When to take a step back

We all make mistakes. I’ve done this before too, and I know there’ll be equally as avoidable mistakes I’ll make in the future. But hopefully we learn from those errors.

I watch swim lessons every day, or I am coaching. It is rare that I’m not around a pool. It is what I do. Today, I watched a swim manager on deck and I want to talk to you about some of his choices. This is a post about being a manager on deck for your swim lessons. Most people that have found Swimming Ideas come for the fresh game ideas, but they stay because there are a lot of great resources available here for people that run their own programs. Today is for you, the swim manager.

Generally, the manager is not the person in the water (unless you’re Jennifer Butler from episode 054 of the Swimming Ideas Podcast).  Most of the time, the swim manager is on deck but in street clothes, or real clothes and they’re helping swim instructors get materials, talking with the parents, and making sure everyone is where they should be in. They likely go around the pool deck and follow up with swim instructors giving tips and feedback, and maybe even do some paper work like evaluations on deck.

The swim manager is the person with a plan. They’re the conductor of the train, and the driver of the truck. In my mind, the swim manager is the liaison between the parents, the kids, and the swim staff; the connection, the bridge between all the different parts of swim lessons.

Today I watched a swim manager in street clothes, in shoes, crouch down next to the pool near a group of 4 year olds, and try to get one to get in the water. He tried for 10 minutes to coax this 4 year old into the water. They both were on the side of the pool, and he was trying to splash water on the child’s body in an effort to encourage her into the water. Here is a list of mistakes:

  1. Wearing street clothes and shoes
  2. No connection to the swimmer. First time seeing this person.
  3. Was not in the water, was not a parent, and was not a trusted camp counselor.
  4. Made ineffective attempts at getting in water.
  5. Did not delegate.

This may seem an innocuous thing; helping to get a kid in the water. It isn’t though. It was a blunder of fundamental base level size. Let me explain each thing in detail, and we’ll wrap it up nicely. Give me a chance to prove that the swim manager should not be squatting down next to a 4 year old and splashing them to get them in the water.

Wearing street clothes and shoes

Uniforms have power. They distinguish people immediately apart from just random spectators, patrons, and non-employees. Even if your pool does not have a set uniform specifically required by staff (ours does not) you need to distinguish yourself apart from the crowd some how. Wear appropriate clothes. When you are on the pool desk in gym shoes, socks, khaki shorts with a belt, and a polo shirt with a collar you’re not really appropriate for an indoor pool. You stand out as different, you stand out as a patron or a parent. When you don’t look like you fit you put guards up on the kids you’re going to work with. Wear the uniform to inherently give you authority in the swimmer’s eyes. Or, wear flip flops, or clothing appropriate for your on deck activities. This also sets you apart so parents observing can recognize you and not worry about some random stranger talking to their kids.

No connection to the swimmer. First time seeing this person.

More detail about this incident today. Again, it was very benign, but it was a failed action and we can all learn from it. Today was the first day of a camp’s swim lessons at this indoor pool. The swim manager is the aquatic director. He had never seen these kids, and is not the direct supervisor of any of the staff. He does not teach swim lessons, but hires the managers and the swim instructors and the lifeguards. He does not lifeguard or teach swim lessons himself. He was on deck to make sure everything was going smoothly, and it largely was. These swim instructors know he’s the “big boss” and he gets to take any action he wants (basically). One class had 3 kids that were very comfortable in the water, and 1 kid that was hesitant. There were no extra swim instructors available to handle stray kids, and the on deck middle manager was also the lifeguard. When the swim manager knelt down to “help” this kid that wasn’t getting in the water it was a shock to the child because they didn’t know who this person was. He wasn’t wearing a swim suit, he wasn’t in the water, they had never seen him before, he hadn’t spoken to them during the introductions, and their parents didn’t tell them who this was. There was no preparation for his interaction with the child.

