Swimmer motivation: Parents and other life authorities

Parents and other adults can help swimmers stay self-motivated.

Whether or not they might say so, kids look up to the important adults in their lives. Your feedback as the parent, grandparent, uncle, cousin, sibling, school teacher, or friend of a swimmer helps to reinforce their motivation.

Positives from parents

One of the things we coaches love hearing most is the feedback from parents about the progress that our swimmers are making in their life outside the water. Things like:

  • getting better grades, 
  • getting along better with their peers, 
  • enjoying practicing with their musical instruments, 
  • improving their athletic abilities,
  • becoming more self disciplined,
  • improving  mathematical and time management concepts,
  • succeeding at other interests or hobbies
  • feeling more confident in general

According to a 2017 review of studies by the University of South Wales, children’s brains benefited significantly from exercise-induced effects. The executive functions of the brain — self control, selective attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, intelligence, and academic achievement — were the most positively impacted. 

Internal motivation is the No. 1 motivator for long-term success in both the sport of swimming and life in general. That doesn’t mean you should stay silent and just let them figure it out. What you do as a parent or other significant person in the life of a swimmer can provide some fuel to keep that internal fire burning.

The importance of reinforcement

So how can you help a swimmer reinforce self motivation? It’s easier than you think, and it doesn’t involve a lot (or any) sugary-sweet ego-inflation tactics. A “pat on the back” and acknowledgment of a job well done is always appreciated — but only if it actually was a well-done job. 

It can be very reinforcing to have someone notice your achievement when you’re already glowing inside about it yourself. Tune in and let your swimmer buzz about that good feeling they’re having and don’t worry, they won’t end up conceited by bragging on themselves a little and feeling positively about themselves. 

Just by its very nature, the life of teenagerhood does plenty to slap one down from time to time. Allowing them to develop a well-deserved positive self image based on one’s own self achievements is crucial to developing a healthy self identity. Poor self image is at the root of many bad choices such as addictions, unhealthy relationships, and lack of life motivation in general.

Nurturing self-motivation

Reinforcing your swimmer’s happiness at accomplishing a goal is pretty simple. Showing up to meets, helping out with timing, and volunteering for the team are all subtle ways of affirming your interest in their endeavors.

But how do you help a swimmer who seems to be losing their motivation? Learning what to do —and what not to do — can help guide them back onto the path of finding that internal fire of motivation.

Listen and acknowledge

The most important thing you can do for your swimmer is to listen without judgment, whether they are expressing positive or negative experiences. Kids need this external processing to gain clarity on their own feelings without being told how they “should” feel from someone who wasn’t in the pool inside their skin. Sometimes a thought just needs to be vented to someone they feel can listen and understand.

Many times, just saying something out loud sounds much less consequential than the gravity one gives it in their mind. Or they can get a self-sense of the tremendous improvement they accomplished when they hear themselves speak about how they’re overcoming a particular challenge. 

Let your swimmer talk about their time in the pool. Get the ball rolling with open-ended questions like

  • What type of sets did you do today?
  • How did you feel about your workout this morning?
  • Tell me about the most challenging (or most fun, or funniest, etc.) thing about practice today.

Tune into how they’re feeling and acknowledge that feeling: “Wow, that sounds like you were feeling pretty challenged about that.”

Guide, don’t solve

If your swimmer is discouraged about their lack of progress or anything else having to do with swim life, ask them what they’ve done to overcome the challenge. “How have you handled that so far?” or “What have you done to get past that plateau?” gets them focused on how they can be their own solution and advocate for themselves. 

Should they seem at a loss for ideas, ask “Have you talked to your coach about that issue?” “What did he/she suggest?” It’s okay if you don’t understand all the mechanics of techniques or sets or other technical things about swimming (and there won’t be a “pop quiz.”) By verbalizing what was told to them,  they must process it on a deeper level — learning by teaching the information, one of the most effective ways to wire information — and this can be the moment things “click.”

If their challenge involves social life at the pool or a peer, asking whether they’ve talked to that person directly is a good start. “How do you think that person will react if you tell them directly that this is bothering you?” “ What words would you use when talking to them?” “Is this something you feel should be brought to the coach’s attention?” are examples of effective ways to guide your child to find their own solutions from within themselves.

Encourage them to take action if needed

The easiest way to get your kid to clam up and start holding everything inside is to go talk to the coach or other swimmer’s parent about an issue they’re having. At the very least, they’ve missed an opportunity for self-empowerment, and — even if the issue gets solved — they can often feel powerless, humiliated, or even betrayed by you taking matters into your own hands. They’ll fear the future consequence of sharing things with you if they feel out-of-control of what happens after they do so.

Ask your swimmer, “What action do you feel you need to take?” As they reflect on their answer, they might find that no action at all needs to be taken — they just needed to vent.  Many times the answer will be something along the lines of needing to listen to the coach more, work on the technique, work on their self-talk when they start to get tired, etc. Again, this verbal processing is helping them build confidence in figuring it out on their own.

“How would you like me to support you in this?” is a good follow-up question. Most times you’ll hear that they’ll take care of it themselves, so let them. Other times, you might get asked to help them wake up 10 minutes earlier so they’re ready to make it to practice in time for getting a good warmup, hold them accountable for doing dry land exercises, or help come up with pre-workout food that fuels their body but won’t make them nauseous.

Even very young children are capable of conversing with the coach or a peer to solve an issue, and your confidence in their ability to do so can be very esteem-building to their identity. Should your child have difficulty in being understood, ask if they want you to go with them for assistance. Even non-verbal children can be very effective in communicating their needs and enjoy the independence of being able to try on their own. 

Focus on the whole picture

It’s been said that “the best coach is the coach.” Instituting extra dryland exercises, a rigid diet, swimming-related reading, or other at-home activities designed to improve their swimming game can actually backfire and result in a swimmer losing motivation completely. Your coach will let you or your swimmer know what or if anything needs to be done at home.

Allow your child to develop their identity outside of being a swimmer when they’re away from the pool. A kid can become overwhelmed by the pressure of having this singular identity thrust upon them. Laugh, play, watch movies, do silly stuff, learn new things, let them hang out with non-swim friends, and just have fun discovering all the various aspects of their personality. 

Taking time for interests outside of swimming is vital to developing a well-rounded person. And inevitably, when they’re experiencing a plateau or are feeling out of alignment with swim stuff, it won’t feel like their entire world is crashing down. And that’s key to staying motivated from within, both inside the pool and out. 

If you’d like to be part of a motivated team, check out our team website, Sedona Race Pace Club. For more details, contact our head coach, Sean Emery at 928.254.7765.