I can't say I know John Bitter as a coach, but USMS and World Champion Masters Swimmer Laura Val trains with the Santa Clara Masters and it is one of those quietly thriving masters clubs.
A former swimmer of Coach Bitter's forwarded this article to me. Although it appears to be a talk to USA Swim Clubs or coaches, it has some good thoughts for masters coaches trying to add or build their own masters swim club.
Thanks Coach John - and Caroline!
The Marriage of a Successful Masters Program with a Swim Team
by John Bitter, head coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club
The sport of fitness swimming or adult masters swimming in this country has experienced tremendous growth over the last ten years. Today there are over 38,000 registered adult masters' swimmers (numbers from USMS information 2001) training, competing, and enjoying the benefits that the sport of swimming has to offer.
In certain parts of the country the registered masters’ swimmers far outnumber those registered for United States Swimming. Clubs in Texas, and across California are reaping financial profits that were unheard of in previous years.
So why would a club not seek out this opportunity to add a masters program to their already existing curriculum?
The answers to this question are often more complex than they appear. In this article, I will explore several of these answers and also give some advice on how our team, the Santa Clara Swim Club, has managed to make both programs successfully co-exist.
In discussing issues of coaching with other coaches, it has become an age-old adage that the worst problem we face daily is the swim team parent. After all, the most cherished thing is this world is a child, therefore parents often act out of character when it comes to their children’s needs and wants. So taking that adage a step further, if the worse thing is dealing with parents and their dreams for their children, now imagine dealing with parents themselves who are swimming and creating their own dreams. Just as a parent can be selfish when it comes to their child, now they get to be even more selfish when it comes to them.
A daunting fear that many coaches see is how to handle the adult swimmer, when it comes time to talk about whether to run a masters program or not.
Often when I go to camps, clinics, or meets and the subject of masters’ swimming comes up, I can see the cringe in the eyes of many of my fellow coaches. But when I tell them about how much the program at Santa Clara brings in each year and how the potential for even more growth exists, their eyes widen and the questions come forth.
Through a successful Master's program, there is a tremendous opportunity for financial success that can benefit the swim club. Learning to coach the "grown up" is a small price to pay for the opportunity of financial success. I have mentioned those words twice, financial success, but to say that this concept is the only reason to develop a Masters program would be to diminish what can truly be a special part of your overall curriculum.
When I came to Santa Clara Swim Club in 1995, we offered an age group program, a senior program, and a small, but regularly attended masters’ program. My first year at the club, the head coach Dick Jochums added a learn-to swim program to the mix. We now had a swim program that covered from toddler to adult, but the strategy about how to market it and make the entire team a success was the next step in our development as a club.
Santa Clara had its name, but in master’s swimming a name is not always the reason to swim at a particular place. Master’s swimmers want a program where they feel wanted. They will go to a pool where they feel they can get a good workout (usually one with variety), a place were the coach to swimmer familiarity is high, where there is a set workout schedule, and finally, where there are some social aspects to the pool and lane structure.
In the first two years at Santa Clara, our program was one that could best be described as disjointed and sparsely populated.
To be exact, many of those early regulars bemoan to me that they wish the old days were here, without the crowded lanes, even though they understand the need to grow.
We had no regular coach, the program had no real structure, and the swimmers who were there came to swim because of the convenience the pool had to their work or homes.
Something had to change, for the program had the potential to be something the club would be proud of and would benefit the adult swimming community.
In November 1998, I took over the program from top to bottom and I began coaching all of the workouts on a regular basis.
At Santa Clara we run workouts Monday through Friday from 6 to 8 am and from 6 to 7:30 p.m. On Saturdays the workout is from 9:30 to 11 am and on Sundays from 9 to 10:30 am.
For the last three years I have been running almost all of those workouts, with the goal of creating a familiarity in the program and to advance it to where it was standing on its own two feet financially.
Of course, this is a difficult task to ask of any staff member and familiarity or consistency can be achieved through less extreme measures.
Last year we were able to achieve financial independence, as the program paid for my salary, plus pool rent, and was still left with money in a reserve account.
This year we are already over budget by 125%.
In the year 1998-1999 the program had a membership under 135 and brought around $40,000 into the team.
The following year 1999-2000 the program grew in numbers to 240 registered swimmers and the program exceeded budget by a little over $30,000.
This year the club has continued its growth and registered masters' swimmers is approaching 300.
The eventual goal of the program is 400 registered masters' swimmers.
The financial profit generated at that point will create the ability to sponsor relay teams at different competitions that are offered to adult swimmers.
Putting our club in such a position is another way to support our adult athletes, while also creating a lasting bond between the adult swimmer and the club.
So what do you do to make this happen?
One of the first ways to develop a successful masters programs to give it structure, but with flexibility.
By that I mean set up a working schedule for workouts, but add some flexibility in how members can pay.
At Santa Clara we have created daily, monthly, half-yearly, and yearly payment options. Also, through agreements with many of the local triathlete clubs, special discounts have been honored. Discounts for city residents, students, and former swimmers and parents of the club have been established.
Each of these plans has been established as a way to attract the adult to try the program.
Flexibility also means making sure you create the workout for the group in the water, not just run a generic workout to see how many laps they can do in one hour. Adults understand what is going on; they want a practice that not only gives them a great workout, but one that also has some variety and purpose to it.
Don’t just assume and don’t just send them back and forth. Listen, create, and provide multiple workouts within the pool if you need to.
There is nothing worse than having a pool full of swimmers creating their own workouts because your workout shows no concern for them.
A master's workout should not be an open lap swim. Have a few lap lanes available, but make the workout lanes the place to be.
Also, I make myself available for clinics and for one-on-ones, something that gives me more contact to the swimmers and their needs.
Finally, don’t ever pass up an opportunity to speak when asked. Getting yourself out there as often as you can helps with the marketing of the program and more than likely it will also help some adult feel more comfortable about coming to their first Master's workout.
Make everyone feel welcomed and find a lane for even the slowest beginner to swim and perform a workout you have given.
Something else that I feel is important is participation in a few of the events your swimmers do. This year, and in 1999, I did Masters Nationals with my team, I have also done a few open water swims, and I have participated in triathlon relays. I am in no shape to do a triathlon, but doing the swim alone and cheering on the many triathletes who swim at your pool, helps give you a small perspective of what your adult athletes are going through.
It is this listening, watching them compete, and congratulating them for their efforts that you can create that partnership that leads to loyalty to your club's Master's program.
This is another way to keep your program a step ahead of the others and a success for years to come.
A masters' swim program is an excellent way to create revenue for the club, create more recognition for the club, and a way to give your club a true place in the complete development of a swimmer from infancy to old age.
The positives outweigh the negatives if you take the time to create a program and put the time into it to bring it to a level in which everyone who may participate feels good about what they experienced.
Remember that you only will see many of these people twice a week for a grand total of 3 hours, what you do and how you do it will leave a lasting impression for the future.
The best marketing for a master's program will always word of mouth from those who are swimming in it. People talk at work about their exercise or fitness programs and where they do it. Make your club the name that they mention and enjoy what a successfully run masters' program can do for your club.