Generally, this is okay if your’e going to be around every day, but this swim manager will not be. He isn’t involved in the day to day operations, but the big picture.  His failure to help get this kid in the water was in part because the child had no connection to this man, and therefor no reason to react to his encouragement. The swim instructor ignored him and let him make the attempt because he is ultimately her boss.

Was not in the water, was not a parent, and was not a trusted camp counselor. 

The swim manager did not go in the water. In addition to never seeing this person before, the child did not know him as a manager. The kid only knew that this guy in regular clothes was talking to her and trying to get her wet and to go into the water. Remember, when you’re dealing with children it is important to introduce yourself, provide context to the kids so they know how to react to you. Interact with the swim staff (people the kids are already comfortable with) and have the instructor introduce you to the kid. If you want some authority with a child you need to earn it first to get the best results (especially in a situation like convincing someone to go in the water when they don’t want to). Earn their trust in some fashion first. The easiest way to do this is to get in the water yourself. If the swim manager had gotten in the water himself, this would be a totally different post.

Made ineffective attempts at getting child in the water.

I can tell you’re not going to be successful when you don’t get on the same level as the child. Sit in the puddle of water on the edge, dangle your feet in the pool too, put your suit on and jump in the water first. You have to be on the child’s level and involved in the moment if you’re going to get a return on your ‘ask.’  The swim manager today squatted down on his heels. He knelt at his knees without sitting down. The child was on deck, in a swim suit, with their feet in the water. Every attempt he made at scooping water onto her she flinched and tried to move away. They talked, he made more attempts at splashing her, and tried talking some more. Eventually he stood up and left the situation to the instructor.  Splashing a kid that sits on the water is not an effective tool. Sometimes you can splash water on someone to get them wet, so it physically motivates them to get in the water (because once you have a wet suit it is more physically comfortable in the water than drying off in a potentially cold environment outside the water). Most of the time it just annoys the child and gets them to dig in their heels and be more stubborn.

Did not delegate

Ultimately the swim manger should not have been the person encouraging the child into the water with the group. There should have been another staff member already in the water as an aide or the swim instructor themselves should be repeatedly offering opportunities for the reluctant child to participate. The no swim suit street clothed manager that the child has never seen should not be interacting with the kids much at all, especially during a lesson unless it is to give specific feedback for a swim evaluation. The swim manger should have let one of the swim instructors already in the water make the inclusion attempts. He did this attempt because there were parents watching and he wanted to put on a show of “doing something” to help the kid out. I think it made the problem worse, and had he done nothing and let the instructor engage in repeated offerings to join in the child would have responded better.

The kid did not enter the water at all today.

Ripping on this poor guy.

This was a mistake. We all make them (I do too!). Our goal is to learn from those mistakes and take steps to correct them before they happen again.

I mulled about this event most of the day wondering why it bothered me during the observation. Writing down now the list of things that went wrong none stand out as particularly “wrong” or “bad.” They just layer together into a failed attempt. I am certain the swim manager had good intentions, and was motivated for the right reasons: help out. It was simply the wrong choice. Had the swim manager simply done nothing and let the swim instructor do the standard procedure for reluctant children everything would have been great.

My suggestions to the swim managers that are not always on deck, or even the ones that are, is to let your staff handle situations the are capable of. If you’re a constant recognizable face in front of the kids, then take a more intimate role; get in the water too, sit next to the child, talk to the parents, etc.

Generally, I find it is best to smile and wave to the child and be a source of neutral conflict. If you want action taken, tell the swim instructor, that child’s direct contact in the water that they are comfortable with (more than some stranger). Let the swim instructor do the splashing, to give the ask, provide the interaction, and then move on to the next kid. Whether they are in the water or not, give them as much the same time as possible to make an attempt at each activity and get feedback.


What do you do? Are you a swim manager hip deep in the water every day wearing out your swim suit? Or are you in dress clothes and real shoes walking around on deck like you’re wearing a suit to a frat party? Leave your comment below with a brief description of how you handle reluctant kids at your program.

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