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A Checklist For Your First Open Water Practice

Written By: Ceallach Gibbons

So you’re planning your team’s first open water practice…maybe it’s the first open water practice of the season, or maybe it’s the first open water practice in your program’s history. Here is a two-part list with some suggestions for making this practice great:

Your To-Do List

  • USA Swimming, USA Triathlon, and a variety of other magazines all have some great resources for planning a safe and effective workout. Read, read, and read more!

  • Collect liability waivers from the swimmers who will participate in your open water practice. If your team works with an attorney, make sure the attorney has reviewed the waiver.

  • If you have a boss who you report into, (an Executive Director, a Head Coach etc.) make sure you clear the plan with them as well. Open water tends to make people who are unfamiliar with the sport anxious. Be proactive and talk to people about open water well in advance of your first practice so that you come across as prepared and thoughtful.

  • Pick your location! If you have a few ideas already, you can visit them, ask the lifeguards who work there questions about the swimming conditions, and then make a decision based on what you see/what you learn during this visit. If you have no idea where to practice, you can start Googling or look on Facebook. When I was training to swim the English Channel, I was traveling a lot for work. Anytime I was in a new city, I would type in “Open Water Swimming [Insert whatever city I was traveling to]” or “Triathlon [City Name]” and 90% of the time there was an active Facebook Group where people coordinated swims. Ask people in groups like this where the best spots are to take a swim team.

  • Visit your practice location well in advance with whoever is going to help you coach. Make mental notes of good meeting spots and the parking situation. This will be helpful information for families later on. There should always be more than one coach at a workout that has more than 2-3 people, and there should always be somebody on land with a cell phone who is prepared to assist in case of an emergency. Decide who is going to fill those roles, and visit the practice location with this group. You need to be able to reach a swimmer in distress within :20. Figure out what that means for how you coach. Will you be on a paddleboard/kayak, or will the swimmers be close enough to the shore that you can get to them easily? Your workout plan depends on figuring this out, so don’t skip out on the early site visit.

  • Host a parent meeting, describe the practice plan, and answer questions that people have about open water swimming ahead of time. Again, if parents feel like you are approaching open water practices thoughtfully and in an organized way, they are going to feel more confident sending their swimmer to this unfamiliar workout.

Your Packing List

  • The packing list obviously varies tremendously based on how you plan on coaching the workout, so this list is in no way comprehensive. These are simply the items that you should bring, regardless of how you’re planning on coaching the workout.

  • Enough swim buoys for every swimmer (ideal) or one of every two swimmers (if the athletes can swim in pairs) - the article linked HERE has options and explains why these are important!

  • A whistle/air horn in case you need to get everybody’s attention immediately. Explain what this noise is for ahead of time so that the swimmers know how to react when they hear the noise.

  • Waterproof/sand proof bag for your cell phone

  • Hand Warmers - you should tell the swimmers to pack extra layers for when they get out of the water, but inevitably somebody will underpack. Even if it is a hot sunny day, many athletes will be cold for some time after an open water swim.

  • A thermos of hot tea/hot chocolate (see above). I stop bringing this after the second or third practice of the season, because usually the swimmers get acclimated to the colder water by then and have improved their own packing skills.

Hopefully this is helpful as teams start to think about hosting open water workouts this summer. A successful first practice is all about preparation. Start now so that the logistics are less intimidating when you get closer to your first practice!

Ceallach Gibbons is the Director of Developmental Swimming at Rose Bowl Aquatics. Ceallach, (pronounced “Kelly”) oversees Rose Bowl’s 250-person developmental team, in addition to coaching 11 and 12 year old swimmers on the competitive team. Prior to coaching full time, Ceallach worked at an Executive Search and Nonprofit Consulting Firm, while volunteering with USA Swimming. While serving on USA Swimming’s national Athletes’ Executive Committee and LSC Development Committee, Ceallach implemented brand new programs that improved athlete representation in the sport and focused on developing young athletes’ leadership skills. Ceallach is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she swam for two years. In 2016, Ceallach completed a solo crossing of the English Channel in 15 hours and 26 minutes. Ceallach currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is training to swim the Catalina Channel.

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