Club galas – the world of real competitive swimming. Your son or daughter has propelled through their learn-to-swim lessons – three or four (probably butterfly still needs a bit of work) of their basic stroke fundamentals have been mastered. They have been raising eyebrows at the weekly interschool relay gala, moving their team up the rankings from fourth to second in a single 25m length of front crawl, much to most of the crowd’s delight. Mrs Jones, the Grade 5 History teacher and school swimming coach (on Thursdays) enthusiastically insists that your child is ready for a little more competition. You decide to take the leap and enter your first club level gala. Here are five things you can expect.

The move from school to club level competitive swimming is an amazing achievement and certainly something to be proud of. It shows your child’s definite progression in the swimming pool and their swimming coach’s tenacity and patience when it comes to imparting some of the basics (well, for the most part anyway, especially if you took a little bit of time to choose the right swimming school for your child – read this for a little bit of guidance).

The competitive swimming bug typically starts at interschool level, where the obvious benefit of style over speed becomes clear. Here you will notice the difference in speed between your kid in lane 5 with careful str0ke, beautiful body position, gentle entry and a stable kick and the kid in lane eight whose admirable, seemingly endless energy in throwing arms over head, with a kick that may be a flutter, butterfly or egg beater at any given moment. Remembering that there are two aspects to swimming faster: 1) decreasing resistance (quick wins) and 2) increasing propulsion (which takes a little longer). This is why your kid in lane 5 should win every single time (even over a distance as short as 25m).

So, after a short consult with your child’s swimming coach, you have both decided to sign up with your local swimming affiliate for the upcoming season and that it is time to start swimming a little more competitively. The jump is substantial and this article is there to make you breathe easy as you kit up and get ready for your child’s first outing in the world of real competitive swimming: club galas. Here are five things to expect at your child’s first club gala (a list that certainly isn’t exhaustive):

1) Forget about the 25m race – only 50m and up are swum at club galas

If your child isn’t competing in an A school swimming league, in which relays are constituted of four 50m legs, then a major change is the move from 25m swims to 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and yes even 1500m events. A sprint is now considered a 50 and even a 100m swim, and typically a 200m individual medley (50m butterfly, 50m backstroke, 50m breaststroke and 50m freestyle all swum in one event) is required if your child would like to compete at the year-end nationals.

This is a big step up and careful consideration of your coach is required before entering your child in the different events. Mentally, it would be devastating if your child is entered into a 50m butterfly, despite his or her stroke breaking down after 20m. This would guarantee a last-place finish or even a withdrawal from the pool, which requires lots of work to come back from. Avoid any events that may create unnecessary anxiety or discomfort risking a mental block and move away from the pool.

2) There may be points, but the emphasis is now on the individual and not the team

There is no place to hide in the club gala arena, as each race is swum very much by the person who leaves the diving blocks and hits the wall at the end. There are no swimmers to fall back on during individual events, while parents and coaches are kept strictly off of pool deck during the gala (and for good reason). Any successes and failures fall squarely on the shoulders of your ten-year-old, which is quite a lot to take on psychologically and requires a careful balance between the love of competition and the enjoyment of the sport. Let your child’s coach take on the competitive side of things, and you as the parent make sure you handle the enjoyment of the sport – this balance is so super important.

3) Disqualifications are now in play, so be sure to touch with two hands in breaststroke

From my experience, the rules of swimming are never quite taken seriously at school galas. It’s not uncommon to see a flutter kick in breaststroke, a breaststroke kick in butterfly and a stomach wall touch in backstroke, all unpunished and sometimes even rewarded. There are no poolside judges dressed in white, with a proud official name badge embossed with the logo of the swimming affiliate they represent.

This is not to blame the schools at all though, as swimming according to FINA rules requires very careful coaching, and school swimming is very much participatory focused, the more the merrier, involving children with a range of abilities able to swim from one side of the pool to the other, and not too concerned about how they do so. Managing a school swimming programme is incredibly tricky due to the varied abilities, and most schools simply do not have the resources to get it right, instead, they often rely on swimmers from neighbouring swimming clubs to succeed in the school league.

The bottom line here is, if your child does something forbidden by the FINA rules, then nine times out of ten, he or she will be disqualified and should learn not to do that again.

4) Timekeepers, touchpads, events, heats and lanes need extra careful organisation

Events at club galas are divided into heats and heats are divided into lanes. For example, there may be 10 heats of boys 10-11 for the 50m freestyle. Each heat may have eight swimmers, one in each of the eight lanes. So, eighty boys, aged 10-11 compete in the 50m freestyle, all racing for a single gold, silver and bronze medal. The eighty swimmers are sorted into heats and lanes based on times – typically, the fastest swimmers swim in the last heats while the fastest swimmers in the heat swim in the middle lanes.

Sometimes, at competitions in which prelims and finals are swum, the prelims swum in the morning are circle seeded, meaning the fastest ranked swimmers do not swim against each other until the final. The top eight swimmers in prelims qualify to swim in the final, with the top three swimmers in the final earning a gold, silver or bronze medal.

Each swimmer in each lane is timed, either electronically, via an electronic timing device or touchpad or manually by one to three timekeepers monitoring each lane. The swimmers are then ranked from first to eightieth based solely on times. Therefore, it is so important that your child reports to the marshalling tent, in which swimmers are sorted into their lanes, based on a programme that is typically available for a fee. It is recommended that your child has some sense of which heat and lane they are in before reporting to the marshalling tent, so be sure to check the programme.

5) Competition is stiff and acknowledgements are reserved for the event’s top three only

The major shift from school to club galas is that the best of the best compete against each other, each trying to hit the wall first. They are not scattered across the province as three or four schools compete against each other. There are also acknowledgements up for grabs in the form of ribbons or medals, but these are reserved only for the top three swimmers in each event. There are no participation trophies or consolation prizes.

This is not to say that your child has nothing to compete for if he or she is not ranked to win a medal or ribbon. Swimming is an individual sport and every time your child races at a club gala and is timed, it presents an opportunity to improve, as their times begin to get faster. And as these times get faster and faster, your child will move from the bottom to the top within his or her level, and once their times are fast enough, they will move on to the next level – we’ll cover the different levels in a future article.

You and your child are now ready to overcome the chaos and take on the world of competitive club galas…

And remember, Spurt, your child’s ultimate training partner, is with you every step of the way. From learn-to-swim to school galas and now as your child enters the world of competitive club swimming, Spurt is here for him or her with an amazing range of swimming apparel and equipment, designed for style and comfort.