In Praise of Swim Teams and Step-Daughters
Want to keep your kid on the straight and narrow path? With our Brady Bunch of 5 kids and endless activities, my husband and I have found no better method than hard core swim team.
So far, we are either remarkably lucky or remarkably successful. Our kids get into normal kinds of trouble and achieve higher than average successes; my husband and I, by the standards of the Western world, have trod similar paths. Of the 5 kids and 2 of us, 6 of 7 have been on swim team, and 5 of 7 have been hard core about it at some point in their lives.
A friend recently pointed me to the book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” by Malcolm Gladwell, to ask if it matched our experiences; granted we are not churning out the type of “outliers” that Gladwell profiles, i.e., Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and the Beatles. In Outliers, Gladwell discusses how family, culture, and friendship each play a role in an individual’s success. He notes that success “is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.”
What is it about the advantage of the swim team life provided by their family that adds to a child/young adult/adult’s success? Let me explain by giving you a snapshot of the life of my step daughter, Michelle, although I could just as easily talk about her talented older sister Nicole.
First, I submit that it is an advantage to be born into a family that deliberately creates an environment to maximize a child’s chances of success, and looks for activities that build life skills and help ground the child throughout the dangers and distractions of the growing-up years. You probably wouldn’t be reading this post if you weren’t the kind of person/parent who believed in this role as a parental responsibility. My parents strived to create this for me. I in turn strive to create it for my children and step-children; to borrow from an oft-repeated concept on this blog, I believe I am accountable to provide this for our offspring, that it is my privilege and my duty.
Now, with this in mind, let’s look at the life of Michelle. Michelle is finishing her junior year in high school. She has participated in year-round swim team since she was five years old and before that watched Nicole swim competitively. She has played a variety of other sports as well as engaged in activities ranging from an elite choir to flute to yearbook. Her current swim schedule with Houston Swim Club and Bellaire High School Swim Team requires her to put in 15-20 hours in the water a week. That’s added-on to her normal high school schedule. Michelle has a 3.6 grade point average. She was a Texas 5A Regional Finalist in the 200 butterfly. She is representing the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Caribbean Islands Swimming Championships in Cuba in the 200 Butterfly this summer. She is a member of the award-winning Bellaire Choir’s prestigious Concert Chorale group. By anyone’s standards, Michelle is succeeding.
How does swim team play a part in her success? Despite the number of hours it requires — or because of it — Michelle is able to fit everything in. She knows she is time-constrained, so by necessity she and other swimmers become masterful at organizing their lives, from young ages. NOTE: swim team did not always require so many hours of her; the hours have increased as she has reached successively higher levels of competition. So 13-year old Samantha spends only 10+ hours in the pool each week, in comparison to Michelle’s 15+.
Michelle, without any parental prompting, packs her backpack and — most nights — 2 swim and/or school bags, her lunch, her snacks, and lays everything out before bed time. She leaves the house at 4:45 or 7:15 a.m. each morning depending on her practice schedule and does not return home again before 7:20 p.m. She can’t run home if she forgets something, and both the household parents work, so she must plan for what she needs or do without. She gets ready, sometimes more than once a day, in tiny, crowded bathrooms or locker rooms. When she gets home at night, she quickly eats and showers, does homework, and gets in bed. Her early rising/long days and high level of athletic activity require sleep, sleep, sleep. To give herself more time for sleep and homework, Michelle voluntarily took summer school last summer so that she could have a study hall period during the school year.
Part of ensuring success is ensuring that teens stay out of trouble, and swim team contributes to this goal beautifully. Michelle has a nice social life, but she is too sleep deprived to get out of hand even on the weekend. And she and her swim team friends prize their membership on their club team. The coach is a stickler on commitment, and he won’t tolerate kids that are drinking, doing drugs, or too tired to practice because they are out partying all the time. They are normal kids, and we are sure there’s a little more fun going on than we know, but not a whole heck of a lot.
The swim team environment is a culture of achievement. The swimmers are all striving for personal best, and they normalize the effort required to achieve it for each other. People, if you have never done it, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it is to swim a 1500 for a warm-up, fifty 50’s each at a pace I can’t make for a single 50, and another 1500 for a cool down. Or how excruciating a 200 meter butterfly really is, how much your shoulders hurt, how hard it is to breathe. Yet it becomes second nature for these kids to do this because they look around them, and everyone is doing it.
Participation in this type of life-skill building activity is not without sacrifice to the parents. For years, we have driven kids (and ourselves) to and from the pool multiple times a day. The pool is 20 minutes from our house. Before Michelle got her driver’s license, between her and Samantha, we drove 11-15 round trips a week to the pool. Most swimmers cannot compete at high levels without this kind of time dedication and without the training and support of what is known as a club team, which costs a couple of thousand dollars a year per swimmer. (Some teams offer scholarships, or are able to discount their fees if they are supported in whole or part by donations.) Swim meets range from 2-3 days apiece and with two swimmers in the house we usually have 2 meets a month. We sit on concrete for hours upon days cheering the girls on, which is also critical to their commitment and ultimate success. They need to know we care and are watching them, or they disconnect from the activity. So we watch. And we watch and we watch and we watch!
Success, of course, is not just about effort and achievement. It is also about quality of life. And Michelle loves to swim. The first thing Michelle does when we visit a hotel with a pool is grab a swim suit and run for the water. She loves swimming so much that she plans to continue swimming in college, just for fun. She plans to combine her swimming with a little bicycling and running some day too and follow her Dad’s footsteps into triathlon. 75% or more of the time, she is a perky, chirpy, happy girl who is fun to be around, too…and the rest of the time she is a moody teenage girl, which may be less than the national average for girls her age. She’s a heck of a lot nicer and happier than I was.
In fact, Michelle wants to swim so badly that when she qualified for CISC in Cuba this summer and we realized that our pool of funds had run dry, she chipped in $400 of her own money from her savings and by foregoing part of her 2010 birthday and Christmas haul and initiated (with parental help) a fundraising campaign for the $2000 she needed. As of the time of this blog, she has $1430 and would love to see a few more tax-deductible contributions (email me at email@example.com); the tax deductible status is made possible because donations for her support can be made directly to Virgin Islands Swim Federation, a registered non-profit.
What would our life, and hers, be like without swimming? More sleep, probably! But, other than that, I can’t think that it would be better. Michelle moved in with us when she was 13, so I became her day-to-day step-mom instead of occasional step-parent at an age when she should have been her most difficult. She is, instead, the easiest of our remaining “at home” kids, and I believe it is in part due to the impact swim team has upon her. And partly because she is an exceptionally good kid who has been raised well long before she moved in with me.
I hope this answers my friend’s question. I believe that the swim experience in our household follows the “Outliers” mold. It creates life skills in our kids that add to the other advantages, accidents, and efforts in creating their opportunity for success. What works in your household?
Three cheers for swim clubs.
Hip Hip Hurrah
Hip Hip Hurrah
Go MICHELLE, Rock CISC!!
Wishing you all much success on your own terms,
Pamelot (sometimes known as “Momela”)