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Re-Thinking Age Group Championships

Written By: Beau Caldwell, Head Coach, Elmwood Sharks

It’s a time-honored tradition - The Age Group Championship meet (AGC); steeped with legendary stories, records that have been standing for 20+ years, the veteran age-grouper who has qualified every season for the past 3-4 years, and the newer swimmer who’s qualified for the first time.

Everyone remembers their times, great swims, the team dress-up themes, and most importantly being with friends.

With all the good and fun, the AGC can also come with red tape. Each LSC has their own qualifying process, quirky entry & scoring rules, and formatting aspects that start and continue discussions on deck and in the stands. Draining, confusing, and redundant are some words that come to mind for such vents and frustrations.

The intent of this article is not to tell you what your order of events should be, or how many days the meet should last, or if 10&Us should have finals - those are finer details for respective LSC committees to decide. This article addresses the bigger ticket items - how to provide every age-group athlete a championship meet, how to help meet management run the meet most effectively, and how to simplify the planning process for everyone involved - athletes, coaches, parents, and those in governance.

The following suggestions are made under the assumptions that 1) AGC is an LSC sponsored meet with a member club serving as designated host, and 2) the meet format is being reviewed by committee and approved by an LSC governing body.

1. Each Age-Group Championship meet needs a purpose. Plan and construct the meet toward an agreed upon purpose - a mission and vision statement for the meet. Meet planning committees should be able to answer why this meet is being held and what are the goals & objectives trying to be met. Once a purpose is established, state the purpose in the meet announcement so it’s known to everyone, and evaluate future proposed changes with whether or not they align with the meet’s purpose.

Purposes will differ between each LSC, and that’s OK. If you don’t know why you’re having the meet and where you want to go with it, how are coaches going to get behind changing the format? Many won't.

Some examples of purposes may include:

  • To fulfill the LSC charter from USAS (basic, but better than nothing)

  • To act as a precursor to senior champs, senior sectionals, or a higher level meet

  • To have a qualification type meet with the top x% or specified number of athletes in the LSC Create an elite championship meet with the strictest standards and most complicated qualifying and format rules with caveats for everything.

2. Qualify for the meet, not individual events. Give the athletes a ‘full’ meet; eliminate the partial qualifier - Make athletes either a qualifier or a non-qualifier (more on the non-qualifier later). As a coach, I want to take each age group athlete to 1 championship meet each season, not multiple. I might be attending multiple meets based on my team group structure, but that’s fine as my job is to coach. Eliminating the partial qualifier puts each athlete in the AGC or an alternate meet.

As soon as I know if my athlete qualifies, I can plan for and place a performance expectation on the AGC, get buy-in from the parents to commit to 1 whole weekend, and plan other meets and goals accordingly. If they qualify and can swim a full meet, I can start planning and training them for what they’ll swim. With partial qualifiers, it’s a tough conversation for the coach to ask the age group parent to spend time and money on 1-2 events, especially if there is overnight travel involved.

Allowing partial qualifiers possibly puts this group at meets usually on 2 consecutive weekends - maybe a last chance meet before the AGC or an invitational for non-qualifiers nearby. Or, the partial qualifier (and their coach or parent?) has to choose between fewer splashes, or more time & cost to swim a similar number of events the AGC qualifier does.

At the end of the day, Parents are paying the bill and want their time and money respected. No one wants to spend 2 weekends in a row at meets, or travel 2 weekends in a row.

The best example I’ve seen in this is from Gulf LSC - Make 3 or more QT, swim anything you like - make only 2 QT’s, you’re not in the meet (there’s a non-qualifier meet to attend) - This number can and sometimes is adjusted to 1 or 2 depending on the type of meet and where the line needs drawn.

2a. Is the budget a concern? Sure, no club, LSC, or facility wants to lose money on hosting a big meet, and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with serving as host. With eliminating the partial qualifier and giving qualifiers more events, it’s not going to have a significant effect on the budget.

Consider the following equation. Both equations generate the same gross income. Having 300 fewer athletes in the meet indicates more space on deck and more space in warm-up lanes. But wait, what do we do with those 300 athletes we just cut out of the meet? (More on that later)

650 athletes averaging 7 events = 4550 entries ($8) + $20 facility surcharge = $49,400

950 athletes averaging 4 events = 3800 entries ($8) + $20 facility surcharge = $49,400

Sure, 750 additional entries makes prelim sessions a bit longer. A 3 day meet is an extra 250 entries/day; assuming 2 pools are being used, that’s an extra 125 entries/pool/day. In an 8-lane pool, that’s an extra 12-15 heats added in each pool. In my opinion, the parents would certainly opt for a 30-40 min longer prelim session over spending another weekend at a meet.

As a coach, my thoughts are clarified in the next paragraph.

3. Create (a) non-qualifier meet(s) - All registered athletes need to be accounted for at the LSC level, not just the fastest ones. For every qualifier meet with time standards (AGC), there needs to be a similar and comparable LSC sponsored non-qualifier meet for those slower than the time standard where they’re guaranteed entry. These athletes are future AGC qualifiers, usually newer to the sport, or just not developed yet.

Give these athletes the same experience without qualifying times. As a coach, I want my athletes placed into a qualifier meet or the non-qualifier meet based on their achievement; I do not want the option of A qualifier meet or NO meet (this happens).

Some things to note about a prospective non-qualifier meet:

  • There may need to be multiple sites/hosts running the same format, as non-qualifiers are usually a larger market than the qualifier meet.

  • Call it a seasonal champs, silver champs, or name it after something regional to the area, say a state nickname as Tar Heel States in North Carolina, or Palmetto States in South Carolina.

  • It does not necessarily need to mirror the qualifier format - It can be more timed finals or a shorter duration, so long as the number of events an athlete can swim is similar.

  • Protect the weekend against other sanctions, regardless of qualifier or non-qualifier meet. A protected weekend puts everyone into the same meet(s) and ensures quality competition.

There you have it - 3 ideas for rethinking your Age-Group Championship meet. With the parents footing the bill, and the athletes striving to reach their next level, the best move coaches and meet planners can make is to keep these two entities at the center of our discussions. Break the old, enjoy the new!

Beau Caldwell is the Head Coach of Elmwood Sharks in New Orleans, LA. He is in his 17th year of coaching USA Swimming and served in relevant governance capacities as an LSC technical planning chair and an age-group committee member. He has an interest in streamlining meet formats and is available for consultation. Please contact for inquiries.

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