just not ready yet.
  5. Find other kinds of water. Go to the beach, find a creek, go to a friend’s pool instead of the crowded community center pool. Some swim centers also have smaller pools for beginner’s lessons that might seem less intimidating.

What to look for when enrolling in swim lessons

Obviously, not all swim lessons are created equal. Bottom line: no matter where you go, you can guarantee your kid is going to be safe. Most swim lessons either have a lifeguard on duty or instructors who are also trained lifeguards (or both!). No matter where you go or how much you pay, you shouldn’t have to worry about your kid’s safety.

Take a look at your options first. Figure out which pools & community centers are closest to you and see what information they have online. If they don’t have information online, call or go in. Some swimming pools are old-school and might not have the most up-to-date websites, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an awesome swim program.

I would recommend visiting any pool that you’re considering before just enrolling online. You’ll want to see what it looks like and bring your kids so they’re familiar with it (particularly if you’re going to be dropping them off and picking them up — it’s nice to know that they know where the locker rooms are and where to go if they need a band-aid or something like that). If you have the choice between an outdoor and an indoor pool, you’ll also want to scope that out.

Outdoor pools can be really fun, but they do require sunscreen and in places like Oregon — where I grew up and taught lessons — your kids might also have to endure swim lessons in the rain. Indoor pools are often warmer and, of course, not exposed to the elements. A great option here is to take your kids to “open swim” or “rec swim” at the pool you’re considering so they can actually play in it before their lessons (and some swim lessons offer free or discounted rec swim — be sure to ask about this!).

If you have time, you might consider watching a session of swim lessons before enrolling. If you’re willing to bring your kids on this excursion, they’ll get a chance to see what they’re in for and — hopefully — get excited about it! As a side note, if you are enrolling your kids in lessons during the summer, chances are there will be lessons going on when you come in to enroll (if you don’t do it online) and you can usually ask if you can see the pool and watch the lessons for a minute or two.

Here are a few key things to look for before enrolling in swim lessons:

  • Group size. The maximum class size should increase based on skill level. For example, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a class of 10 advanced swimmers. For beginner classes, I’d want to see a class size of no more than 8, but probably closer to 6. Ask what the maximum class size is and make sure it’s a number you’re comfortable with. If classes are filled to capacity, ask if there are any times that are less popular and not maxed out — usually there are a few early morning or mid-afternoon classes that aren’t as popular.
  • Instructors. Swim lessons can be scary for kids and it’s important that they feel comfortable. If your child has a preference for a male or a female instructor, this is totally okay. In my experience, the ratio is slightly skewed in favor of female instructors but — particularly in the summer — this should be a fairly easy request to accommodate. In general, swim lesson instructors are going to be young. There are plenty of adults who teach swim lessons in the summer or who have made it their full-time job, but don’t be nervous or discouraged because your kid’s swimming instructor just got their driver’s license. They have been trained and certified and most likely love being around kids (I knew very few people who were forced to be swim instructors — it’s not the kind of job you get if you don’t love it).
  • Refund/cancellation policy. Kids are unpredictable. One minute they love swim lessons, one minute they hate them, maybe they get sick, or maybe the instructor just isn’t the right fit. Find out what the refund or cancellation policy is and make sure that you can at least reschedule your lessons for another session or receive credit for lessons if you have to cancel.
  • Lesson plan. Swim lessons are usually broken up into different levels and there are key skills that kids must demonstrate proficiency in to move to the next level. Ask if you can see a breakdown of the lesson plan and various levels/tiers beforehand — usually you’ll need this to determine what level your kid should be anyway. Make sure that there is a clear lesson plan with clear objectives.

How can I make sure my kids get the most out of swim lessons?

Group swim lessons are usually about 20-30 minutes long. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s perfect for the attention span of young kids (and also keeps them from being in the water so long that they get freezing cold and their lips turn blue). More advanced lessons may be 30-45 minutes. I think that having the correct expectations goes a long way in ensuring that kids get the most out of their swim lesson experience.

