Everything you need to know about swim meets: About a 10 minute (and informative) read

Jessica Evans

Good morning parents,

As we start our new season and start to post swim meets that our team will be attending, I wanted to send out an update about how swim meets work and try to answer some common questions that I get this time of the year. Each season, we have a lot of kids starting with us who have previously competed in a summer league season, and we also have swimmers who will be competing in their first swim meet. Even if you’ve been on the team in the past and have been to many swim meets, please be sure to read this information, and let me know if you have any questions.

For all swimmers: Yes, you need to participate in swim meets, and here’s the “big picture” for why it’s so important.

We have just started the swimming “short course season,” which generally is from September through March. Swimming is a year-round sport; the second season of swimming is the “long course season,” which generally is from April through August. The difference? During the short course season, meets are conducted in 25-yard pools; during the long course season, meets are conducted in 50-meter pools. Our team practices in short course pools; a long course pool is also called an “Olympic” pool because the Olympics is conducted in a 50-meter pool.

During each swimming season, the training at practices focuses on the competition distance (short course or long course), and target events for each swimming group to compete in. Leading into each meet on our calendar, practices will generally focus on the events the coaches are training the group to race. The goal for the end of the short course season (February and March) is to compete in championship meets. If you qualify for a championship meet, our team’s expectation is that you will compete at that meet. Even if you haven’t qualified yet, you should keep those weekends free on your schedule so you can go if your swimmer qualifies. (I’ll talk about championship meets and dates in a future update, so be watching for that in a few weeks.)

Our team will participate in many types of swim meets as we train through the swimming season. Just like we have progressions during the season in terms of practice, the progression also applies to swim meets. This idea is similar for most other sports, as well. For example, this past weekend most college football teams opened their seasons by playing opponents that would give them the best chance at starting the season in a way that allowed new players to work together, to run new plays, to learn the signals for the play calls, and so forth. In other words, you didn’t see the #1 team in the country starting their season playing the #2 team in the country. Swimming starts off with the same goal; swim meets that occur early in the season (September & October) are where everyone else is new to the sport or rusty from not competing in a while, too, and working on new things. These early meets focus on learning what to do and working on what practices have focused on. Around mid-season (December) and later in the season, the team focuses less on “learning what to do” and more on “racing,” so please make sure your swimmer doesn’t skip these early season meets. Because of how the swimming season works, you shouldn’t postpone going to meets out of a fear of “not being ready,” without talking to your coach first to get his/her advice.

Second, some meets during our season require qualifying times. For example, at some meets, you might only be eligible to swim a 200 Freestyle event if you have raced that event in the past and earned a certain time, such as a B time standard for your age and gender. (I’ll cover time standards in another newsletter, so be watching for that.) The meet information posted on the meet’s page on our website provides these types of details about events. The take-away here is that it’s important to swim new events at meets where there are no qualifying times, so you get the chance to race the event, and also, so you can try to earn a qualifying time to race the event again at a future meet.

Third, some parents tell me that their kids are “not competitive” and won’t attend meets. Going to practice gets boring without the feedback and experience you get at a swim meet. Can you imagine telling your soccer or football coach that you’ll just be coming to practice but won’t go to games? There’s really nothing to worry about; competing at an age group swim meet is just like going to a soccer game. At a swim meet, swimmers are entered into heats, and you will swim against swimmers who swim events in approximately the same time as you. For example, the fastest swimmers in each event might be seeded into heat 1, and the slowest swimmers into heat 20. Depending on what your entry time is, you’ll be seeded into one of those 20 heats, against swimmers who have similar entry times as you do. Most meets seed athletes into heats by entry time, and not by age, so you might not always swim against swimmers your same age, but they will be approximately the same speed. For new swimmers, the coach will estimate their entry times so they swim in the appropriate heats.

Fourth, swim meets are the benchmarks on how we train through a season and they are where kids get tangible and individual feedback on how they are doing at practice. Our seasonal plans include the swimmers going to meets and swimming different events. The coaches use swim meets to drive the workouts they plan each day. When a coach sees that a swimmer or group has mastered certain skill progressions, they can move them forward to the next set of skills. Likewise, if the swimmers haven’t mastered something, the coaches can continue practicing it. The reason that we want to see progress at a meet is because this is where we can really assess mastery of the skill because it’s being put to the test, “under stress.”

Finally, your teammates need you at the meet. Being at a meet with your team is what makes meets and being on a swim team more fun. If you’re not going meets, your teammates will miss you. Plus, when the kids who went to the meet come back to practice on Monday, they always are talking about how much fun they had at the meet. If your swimmer skipped the meet, they not only lose the opportunity to race and get feedback, they also missed out on the team bonding that happens at a meet.  

How do I sign up for swim meets, see our meet schedule, who picks events, how do I get my swimmer’s results, when do I need to arrive and when can I leave, and how do I pay meet fees? Below is some information about how meets work, how to enter, and other details that are helpful to understand the process.  

