001.004c A Flex PROGRAM for USA Swimming

In 2018, USA Swimming introduced a new tier of membership, called “FlexSwim”, whose stated goal is to increase 12/Under participation.  At a reduced membership fee, a FlexSwim member is allowed to participate in at most two USA-S age group meets per calendar year.  Unfortunately the program does not address the principal concerns of low-participation age group athletes, namely, the intensity and cost of age group practices and swim meets.

In this post we’ll analyze the FlexSwim membership and propose a way to extend it into a branded Flex Program.  Unlike the membership, our proposed Flex Program provides a promise of value to youth athletes and their parents.

Most Age Group Athletes are Casual.

In a previous post we found that USA-S age group participation is a continuum, from athletes who never compete to those who compete more than 60 days a year.  USA Swimming reports that 15% of age group athletes attend no sanctioned meets in a given calendar year.   Our data reveals that 27% of age group athletes only compete in one USA-S sanctioned meet per year, and that casual athletes exist in every age group.


Delving deeper into the data, we found an enormous participation gap among age group athletes. 50% of age group athletes attend at most 3 meets per year, while the most active 1% attend at least 16. 50% swim at most 12 times a year, while the most active 1% swim at least 101 times a year.  This enormous disparity in age group participation raises the question whether there's a better way to meet the needs of the casual participants of all ages, who form the bulk of USA-S's age group membership.

FlexSwim Will Not Increase Participation.

Unfortunately, USA-S’s new FlexSwim membership does not solve the problem of youth athlete participation.  Lowering the annual cost of USA-S membership from $70 to $20 won’t cause any youth athletes to attend more meets.  Nor is it likely to increase the total number of youth athletes in competitive swimming, for the following reasons.

Cost.  The USA-S membership fee is a negligible portion of the annual cost of age group swimming, which includes practice equipment ($20 - $200), swimsuits, caps and goggles ($200 - $1200), meet entry fees ($400 - $800), club practice fees ($1000 to $5000), meet travel expenses, private lessons, and parental volunteer time (20 to 60 hours).  Saving $50 on the annual membership fee is unlikely to convince a family to try USA Swimming when practice fees exceed $1000 per year and meets costs more than $50 per weekend (event fees plus spectator admission fee). A program designed for casual athletes must ensure that the total cost of participating -- fees plus family volunteer time -- is modest.

Anti-Athlete.  A FlexSwim member who participates in more than 2 meets in a calendar year will have their additional times expunged from SWIMs:

“Upon times being loaded into SWIMS, an additional check will be run to determine if a Flex member has already competed in two sanctioned meets. If they have, those times will not be loaded into SWIMS.“

That is a remarkably mean-spirited provision for a youth sport.  USA-S may now be the only organized youth sport that charges a fee to compete and then expunges a child’s performance.  A better approach would be to reduce barriers to meet participation and include the costs of meet participation in the athlete’s meet entry fees.

Practice Commitment. Anecdotally, the most common reason for athletes to drop out of age group swimming is the ever-increasing practice commitment.  By age 12, athletes in high-intensity practice groups might be expected to attend five 2.5 hour practices a week. This obligation can increase to seven or more practices a week by age 15.  Casual athletes are not able to make the intervals or keep up with the sets in these practice groups, and may be mocked for missing practices. A program designed for casual athletes must ensure that the casual athlete can succeed within their own program, rather than failing in a program for elite athletes.

Meet Commitment.  Anecdotally, the most common and most intense complaints from swim parents arise from the onerousness of age group swim meets.  It’s possible for a family to spent eight to twelve hours per day at a swim meet, so a single child can swim three to four times.  A family whose children span multiple age groups can expect to spend the entire weekend at the pool. Guest/host team timer obligations mean that parents can’t simply drop off their older athletes.  A program designed for casual athletes must ensure that meets are a brief, pleasant experience for the entire family, and easily scheduled into an otherwise busy weekend with firm start and finish times.

To increase youth athlete participation, USA Swimming needs to address these fundamental issues of cost and commitment.  In the remainder of this post, we’ll propose two ways to increase participation in competitive swimming. First we’ll propose small changes to the existing age group program whose goal is to make the program more friendly to casual participants.  Next we’ll propose an entirely new “Flex Program” explicitly designed to capture the needs of the casual competitive swimmer and their family.

Proposed Age Group Program Changes.

It’s difficult to fully address the issues of cost and commitment in the existing USA-S age group program, which is designed primarily for active participants.  Nonetheless a few small changes can make the age group program more friendly place for casual athletes and their families, which will hopefully increase participation.  We have five recommendations.

Add an 8/Under Age Group.   Explicitly add an 8/Under age group, whose recognized events are 25s of all distances.  Keep the 10/Under age group, so that 8/Unders can swim the newly recognized 25s plus the all the events recognized for 10/Unders.  The main effect of this change is to record 8/Under participation in SWIMS, which incents 8/Under participation. It will also defacto encourage 8/Under inclusion in LSC age group championship meets, which further incents 8/Under participation.

Recognize Shorter Distances for Older Athletes.  Add 50s Back/Breast/Fly and 100 IM to the list of events recognized for 13/Overs.  The main effect of this change is that 13/Over 50s -- which are attractive to casual swimmers -- will be offered at more meets, and casual swimmers will be more likely to participate since their times will be recorded in SWIMS.  There’s no harm in including the 13/Over 50s in championship meets or maintaining records in those distances.