First, understand that there are other kids in the class. Your kid will not be working one-on-one with the instructor for the entire class and that’s okay. In a beginner class, the instructor might be working on getting the kids comfortable with putting their faces underwater and floating on their back/front. The instructor will take each kid out to work on floating individually, and might tell the other kids to practice blowing bubbles underwater until it’s their turn.

Pro-tip: Try not to actively parent your kids during their swim lessons. It takes the power and authority away from the instructor. If your kid is misbehaving or not following instructions, they’re not going to listen to the instructor if they’re trying to listen to you from the sidelines. If you find that your kid is constantly trying to talk to you or get your attention, try sitting somewhere farther away or out of sight. If your kid is misbehaving or is distracted during class and the instructor doesn’t see it, briefly mention it to them before or after class (keeping in mind that they have 4 or 5 other kids to watch also) and remind your kid (before or after class) to listen to the instructor.

Trust the instructors to do their job. If it looks like your kid is having a great time and doing absolutely nothing productive in the water, roll with it. They’re supposed to be having fun, and learning by playing is the most effective way of learning. The instructor knows what your kid needs to accomplish in order to move on to the next level, and they’ll continue to work on that each lesson — but different kids move at different paces. If your kid is stuck on a certain skill, that’s okay — they’ll get it.

Pro-tip: If your kid is not listening to the instructor and is distracted during the lesson because they already know the skills and they are bored, see if they can do a swim test at the end of the lesson and move up to the next level for their next lesson. As long as there is availability and they can pass the swim test, this is usually not a problem.

Outside of lessons, make sure that they don’t become dependent on flotation devices or goggles. Life jackets and water wings and floaties are great, but make sure they know what happens when they lose their grip on the floatie or their water wings fall off. It’s important for kids to know and understand their own boundaries. If they can touch the bottom of the pool, let them walk toward the deep end until they can no longer touch so they have a general idea of where they can play and still be able to touch the bottom of the pool.

Pro-tip: Goggles are great, but not necessary for beginner’s swim lessons. In a beginner’s lesson, kids are going to learn how to submerge themselves underwater without getting water up their nose, how to float on their back, and how to float on their front. A little chlorine never hurt anyone so if you don’t have goggles, don’t stress about it — oftentimes pools will have spare goggles or lost & found goggles that kids can use during lessons if they really need them. And if you do buy goggles, don’t buy the giant scuba mask thing that kids love because it covers their nose and they don’t learn how to keep water from going up their nose.

Pro-tip: Kick the plugging-the-nose habit. Instructors will sometimes allow kids to plug their nose the first few times they go underwater if that’s what it takes to get them comfortable, but will encourage them to “blow bubbles” instead. Plugging their nose is a habit that will become a crutch if they can’t kick it — I remember telling kids, “how are you going to swim if you can’t use one of your arms?” Practicing blowing bubbles in the bathtub is really helpful here, especially if your kid is stuck on this after a few lessons.

Overall, make sure your kids are having fun! If they have fun, they’ll want to come back and do more lessons and that’s the most important thing. Sometimes the class might be too big or the instructor might not be exactly the right fit, but as long as your kid had an overall positive experience and wants to keep swimming, that’s what counts!

Teach them about water safety

Outside of swim lessons, make sure you’re teaching your kids about water safety. Some swim lesson programs have a water safety component to them where kids learn not only the rules of the pool, but other rules as well. If you’re going somewhere that involves water — even if your kids aren’t going to be in the water — teach them how to be safe around it.

If you’re going to the beach, teach them to always face the ocean and not turn their back. Waves are strong and can knock them down easily — let them experience that with you close by so they understand.

If you’re on a boat, teach them that everyone wears a life jacket — even the adults who can swim. And if their drunk Uncle Jim doesn’t wear a life jacket, it’s a great time to teach them that just because other people don’t follow the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to. Also a great time to tell Druncle Jim to get his act together.

