Should Children Swim Competitively or for Exercise?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 30th, 2012

This week a magazine writer asked me to respond to a series of questions, many of which address what sort of guidance or encouragement parents should offer their children about getting involved with swimming. I had not been asked such questions — at least formally as in a magazine interview — in years, and some of my answers surprised me. For instance I found that — after some 40 years as a swimming coach, and nearly 50 years after I first swam competitively and loving it now more than ever — I struggled with being able to give a thumb’s  up to joining a youth swim team. Here’s a partial transcript of the writer’s questions and my replies — where the questions addressed topics of interest to parents.

Do you think that swimming–competitively or simply as exercise–is something that a child should be introduced to?

Learning to swim should be a part of every child’s developmental experiences for three reasons:

(1) For safety in and around water;

(2) As a physical-learning experience to complement the intellectual-learning experiences they have in school and via reading, etc.  Swimming is unique among all physical activities in that it’s ‘alien’ to us in an evolutionary sense and thus provides more exacting learning challenges that can develop patience, problem-solving skills, persistence in the face of difficult, etc.

(3) To develop a lifelong love of swimming.  Exercise is something that should ‘happen’ as a natural part of swimming  but not be the primary or overt goal. Swimming competitively should be a choice, but parents should be consider it with awareness that, unfortunately, the majority of young competitive swimmers burn out or become injured from training regimens that too often sacrifice learning and quality experience in favor of tedious and unimaginative rote repetition.

Do you feel swimming competitively or for fitness will affect the child’s confidence in the water and translate into a higher fitness level over-all?

If a child learns to love swimming, it’s more likely it will aid in developing a lifelong love of being active, of using their body well. If they love those, they are more likely to continue for the long term. I’ve seen countless competitive swimmers–including over 90% of those I swam with in my youth–who have the skill to swim any distance, but lose all taste for swimming after years of  repetitive training.


Do you think that having parents who are a part of a master’s swim team would be a good influence on a child, in that they will be taught the importance of physical activity early on?

I think that having parents who are physically active, who model a demonstrative joy in being active will help persuade a child to view activity as a desirable and rewarding thing. Masters swimming can be one way. But so can regular swimming for personal improvement or even Mastery, without the formal structure of a team.

 Do you think that taking up swimming competitively can be a good way to motivate a child into reaching their full potential and getting into the sport?

I used to believe that was so. But now—though I coached competitive swimming for some 30 years, and still swim competitivel—I would have difficulty recommending it to parents. I’ve seen too many instances where children are given mindless laps with no stroke instruction or correction and little or no feedback. If a child does express interest in joining a swim team, parents should make an effort to find a team and coach who believe strongly in practices oriented more to developing skill than fitness.  

Is swimming something a family can do together as exercise? Could a parent lead a workout?

The healthiest thing a parent can do for their child is to exemplify a love of swimming, an appreciation for doing it well, an attitude of continuous improvement and lifelong learning, and – again — and a sense of joy in being active. Exercise, as I say above, is something that should ‘happen,’ rather than being the overt goal.

Do you have any recommendations for families who want to get into the sport together?

Do it for pleasure and to develop a love of swimming.

35 Responses to “Should Children Swim Competitively or for Exercise?”

  1. Douglass Turner says:

    Great piece Terry. As a parent I really like where your head is at.

    Question: where can I take my kids to learn the TI approach?

    Doug Turner

  2. Susan says:

    I coached age group swimming and completely agree. It is refreshing to see this attitude and I wish more parents that push their child into competiton could see this article. One of the head coaches that I worked with told a swimmer if she didn’t want to compete, then she couldn’t be on the team. I completely disagree. Even if it is a competive team, and they love swimming, give them an option of whether or not they want to compete.
    My daughter used to love swimming, but after being coached and doing endless laps of worthless swimming she informed me “I hate swim”. It is unfortunate that the coaches that still use the traditional coaching style don’t see this.

    For my “bucket list” my number one goal is to some day become a TI coach and change the attitude of the local community regarding what it means to be a member of a swim club.

