Building Your Program Through Meaningful Relationships & Positive Word of Mouth

Written By: Jonathan Kaplan

If you’re anything like me, or most swimmers for that matter, you LOVE food! Even though I’m getting up there in years now, I remember my swimming days like they were yesterday. I can still describe with great accuracy what it felt like to be in the middle of a hard set and the only thing I could think about was what my first two plates were going to be at the Shoney’s breakfast bar after practice, or how many grilled turkey tacos I was going to make once I got home. Better yet, if you know me, you know I have an affinity for Fazolis and will drive great distances to get my ravioli and spaghetti from that glorious restaurant. When you have a craving and it’s exactly what you want, you will go to great lengths to get whatever food it is that you desire.

What I’ve learned over the years is that parents too, will go to great lengths to provide an activity or sport that fits that exact craving they have for their child’s happiness and success. I realized this when I was still in college at Florida State and got to take a trip to California to see my cousin and his family one year. It was on this trip that I learned about the deliciousness that is “In & Out Burger”. You see, until recent years, this has only been a west coast burger chain, not available in the east where I grew up, and they are amazing! If you ever get the chance to go, I recommend getting “Animal Style” on your fries.

The first time I experienced In & Out, my cousin was talking up the greatness and popularity of the burger joint and we drove probably 35-40 minutes to this fast food restaurant. He pointed out to me just how many McDonalds we had to drive by in order to reach In & Out, and it was a lot! When we arrived, there was a line out of the door into the parking lot, the inside was slam packed and nobody minded. Not only did the line move very quickly, but once we got up to the front, we were greeted with professionalism and efficiency. The kitchen was there for all to see. It was clean, they were cutting their fries freshly and had what seemed like a million workers cranking out what inevitably became an unforgettable burger that was well worth the wait and the drive. I remember thinking that I would drive past 100 McDonalds to get to this burger from here on out!

So, what on earth does this have to do with swimming?? What I learned that day, was that given the right “product”, people will go to great lengths to get what they want. Over the years, that lesson has grown into “parents will go to great lengths to provide for their children”. If something is special enough to them, they will drive, they will wake up, they will make sacrifices to do whatever it takes to be a part of it. The key is to make your swimming program so special that families will do anything to have it in the lives of their young swimmers.

The Misconception of Size vs Family Atmosphere

I was fortunate to grow up on a small but amazing swimming program in Central Florida called the Winter Haven Stingrays (WIN). I couldn’t tell you exactly, but I remember us usually floating around the 75 member mark throughout my 13 years with the team. Our Head Coach, Jim Grazier, did an unbelievable job at making every single athlete feel special and a part of the WIN family. So many of the things that I do as a coach that make our athletes feel special either were stolen from Jim or the idea came from something he used to do. He was always the master at getting the most out of each athlete because he showed that he believed in them.

As the years went by and my experiences blossomed to different sized programs, I realized that there was a general feeling among families that if you wanted to be a part of a team that feels like a family, you have to sacrifice competitiveness and size in order to pull it off. On the contrary, the sentiment was that if you wanted to be successful, you had to sacrifice the fun family atmosphere in order to be a part of a larger more competitive team. After taking in those experiences and digesting them, I realized that you can have both! You can have a large and successful team that ALSO feels like a small family and close-knit group. The key ingredient is how you treat your athletes and the relationships you build with not only the swimmer but the entire family.

Since coming to this realization, I have been fortunate to grow three different programs over my 23 years as a swimming coach. In each situation, my top priority was creating the “family like” atmosphere where each coach spends more of their energy getting to know the athletes and their families on a personal level. As the team grows, naturally, this requires more work, time and energy on the front end, but it is totally worth it. Rather than focusing solely on coaching swimmers, you create bonds between your staff and the swimmers/families, and the intrinsic reward is even greater for all in the long run.

The result from our first program build in Florida was growing from 65 swimmers in a lowly populated area on day one to over 600 participants in our program by year 7. In another example, here in Virginia we were able to take a program from 63 swimmers with severely limited lane space on day one to 183 swimmers in only 10 months. And finally, this approach also brought great success once again as we started a unique swimming program here at SwimRVA in Richmond, VA where we grew from 0 year-round swimmers to over 500 in just our first two years of existence!

