A Beginners’ Guide to Competitive Swimming – A Parent's Eye View
Different Types of Swimming Galas
How Does a Team Gala work?
How Do Open Galas Work
The following is intended as a guide for parent's of children who have just joined Witham Dolphins. It is mainly just a few pointers based on my own and my daughter’s experiences since becoming involved with the club.
For more definitive answers, obviously the best people to ask are the club coaches and officials – however these notes may answer a few questions…
As this is being written my daughter has been a member of Dolphins for just about three years so I can just about remember how it was when I had no idea about what was going on.
All I thought I knew was that kids who took up competitive swimming spent many hours training - mostly at some unpleasant time first thing in the morning. It hasn’t quite been like that, at least at Dolphins the training times are mostly fairly civilised!!
At Dolphins swimming galas basically come in 2 flavours:
- galas where the club competes as a team against other clubs usually on a Saturday evening
- galas where the swimmer competes individually.
Witham Dolphins competes in 2 leagues, the ESL and the Essex Mini league. In addition Dolphins also receive invitations to compete one or more annual events or trophy galas. One of these is our own James Gibson Gala usually held in December where other clubs are invited to come and compete against a Witham Dolphins team.
The ESL is the main league and runs from approximately October to March. Dolphins always try to put out their strongest team for these galas.
The Essex Mini League runs from about March to September. The main purpose of this is to give novice swimmers a taste of competition. One of the characteristics of these galas is that if a swimmer swims faster than a designated time for a particular event then the swimmer is time faulted and no points are scored for the team – although the times are still recorded.
Open galas are those galas where the competitor is swimming for themselves – although the entry for these is still made through the club.
They come in various standards and often have qualifying times for the various events.
Details of open galas are posted on the club notice board and the swimmers enter as they wish.
It IS important that parent's know about gala entries because there is a cost involved (approx £3 to £5 per event which if 4 events are entered amounts to getting on for £20 per gala) which made must be paid once the club has submitted they entries.
The team manager makes the selections for the team galas – initially usually selecting the swimmers with the best times.
Currently the teams are put up on the Dolphins notice board about 2 weeks ahead of the event (A good reason to look at the notice board every time you visit the pool if you don’y already). Those selected then tick off their names if they are available.
Unfortunately due to the costs involved it is rarely that a coach can be provided, which means parent's have to make their own way to the venue (with their child of course). However, it is often possible to share transport with other parent's.
What to Take
Well obviously your swimmer needs a costume, goggles etc. You (the parent) will need something to drink – it is usually very warm and humid at a swimming pool. Dress in such a way that you can cope with very hot conditions.
The swimmers also need drinks and possibly food – they are going to be stuck poolside for about 2 hours so some sweets to keep the adult pool side helpers happy are also good a good idea…
At the Gala
Once at the gala the swimmers have to go off and change and then have to go poolside by them self – parent's are not allowed poolside unless they are one of the volunteers helping to manage the team. This can be a bit daunting especially for those younger swimmers in the first couple of galas. Usually a more experienced Dolphin can be found to look after your loved one – although not always for the boys!! (We have a shortage of boys at the club so if you know anyone…)
What do the parent's and supporters do? They get to get to sit poolside – if you’re lucky the pool will have proper tiered spectator seating – otherwise you end up sitting very close to the pool and getting wet! There is also a small charge for spectators, something I wasn’t really expecting the first gala I attended – and don’t forget the raffle (its how clubs try to raise funds).
You normally get in just as the swimmers start their warm up and the first time you see it, it’s quite a sight watching about 100 swimmers in 6 lanes swimming nose to toe!
Be prepared, as I said before it is usually very hot and humid sitting poolside – so make sure you can remove several layers of clothing and cool drinks are useful.
Once the gala gets going the races happen very quickly and what looks like a daunting list of around 50 races takes around 2 hours. Then it’s off home to bed and then watch out for the posted results (another reason to look at the notice board regularly) to see how fast your swimmer went and whether they got a PB (more on PB’s later).
How to Enter
The details of Open Galas are posted on the notice board (and also sometimes sent out by email) and it is then up to the individual (with the parent's knowledge) to enter if they wish. Fortunately most are usually within an hour’s drive or less of Witham.