  3. Bob Hopkins says:

    As Jonty Skinner told me in the mid 70’s when he was coaching a swim clinic in NJ that our son attended as a 9 year old, “the biggest mistake we make is taking a watch to our kids since that forces a focus on speed before they learn to swim correctly”. That seemed to be a strange comment but now, almost 40 years later, I know he was correct since a focus on speed tends to make a swimmer forget about correct technique in his quest to go faster. I agree with Terry’s comments. Focus on learning to swim correctly, which is counter intuitive for almost all humans, and the joy of swimming will develop through the learning experience. That approach has a much higher probability of leading to a lifetime of swimming that a focus on competitive swimming. The two are not mutually exclusive however. If a child is fortunate enough to get on a swim team that understands that a concentration on teaching correct swimming technique is the first (and most important in my opinion) step in developing a good competitive swimmer, the child will develop a love for the sport and he or she will eventually end up swimming faster because the child will have developed the necessary skills.

  4. Rich Morris says:

    Seriously? You don’t want to tell parents to find a program that keeps it fun and gives instruction? we do exist, you know. You and I have paralleled courses for over 50 years, and most times I agree with you. But I am still loving swimming after 53 years of competition, as a swimmer at club, HS and DI, and later as a master’s, a Coach for 30 years, and now a new love for open water swims.

    There are good programs, and yes, there are mindless garbage yardage bad programs. But swimming is still the only sport that can save your life.

  5. Bill Brennan says:

    Interesting subject. Thoughtful answers that apply to all competitive sports for children. I would add that children’s athletic programs should consider and encourage scholastic achievement and good citizenship skills as an integral part of the program.

    Bill Brennan

  6. Julie says:

    Though I accidentally clicked the thumbs down (I can’t seem to undo that on my little phone.). I whole heartedly agree with the interviewee. When I was a PE teacher I thought it was more important to encourage the student to have fun and develop a habit of life-long fitness–along with activities involving proper techniques–instead of really pushing the competitive drive. After all, that is what is most beneficial for their health in the long run. However, there are those certain kids who strive for more. Those are the ones who are most self-sufficient and do not need to be pushed to compete. (I was one of those, and I have the injuries of years of competition to prove it. Though I would and will never give up those experiences.)

  7. Barry says:

    As a father of three children I couldn’t agree more with what Terry said…
    My wife and I exercise almost everyday and this has reflected into what our family sees as a healthy aspect of a good life…

  8. Jeanne says:

    What a great article!

    I was on a summer pool swim team and the bad things we were taught by folks barely out of high school with no training whatsoever were harmful and boring.

    I started swimming TI around 2001 and it makes swimming a joy.

    It strikes me that there is an obsession with fitness and it’s good to see you, Terry, point out “the sense of joy in being active”; “practices oriented more to developing skill than fitness”; and to “do it for pleasure and to develop a love of swimming.”

    Excellent article!

  9. Jeanne says:

    What a great article!

    I swam with a summer pool swim team…what a joke! They (kids barely out of HS whose only knowledge is what other untrained kids taught them) taught us bad habits and boring laps and, frankly, things quite injurious to our shoulders.

    I know adults now who have never recovered from the more serious swim teams and can’t enjoy swimming…they can only race. One woman at the pool was always waiting for me to push off so she could “race” me while I was trying to work on my skills. Sick! Some can’t even go into the water anymore. Sad!

    I started doing TI swimming in 2001 and over the years have developed great skills and it has been FUN, challenging, interesting and a great learning experience to know I could practice and master something.

    I think the obsession with fitness in our society is insane. I love how you point out that kids can “sacrifice learning” and should find a coach “oriented more to developing skill.” Also, the importance of the “sense of joy in being active” and to “do it for pleasure and to develop a love of swimming.”

    Right on, Terry!

  10. Karen Reeder says:

    This is an interesting article, but I disagree that fitness should not be a goal of practice. Also, every kid is not the same or enjoys the same type of workouts. We had to look hard for a program that fit our 10-year old boy. He “loves” (really) to swim those laps that you call “mindless”. We tried teams that did lots of kick and of drill, he gets cold and ends up jumping up and down to stay warm, doesn’t listen, doesn’t like those workouts. Maybe boys are different, but schools really focus on them sitting still and paying attention all day and for many this is difficult. Swimming up and down without having someone tell you what do do all the time might be a nice break from constant instruction and perceived criticism. I’m not saying that some drill and stroke instruction isn’t important, but sometime kinesthetic learning is how kids learn. I coach some young kids too and some have a lot of trouble learning the breaststroke kick. I can keep showing them how to do it, different drills, moving their legs the proper way, etc, etc. and some are able to get it. But with others I’ve found that if they just keep trying it they “feel” that it’s not right and eventually they make changes that propel them. Also, with some young kids, they don’t have the muscular skill or coordination to execute drills properly. That comes over time with skill they gain just swimming, feeling the water and learning about their body and the water. Know your kid and find a program that they enjoy. Perfect technique (and their is always debate about what IS perfect technique) shouldn’t be the goal either.