If you’re by a river, teach them about river currents. Sometimes the water looks like it’s moving slow but it might be moving faster than you think, or it might be moving faster upstream. If you can’t see the bottom, you can’t tell how deep it is. Teach them that rivers, pools, and lakes might have a drop-off area where it suddenly gets deeper.

Teach them what to do if something bad does happen, like they get to a deep spot in the pool or lake and can’t touch the bottom. Regardless of their swimming level, make sure they know they can roll onto their back and float. They’ll be able to breath and even if they can’t look up and see anyone, they can call for help. Even if they can swim well, swimming a long distance might tire them out and they might need to roll on their back to rest.

I know this blurs the line of telling people how to parent their kids, but I’m not telling you how or when to do any of these things. That’s up to you. How you parent is entirely up to you. It’s important — no matter how it is done — for kids to be aware of water safety and know how to swim. And it’s okay for them to have a healthy fear of water. Water is scary. I think all of us are at least a little bit afraid of the scenario where we’re out in the middle of the ocean with no life jacket. It’s okay for your kids to realize that bad things can happen in water and that they need to be careful — it’s okay for them to know that it’s not always all fun and games and water can be dangerous.

Because it can be. It can be really dangerous. And the best way for us all to enjoy it safely is for everyone to be aware of that danger and to be as prepared as we can — and that means, first and foremost, knowing how to swim.

A note on drowning

I know you’ve heard this before, but drowning is not a big, theatrical production. Drowning is very quiet and 90% of the struggle is happening underneath the water. Many people think of drowning as a horizontal movement (i.e. someone struggling but still making forward progress) but it is usually all vertical movement (i.e. someone goes under and is struggling to get back to the surface — not making any forward movement).

A kid theatrically yelling “help” and thrashing their arms around pretending to drown does not look like a real drowning victim — though it is very distracting to the lifeguard, who will usually tell kids that it’s not a great idea to pretend to drown. A drowning victim will usually not be able to get themselves far enough out of the water to say anything, let alone cry for help.

One of the only rescues I had to make as a lifeguard was during a busy swim session. One of the elementary school classes was renting the pool for an open swim and there were at least 50, maybe 75 kids in the pool. We had two lifeguards on duty. The kid was hanging out right by the rope that marks the line between the shallow and the deep end. He was directly under my lifeguard chair so it was hard to see him. The lifeguard on the other side of the pool saw him first and brought him to my attention. He had moved under the rope and could no longer touch the bottom of the pool while keeping his head above water. He had his arms above his head and was trying to push himself off the bottom and back up. I could not jump into the pool from the lifeguard stand because there were so many kids in the pool, so I climbed down and slid into the pool and grabbed him. He had swallowed some water and was a little shocked and afraid, but other than that was completely fine and resumed playing after about fifteen minutes.

There were about ten other kids surrounding him and not one of them had a single clue he was drowning. There were a lot of kids in the pool, it was absolute chaos, and I wouldn’t expect them to notice.

The most important tips for preventing drowning are at the beginning of this post, but I am including a few final pieces of advice here:

Know where your kids are. Yes, it is the lifeguard’s job to save them if they are drowning and you can trust the lifeguard to do that — but know where they are at all times. The lifeguard is watching all of the kids in the pool and you only have to watch out for one or two or four of them.

Know their abilities and make sure they know their abilities. If they can’t go in the deep end without a life jacket, make sure they know that — even if it means letting them jump to you in the deep end and letting them struggle for a second.

Swim as a group. If you have multiple kids, encourage them to stick together. If you have multiple kids of various swimming levels, make sure they are staying where all of them are comfortable. Particularly at water parks, make sure they stay together as a group — even if they can swim just fine. Water parks are often crowded and kids can get lost easily and accidents can happen (and we haven’t even mentioned stranger danger).

