Caring For Swimmers Through Social Media: How “Likes” Mean “Love”

Written By: Tyler Shepherd

“Oh yeah! I loved the picture you posted!” Her face fell flat at my remark. “Well, you didn’t like it.” The response left me, as the kids say…shook. I was taken aback by the irony that there I was telling one of my students (I was a youth pastor at the time) that I loved the picture they shared but she would have rather me liked it on Instagram. As I thought through the encounter later that day I realized two things: 1) this student noticed that out of all their thousands of followers I was one that hadn’t interacted with her post and 2) this student is a member of what generational psychologist Jean Twenge calls the iGen (as opposed to Gen Z).

Dr. Twenge uses this term not as a self-centered “i” but as a way of communicating this is the first generation that has had access to smartphones (i.e. the “iPhone”) for their entire adolescence. Our current swimmers have lived their lives through the platform of the smartphone and all of the apps that come with it, namely social media. Even for someone who has generated three viral social media posts (thank you, again, Butterfinger) I must admit social media isn’t my favorite thing in the world. While working as a youth pastor during the story above my social media use was an outlet for me to communicate information with families and to create content for them to share. Social media to our swimmers, though, is so much more.

Social media is how our swimmers communicate love. If Gary Chapman were to add a 6th love language to The 5 Love Languages, it might be social media. Now, please know I’m not saying that I believe social media is the best way to communicate your care for your swimmers. It’s just a way that happens to matter very much to them. Like my students, our swimmers will perceive our care for them based on how we handle ourselves digitally. Let me challenge you, whether it is your coaching or team’s social media page, to view it as a vehicle for promoting your athletes rather than promoting your product.

If our mindset for content creation is marketing then swimmers begin to view themselves in terms of dollars and cents. When we post simply to highlight what a swimmer is working on or has accomplished, like getting into their dream school (even though they have no intention of swimming) or achieving their first age group cut or diving into a frozen lake for the Special Olympics, our athletes know that they are seen and loved. Of the 4 posts a week I try to average, the majority are derived from asking these questions:

1. What can I share to encourage a swimmer or swimmers?

  • What does this look like?

  • First time cuts, mastering skills/drill progressions, volunteering, college commitments (swimming or not).

  • Sometimes it’s simply posting a picture for someone you know who needs it.

2. What can I share that invites swimmers to express themselves?

  • What does this look like? These posts takes more planning but are our swimmers’ favorites.

  • Athletes are encouraged to create videos of their collective participation in “Social Media Challenges” such as our Cap Toss Challenge, Dryland Bingo, Plunge in Place for Special Olympics, and Mobility Challenges.

  • Photo submissions are a great way for athletes to share their passions. In the past we have asked for hand drawn self portraits in our pool from our youngest athletes, held a virtual parade of costumes on Halloween, displayed athletes’ home cooked pre-race meals, and celebrated our families through reposting their submitted holiday photos (i.e. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, etc.).

  • We often utilize polls in order to create a virtual forum for our athletes to communicate with the team on a larger scale. We have asked, “If you could have a pre-race walk-up song what would it be?” We then did this as a fundraiser during our last meet. After meeting an initial fundraising goal for the Special Olympics we asked, “What should our next goal be?” They unanimously decided on a goal bigger than my own expectations. In spite of the fact I doubted their fundraising ability, we listened to them and let them set the new goal…they blew it out of the water.

Social media is more than a means by which we garner interactions, expand our reach, and improve whatever other Facbook/Instagram/Twitter/YouTube business metrics there are. “Making the gram” as our swimmers say is less of a social status like we as coaches might have considered “making the newspaper”. “Making the gram” is the notification bell that we as coaches see our swimmers as more than attendance, time drops, and cuts. “Making the gram” is how we can show our swimmers we care.

*Coaches should be well versed in the Social Media and Electronic Communications section of MAAPP from USA Swimming.

Coach Tyler swam for TYDE and STAR Aquatics. He earned his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science with minors in Biology and Psychology from Appalachian State University in 2012 (Go Mountaineers!). While at Appalachian, Coach Tyler spent his summers as the Head Coach of the Midway Summer Swim Team.At Appalachian, Coach Tyler was a Research Assistant in the Neuromuscular Lab, as well as a Strength and Conditioning Intern with the football, baseball and volleyball programs. After graduation, he earned his certification as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and worked as a personal trainer and wellness coach in Wake Forest, NC. Concurrently, Tyler completed his Masters Degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. After graduation, Coach Tyler moved to Winston-Salem as an Assistant/Head Coach for the Westwood Swim Club summer league team and the Head Coach of the RJ Reynolds (RJR) Men’s Swimming and Diving team. At RJR, Coach Tyler was a two-time high school Coach of the Year. Coach Tyler also coached at TYDE as an Assistant Coach and as a Lead Coach for the Senior Performance and Senior Competitive groups, respectively. Away from the pool, Coach Tyler enjoys anything outdoors or sports related, as well as reading. Coach Tyler and his wife, Elspeth, recently welcomed their first child, a daughter, Eleanor.

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