  11. Eesha Bhattacharyya says:

    I love to swim and have been swimming for excersize and enjoyment for 35 yrs, and now that I have young children have been thinking about having them start swim team. But after reading your response to the questions I think I agree that maybe wait and see if its something they can learn to love for themselves.

  12. Kevin Edge says:

    My son will not get in a pool after comp. swimming from age 7-15 yr. It did build him the classic swimmers body however.

  13. Brad says:

    This is an excellent article and I agree totally with the idea of picking a coach/team carefully. As a child, one of my favorite activities was swimming. That was until I started formal lessons. Apparently I was a decent swimmer so they moved me from the “crabs” to the “sharks” group. The sharks were all older, stronger, and better swimmers. I remember the “coach” saying something like, ” Let’s see how the little guy likes laps.” I was then instructed to keep doing laps until I was told to stop. I was never told to stop, and kept going until I was exhausted and had to be helped out of the pool. Needless to say, I soured on the whole organized swimming, be it lessons or swim team.

  14. MIke says:

    Article discussing the swim requirements at certain US schools and colleges. Hopefully a 30 minute orientation explaining why swimming skills and their benefit both in and out of the water are part of the test.

  15. Robin Hoare says:

    Well said, Terry. I think our “civilisation” (and it’s as bad in NZ as it seems to be in the US) is preoccupied with champions to the detriment of everyone else. If you can’t be a champion, don’t bother! It’s an old joke that “research has found that 50% of people are below average in ”
    Noone wants the mediocre in a swim team! Or as a better example, what basketball team would welcome a 5ft player?
    Some people (like me) have small feet, and if they won’t angle straight/backward you cannot get as much thrust in a freestyle kick as someone with big flexible feet, like swimfins!
    But that does not mean that the mediocre can’t enjoy swimming. My wife Jenny and I enjoyed relearning our strokes with your teaching methods, and were surprised some years ago (I’m now 78) when we found at Shane Gould’s TI course in Auckland some years ago that our style was better than many younger folk.
    You may be interested in a website about exercise in general : a program started by the late lamented Phil Lawler. It has the right attitude, which is consistent with yours.
    Anyway, thanks for all you are doing and the effect it has had on us old folk.
    Kia ora
    Robin and Jenny Hoare

  16. Wow. Loaded questions. Great replies.

    I agree in large part. Frankly, I would not put my son or daughter onto a majority of the swim teams I’ve encountered in the USA. It would be better to not swim rather than to swim with a coach and a team that is too unreasonable. The kid, the parent(s), coaches, program and community all need to fit. A rinky-dink team might be great for Sally but tragic for Sandy.

    Global priorities need to fit. And, often, as with kids and growth and development, they change. And, great programs can make accommodation to those changes with different training groups, etc.

    Furthermore, some programs in some settings are so wonderful that there is no chance in hell that I’d allow my kid to NOT be on the team.

    As for swimming, I’m finding great fun and opportunity with water polo as an experience. I’m organizing water polo camps for our city kids and learn to swim, learn sportsmanship, learn fitness, play, and of course, have a blast. Some kids are team sport people. The lap swimming, not so much.

    Finally, getting a parent to coach your child’s workout is, perhaps, a very bad idea. One on one coaching with your kid over the long haul is going to be a long journey full of frustrations, I dare say. Better to be in a supportive role. Okay to be a fill-in coach with a squad, sure. Okay to be a professional coach and have your son or daughter on the squad, in the group, in the programs. But solo coaching a lone athlete that you’ve given birth to for months and years to come — don’t go there. And if you are there, you’ll not listen to my $.02 comments anyway. Be an assistant with a good program. Be a board member with a good program. Set up a booster program with a school program. Organize a road trip to camps or clinics or meets. There are lots of great things to do with your kids and coaching them as PARENT and HEAD COACH is far down the list of most pleasant things to do together.

