001.004b The Long Tail of Age Group Participation

Reviewing the results of a previous post entitled “Where Have All the Swimmers Gone?”, I was struck by the gap between the statistics presented there and my own anecdotal experience.  That post reported that at their peak (age 12), age group athletes compete 28 times per year on average in 5 meets per year. Many of the 11-12 year olds on my USA-S age group team compete over 100 times per year in more than 15 meets per year.

The recent claim that “15.1% of swimmers under 12 do not participate in a sanctioned meet” (USA Swimming’s Tom Avischious, 2018-04-08) also surprised me.  Our analysis is limited to athletes who compete at least once per year, so those non-participants are invisible to us.  But if 15.1% of the 12/Unders don’t compete at all, how many only compete once or twice a year?

In this post, we’ll examine the long tails of age group participation.  As before, we’ll limit our data to recognized swims from our 18 data source LSCs to reduce participation undercounting.  We’ll learn that there is an enormous variation in age group participation. Most age group athletes are casual participants, competing a few times a year, while only a handful are responsible for most swims.  Our results are summarized in the following table.












Meet Days












This table reports that 50% of active age group athletes swim recognized events at most 12 times annually in 3 meets across 4 days.  These athletes are primarily competing in one-day meets, with at most one two-day meet per year. At the other extreme, the 1% most active athletes swim over 101 times annually in more than 16 meets across 33 days.  These athletes are primarily competing in two-day meets, with at least one three-day meet per year.

The rest of this post will present the detailed participation metrics by age group, and then consider its implications for USA Swimming’s age group program.

Meets Per Athlete Year.

According to our data, 27% of active athletes attend only one meet per year.  In every age group, most athletes only attend one annual meet and the number of athletes that attend more meets decreases exponentially.

Organizing this data into a cumulative plot shows that 50% of age group athletes attend at most 3 meets per year, while the most active 1% attend at least 16.  It also reveals that each age group has a similar proportion of active participants.

It’s unusual for an age group athlete to participate in more than 20 meets per year, yet our data includes one athlete who attended 32 meets as a 12 year old.  SWIMS confirms that the athlete attended 32 meets as a 12 year old, and even swam in two meets on one day.

Meet Days per Athlete Year.

According to our data, 20% of active age group athletes only attend one meet day per year.

Plotting the cumulative fraction of athletes reveals that 50% of age group athletes attend at most 4 meet days per year, while the the most active 1% attend at least 33.

The record in our data is 64 meet days, held by an athlete who completed 197 swims in his 12th year, as confirmed by SWIMS.

Swims per Athlete Year.

Most (7.2%) age group athletes swim recognized events three times annually, as shown by the following truncated plot.  Next most are 2 and 4 swims annually at a one day meet, followed by 6 swims at a two day meet.

The record in our data is 205 annual swims, by a 10 year old.  SWIMS reports that the athlete swam 281 times as a 10 year old in 40 meets sanctioned by 6 different LSCs, including two outside our data (Sierra-Nevada, Arizona).

A cumulative plot reveals that 50% of age group athletes swim recognized events at most 12 times per year, while the most active 1% swim at least 101 times.


The next plot reorganizes the same information into two cumulative axes.  The horizontal axis plots the cumulative fraction of athletes, in order of decreasing participation; the vertical axis plots the cumulative fraction of all swims that those athletes are responsible for.  It shows that the 20% most active athletes are responsible for nearly 60% of all age group swims.

Here are selected points from this graph, which reports that the 50% most active athletes are responsible for nearly 90% of all age group swims.












Who Are These Casual Participants?

The data above reveals the existence of a continuum of USA-S age group participation, ranging from 0 meet days per year to over 60.  It also suggests that most age group athletes are casual participants in competitive swimming. An alternate hypothesis would be that their competitive efforts occur in other venues, such as YMCA or high school swimming.

To explore this alternative hypothesis, we’ll first consider the relation between athlete participation (in swims per year) and athlete performance, as measured by mean swim rank.  The rank of a swim is determined relative to all other swims in the same event by athletes of the same gender and age in years. Lower mean rank implies faster times. If low-participation athletes compete outside USA-S sanctioned meets, we would expect their mean swim rank to be independent of their USA-S participation.  Conversely, if low-participation athletes compete exclusively in USA-S sanctioned meets, then we would expect their mean swim rank to be inversely correlated with their USA-S participation (lower participation means slower times).

This graph shows that athletes with fewer swims have slower times, which supports the hypothesis that they are casual participants in competitive swimming.

Are We Missing YMCA Competition?

Some USA-S clubs also belong to YMCA Swimming: their age group athletes compete in both YMCA meets and USA-S meets.  While these dual organization athletes aren’t explicitly identified in our data, it’s possible to guess their YMCA affiliation from their team’s full name.  For the purposes of this analysis, we categorized a club as being YMCA-affiliated if its full name contained “YMCA”, “YWCA” or “ Y “. Roughly 10% of the athletes in our data set belong to a YMCA-affiliated team and they are responsible for 8.6% of the swims.

Dual-affiliated athletes attend 3.8 USA-S meets per year on average, slightly under the 4.5 average annual meets attended by single-affiliated athletes.

Dual-affiliated athletes complete 19 USA-S swims per year on average, slightly under the 22 average annual swims by single-affiliated athletes.

To conclude our YMCA detour: it’s clear that YMCA-affiliated athletes do not form a major portion of our data, and are not significantly skewing our participation statistics.

Towards a Low-Intensity USA-S Age Group Program.

At this point, it’s reasonable to conclude that the long-tailed distribution of USA-S participation revealed in our data captures the reality of USA-S participation.  And if so, it also illuminates a path to increasing USA-S age group participation.

It’s difficult to imagine that a casual participant would be prepared to swim a 200 Fly, 400 IM, or 1650 Free or that they (or their parents) would be willing drive an hour to attend a typical USA-S meet, starting at 7am with three 25 minute warm-ups followed by four hours of preliminaries, a two hour distance session swum fastest to slowest with a 30 minute warm-up, and then coming back at night for two 25 minute warm-ups and two hours of finals.  

There’s a reason why this t-shirt is popular at swim meets!

USA-S meets also require an onerous level of parental volunteering - timers, head timers, safety marshalls, officials, hospitality, awards, console operators, and front gate workers.  Our team’s recent two-day two-pool twelve-session SCY meet required over 1100 hours of volunteer time, not including officials. A parent might be willing to work 10 hours on a weekend if their child attends 10 meets a year, but not if their child only attends 1 meet a year.

So to my mind, this analysis recommends that USA-S develop a comprehensive program for the low participation athletes who form the bulk of its age group membership.  At a minimum, such a program would offer branded practice groups and branded meets designed to meet the needs of the casual age group athlete. The branded program would be more like summer league swimming, but year round, and with more accurate times and officiating. It’s key value proposition would be a low-cost low-pain competitive swimming experience for children and their parents.

USA Swimming’s recently created FlexSwim Membership is a step in this direction. At a reduced membership fee, a FlexSwim member is allowed to participate in at most two USA-S meets per year.  Unfortunately the program does not address the principal concerns of low-participation age group athletes, namely, the intensity and expense of age group practices and swim meets.  In our next post we’ll analyze the FlexSwim Membership and propose a way to extend it into a branded program for lower intensity competitive swimmers.