Updated January 26, 2015.
Swimming is an essential lifesaving skill, plus an excellent form of exercise. Are lessons or competition right for your child?
The basics: In competitive kids' swimming, athletes compete using one of four strokes: freestyle (sometimes called the crawl), breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly. A race using all four strokes consecutively is called the individual medley (IM). Swimmers may also compete as part of relay teams.
They may swim distances of 25 yards, 25 meters, or 50 meters; the Olympic standard is 50 meters.
Age kids can start: 4 (to learn real strokes); prior to that, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends water safety/swimming readiness classes only. Swim teams begin accepting kids as young as 5 (once they can swim a length of the pool unassisted).
Skills needed/used: Aerobic capacity; motor skills and coordination. Swimming provides both an aerobic and anaerobic workout. Competitive events include sprints as well as endurance races. Participating in a swim team teaches teamwork and sportsmanship.
Best for kids who are: Self-motivated and who love the water!
Season/when played: Year-round, as long as an indoor pool is available. High school and college swimmers compete in the winter.
Team or individual? Both. Kids can swim on their own anytime; as members of a team, they race in individual events and/or as part of a relay team.
Levels: Typically, kids swim in age groups of 10 and under, 11 to 12, 13 to 14, 15 to 16, and 17 and 18.
Meets may also include events for kids 8 and under or for adults. Many colleges and universities also have competitive swim teams, and amateurs can continue swimming competitively into adulthood. The very, very best swimmers compete in the Olympic Games.
Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes. Coaches can work with kids and adults who have various physical and mental disabilities. The moist, humid environment of the swimming pool can be good for kids with exercise-induced asthma, allowing them to participate in exercise more easily than they might outside. Olympic superstar Michael Phelps has attention deficit disorder (ADD) and found swimming to be a great confidence-builder. Its rhythmic, repetitive motions can be calming.
Fitness factor: High for team practices or individual workouts; swimming is a full-body, cardiovascular exercise. In lessons, watch out for instructor/child ratio. If there are too many kids, your child may spend a lot of class time sitting on the side of the pool waiting for his/her turn to swim.
Equipment: Swimsuit and goggles; swim cap; accessories such as towels, padlocks, flip-flops, and team gear (t-shirts, warm-up suits, etc.). As swimmers progress, they add dry-land workouts using free weights or weight machines. Some clubs may require swimmers to have their own practice equipment (such as fins or kickboards).
Costs: Club/team memberships range from $300 to $600 for beginners to $1000 to $1500 or more for elite swimmers. USA Swimming membership is $52/swimmer/year. Meets costs extra: $4 to $5 per individual event, plus a small entry fee, for a typical total of about $50 (plus travel costs). Many clubs require parents to volunteer their time at meets, or else pay an additional fee.
Time commitment required: For swim lessons, once or twice a week for 30 minutes; or 30-60 minutes a day for one to two weeks in a row. For competitive swimming, kids under 10 may practice two or three times a week for 45 minutes. As they move up the ranks, swimmers' practice time increases (up to 18 hours a week for elite swimmers). A meet can easily last for several hours or an entire weekend.
Potential for injury: Low, since this is a very low-impact sport. Drowning is always a risk anytime a child is in the water, but any reputable coach or team will have rigorous safety procedures in place. As with any sport, repetitive stress injuries (in this case, to the shoulder, knee, and hip) are possible if a child specializes too early or intensively. You can get a tip sheet on preventing swimming injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
How to find swimming lessons (including classes for adults), clubs, and teams:
- YMCA of the USA
- American Red Cross Learn to Swim classes (contact your local American Red Cross chapter)
- USA Swimming list of local swimming committees; click on your region to find teams
Associations and governing bodies:
- USA Swimming (sanctions meets across the country, as well as national and international events)
- American Red Cross (certifies swimming instructors and lifeguards)
If your child likes swimming, also try:Track and field; other water sports such as diving, water polo, kayaking or rowing.