Written By: Greg Huff
Not really a letter that anyone wants to receive in the mail, especially not when you are the coach of the activity and you are learning that your program has been cut through a form letter.
I was the site coach for a rural location of YOTA in Sanford, North Carolina, and our branch had just undergone changes with the departure of a long-time Director, and the installation of a new Director who seemed terrifically interested in making bold programming decisions. She had run reports that indicated that we were losing money, and they could no longer afford to run the swim team.
We were confronted with a decision: allow the team to end, or reorganize and create a new one. After meeting with the parents at practice, we decided to go out on our own, and create a new swim team. Starting a team from scratch is not the easiest process, but it is possible through making connections and making reasonable plans.
Step 1: Determining Needs
Two major considerations: Is there pool time, and is there interest?
In our case, we were lucky on our pool time challenge. The health club where we had been practicing for years as the Y was interested in having a swim team in the building. We negotiated a rate that was less than what the Y was being charged, and developed a mutually advantageous plan to allow parents to exercise while their children were in practice. Everyone benefitted, my rent was reduced, the health club gained some membership opportunities, parents were given a time to exercise without needing childcare. I also negotiated a discount on my monthly payment if I tied the rent to a credit card that allowed the club to draft payments.
As far as interest, the way the bills get paid is probably the most important consideration. I was up front with the parents, we needed to cover our expenses. Pool rent, registration fees, coach education costs, website fees, the list could become very large, very fast. I was able to structure the payments for the annual expenses to occur at the same time as the yearly registrations, so I did not have to save all year for the bigger bills. I was incredibly fortunate to have a spouse who supported my swim team adventure, and I held a full time teaching job to help make sure we could still keep up with the bills. There are many different expenses that can sneak up, so be prepared.
Getting Everything Going: Starting A New Tradition
When I first decided that I was going to be a swim team, I spoke with several families in town who were ‘old’ swimmers. I discovered that there had been a team before the Y, and that most of the connected families in town had been members. I chose the name that had been previously used, Sanford Squids, because it harkened back to an earlier time, and it had some good alliteration. I even located some old logos and stuff from the team, and had a friend digitize and clean up the images. He owned a t-shirt/screen printer/embroidery business, so I was hooked up with a great logo with history. One of the old time swim parents was a lawyer in town who offered to help us get set up through the incorporation process. When I asked him about a bill for his services, he told me a long story about how much it meant to him as a parent to be involved in watching his children grow up on a swim team, and that such experiences were priceless. We were a legal entity!
I found the USA Swimming process of starting a new team to be very helpful and valuable in getting everything accomplished. Their resources were efficient and made for an easy transition to being independent. The club leadership class was helpful, and I think a benefit to folks who are on swim team boards as well as folks getting started. The presentation was solely about the business end of things, how to organize things, and protections and support available through USA Swimming. In general, I received responses to questions within a day, and often was connected with live people who were actually helpful!
Branding, Branding, Branding
Living in a small town can lead to many different opportunities that may not be available to those who exist in larger, more competitive markets. We had access to the only pool in town, and provided the only swim lessons in town once the Y vacated the local health club. The local paper was short on things to talk about, and were always willing to accept articles that were submitted to them. In exchange for a yearly story with pictures and professional writing, I wrote a monthly piece about the team, and in Olympic years, wrote about competitive swimming. The kids loved seeing their name and picture in the paper, and it got the word out that a swim team existed in the community. Every year at registration time, the kids would receive a new swim team shirt, with a snappy slogan and much color contrast. The little swimmers and their families became walking billboards for the team. After morning practices, once a week or so, we would all go out to eat as a group to a different breakfast restaurant in town. The food was good, we connected as a team, and a dozen or more kids in swim team gear made an impression. We participated in community events, most prominently in our Christmas Parade. We created a float, and threw hundreds of blue candy canes out into the crowd, which was one of the biggest events in the town. Attached to the candy canes was a flyer or business card offering information about the team and swim lessons. The event was televised on local tv, and one of the commentators made a comment about not knowing there was a swim team in town, and the other remarked that they were a Squid from many years ago and talked about how great swimming was!
One of the bigger, and most important things we did as a community outreach was to offer swim lessons to two large groups, an entire elementary school, and the local Boys and Girls Club. Our school partner was operated on a year-round basis, and returned to school right after the summer championship meets were finished up. Our older kids needed something to do, the community pool was declining in usage, and the school was willing to allow us to work with their kids. Through a partnership with the Fish and Game Department, the rangers went to the school to teach about boating safety through the PE classes, and the children came to the pool for a day of lessons. We set up stations with lifejackets and boats, instructors, and free play in the pool. Many kids had their first experience with swimming and a pool through our program. We would make sure that every child learned how to properly put on a life jacket, enter a boat, and exit a boat as we would either sink it in the pool or allow them to jump off. Most of the days, we had up to a dozen or more parents to come help, and we used the sessions to teach our older swim team kids how to properly instruct swim lessons. It was a highlight of the summer for the swim team kids, and the 750 students from the school. After the sessions, the kids were all given information about our team and swim lesson program. In subsequent years, we attained sponsorship from a local company to cover rent and payroll, making the program free to the kids from the school.
With the Boys and Girls Club, we were truly looking to help the community as a whole, but benefitted greatly from it on many levels. The lessons were almost free, as most of the instructors were high school aged kids who needed to fluff their volunteerism. We were able to find an interesting sponsorship from our suit and gear supplier who donated a large number of quality goggles that were of higher quality than was available from the local discount stores. We found that one of the biggest hurdles that the new swimmers faced was the ability to put their faces into the water while wearing $.99 goggles. An additional perk from our gear supplier was a promotion where they provided a modest discount for the trade-in of outgrown equipment. They, in turn, donated the equipment, and suits that were not salvable, to our team for the use of our kids who could not afford their own gear or suits. We actually had a girl show up to lessons wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a t-shirt, who ultimately learned to swim, joined the swim team, and competed in meets thanks to the donation program.
Our little team was a great experience, both for me and for many of the swimmers who were involved in the program. We grew from 10 kids, more than 50 who competed at various meets. We scored at Age Group Champs, and had several continue to swim into college, but the relationships and experiences that were created through the team outweigh any aquatic success. We shared meals together at meets, had three Valedictorians, celebrated birthdays in several different languages, and learned to work together to build a better team and a better place for all of us.
Greg Huff has a long history of coaching at all levels of competitive swimming. Starting as a summer league coach in 1986 in North Carolina, he has coached at numerous high schools throughout the state, including Sanderson, Apex, and Souther Lee. He was a YOTA site coach, and founded the Sanford Squids, a USA Swimming club in Sanford, NC. Most recently, he was a coach of all levels of swimmers at the Upper Main Line YMCA, and is presently in his sixth season as swimming and diving coach at Spring-Ford High School in Royersford, PA, where he also runs the local community swim club, Nine Oaks.