While reviewing entries for the remaining meets this season (and of course, discussions with parents), the thought occurred to me that Age Group Swimming has become pretty falsely fail safe. We set goals and pretty well offer unlimited opportunities to succeed... which isn't he way that life works... heck, it isn't even the way that our sport works. Ask any swimmer if they had multiple chances to make the Canada Games Team; no, they had to perform at Senior Nationals in April. No other chances. Kelly Aspinal was the dominant freestyler and backstroker in Canadian Swimming this year, but he will not be swimming in Barcelona at World Championships because he did not perform well enough at World Trials in April (same meet as I previously mentioned).
How are we making our sport falsely"fail safe"?
Over the years, younger swimmers have tended to use the "time trial" bail out system for
qualification times; can't do it at the meet so we try again and again later. This is sort of asinine because it teaches athletes that there is always another chance... when in many cases there is not really.
Lets use Canadian Age Group Championships as an example; Ontario athletes have had all season to qualify for 3 events at CAGC and will have 1 final shot in Brantford this weekend at the Ontario Age Group Championships. I feel that athletes should really use this opportunity to swim fast and qualify. If they cannot qualify at this championship meet due to the pressure (or you feel that it is too much pressure to put on an athlete), what is achieving a qualification time at a later time trial going to achieve? There is no less pressure at the Canadian Age Group Championships than there is at the Provincial Age Group Championships. In reality, this athlete has really done everything that they can just to qualify for the event... what more can be expected at another meet in 2 weeks time? Especially when the athlete could not get the time in a stressful environment of a Provincial Championship. Yes the athlete will participate in the Canadian Age Group Championships... but is that what we really want..? I mean... I know that no one is happy when Ontario Athletes just participate in tour teams. I know that no one is happy when Canadian athletes just participated in NACC in the past. I KNOW FOR SURE that no one will be happy if our Canadian Athletes go to Barcelona just to participate in World Championships. We need to be teaching competitiveness.
I hope that my message will get across properly and not misconstrued (as it often is) as being harsh or mean spirited. Yes, it is wonderful to allow people to participate in championships, and yes it may keep them interested in the sport for another season, but for the athlete that requires that gratification just to move forward with their career, another road block will very likely deter them sometime soon. There is purpose in failing your goal sometimes, and often, it serves some good. Learning to cope with disappointment can be very beneficial down the road if your athlete fails to make the Canada Games Team or make the World Championship team, or ends up as a coach whose athletes fail to make either.
Sport is great because its brings out the best in us. It make us want to see people succeed and warm our hearts when they do. It makes us sad and sympathetic when athletes don't succeed, especially when they are our own children. But never underestimate the determination of an athlete; under the tears and disappointment there is hope and the acceptance of a challenge. If parents and coaches are doing their jobs propperly, this athlete still enjoys competition, still enjoys racing and understands that the sun will still come up tomorrow, their parents still them them and the square rout of pi is still 1.77245385091 (I'm right on that one, trust me).
Our sport offers many opportunities to build successful people and athletes, but it also offers many opportunities to circumnavigate those opportunities and settle for instant gratification. Please use failure (especially failure to qualify) as a means to build a more successful and hungry athlete and person and not search for 20 more opportunities to get it right... because life and our sport beyond age 14 do not work that way. We need to prepare our athletes, the future of Canadian sport, to perform when it matters - to perform on command - and not teach them that there is always next week's time trial.