Swimming With the Sharks

A good friend who’s a premier competitive swim coach (as well as my running buddy) shared the following story. It’s a cautionary tale for parents of young athletes and non-athletes alike …

The team my friend SB coaches is known throughout the community for its excellence, as well as its progressive approach to young competitors and an unusual awareness of what is and isn’t healthy for them. As a result, they have a set of rules intended to rein in overenthusiastic parents and limit how hard they push their kids.

One such rule prohibits swimmers from participating in training or coaching outside the practices approved by the team. Members can request individual coaching (kind of like swim tutoring), but it must be approved and provided by one of the team coaches. The purpose is to avoid a clash of philosophy and/or technique that could be confusing to the child, and to prevent overtraining.

Apparently, a small group of parents with children in the ‘under 12’ age group weren’t satisfied with this rule. They formed a “secret society” (yes, that’s what they called it) and quietly hired an outside coach to provide additional lessons for their children only. They warned the kids not to tell anyone, and continued this practice every week for three years.

What’s worse, this outside coach didn’t share the training philosophy of the team coaches. He used extreme techniques, including making all kinds of unwarranted ‘olympic’ promises and guarantees to motivate the parents and kids.

And oh, by the way … one thing this group of parents didn’t know? He also had a past history that included sexual abuse of young swimmers. Oops.

A month or so ago one of the parents got an attack of the guilts. She came to SB and confessed all. The three years of deception, asking children as young as 10 to lie to their coaches and teammates, breaking a cardinal rule, all of it.

Whistleblower mom still didn’t know about outside coach’s history, but SB did. Some years ago, this coach had been ejected from the national association and spent time behind bars because of it. The team would never have sanctioned him to train their swimmers.

SB was, of course, furious. But, as she described it, she was also sick about it. Positively nauseated. She’d seen a lot of bad behavior on the part of parents over the years, but this was just SO wrong on SO many levels. And she had to figure out a course of action. Fast.

What should she do about the kids involved? Throw them off the team? Some had started this secret coaching when they were 10. They’re 13 now. Should they be punished for “the sins of the fathers”?  Could they be expected to stand up to their parents at such an early age?

Who should be told, and how much? Was this something the entire group of team parents needed to know? How about the other kids?

What was the purpose of the ultimate consequences to the families involved? To punish the parents? To purge the team of the rogue group? To send a message to all the parents that such behavior won’t be tolerated, the rules are there for good reason — to protect kids? All of the above?

Should whistleblower mom be treated the same as the others?

And what about outside coach? Should he be reported to the national association? To law enforcement? There was no evidence he had behaved illegally with these children, but should he be coaching?

Every decision impacted every other, and meanwhile SB felt blind-sided and dirtied. These kids are as important to her as her own, and it was critically important to do right by them.

Let us know what you think. What would you do if you were SB? What if you were the parent of another child on the team? What if you were the whistleblower? Does this story make you feel differently about kids and competitive sports?

This is rough stuff. SB says problems with overzealous parents who push kids too hard are escalating across the board. How can we curb this athletic insanity?  And the insanity doesn’t stop at the edge of the pool or the door of the gym.  What if we substitute “college admissions coach” for “swim coach”?  The ripple effect spreads far and wide, and we’re all participants.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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