Follow the rules. As an adult, please follow the pool rules. I will never forget the time I was lifeguarding for a private birthday party and a dad ran out of the locker room and dove right into the shallow end. He scraped both his elbows and his nose, and we had to corral all of the kids and go over the rules with them so that they didn’t follow suit. Make sure you and your kids know and follow the rules. Even if your kid can do a front flip off of the pool deck without getting hurt, that might encourage another kid to try the same thing.

Swim with your kids. Or ask your babysitter or your friend or your mother — whoever is taking the kids to the pool (hopefully not Druncle Jim) — to swim with the kids. Because honestly, sitting in the bleachers isn’t fun. You usually still get wet somehow — so reading is out — and it’s usually hot and loud and there are other crazy kids everywhere who you feel compelled to parent. So why not get in and swim with them? At some point, they’ll all be old enough to swim without adult supervision and you can just drop them off at the pool for the afternoon and do your grocery shopping or nap in your car — but I will tell you that as a lifeguard, the most fun that I’ve ever seen kids have is when they’re playing some silly game with their dad, or their mom, or their grandma, or their babysitter. I highly recommend trying it out as a family activity, even if swimming is not your thing.

Keep an eye out for other kids. No, it’s not your job to watch or parent someone else’s kids — and you should always be able to trust that the lifeguard’s got it handled. But you can never have too many people helping out, making sure everyone is safe — it really takes a village. If you are in the pool with your kids and another kid is struggling, help them. If you see a kid struggling to swim and you’re worried, alert the lifeguard. Often these aren’t life-threatening struggles but it never hurts to be aware and to watch out for one another. Teach your kids to be aware of other kids around them as well — to make sure the coast is clear before they jump into the pool or to make sure they don’t bump into anyone while swimming.

I hope this advice from a former lifeguard was helpful, and not too redundant. I absolutely loved my job as a lifeguard and swim lesson instructor — it may have actually been my favorite job (minus the pay) — and I hope that by reading this you feel empowered to enroll your kids in swim lessons and make swimming a fun family activity, and I hope you feel less of that fear and uneasiness that comes with reading articles on drowning and drowning prevention. I love swimming so much, and I cannot wait until I have kids of my own and I can teach them to swim — and of course, a small part of me is already afraid that something could happen to them (but I’ve been told I’ll feel this way constantly throughout parenthood) — but anything can happen to anyone at anytime. We can’t control everything. We can only work within our span of control and make sure that we’re prepared and we’re preparing our kids for any scenario that could possibly go south.

In this case, our span of control is learning to swim and learning about water safety — and passing that knowledge on to our kids. Please share this if you found it helpful. And even if you don’t have kids, you can always be on the lookout — if you’re at a pool or at the beach or on vacation at the lake — we can all be part of the solution here. We can all play a part in making sure everyone’s kids are safe.

What’s Wrong With Youth Sports Today: Parents Edition

*Parents, please note that the following post contains a mix of satire and truth. It’s up to you to decide how much you take seriously. 

I recently posted about my personal experiences with youth sports and realized that I had more to say than would fit into one blog post.

So, here is the Parents Edition of What’s Wrong With Youth Sports Today.

I’ll just come right out and say it: parents are ruining youth sports. 

Now, someone remind me (once again) to write a follow-up on this once I have my own children. I’m sure I will have a boatload more to say at that point, but for now this is my stance.