  • You must sign up for swim meets before the entry deadline on the meet’s page on the website. After logging in, click your swimmer’s name and either select the option to attend or decline the meet. Meets that have been sanctioned by USA Swimming and that our team will be attending are posted here, and the sign up page includes the meet’s date, estimated times, entry link, full meet information document (linked at the bottom of the page), and information about which swimmers are qualified to attend the meet. There are instructions on the meet page about how to sign up for a meet. You’ll always get a couple of email reminders when meets are posted and alerting you to the meet’s entry deadline. If you miss a deadline, we sometimes can still enter you in the meet if we have not yet submitted our team’s entries to the meet host. After we send our team’s entries, you can’t enter the meet. So, please stay on top of meet entry deadlines.
  • Generally, the coaches pick events for swimmers, based on what they are working on with your individual swimmer or with their practice group. You can pick your child’s events on the entry page, but the coach will review them and will very likely make changes, based on what and how your swimmer is doing at practice. Your swimmer might really love swimming a certain stroke, but the coach needs to help to decide if your swimmer is legally swimming that event and ready to race it. Please trust the coaches to manage your swimmer’s events. If you have comments about events or need to let a coach know that your child can only swim on certain days, please enter those types of things in the “Notes” box on the entry page.
  • Each session of a meet has a designated warmup period for our team, which will be communicated to you a few days prior to the meet date in our “meet update.” You should not skip warmups, because this is when your swimmer gets a chance to swim in the pool and to learn its layout, how to move around the deck, where the restrooms are, and so forth. There may be a separate warmup session for dives, as well, so they can practice diving off the blocks. Swim blocks are not always the same, so they need time to practice dives. Arriving early for a meet also allows your swimmer to get settled and reduces anxiety. If there are changes to the meet operations, the coaches will also need that time to talk with them before the meet starts. It might be tempting to look at a meet’s timeline and decide to arrive later because your athlete won’t swim for an hour or longer after you arrive; but please don’t do this to your swimmer. Warmups are an important part of the process and being there early will help to reduce anxiety.
  • You can leave a meet when your swimmer has completed his or her last event, but please check out with a coach first. The coach may ask you to warm down first, and you shouldn’t skip this important step. Warming up and warming down before and after your events is an important way to reduce soreness and lactic acid buildup.
  • If a swim meet occurs over several days, you can attend individual or all days of the meet. Keep in mind, however, that choosing just one day of a meet means that you are significantly limiting the events your swimmer can participate in, or you might be going on a day of the meet that has less appropriate or incorrect events for your swimmer. As much as possible, please plan to attend all days of a swim meet.
  • After entries close, you cannot change your events, even if your plans change or you need to leave early, come on a different day, etc.
  • Coaches usually approve events about one day after the meet’s entry deadline. You can see your swimmer’s approved events for a meet by logging back into the website and checking the meet’s entry page. After the coach reviews your swimmer’s events, the events will show “approved.” The coaches will add estimated seed times for new events, so the approved time might be your swimmer’s actual best time or a coach guess.
  • Meet fees are billed to the credit card you have on file on the day that the host team accepts our team’s entries and enters our team into the meet. This is automatic; you don’t need to do anything to pay for your meet fees. Meet fees are not refundable for any reason; we pay them to the meet host and the meet host won’t refund to us, so we are not able to refund them to you.
  • Meet results are usually published by the meet hosts on Meet Mobile during the meet (more info here), and we will send the full results to you after the meet’s conclusion.

How do athletes compete, do they get ribbons, what about relays and disqualifications, do parents need to volunteer, can I sit with my swimmer at a meet, and how can I determine if my swimmer is ready to go a meet (or to a particular meet)?