    Mark -at- Rauterkus -dot- com

  17. Patrick Quinn says:

    Dear Terry, I could not agree more with your reasoning about childhood swimming.
    I learned to swim just for fun in a river that ran past our house. Swimming gave me the ability later to explore many new and exciting places along that river, places one could not reach on foot. Later it allowed me to explore places around the world and to become literally immersed in places where otherwise I might only observe. Swimming ultimately enabled me to recover from
    heart surgery in my forties and eventually to take up competitive ( Masters) swimming in my fifties thus opening up a whole new social world to me. Just when I was starting to overtrain in my seventies I was fortunate enough to learn from your “effortless” and “fishlike” techniques
    so that by my second childhood in my eighties I became an All American. Now isn’t that a laugh!


  18. I totally agree that swimming competitively for kids is not necessary nor it is it necessary to push a child into any competitive sport. There is too much emphasis on competing and lately I have been wondering if anybody swims, or bikes or runs just for the sheer fun of it any more. I see very little of that. Out of the group of master swimmers I swim with , and in another location just a swimming group, I am the only one that does not actively compete. I swam as a child competitively but got tired of jumping in a cold pool to swim mind numbing laps. After grade school I never really swam that much again until I was in my 40’s when the various sports I had been doing took a toll on my back. Swimming was the last aerobic sport I could do that had a low impact on my body. So I went back to the pool again , found out about TI, and spent 4 years reteaching myself the stroke from the videos as they were so different than what I had learned 35 years before. Got feedback where I could and now I totally enjoy swimming much more than I ever did…except for the mindless lap swimming… but TI gives me lots to work on and practice and keeps my brain from being bored. I think had I had this knowledge as well as my Tai Chi knowledge at the time I was swimming competitively I would have not gotten so burned out on swimming nor would I have damaged my body so much. So I have since gone on to help other friends improve their swimming and watch them become enthused again about a sport they were becoming all too frustrated with and bored. The end goal was the competition not the personal satisfaction of swimming easier and more efficient. Somewhere along the way the simple pleasure in the actual process of learning to do something well has gotten lost with the need for instant reward . Swimming like all things one does in life is a life long learning process, it does not end with each race it is infinite. That would be a lesson better taught to our children .

  19. Ron Segal says:

    Terry, your advice on this, although focused on swimming, reflects a great philosophical approach to life in general. Thank you.

  20. Valerie Armstead says:

    Well put. I would add that starting children when they are infants or toddlers is much better than waiting until they have developed a fear of water.
    All my children naturally love the water because of their early start. I had the more difficult route of learning in adulthood. I regret not making water more part of my life until the adult years.

  21. Nel Myers says:

    I appreciate these comments from Terry, as they put competitive swimming in the overall context of the joy of acquiring a life skill, not just as a means to an end; winning or fitness.

    However, why Terry do you never comment about introducing children to your excellent methods? As adults we come to TI swimming having to correct erroneous ideas and methods we were taught as children and young people?

    How about a program for very young swimmers and those learning to swim? Why not START with your methods?

    Perhaps you could give us some insights about how to best go about doing that?

  22. Mitch says:

    My youngest son out of 6 is 13 and is going for stage 11 this coming summer holidays. He’ll do 2 X 2 week sessions and on completion should have passed stage 13 In Western Australia they have 2 week “learn to swim” classes going from Royal Life Saving Society stage 1 through to 16 (Bronze Medallion). This only costs $10 for each session. I can never understand why more parents don’t insist that their children do it. My other 5 sons all acquired their Bronze.

  23. Coach Steve says:

    I agree w/TL on on his concerns & on the recommended focus of enjoyable exercise. I have been a special Olympics Aquatics coach for hundreds of athletes. Most love the structure of the practice & were observed over time developing their skills & the love of the water.
    There were also many rewarding social skill opportunities helping to build healthy interpersonal & team dynamics. Families learned to enjoy the water by “exercising” together.
    It was always important for me as coach, my staff & parents to be aware of the child who expressed displeasure or anxiety surrounding his mandate to be on a swim team. These children sometimes maintained a fear of the water, struggled w/competition or resisted the structure of swim practice.
    So in my opinion, begin as an option, always keep it fun, enjoy as a family & most of all – just let it happen!