Restrict Preliminaries with Finals.  Preliminaries with Finals is an onerous competition format, potentially requiring families to spend most of their weekend at the pool.  This format should be restricted to 15/Overs at championship meets for events whose preliminaries have at least four times the number of entrants as there are finals slots.  A preliminaries with finals event with insufficient participants would prune finals heats or award finishing positions based solely on times achieved in the preliminaries.

Mandate non-conforming times.  Many age group athletes only swim one season.  Younger athletes are more likely to swim SCY only; older athletes are more likely to swim LCM only.  Meets that require conforming times defacto exclude these athletes. To increase meet participation, all meets should be required to accept non-conforming or converted times.

Flex Member Entry Fee Surcharge.  The purpose of FlexSwim is to increase participation, not discourage it!  So remove the FlexSwim limitation on USA-S meet participation. Allow FlexSwim members to enter as many USA-S sanctioned meets as they want, including championships, and promise that all their times will be captured in SWIMS.  To cover any additional insurance costs, and to remove the incentive for active participants to downgrade their membership plan, require that FlexSwim members be charged a meet entry fee surcharge. The surcharge amount is designed to make a traditional $70 USA-S membership more attractive than a $20 FlexSwim membership above the 50% annual participation level (3 meets, 4 meet days, 12 swims).   That can be accomplished with a FlexSwim meet entry fee surcharge of roughly $15 per meet, $12 per meet day or $4 per swim. Personally I prefer the per swim surcharge, to smooth the transition from casual to frequent participant.

A Flex PROGRAM Proposal.

Here’s a rough proposal for a comprehensive USA-S program designed to increase youth athlete participation in competitive swimming.  This proposed “Flex Program” is intended to exist side-by-side with the existing USA-S age group program, as a low-cost, pleasant competitive swim experience for the entire family.

Flex Membership.  The athlete is allowed to enroll in a branded Flex practice group and attend all branded Flex meets in addition to all USA-S age group meets.  Flex athletes who attend age group meets may be assessed a surcharge on their meet entry fees to cover additional insurance costs, if any.

Flex Practice.  A Flex club must offer at least five branded Flex practices per week, consisting of one hour of swimming with 15 minutes of stretching.  Athletes can choose to participate in any number of those practices per week and pay accordingly. Clubs can combine athletes by age and ability in their Flex practice groups as they see fit.  The club must provide kickboards and any other required equipment. The athlete need only provide swimsuit, cap and goggles.

Flex Meet.  The central value proposition of a Flex Meet is that it is a low-cost “drop-off activity” that can be easily scheduled into a busy weekend, with firm start and finish times known in advance.  Warm-up sessions are at most 15 minutes each. At most 12 athletes per 25 yard warm-up lane and 18 per 50 meter warm-up lane. At most one warm-up session per planned hour of competition. Competition duration at most one hour, with firm start times for all sessions in the initial meet announcement and an accurate meet timeline posted at least one week before the meet.  No tech suits or knee skins. There are only two types of sessions: 10/Under and 18/Under. A 10/Under session would consist of 25s of Free/Back/Breast/Fly and 100 Free/Medley relays in SCY only. Awards are provided to the top 10, 9, 8, 7, and 6/Under finishers. An 18/Under session would consist of 50s of Free/Back/Breast/Fly, 100 IM, and 200 Free/Medley relays and can run SCY or LCM.  Awards are provided to the top 10/Under, 11-12, 13-14, and 15/Over finishers. Relays must be held at the start of the session. Timed finals only. All ages swim together in the events. No admission charge for spectators. One timer per lane to operate the plunger and a manual stopwatch, with no guest team timers required. One adult safety marshal solely to keep parents off the deck.  A reduced officiating requirement, with a minimum of one referee/starter and two stroke and turn officials. Times are entered in SWIMS with a “Flex” caveat and not eligible for records. DQs must be explained to the athlete. False starts are allowed to swim again in a later heat when possible.

Flex Championships. Flex Championships are designed to recognize athlete accomplishment within the low-cost family-friendly Flex Program.  Flex Championships consist of at least one 10/Under meet and one 18/Under meet, subject to the same restrictions as regular meets. The top Flex athletes from the current season for each age group are invited, with boys and girls invited in proportion to their participation in the program.  To that end, the LSCs must maintain an accurate, up-to-date public list of the top athletes in every event and age group for the current season. LSCs are encouraged to promote participation by offering Flex championship meets in multiple locations.

Flex LSC.  Flex LSCs must offer at least one branded Flex championship per season.  The Flex championship may occur on the same weekend and in the same pool as the LSC’s age group championships, provided the Flex requirements are satisfied.

Flex Club. A branded Flex club offers branded Flex practice sessions, transparent pricing, a low cost trial option, and attends at least two branded Flex meets per season.  A premium branded Flex+ club hosts at least one branded Flex meet per season.

Flex Marketing.  USA-S promotes the Flex program to increase youth participation.  As part of that effort, USA-S maintains an accurate up-to-date list of all clubs that offer a branded Flex program, along with transparent pricing, Flex practice times, primary Flex practice location, and contact information so that families can easily comparison-shop Flex programs in their area.

Transition Period.  During the transition period, age group athletes are invited to the Flex meets.  Once Flex participation reaches critical mass, and the Flex meets can be filled entirely with Flex members, age group athletes will no longer be allowed to participate.


Our analysis has confirmed that most USA-S age group athletes are casual participants in competitive swimming.  To increase youth participation in competitive swimming, we have proposed a new branded “Flex Program” along with some changes to the existing age group program.  The crux of our Flex program proposal is to promise families that their participation will be considerably less expensive and time-consuming than traditional age group swimming.