  • In general, swimmers swim at meets based on their entry time and not by age group. Most meets swim events as mixed gender, so boys and girls will swim events together. However, results are always by age group and gender. So, your 7-year-old swimmer might swim events with boys and girls who are the same age or a year or two older or younger, but her result will be published in the “Girls 10&under” age group.
  • Some meets split sessions by age group; for example, 12&unders in the morning and 13&overs in the afternoon.
  • Age groups for club meets are generally 10&under, 11-12, 13-14, and 15-18, by gender. Your swimmer’s age as of the first day of a swim meet is his/her age for the entire meet. 
  • Most meets do not award ribbons. There are a few exceptions for early season meets, but generally, ribbons and other awards are only offered at championship meets. And, there are no “heat winner” ribbons during the club season.
  • Relay events are generally only offered at championship meets, and the swimmers selected for relay teams are the fastest from each age group.
  • Swimmers will usually be notified of disqualifications at the meet by an official. Sometimes this is not possible when a meet does not have enough officials to notify swimmers. However, in most cases, a swimmer will be told about a DQ. When the swimmer isn’t notified, the coach might be notified. Remember, a DQ is just some feedback about how the swimmer is doing, so they can continue learning how to swim correctly. Don’t make a big deal out of disqualifications! This is part of learning how to swim. (Stroke rules are posted here, if you’re curious.)
  • The officials at a USA Swimming meet have completed a minimum of approximately 50 hours of training and mentoring. Officials at a summer league swim meet may have completed one or two hours of training, generally with no mentoring. The standard of officiating at club meets is much different than at summer league meets because USA Swimming officials are highly trained and qualified. It is not unusual at all for a swimmer to have a legal swim in summer league but then to be disqualified in that same event at a club meet because the level of officiating is much higher.
  • There are generally no parent jobs at swim meets; however, the meet host might require each team to fill a certain number of timer spots, and we will post signups when we have jobs we are required to fill. Officials at swim meets need to be certified by USA Swimming; these individuals are volunteers as well, and are usually also parents from the teams attending the meet.
  • Swimmers must be independent at meets; there are no age group parents, ready bench parents, or other parent volunteers on deck specifically working to assist swimmers. At a club meet, the swimmers sit in our designated team area with the coaches and will learn how to watch the scoreboard and how to get to their events on their own (with some coach supervision, of course). The coaches will teach them what to do at practices over the weeks leading into the meet, so they are prepared. However, the swimmer must be ready to be independent at the meet. A good start on this with younger swimmers is to have them walk in and out of practice on their own and to be responsible for their own stuff—putting on goggles and caps by themselves, carrying their swim bag and picking up their stuff after practice, and so forth will teach them good habits and build their confidence. If they are already doing these things at practice, it will be just like what they will do when they get to a swim meet, and this will make it possible for them to gain confidence and to be independent if they have learned to do these things without their parent.
  • Parents are not allowed on deck at club meets. Let me say that again, because it’s important. Parents are not allowed on deck at club meets! There are marshals to ensure that only coaches, swimmers, officials, and meet volunteers are “on deck;” parents are only allowed in areas that are designated for spectators. Please don’t be thinking, “I’ll sneak on deck,” because you won’t be able to do this. At some meets, like those conducted at The University of Texas, deck access is strictly enforced at the entrance; at other meets, there are marshals who will patrol the deck to keep spectators out of restricted areas. If it will cause anxiety or stress for your swimmer (or for you) to be at a meet without you by their side, please wait to sign up until your swimmer is ready. With that said, you can always watch your swimmer compete. However, you can’t walk them in or sit with them at some meets, walk them to their events, bring them food, help with goggles, and so forth. This rule applies equally for all swimmers; parents of new and younger swimmers are not allowed on deck, either. Also, the coaches are managing the team during a swim meet; the expectation should not be that the coach will individually manage each individual swimmer. This is why it’s so important to go to meets early in the season, when the coaches are more focused on teaching swimmers what to do at a swim meet, and also so your swimmer learns what to do.

What should we focus on at swim meets and how can I support my swimmer and the coaches?

Believe it or not, the time on the scoreboard is not always what defines a good swim. Our team’s goal is to build your swimmer’s long-term development. We often say that swimming is a marathon, and not a sprint. Focusing on the swimmer’s time is important, but that’s focusing on the “sprint.” Focusing on the “marathon” means that the coaches are looking at how the athlete swam the race, because this is the most important thing for a swimmer’s long-term development. Yes, your swimmer may have dropped some time in a race, and this is a great achievement. But your swimmer may have also had a slow start, a poor streamline, a poor breakout, a slow flip turn, and uneven split times. That best time won’t last if the swimmer races with poor technique and cannot implement the race strategy the coach taught him. So, we ask you not to get too overly excited and focused on a “best time.” Instead, ask your swimmer, “how did you race?” and “what did your coach say?”

Please don’t change your swimmer’s race strategy by telling him what to do. Swimmers need one person teaching them and that person is the coach. When the parent tells the swimmer what to do, the swimmer will need to make a choice of who to listen to, and this puts the swimmer in a bad spot that causes anxiety and uncertainty. It also puts the coach in a bad spot. Let the coaches do the coaching. If you have questions, ask the coach.

The best thing you can say to your swimmer at a swim meet is I LOVE WATCHING YOU SWIM. We talk about this approach as “being the grandparent.” You shouldn’t be giving your swimmer feedback about their race, speed, technique, or anything else; this is the coach’s job.

Before leaving a meet, be sure to ask your swimmer, “did you talk to your coach?” Please teach your swimmer to be accountable for their races and to ask the coach for feedback. If your swimmers says, “he didn’t tell me anything,” this is probably not true. What is true, however, is that some athletes head to mom or dad first, instead of to the coach. So, please help us by asking, “did you talk to your coach?” when they come and find you. Athletes should seek feedback from the coach first, and as parents, you should ask that question first. As a parent, you should tell them you loved watching them swim instead of telling them what you think they did right or wrong. We need your help to teach them that talking to their coach before and after their races is their responsibility.

Please be watching for additional newsletters about time standards and championship meets in the next few weeks. If you have any questions about swim meets, please reach out any time to me or your coach.

Jessica Evans