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Staying Engaged in the Sport of Swimming in the Age of Gaming and Social Media

Abstract: Why do people join the sport of swimming? Why do so many leave as they age up? How do we increase swimmer retention while building higher levels of team participation and engagement?

Many competitive swimmers begin their journey at a swim school. Once basic water safety skills are developed, a swim school’s curriculum often progresses to fundamentals of competitive stroke technique. These swim schools often feed newly minted swimmers into established teams, either club or recreational. In either case, the initial team experience is fun-filled and rewarding.

Early competitive swimming is a blast! Times drop significantly, often at every meet. The events are short and fast. Thus, the effort/reward feedback loop is constant and quick paced. Fast forward a few years and the landscape and psychology changes dramatically. Improvement is now measured in tenths of a second and may take weeks or even a season to better. Expectations, and measures of success become less clear. Other interests emerge.

This is the point swimmers begin to segment by personal interest; to the few that stay highly engaged, vs. those less enamored with our sport. What begins as a fresh and fun game becomes a grueling and monotonous activity. A typical season is filled with grinding two-a-day practices. Swimmers, parents and coaches hold out to the promise that at the end of the season, when the championship meet arrives, everything will fall into place and all will be rewarded. Pressure to perform can quickly become intense. Where did the fun of swimming go? Why do I stick with it? These thoughts become existential questions for many young swimmers.

At this crossroads many swimmers with significant talent shift away from our sport, often just at a point where a performance breakthrough may occur. The promise that hard work generates a worthy reward becomes harder to envision. A fair number of our swimmers are forever lost to a new interest that provides a quicker return on gratification. Countless theories have been published related to the psychology of incentive and reward. We must learn from this research or risk losing the battle of swimmer attrition.

Attrition on club and recreational teams is serious. Imagine what your team could be if you simply retained 10% more of your swimmers year-over-year. The depth of your team’s talent and prominence as a community resource would flourish. How many more young minds could you help in developing important life skills, such as being part of a larger community and taking pride in personal growth?

I am not criticizing the benefit of hard work necessary to achieve results. Reward and recognition psychology only go so far. Club swimming can be intense, and rightfully so. The event format is challenging and requires rigorous training to be competitive. However, not everyone will be the next state champion or Olympic gold medalist, nor would I argue that this goal is top of mind for most club or recreational swimmers. Finding a way to connect with athletes on both sides of the spectrum is key. Staying relevant in the lives of all our swimmers is as important as recognizing and nurturing that one in a thousand talent.

Furthermore, as coaches we have our own existential crisis; how do we keep our swimmers engaged and parents informed? How do we measure progress and provide rewards at a personal level? How do we manage our talent pool of swimmers, to support and help each athlete grow to their potential and not only nurture the best of the best. And perhaps most importantly, how can we make our lives as coaches more rewarding, improving our own quality of life?

Applying my own life experiences has informed and influenced my approach to these challenges. I started my swim journey at a very young age. I dominated in the younger age groups in my club (9-10 Top 16 in the Nation), only to suddenly find that my peer group began to mature physically faster than I. I fell out of the rankings, and without the support of my club coach, I would have fallen out of the swimming community altogether. My coach helped me focus on my personal goals, and over time, as I began to mature and grow physically, my swimming competitiveness came back. My swim career culminated my senior year with an NCAA Division III championship ring while swimming for the University of Chicago.

As a Club and Masters head coach, I searched to find an innovative way to keep my swimmers of all ages engaged. My goal became to develop a modern-day analog that could effectively communicate and celebrate progress in a way that is exciting to today’s swimmer. This quest ultimately led me to settle upon, of all things video gaming, specifically the application of gamification and engagement strategies to swimming.

Video games, akin to swimming, have high learning curves, mainly due to the unique environments and mechanics inherent to these activities. Video game developers are presented with the same challenge as our sport. How do you garner new players knowing that it will take time for them to become good enough to enjoy the experience and then retain those players knowing there are many other activities competing for their attention? The solution employed by game developers is to apply design elements that provide quick and rapid rewards to encourage continuing engagement of the game. The application of similar design in non-game contexts is called gamification.

Simply put, Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users.

The techniques used in gamification are intended to leverage people’s natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, closure or simply their response to the framing of a situation as game or play. Early gamification strategies used rewards for players who accomplish desired tasks or competition to engage players. Types of rewards include points, achievement badges or levels, the filling of a progress bar, or providing the user with virtual currency. Making the rewards for accomplishing tasks visible to other players or providing leaderboards are ways of encouraging players to compete.

These concepts merge at lightspeed in video gaming-and we must find a way to compete with this type of medium when attempting to enhance engagement of our swimmers. Like it or not, we ARE competing with the virtual world, with its immediate feedback and gratification tactics.

My efforts to improve swimmer engagement and retention drove the development of SwimWarrior, a mobile application for coaches and swimmers to gamify the experience of competitive swimming. Within the app, coaches time their athletes in a set of 16 events (25, 50, 75 and 100 of each stroke) at practice. Times are stored in the swimmer’s profile and are converted into scores with ranks and virtual reward badges to communicate current skill level and progress over time. Results are displayed on multiple leaderboards so swimmers can compete, promoting competition at practice.

For coaches, it is a performance management, organizational and engagement tool. For swimmers, it provides an opportunity to compete in events aligned with what most swimmers are looking for (shorter and faster events) while providing context into where they are on the broad spectrum of skill level in the sport. SwimWarrior provides a common “language” i.e. an interface for swimmers, coaches and parents to follow the athlete’s progression.

As coaches, it is incumbent upon us to find new ways to engage swimmers in a changing world, gamification is simply one method of engagement that I have found to be very successful. Rapid feedback, quick rewards and engagement strategies focused on the quick paced lives of our athletes are key to keeping our sport relevant. SwimWarrior is simply one manner in which to help keep our swimmers engaged and coming back each season.

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