Why are parents ruining youth sport? I’ll tell you why:

  • They are too damn supportive. Back in the day, parents just dropped their kids off at soccer practice and picked them up when they were done. Now, not only are your parents cheering you on at every game, they’re also telling you to run faster during practice. As kids, we play sports to get away from our parents. Don’t ruin this for us.
  • They only buy healthy snacks. These days everyone is gluten free and/or has a peanut allergy. Gone are the days when the snack after the game was not really a food group at all. I once saw a parent bring two veggie trays as a snack at a soccer jamboree and I almost fainted at the sight of it. What has the world come to?
  • They cheer so damn loud. Want to know why I chose swimming as my sport? Because you can’t hear your parents cheering you on if you’re underwater. I actually can’t even sit next to my mom at any sporting event because her cheer gradually gets louder and higher-pitched throughout the game, until you’re sure that you’re going to lose your hearing.
  • They’re convinced that their kid is the best. Although we could have used the self-esteem boost, I’m glad that our parents never told us we were the best players on the team. Because those kids have the worst attitudes and the worst sportsmanship. They’re the ones who throw a fit when the game just isn’t going their way or when another kid on the team isn’t as good as they are. They’re terrible to be around if the team is losing, and their parents enable that behavior.
  • They’re also convinced that they would be a better coach. I was going to say especially the dads, but the truth is that the moms are just as bad. I won’t discriminate based on gender. Every parent thinks that they could do a better job. They could shape up the team. They could lift their spirits. They could magically make every kid into a pro player by the end of the season. And they would do it without yelling as much as Coach Johnson does. You go, Karen. Let’s see you try and coach the team. You and your veggie trays won’t last an hour.
  • Or worse, they are the coach. I think the best year of soccer I ever played was when we had a coach who was a younger guy–I think he was in college–and he was not a parent of anyone on the team. Matter of fact, I don’t think he was a parent, period. Everyone on that team improved their skills, was given a chance to play a fair amount of time each game, and even the all-stars had better attitudes. Maybe this guy was just a soccer-coaching wizard, but I do think it makes a difference having a coach who isn’t a parent of one of their players. Matter of fact, more parents should coach opposing teams. I can’t think of anything better than winning against a team that your parent is coaching and I can’t think of anything worse than losing to that team.
  • They become an expert on the sport. There are pros and cons to this, of course, but overall I don’t think any kid wants their parent to micro-manage every aspect of their life based on their current sport. Especially since your kid probably isn’t going to become a professional athlete. Don’t crush their dreams, but maybe let them take some initiative and become an expert on their sport. Let them put in the extra hours practicing, if they want to, but don’t make them. Be there for them, support them, and remember that they already have a coach. 
  • They’re too invested. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a high-school-age referee or umpire get verbally abused by parents at a game. It’s youth sports, people! There are going to be bad calls. There are going to be questionable calls. There are going to be good calls that you still disagree with. Be a good example and don’t scream at the 16-year-old referee. He’s just trying to do his job and you’re making it harder. Go to a professional sporting event if you want to be surrounded by adults who complain about every referee’s call. Guess what? You can drink beer there, too! 

Okay, now that I’ve demeaned all of you and your life’s work as parents, what now?

Well, you can write me some hate mail or you can try something different:

  • Talk to your kids about your level of involvement in their sport. Maybe they absolutely love having you at every game cheering them on. Or maybe they really like hanging out with their friends in the dugout telling inappropriate jokes and they’d rather you not be around to spoil their fun! Maybe they want you to coach their team this year and they think you’re a great coach. Or maybe they would rather have a coach that is just a coach.
  • Consider coaching another team. If you love coaching and want to be heavily involved, consider coaching a team that your kid doesn’t play on. Obviously this could be a scheduling nightmare, so it might not work for everyone. But you might find that it’s actually more enjoyable to coach a bunch of kids you’ve never met. As a babysitter, I can tell you that kids usually behave better when they’re with anyone else besides their parents, so that could be a win-win!
  • Skip the games, or take a walk. If you find that you tend to get riled up watching your kid play, consider staying at home for some of their games, or taking a walk during the game if you suddenly hear yourself yelling five times louder and higher than normal. Or fill your water bottle with vodka if that calms you down. Either one.

And last but not least, don’t be an asshat. Just don’t. Your kid is watching you. Other kids are watching you. Other parents are watching you. Judgmental bloggers are watching you. Treat people with respect and don’t lose your shit over a youth sporting event. It’s supposed to be all about having fun, right?