  24. andrew spargo says:

    great advice!

  25. Gang Lu says:

    I am on you side, Terry.

  26. D.L. FINNEGAN says:

    Hi Terry:

    I read your comments with great interest. I have put my own children, and their children, into many swim programs over the years. From that vantage point I really appreciated the thoughfulness and many years of experience behind your words.


  27. Thanks for this Terry.

    Question: Where in the Boston area can my son learn the Total Immersion approach?


  28. Uwe Britsch says:


    Thanks for your comments. As a life long swimmer and a coach for the last ten years, I completely agree. One reason I stopped coaching age group swimmers is dealing with impatient parents who wanted their kids swimming more and more yards. The best story in Olympic swimming was about Missy Franklin’s coach and his approach to training but unfortunately all the parents remember is Michael Phelps swimming across the Atlantic and getting lots of gold medals.

  29. Doug
    We have relatively few coaches who work with kids, but I’m encouraging all to consider it. Cathy Adams in western MA works with MANY kids and does a brilliant job of it. She also coaches adults.

  30. Kia ora Robin and Jenny. I wish I were down under in your most fair country right now. So happy to see you following my blog.

  31. Karen
    I believe a healthy child is a fit child. But I think they will take more readily to an activity program of any sort if fitness is a natural byproduct, rather than the overt goal of the program.
    And I personally DID love working hard every day,and – up to a point – that was its own reward. But I was a tiny minority. Of the 100-plus teammates I had in HS, club and college swimming between 15 and 20, only three or four of us are still swimming actively today. The others cannot conceive that swimming could be enjoyable — or that it’s necessary to always be swimming faster to find satisfaction in swimming. It seems such a shame to me that being on swim teams killed their enthusiasm for swimming. And the yardage, etc we did from 66-72 were child’s play compared to what swim teams do now.

  32. Greg Purviance says:

    I love the response to the questions. In training for Ironman and other distance triathlons, I spend a lot of time in the local pool. I started bringing the family( son 12, daughter 8 and my wife) to the pool with me a few years ago. The kids would either just play or maybe swim a few laps. Now my kids encourage each other to swim farther and I get to help with them improving technique. I am not a swim instructor, but I love seeing their improvements resulting in more comfortably swimming longer distances. This year my son did a 1.8 mile open water swim with me and he wants to do it again next year. Simply amazing. I have so many people tell me my kids are such good swimmers that we should put them on the swim team. If either of them ever ask to do it I would certainly help them, but I would much rather see how many different active things my kids can find to learn and enjoy. My son loves running, biking, Nordic skiing as well as other sports. I think that learning healthy ways to stay active are way more important that being on a swim team unless that becomes their passion.

  33. What a good advice and great articles!
    I like it ” Do it for pleasure and to develop a love of swimming.”

  34. Carmella Gavin says:

    My grandson swims competitively and loves it. he IS ELEVEN YEARS OLD. Since he was a toe walker since he first started walking, he did not do well with ball sports. We tried but he always seemed uncomfortable. The minute he gets into the water he feels relaxed and has not A problem. As a toddler we tried many things such as medical intervention to get him to not WALK on his toes. SteeL braces for a couple of years when he was two and a half. HE NAVER COMPLIANED ABOUT ANY OF THIS. Nothing helped. sO WHY TORTURE HIM ANY LONGER. sINCE HE LOVED THE WATER WE ENTERED HIM INTO COMPETETIVE SWIMMING WHICH HE LOVES AND ALWAYS LOOKS FORWARD TO HIS PRACTICES AND MEETS. He has come in first and second many times and he swims in the Midwest regional swimming competitions.

  35. Carmella Gavin says:

    We never pushed my grandson into competitive swimming. He had a high school junior who taught him how to swim at four years old. When my grandson reached five years old, he said he should be put in competitive swimming. We searched out a nearby swim club and enrolled him. We saw how much Rocco loved the water. So we enrolled with a near by swim team which were very good with small children and encouraged them in a fun way. Now he competes but he is the same way at school or anything else he does. He wants to be the best. Learning comes easy to him. He loves school and he loves swimming. He does not like ball sports. As long as Rocco enjoys swimming and competitive swimming he will swim.

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