Nurture swimmers or let nature take its course?

Should we nurture swimmers or just let them have fun?

The term nurture is defined as the following:

the action or process of nurturing someone or something.
“the nurture of children”

synonyms – encouragement, promotion, fostering, development, cultivation,boosting, furtherance, advancement

Nature vs nurture swimmersThere is no way that we could predict the future the moment you hold your child in your arms for the first time.  The Doris Day song Que Cera come to mind, but we all know that it is just not as easy as Doris’ song makes it sound.

We had no idea that our little girl would love water that much, that her first career wish, aged 6 would be to be a swimmer and that at an early age, she would excel at what she loves doing most and that is swimming.  I think that if we knew, we would have prepared more…..

Prepare more?  You would ask.  Well, if we knew what we know now (please note it is still early days) then we most likely would have changed careers, moved to a town where we live close to the pool with top coaches and private schools where the parents are approached with scholarships just because the kid is a good swimmer.

Instead, we stayed in our small town as we love living here (it just happens to be Amanzimtoti where Penny Heyns hail from) and are now sweating it out with our swimmer.  In the one LinkedIn post, Swimming Road Block, I explain the roadblock we hit the first year of Age group swimming and how we overcame the obstacle. Bottom line is that we are doing the best we can with what we have.

In one of the swimming blogs I follow, this comment was made by a poster and it prompted me to think about the harshness of the swimming world as some do not believe we should nurture swimmers especially if they show talent at a young age:

 The problem is everyone has or has experienced “that kid” in their club or area that is just phenomenal and breaks all the records but in 99% of the cases they plateau and or lose interest in swimming, so just understand that people will be skeptical and honest in their discussion here.

Let’s take a look at some points that came to mind when we decide whether we should allow nature to just run its course or nurture swimmers:

Nature vs nurture swimmers:

Here is the question: Should we just let our talented swimmer swim as long as they have fun and give it up when they had enough or should we nurture this love for water, love for the sport, competing and winning to grow our swimmers into the athlete that he or she could be?

I like to base decisions on facts and research done on other athletes and here is a very interesting read that I found the other day called Long-term development in Swimming.

On the first page of the document, you will find a paragraph referring to the Ten-year-rule which identified that it takes, at least, ten years or 10,000 hours for talented athletes to achieve sporting excellence.

The top female swimmers such as Katie Ledecky confirms the above research.  She started swimming when she was 6 and qualified for her first Olympics aged 15 (2012).  I tried to find more information about her younger years but other than sweet moments when she was young, nothing was to be found – guess they have a book coming :).

This is just my personal opinion, but I think it is a bit of both.  Let me explain.  We let nature take its course in the sense of having fun through swimming fun galas while we nurture swimmers by teaching them to swim correctly, learning the rules so that they are FINA compliant and be mentally strong when competition is tough.

Nature: With Monica, we are very clear in our communication before events as parents and her coaches – for example on 13 March 2016, Monica will swim a fun gala (MiniLympics) with a best friend whom we are helping improve her strokes.  This little project is a mom-daughter project and on Saturdays, we help our neighbor and friend in her home pool with some stroke correction. It is an act of love for the sport paying it forward without expecting anything back.  It would be interesting to see how our guidance plays out with this swimmer in such an informal way. The important point I want to make is that we grow the love for what we do through acts of kindness and sharing the gift.

Nurture swimmers: SSA L1 champs is held from 31 March – 4 April 2016.  At this event the nurture part comes into play as this is serious business – we compete for times and we prepare for it.  The event is spread over 4 days of extensive competition against 10-year-old swimmers.  In preparation for this event we eat right, sleep more, work hard, focus and mentally prepare to race.  It is a culmination of 12 months’ of training and the last time before the end of the season where she could change her 10 & Under ranking.  Monica loves the process and the routine – in March 2015, she told dad and Coach after the SSA L1 champs that she loves racing.  She just turned eight and it was quite a commitment at such a young age.

I just feel that we cannot leave the talent just to have fun and see where it goes.  As parents, we have an obligation to make the kids’ dreams come true (or, at least, try our best) through growing the passion and at the same time prevent boredom with the sport in a supportive and responsible manner.

Nurture humility:

During the school holidays, Monica met a 12-year-old swimmer from another province.  Monica’s friends and family of the swimmer mentioned to her that Monica is also a pretty good swimmer in our local province (KZN).  The 12-year-old receives the Victrix Ludorum trophy in her local school every year and is now a level 2 swimmer.  While playing, she asked Monica what her times were and where she place in the rankings – Monica replied with: I do not know.

