Mike's Mailbag: Small Voices in Big Ponds


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com


Dear Mike,

The town in the Midwest I currently live in has two teams who are thinking of becoming one. I don't think that doing this is the right thing for us. My team right now has a great dynamic, an amazing coach, and a unique identity I just couldn't bear to lose. I have friends on the other team, and they are great people, but I don't want to give up what I have with the team that I am currently on. How do I convince our teams to stay separate? Please help. 

-Stay Separate    


Hey Stay Separate,

Small teams with great dynamics are the lifeblood of this sport. Too many times in competitive swimming these days, I see smaller teams swallowed by larger teams, folding into giant, squid-like mega-teams, with multiple practice pools and sixteen different head coaches and where teammates don’t even hardly know each other. 

This is not good for the sport. 

Sure, it might be good for, say, those four stand-out national team relay members who dominate regional competitions. But for everyone else? If you’re a small fish in a big pond, the consolidation of teams means you’ll feel smaller. 

How can smaller teams survive? Small teams are like small businesses. Costs can be high. Pool time can be expensive. Payroll costs for head coaches and good, dedicated assistant coaches can reach unsustainable ceilings. Small businesses often have to fold after feeling pressure from larger, more corporate national chain-like businesses offering cheaper products with lower overhead.

First, voice your opinion with your parents/guardians. Decision-makers may have bottom-line on their minds, but make sure you speak with your parents first. Share your thoughts. Speak with your friends’ parents, too. Set up a meeting. It can be as simple as saying, “We strongly feel that we have a unique, rare team dynamic where most swimmers can contribute. Consolidating teams may mean fewer opportunities for relay participation, as suddenly we have to compete against swimmers with another team for the relay roster spots.” 

Second, set up an athletes-only meeting. Communicate with each other; ask one another’s opinions. Just because you feel a certain way doesn't mean everyone feels that way. Listen to each other. If someone has a different opinion, fine, be respectful and listen to that opinion. Make sure everyone who has an opinion knows how to voice it. 

Third, if the majority of athletes are opposed to consolidation, organize your collective voice. Put that organized voice down on paper. Could be as simple as “smaller teams can mean a better overall experience.” Could be coming up with bullet points, a mission statement, or an argument explaining why, exactly, you are opposed. Such as: “Being a big fish in a smaller pond can mean more enthusiasm, more engagement, better and more frequent opportunities (even if that opportunity is as simple as leading the lane), and feeling like all athletes are part of something.” Or: “Yes, bigger swim teams may offer more inter-practice competition, but overall, more swimmers can get lost in the shuffle of consolidation.” Back it up with facts and statistics (“93% of both teams’ athletes are opposed to the merger). Formulate a platform, not just an opinion.

Finally, and most importantly, formulate an athlete advisory council. Too many times, boards make huge decisions without consulting swimmers. If your team does not have athlete representation on the board, formulate that position within the board. Assemble an “athlete advisory council” so athletes have a voice at board meetings. Be respectful and understand all concerns, including financial. (Which is, likely, a huge reason why consolidation is being considered.) Set up a meeting within the council and the athletes, take a vote among the athletes to see who should attend the board meetings, and make sure your voice is heard in a respectful and organized way.

A few goals of the athlete advisory council could be to a.) Reach out to other, smaller swim teams in other markets to figure out how they’ve sustained their autonomy; b.) Poll each swimmer about their opinion regarding the proposed consolidation (“84% of us feel strongly opposed to consolidation”); c.) Set up organized communication within the athletes themselves; d.) Communicate with athletes from the other team and present your opinions to both boards (if both teams’ Athlete Advisory Councils are opposed to the merger, why on Earth is consolidation taking place?) 

Look: You, as the athlete, should have a voice regarding the future of your team. Yes, financial limitations, such as pool time, coaching salaries, etc., may be out of your control, but they may be out of anyone’s control. If the march towards consolidation is inevitable and in the team’s best interest, the board should communicate that to the athlete advisory council, who can communicate that to the athletes. 

Communication is key, and forming an athlete advisory council to make your voice heard can help, even if “help” is simply understanding why the consolidation move is taking place.

I hope this helps.