Competitive Swimming: Swimming Requirements

Written by Eric W., Making Waves Swim Instructor

“What does my child need to know to join a swim team?”

A child’s age is the determining factor in what is required to join a swim team.

Swimming leagues run in even numbered ages and down (6 and under, 8 and under, etc.).  Most swim teams will require kids age 8 and up know all four competitive strokes with their associated starts and turns “legally”.  What does legally mean?  It means that your child must be able to consistently do freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly at race distances with the associated turns without getting disqualified.  Also, this is a bare minimum, higher age brackets and more popular teams can have even higher standards.  The internet is a useful resource in this matter.  Most teams have their own website where you can find what they require.  Communication with your child’s swimming instructor is essential!  They may be able to recommend certain teams in your area but more importantly make sure you discuss what specific goals or requirements you would like your child to work towards!

Freestyle is the backbone of competitive swimming.

Even if this is not the stroke your child will specialize in, it is essential that they can swim it confidently over appropriate distances.  Freestyle is commonly used by coaches to help swimmers improve endurance and breath control.  It is essential that any child considering trying out be able to do this stroke as efficiently and effortlessly as possible.  It should also be noted that Freestyle has the greatest variety in official race distances.  Events can be as short as 25 yards to 1,650 yards (a mile).  The length of races expected of swimmers varies greatly from age group to age group and team to team.

Backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly are also usually required.

Some teams allow the youngest group of swimmers (6 and under) to join with just freestyle and backstroke.  However, it is still strongly recommended that prospective swimmers have at least have some experience with Breaststroke and Butterfly even if these strokes are not quite “legal” yet.  Choosing a swim coach with experience preparing children for swim teams can be very helpful with these strokes.  Butterfly is never needed outside of competitive swimming and some coaches simply do not have the comfort with the stroke themselves in order to teach it.  In Breaststroke, there are some differences between “recreational” and “competitive” versions of the stroke so communication with your child’s coach about their goals is essential.  “Safety first” though!  The recreational version is easier to learn and is a useful self rescue stroke.  The “recreational” version can be adapted to the “competitive” version when your child is ready.

Starts, turns, and a few other details.

This is perhaps the most overlooked portion of preparation for competitive swimming.  Diving requires a pool with sufficient depth to practice safely.  Freestyle and backstroke can have open turns and/or flip turns.  Which one is required depends on age and team, generally older kids and tougher teams require flip turns.  Breaststroke and butterfly require two hand touch turns.  Finally, I strongly encourage swimmers to learn to “circle swim” and also pass safely.  For circle swimming, you can think of it like driving.  Always stay towards the right and pass to the left without drifting into oncoming swimmers.

What does a “legal” stroke look like? 

I have attached some links to videos posted by the official USA Swimming YouTube channel.  They are intended to help race officials but do an excellent job displaying and discussing what is and is not “legal” for all strokes and turns:

Swim Safe.  Swim Fast.  Have Fun!

Mr. Eric W.

Making Waves Swim School Instructor