Even though the teams in each of these instances had their own unique personality, the one commonality that existed throughout them all was the relationship building efforts and genuine personal care our coaching staff provided each athlete. In every situation imaginable, we put the person first and the athlete second regardless of how many athletes we grew to have. Parents learned very early on that we had their child’s best interest at heart AND in action and they put their trust into us. All parents want is for their child to be happy, cared for and challenged towards personal growth in a positive way.

Initial conversations with families were not about swimming, but rather about how we are going to help them raise a terrific well-rounded individual. From there, the relationship building turned into positive word of mouth and it grew like wildfire because parents, much like this old swimmer with a hunger craving, will go to great lengths to know their child is in good hands.

The Power of Positive Word of Mouth

Have you ever been in a movie theater with a friend or loved one, and you’re watching a great scene together, and the first thing you do is turn to look at that person’s reaction to the scene? You may even do it without realizing that is what you were doing. Ultimately though, we sometimes do this instinctually because we want to share in the moment with that person. If it made you laugh, you look at each other with hilarious tears rolling down your face. If it was heart wrenching, or just an epically awesome scene, you share a wordless look together in that moment as if to say “Can you believe that??”……………”I know, I saw…..I can’t believe it!”

Better yet, you know I love food! What is the first thing you want to do when you taste something really amazing (outside of order another)? Generally, that first instinct is “Oh my goodness, you have GOT to try this!” Think about the time you spend on social media. If we had zero followers and no “friends” to share our thoughts and experiences with on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, the entire process would be fruitless. When something great happens in people’s lives, their natural instinct is that they want to share that experience with others. Whether it be movie scenes, food, social media, family activities or sports, when you have found something special, you want to share it for the whole world to see.

One of the greatest benefits of building powerful relationships with the families on your team, outside of the pure joy of having those people in your life, is the fact that they want to share their experience with others. This positive word of mouth spreads faster than any amount of perfect marketing you can do for your program. Of course, if you would like to maximize the growth potential of your swimming program, having a coordinated marketing effort in addition to the positive word of mouth is critical. Here at SwimRVA, we are fortunate to have an unbelievably talented and dedicated communications department that works closely with myself and our staff to build off of that positive word of mouth and it has worked great. We did not get to 288 registered athletes on Day 1, 455 after Year 1 and 500 after Year 2 (through a global pandemic) on word of mouth alone. However, we would have never gotten to this point with such quickness if it were not for our families wanting to share their experiences with others.

Create Your Identity for Long-Term Sustainability

From the beginning of my coaching career, I have always lived by my favorite quote of all-time. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path, and leave a trail.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). I find that when one attempts to replicate success that others have enjoyed elsewhere, it is never the same. Instead, it is important for each program to find their own identity and serve the community in a way that not only changes the lives of their athletes, but also teaches them how to improve the lives of others in their community. For some, this may be trying to provide a low-key atmosphere that provides racing opportunities. For others it may be a center of excellence designed to get every athlete to the highest levels of the sport. Regardless of what your vision is for your program, the key component to sustainability is to always follow-through with the personal relationships that got you there in the first place.

I’ve always measured my success as a coach on the sustainability of the positive relationships with our families for years after they have completed their last swim practice, rather than how fast the swimmers raced or what their best times were. Does this mean that we never cared about racing fast, or that we never had fast swimmers? Of course not! Let’s go shoot a game of pool or play poker and you’ll see how competitive I really am, haha! What it means is that our identity has always been that swimming is a part of who we are and is not who we are.

Our athletes have always found balance in their life with school, other activities, sports and social life. Their sense of self-worth is based on the person they are rather than how fast they swim. The result has been valedictorians, future Navy Seals and military officers, engineers, doctors, a future Fitter & Faster Clinician, and phenomenal parents who also swam at the highest levels! It has also led to special long-lasting relationships that bring countless college graduation announcements, invitations to the wedding of athletes who met at your practice, heralded stories of the swimmer who saved the life of two strangers by rescuing them at sea, a return zoom call from a former swimmer sharing his experiences at the highest level to inspire your current athletes, and even a family naming their child after you. The impact that is possible when you provide that genuine care for your swimmers is boundless and will forever surprise and humble you.

