Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What is The Best Age Group System?

It's no secret that Danish swimming is riding a high right now. With the European Short Course championships at home swiftly approaching, they can realistically expect to be among the top three in the medal counts in their home country, besting many larger continental rivals. Beneath the surface, however, there are signs for concern. Why aren't there more men along? Where is the next generation of female stars that will quickly need to come to the fore?

One of the biggest adjustments coming from the US to Denmark has been reasoning the age group system. Because European Junior competitions determine girls 15-16 and boys 17-18, the entire system of age groups down the line is offset two years. Beneath "junior" there are two levels: age group one and age group two. Beneath that there is no classification, although swimmers there are usually referred to as "talent" swimmers. In practical terms, this means that boys don't get classified into any recognizable age group until age 13, while girls are classified at 11. Likewise, matters are further complicated by the use of birth year instead of birthdate, meaning that almost all the best swimmers in the age groups are born towards the beginning of the year, with their extra advantage of always being a little older than their competition.

When I was coaching in the US, I never gave much consideration to our age group system. I was only briefly coaching in the club level and mainly had senior swimmers in college. Growing up there were 8 and under events, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14 and then 15 and up in most meets. In recent years USA Swimming has tried to narrow these gaps by putting forth national top times list in each age year instead of two year blocks. The sheer size of the US meant that there could almost never be an actual race to determine who was the "best" in any given age group. In Denmark, age group "national champions" are crowned each year from the year someone moves into the classification. I can only imagine the furor of people who get upset in the US over top 16 times if those swimmers were actually competing in a national championship.

The age gap also has consequences for the exposure of young boys to competitive swimming. Many young boys are getting a much later start (two years) and I do think that this is inhibiting them from developing good competitive skills at a young age. In addition, if you keep kids progressing through your team in their age groups, you have the odd situation of your best 14 year old boys training with 12 year old girls. Are they really getting what they need?

An entire other issue is the seeming arms race to push younger swimmers far in terms of progression of both time and volume. Morning practice (doubles) is considered by many a necessary step for age group one (i.e. 13 year old girls and 15 year old boys), with many progressing to ten practices per week (four doubles) before they reach the junior ranks. Do these swimmers have the emotional maturity to "choose" to swim ten times a week at this age?

All of this is making me wish I had studied better the best age group development in the US- I have a feeling that much of what I see could be done better but sometimes lack the vocabulary to explain it.

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