The notices contain all the details of the various events including any time qualifications. Some galas specify a band of times that your child’s PB should fall between for each event. Some specify a time where your child’s PB must be equal to or faster and occasionally a time is specified where the swimmer’s time must be slower.
Most galas currently cost around £4 per event.
You can only enter open galas through your swimming club. The Open Galas Secretary collects the names and puts the entry in. When the entries are confirmed the swimmer (or more usually the parent) is given a letter with details of the gala and the entry cards (if there are any). Also included is the bill!
What do the Different Levels Mean
When you look at the details for an open gala they often state that they Level 3, Level 2 etc. Only licensed galas are licensed to a particular level. The Level indicates the standard of the officials, time keepers etc. Also higher level galas are more competitive. To qualify for county championships it is usually initially stated that qualifying times have to done at a Level 3 gala. For regional championships qualification has be at Level 2 or above. As a result most level 2 galas have a large number of regional qualifying swimmers taking part. In other words the standard is very high.
Going to the Gala
It’s usually advisable to aim to get to an open gala about half an hour before the posted warm up time. This gives you time to park (some venues do not have very good parking, especially when 200 kids with parent's descend on them) and may get you near enough to the front of the queue to get in and get a seat!! This last is very useful for the parent(s) as each session lasts around 3 hours. Take lots to drink – its very hot in most swimming pools.
What to Take
For the swimmers make sure they have plenty to eat and especially to drink. Also, they need clothing (T-Bag) to put on between races and between sessions if you are attending more than one session. Depending on the size of the Dolphins entry a fair supply of sweets may also be useful or necessary!
At the Gala
When they arrive the swimmer must place their entry cards (if there are any) in the correct entry boxes or sign in if required. Don’t be late otherwise the swimmer will be excluded from their events. Often the swimmers have to do this as the entry boxes are not in an area accessible to parent's and supporters.
Like team events parent's are not allowed poolside – one or two people will have been nominated as coaches by Dolphins and they will look after the swimmers while they are poolside. The swimmers have to go off and change by themselves or at least with any other likely looking Dolphins they can find.
Once in the venue the Dolphins parent's often try to sit together mainly so that they have someone to talk to during the long hours…
Most open galas are split into 2 or more sessions with a separate warm up for each session. Usually there are separate card entry (or signing in) times for each session.
The warm up takes about an hour with the kids split into older/younger boys and girls. Then it is into the races.
At most open galas each event is ranked in the order of the swimmer’s entry time (their PB may have changed since the entry was made). The event is then swum in heats starting with the slowest irrespective of age. As a result it is unlikely that a swimmer will be completely outclassed (or completely out class the other swimmers) in their particular heat.
Once the event is complete the recorded times are sorted out and the swimmers sorted into their age groups and the results posted – at which point you find out whether you have a medal winner.
Trophies/medals are awarded for anywhere between the top 3 and top six in each of the age groups. It varies with the gala as does the age groups.
So at the end of a great days competition (lasting around 7 hours) you set off home having watched your treasured swimmer competing for all of about 5 minutes (depending on the number of events) but hopefully clutching some trophies (always makes the day) and having recorded one or more PB’s (almost as good as a trophy).
Hopefully your swimmer will have enjoyed the experience – it doesn’t matter about the parent's they are just there to provide transport and finance!!
For those that don’t know PB means Personal Best.
When my daughter first started at Dolphins it seemed to me as if there was a bit of an obsession with PB’s. There is and you soon get sucked in if you child is keen.
PB’s are recorded in a Dolphins club database but I also find it useful to keep a record myself – in my case I use a spreadsheet which gets bigger each month.
I think the next step is to maybe start plotting graphs - I’m working on what to plot!!
PBs can be recorded at any time e.g. galas, club championships, club sprint league (held once a month) etc.
The ASA also holds a database of all official times recorded at licensed open galas. (When the details of the galas are posted they say whether or not it is licensed).
Once your child has recorded some times at a licensed gala you can go to the ASA web site to see where your child is ranked at county, regional and national level.
It’s at that point you realise how many competitive swimmers there are, and just how good some are! Don’t get carried away thinking you have a good Olympic prospect – there are around 400,000 competitive swimmers in the UK, of which about 20 go to the Olympics!