Make youth sports fun again!

Side note: I realize that not everyone will be happy with me for giving unsolicited advice to parents, when I am not a parent myself. But think of it this way. I’m 23 years old. I remember vividly what it was like to be a kid. I think my parents still consider me a kid. So take this as advice from a kid’s perspective. Once I have kids of my own, I’m sure I will have plenty more to add from the perspective of a parent. Stay tuned. 

What’s Wrong With Youth Sports Today?

What’s wrong with youth sports today?

Probably a lot of things. But I can only speak to my personal experience. I was a competitive swimmer from the age of 9 to 17.

Swimming is a whole different ball game. Mainly because it isn’t a ballgame.

Swimming is an individual sport that sometimes pretends to be a team sport. Swimming is absolute hell. If you’re thinking about joining the military, try being a competitive swimmer first. There’s a much lower risk of death, but you’ll spend most of your day following orders, adhering to a strict regimen, and having no semblance of a social life. If you think swimming is an easy sport, meet me at the nearest olympic-size pool and bring your inhaler. Even if you don’t have an inhaler, you’ll need one.

If you like waking up before 5:00am and starting your day with a freezing cold shower, this may be the perfect sport for you!

loved swimming as a kid. I loved taking swim lessons. I picked it up quickly and I was so much better than the other kids. I loved playing in my grandpa’s pool and I loved swimming in lakes. I loved swimming in the tiny kiddie pool in my backyard. Yes, the one with the slide.

By the time I retired from swimming at the ripe old age of 17, I loathed it. 

The first problem with youth sports is that kids are being pressured at such a young age to pick just one to focus on. I swam and played soccer until high school. Then I decided to pursue swimming exclusively since I didn’t have time to do both. Why didn’t I have time? Because swimming took up too much of it. It was too demanding. If I wanted to be a great swimmer, I needed to dedicate all my time to it.

Or so the coaches said.

I loved my coaches. They were all great people and I really do believe they all meant well. It’s probably one of those trickle-down effect things. They had a coach who told them this is how it is, so then they became a coach and told us this is how it is.

I don’t blame them for their occasional Hitler-esque behavior. I blame the culture.

Everyone wants to hear that they have a shot at something. That it’s not too late for them to be great, to be the best. But let’s face it, some people are born with natural talent and all the right circumstances. The rest of us are born with the world’s greatest work ethic, and some of us work hard enough to measure up to the talent.

A side note: I am from the “everyone gets a trophy” generation and I have something I’d like to say about that. We didn’t even want the trophies. That was all on the parents, who just wanted to raise their kids without them ever having to feel left out or not good enough or disappointed in themselves. More on that in another post later.

But that’s what this all comes down to, right, is this lie that everyone gets a trophy just for participating. I really and truly believed that if I worked hard enough, I would be a fast enough swimmer to get a college scholarship. I’m not even talking about unrealistic dreams of getting to Olympic Trials. I just wanted a scholarship. Not even a full-ride, just a scholarship, just something to help me pay for college.

If my coaches had been honest with themselves and honest with me, I could have focused less on swimming (not quit, just spent less time and energy on it) and focused more on academics. As it was, I was killing myself trying to do both. But we keep telling ourselves this lie that if we work hard enough, the big break is coming. When in reality, the big break might have been something else entirely had we actually listened to the universe.

Swimming taught me a million lessons that I hold near and dear to my heart, so I don’t believe that I wasted any time. I don’t have regrets. In fact, I count my lucky stars that I was too busy and exhausted to really deal with high school drama. You know those people who wish they could go back to high school? Who are those people and what high school did they go to?! Not mine.

Swimming taught me dedication. 

I can’t think of anything more dedicated than getting up at 4:50am every day just to do something you’re mediocre at (other than what most of us do at our own jobs on a daily basis). I was 100% dedicated to the sport. I did everything right: the workouts, the stretches, the diet (all the carbs you can eat, baby). I suffered through the hard times. I went to swim meets when I had sinus infections. I went to swim meets when I had ear infections.

