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by Terry Heggy

September 14, 2016

Strategies for retaining new swimmers

From our perspective as Masters swim coaches, the benefits of participating in our programs are obvious. Masters swimming provides conspicuous improvements in health, fitness, and racing speed—as well as endless opportunities for fun and friendship. And if that’s not enough, well, who wouldn’t want to bask in the awesome glow of the coach’s abundant personal charm and charisma, right?

And yet somehow some people still hesitate come on board. Here are some tips for converting those solo swimmers into lifelong Masters club members.

Recognize Reasons for Reluctance

The first step is to acknowledge and address the concerns people may have. Each potential Masters swimmer has unique anxieties about joining a team, which might include:

  • Being intimidated by faster swimmers or the perceived difficulty of workouts
  • Memories of the draconian discipline required by age-group swim team coaches
  • Lack of desire to compete
  • Lack of swimming background (e.g., not knowing butterfly, being too slow, etc.)
  • Cost and/or schedule concerns
  • Inability to accept that they may not be able to achieve the performance of their glory days.

Assure swimmers that your Masters program welcomes all skill levels and will provide detailed instructions for those who aren’t experienced with the workout environment or team terminology. Point out cases of other swimmers in your group who share similar challenges. For example, at our morning practices, several people have to get out early to get kids to school or to get to work—and that’s OK. And because we swim at altitude, we understand that people who’ve moved here from the flatlands need extra rest while acclimating.

For those who are concerned with comparisons to others or to old times, emphasize the fun and fitness aspects of the program. Make sure they understand that the coach is there to help them achieve their goals in a supportive and noncritical environment.

Provide a Warm Welcome

When new swimmers come to try out your team, greet them sincerely and introduce yourself with a smile. Ask if they’ve swum on a team before, and listen carefully while they explain their motivation for joining you. Collect any information you need, including:

  • Name and contact information
  • Swimming goals
  • How they feel about stroke feedback and technique correction.
  • Current speed (so you can point them toward an appropriate lane)

New swimmers might or might not be able to tell you their normal workout pace (i.e. “1:25 per 100” or “25 minutes for a mile”), but you should be able to get an idea based on a description of their swimming experience. Once the workout begins, monitor how well their speed fits with their lane mates and move them if necessary.

The most important part of your initial interaction is to introduce the new swimmer to the rest of the team. Make an announcement to the entire group, repeating the new swimmer’s name more than once. Encourage the team to introduce themselves individually when they get a chance.

Run Through the Routine

Provide a brief explanation of anything the new swimmer needs to know, especially if you use terminology or lane etiquette that is unique to your group. Make sure they feel comfortable easing into things, asking questions, and taking breaks if they are still developing a basic fitness level.

Remember the importance of phrasing as you talk to your team. When people are in a new situation, they don’t want to look stupid and might not ask questions they should be asking.

  • Instead of asking, “Do you understand?” (which seems to put the communication responsibility on them), say, “Did I explain that thoroughly enough?” or “Would you like me to give you another example?” (which makes you seem responsible for getting the message across.)
  • Instead of saying, “You’re doing that wrong!” say, “I think your streamline (or breathing or whatever) would be better if you made this change.”

Select a Mentor

When you introduce a new swimmer to her lane partners, select one of the more experienced and sociable folks in the lane to be her homeroom resource. “Elaine knows how everything works here; she will be happy to answer any questions or explain the set if I’m not making sense.”

This not only gives the new swimmer a go-to asset within the lane, but also lets the mentor know that you trust and respect her as a valuable member of the team.

Follow Up

Check in with new swimmers after the first set to see how they’re doing and to answer any questions. When the workout is over, be sure to thank them for attending and invite them back. It’s also a good idea to hand them something tangible as a reminder to return. Such handouts might include:

  • The coach’s business card (including the team website)
  • Team or USMS-logo merchandise (caps, decals, refrigerator magnets, etc.)
  • Workout, competition, and social event calendar printout
  • Etiquette summary

You may also want to email or call the swimmer after the workout to reiterate that you appreciate their participation, and to ask if they have any feedback or concerns. Treat each attendee as a valued member of your team, and your program will consistently grow and thrive.


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