I always tell my athletes that my goal is to teach the importance of doing the right thing for the right reason even if nobody is looking. We as coaches need to follow this message as well. If we continue to build up our athletes as people first and swimmers second, the trust between the coaches, swimmers and parents will grow into an unbreakable bond. Not only does that lead to the word of mouth and team growth you are hoping for, but it gives you the opportunity to have a meaningful and profound impact on their life in a way that reciprocates to your life. Continue giving them that “In & Out Burger” level of experience and not only will families help build the program for you, they will be there for years to come.

Jonathan and the Rapids are entering their 3rd season together after an incredible freshman and sophomore campaign. During those two seasons, the Rapids have managed to change the landscape of swimming in the Greater Richmond area by providing accessibility and flexibility to families while also swimming at the highest levels. The relationships his coaches are building with the athletes are personal and life-changing. As a result, in just over two seasons, the Rapids have grown from 0 swimmers to over 500 athletes! In addition, the Rapids have grown from 3 to 16 coaches, helping us focus on developing character skills that have allowed us to become one of the Top 8 teams in the state (out of 45) and Top 185 teams in the nation (out of 3,000)! Prior to SwimRVA Jonathan got married and moved back to the Richmond area where he went on to enjoy a very successful two years as the head coach at the Dolphin Club in Richmond. In two years he grew the club from 63 to 183 athletes. Jonathan believes in each child's potential and growing relationships one swimmer, one family at a time. While at Dolphin Club, the team improved in USA Swimming's virtual club rankings from 31st to 23rd in the state and 1955th to 958th nationally. At Virginia Swimming's age group champs the team improved from 30th (27 points) to 15th (291 points) and his girls team finished 9th overall, while also having a Top 15 team finish (Top 10 Girls) at Senior Champs for the first time in team history. Prior to Dolphin Club,Jonathan served as the assistant director of competitive swimming at YMCA of Triangle Area. As head coach of the Gold group he tutored 50 YMCA National qualifiers, 5 YMCA national finalists, 12 NCSA Junior National qualifiers, 2 USA-Swimming Winter Junior National and 1 USA-Swimming Winter National qualifier. Jonathan helped YOTA grow to 600 members and earn Top 25 rankings in USA Swimming's Virtual Club Championship. While at YOTA, Jonathan worked with over 130 athletes with video instruction and stroke analyzation. Before heading to Raleigh, Kaplan coached in Richmond for NOVA of Virginia Aquatics as the head coach of the Senior Silver group and assistant coach of Senior Gold. Jonathan's Senior Silver group included 16 NCSA Junior National, 6 USA Swimming Winter Junior National and 1 USA Swimming Winter National Championship qualifier, 1 National Age Group Record participant, and 14 Virginia State Records. While at NOVA the team earned a 3rd place overall team finish at the 2014 Spring NCSA Championships, an overall Virginia State Championship and a 6th place overall team ranking in the USA Swimming Virtual Club Championships. Jonathan help in the organization and create of the first ever Henrico County high school swimming program. From 2006 to 2013 Jonathan was the head swim coach of the Panama City Swim Team. While head coach the year round membership grew from 65 to 250 members. PCST earned bronze medal club status for USA Swimming Club Excellence. In 2012, PCST had its first ever swimmer compete at the USA Swimming Olympic Team Trials. In addition, Kaplan tutored 3 swimmers who qualified for USA Swimming's Summer National Championship, 3 qualifiers to USA Swimming's Summer Junior National Championship, 11 NCSA qualifiers, 1 USA Swimming Junior National Runner Up, 1 US Open Finalist, 5 SES Champions, 2 LSC records, 3 HS All-Americans and 6 Florida High School State Champions. In 2011, PCST won Southeastern Swimming Medium Team Championship. 17 of Kaplan's swimmers went on to compete in the NCAA. One of Jonathan's greatest accomplishments includes the fortune of coaching a high school valedictorian in 6 consecutive years while at PCST. Jonathan is a graduate of Florida State University where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Sport Management and his Master of Science in Sport Administration. He resides in Richmond with his wife, Jessica, and their two sons Rowan and Finlay. Needless to say, he and his family are excited for the Rise of the Rapids here with SwimRVA!

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