I kept swimming when I found out that I had exercise-induced asthma and the chlorine and all the other chemicals were literally killing my lungs. I got an inhaler that didn’t help, and I kept swimming. I kept swimming even when it seemed like it was so much easier for everyone else on the team. I kept swimming even when the younger kids gradually got better and faster than me.

And that dedication never really leaves you. I recently did the Whole30 with my husband and he struggled through the entire thing, complaining all the way. I laughed and told him we should do a Whole365. After he said hell to the no, he said I believe you would do that just to prove you could.

He’s 100% right. I can commit to just about anything and see it through to the end, and I owe it all to swimming.

Swimming also taught me when to quit. 

It’s really difficult to quit on anything when you’ve grown up with the quitting is not an option mentality. Now, my parents would never make me do anything I really didn’t want to do. But if the time came for piano lessons and I wasn’t feeling it that day, you bet they’d make me go.

I can hear my mom saying, you can go to piano crying or you can go to piano smiling, but you’re going either way. 

That exact scenario might not have even happened, but it’s hilarious to think about.

But there does come a time when you have to quit on things, or rather, let them go. It’s a fine line. You can’t keep working at a job you hate, but you can’t quit your job every time some little thing upsets you. That’s where the dedication comes in.

You do have to be able to quit, leave things behind, without feeling guilty or thinking you’re a quitter. I was in my senior year of high school and I was ready to leave a lot of things behind. I was burnt out, depressed, anemic (which wasn’t helping the depression), and felt like a shell of the person I used to be. Or I just didn’t have the energy to be the person I used to be.

Swimming and I had a good run. I got some ribbons, some medals, some recognition. I threw up at practice a dozen times. And I don’t know if it was one specific day or a multitude of days, but at some point that year I decided I would not continue swimming. I would finish up high school swim season and short course season and I would be done. I think I fought an internal battle with myself about this for years, but when it was all said and done all I felt was relief.

But, swimming also taught me to stay active.

So of course I decided to learn how to play hockey after that. I couldn’t handle all of the free time. I had to find something else to keep me busy. I also started teaching fitness classes at my gym. I joined a hockey team. And honestly, I was not very good, but most of us weren’t. It wasn’t about being the best, it was about having a good time and learning how to be better and challenging myself.

I have no regrets. I’m glad that I pushed through and kept swimming until I finished high school. It was a nice, clean break. But I think we have to start looking at youth sports in a different light.

Let your kids play the sports they enjoy. Of course there will be days when they hate soccer practice and they’ll have to tough it out, but recognize that there is a difference between not wanting to go to one soccer practice and never wanting to play soccer ever again.

Help them understand that there’s more to play for besides the trophy everyone gets. They are learning valuable skills that will help them later in life, and there’s also something to be said for practicing and improving your own skills, even if you’re not going to make it to the level you’d like to be at.

Walk away from things when it’s time to walk away. This could be a sport, it could be a job, it could be a person. Listen to what’s going on internally and allow yourself to quit if that’s what will make you happy.

And don’t let your kids be swimmers unless you want to wake up at 5am to take them to practice, wash their chlorine-covered towels, and buy 4 times as many groceries because we really do eat like Michael Phelps.

What’s wrong with youth sports today?

All the adult involvement. The competition. The seriousness. Not every kid is going to be the best. Your kid might not be the best.

Let’s give youth sports back to the kids.

And just let them have fun.

 

 

 

 

Conquer Your Mind

I ran a half marathon last weekend.

I have never ran more than 5 miles at one time, but I somehow managed to run 13.1 miles.
I guess you really can do anything you put your mind to.

I decided, on a whim, that I was going to do the AF Canyon Run. My company was participating and they offered to pay for 50% of the cost of registration. Bri had talked about wanting to do the AF Canyon Run before, so I asked if she wanted to do it with me. I figured she’d probably want to do the 10k and that didn’t seem too daunting.