Yes, it is the truth.  Monica does not know her times and she does not know where she ranks.  She is eight-years-old. (Swimming South Africa rankings are available on their website. Provincial top 30 rankings on Swimmersden)

Humility is something that cannot just be left to nature.  It is natural for children to develop a sense of pride as far as their achievements are concerned.  Rightly so, as swimming takes a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment.  There is, however, a big difference when arrogance sets in.  And a huge difference when a swimmer is confident versus arrogant.

It is the cornerstone and one of the building blocks we are laying down in the foundation.  Our rule is simply to never assume you will win.  There is always someone better than you.  Nobody can swim in your lane and you should swim your own race against your own time.

We also have little boxes.  At an early age, we realized that Monica has the ability to shut out all other distractions and just focus on the task at hand.  We created virtual boxes.  School box, music box, swim box, play box.  It helps a lot to have these virtual boxes as when the swim box is closed, it is closed.  She does not talk about it, think about it, dream, write or sleep about swimming.

The one time we threw a question out on Social media before the start of an event.  Monica looked very focused in the photo.  The question was:

What do you think goes through her mind before she swims?

Pre-race focus what is she thinking?

We received some awesome inspiring quotes from friends and family that follow us on Facebook. The answer, however, was Nothing.  It showed us that she is not stressed, arrogant, or thinking anything until she gets on that block for the start.  It is a very important trait to have and as a swim mom, I really do hope that this does not change when she grows older.

It is our responsibility as parents to nurture humility in our swimmers – if we leave it to nature the swimmers are just bound to become arrogant – something which they might regret later in life as swimming is a long road.

Nurture sportsmanship:

We soon realized that it is not easy being the parents of that kid within the two years of being swim parents. It did not take long before Monica had a target on her back with 8-year-olds up to 12-year-olds swimming to beat her.

Inevitably with the children swimming together, parents also meet up and become friends.  At one of the swim meets, a swimmer stated that she would like to beat Monica in the 50-meter backstroke.  Her mother mentioned it to me and said she commented not today, as one of Monica’s strong strokes are backstroke.

I kindly advised her to start thinking about it from another perspective.  If their youngest daughter is chasing Monica, she will most likely swim one of her best times.  So instead of saying not today, it might be more motivational to tell her Go for it.  Monica is not unbeatable and a good challenge is sometimes what she needs as well.  We should nurture swimmers and guide them to believe that nothing is impossible – if we put our mind to it, we could do it.

In support of the humility point, good sportsmanship goes hand-in-hand with humility.  As swim Mom, I teach her to thank the other swimmers for a good race if she raced well and was challenged.

It does not always work out the way we would like to as during an age-group-gala, Monica thanked a 12-year-old the one time for the race.  The response was a nose-in-the-air with no comment to Monica.  Our eight-year-old did not understand this.  I saw it happen and later had a discussion with Monica about it by asking her what happened there.  She was a bit confused as she said she really enjoyed racing with this teenager but did not understand when they got out of the pool and received this reaction to her thanking the athlete for a good race.

Results that cause an upset

Age group 2 Gala results where the 8-year-old delivered her first level 2 time in the 100 m freestyle aged 8.

It opened the opportunity to prove my point about sportsmanship.  I explained to her that her comment was not received well as she touched before the 12-year-old swimmer.  In the spirit of good sportsmanship, Monica did the right thing to thank her for the race but the other swimmer obviously still needs to learn this so her reaction was dismissive as she is obviously very good at what she does and did not like to be defeated.

It is very important never to think that you are unbeatable and to display dismay when a younger and better performer on the day beat you at your game.  The right and polite thing to do is to congratulate the swimmer for a fair and challenging race.  It will earn respect from fellow swimmers when you display good sportsmanship.  You can always go back to the drawing board and look at where the competitor put more effort in to win that race on the day.

Should we nurture swimmers?  In conclusion:

It is never easy to be the parent of a talented kid and it is a personal decision whether you should let nature take it course and see how far swimming goes or whether we, as parents, should nurture swimmers.  We are doing it the hard way, not by choice, but by necessity.  It is a journey, it is a long road.  I would like to believe we are doing right by our ways, guiding and teaching our young swimmer to become a responsible, humble, respected adult and athlete displaying good sportsmanship.  There are elements in life which you could leave to nature and there are elements which you need to nurture.  The decision is, however, up to you, the parent but, in my opinion, we should also nurture swimmers especially when it comes to humility and sportsmanship.

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