Instead, she said “Well, 30 is supposed to be my big year, and running a half marathon is on my bucket list.”

So we signed up for the half marathon.

I told my fiancĂ© about this when he picked my up from work and the first thing he said was, “Oh thank god, I thought you were going to say that you registered me for the half marathon!”

Needless to say, he’s not getting out of it next year.

We registered really late for the race. I think we had about two weeks to prepare, so training was out. I tried to do some running, like one or two miles every other day. I probably didn’t even run 13 miles in the two weeks leading up to the race.

The goal was to finish in less than 3 hours. The first 7 miles were downhill through the canyon, so I figured we could run most of that without stopping too much. Luckily, the race started at 6am, so we wouldn’t be running in the 95 degree weather. We took a shuttle up the canyon at 4am and had to wait an hour and a half for the race to start. I hadn’t thought about the fact that it would probably be a lot colder in the canyon than it had been at my apartment that morning, so I hadn’t brought a sweatshirt.

Fortunately, they were handing out space blankets to everyone else who hadn’t thought to bring a sweatshirt. I now know why they tell you to bring one of those when you go hiking or camping, because they really do keep you warm! Imagine a hundred people sitting on the ground wrapped in space blankets; it looked like some sort of a refugee camp on Mars.

Finally, we started running and it didn’t seem so bad until we realized that my Apple Watch was actually about 0.2 miles off. It did boost our confidence when it said our pace was a 9:30-minute mile, although that may have not actually been true. At the very least, it did tell time correctly. We had to be out of the canyon by 8am, so we were at least able to use the $200 watch to check the time.

We made it out of the canyon without stopping, which was about 7.5 miles so we were over halfway there. This was such a profound, empowering moment for me because I was still making conversation with Bri the entire time. I have struggled with allergy and exercise-induced asthma since my swimming days, and even exercising at the 4,000 feet altitude in Utah has been harder for me. But I felt amazing after those first 7 miles. I could breathe. I could talk. The only thing that hurt was my entire body at that point, but hey, my lungs felt great.

The second half was a lot harder than the first. It was now an uphill/downhill/flat ever-changing landscape of a trail that wound through golf-courses and neighborhoods. And it was hot. It had been so cold when we first started running, but once we got out of the canyon and the sun came up, it felt way too hot to be exercising.

And the crazy thing was that people were out on the trail doing their regular morning run/bike and cheering us on.

When we finally made it to the finish line, so many people from my work were standing there cheering and waving. I cannot even begin to describe how ecstatic I was to be waving back at them and smiling as I crossed the finish line. In my most out-of-shape moment in life, I ran a half marathon.

Some of that euphoria wore off when I realized how much my legs hurt, and that I was chafing in places I hadn’t chafed since I did the swim-a-thon. But once I took a two hour nap and ate about a dozen Olive Garden breadsticks, I remembered that empowered feeling.

My legs are still sore and it’s been two weeks, so I’m not sure that the moral of this story should be “run a half marathon with absolutely no training” but I do think there is something to be said for not letting anything stand in your way of doing what you want to do, especially your own mind.

We are our biggest supporters and our harshest critics. So much of what we want to accomplish, especially when it comes to exercise, is a mental effort more than a physical effort. It’s harder to get out of bed at 5am than it is to do the actual workout once you get to the gym. It’s harder to run if you tell yourself constantly that you’re not good at running.

I think that the one thing that helped me through this race was that the only way I could fail was to not finish it. I didn’t tell myself that I had to run the whole way. I just told myself that I was going to make it to the finish line.

So, whatever you’re trying to accomplish right now, whether it’s getting up at 5am and going to the gym, or eating healthier, or spending more time with your family, or taking the time to read more books, remember that you can accomplish anything that you put your mind to.

Conquer your mind and you can, quite literally, do it all.