What are the benefits of organized sports?
Participation in organized sports provides several benefits beyond improving your physical fitness. Joining a team or league instills a sense of community and belonging. Knowing that someone is expecting you to show up to practice makes you more accountable, increasing the likelihood that you will maintain your fitness routine. Competing in races or games supplies tangible goals to be achieved beyond the subjective desire to improve your health and maybe lose a little weight. Instead, you have objective measures of place, time, points, weight lifted, etc.
Most of all, competition is fun! If you ask most pediatricians the easiest and best way to get kids to exercise, they will tell you to encourage them to play, anything and everything. It’s no surprise that even as adults, we never outgrow this simple truism, fitness is more fun when done with others, and organized activities are the best of all.
You can try any kind of sports.
Although swimming has been my primary sport since childhood, as a lifelong athlete I have participated in several other activities across the spectrum of sport including CrossFit, water polo, ultramarathon running, cycling, volleyball, triathlon, rowing, boxing, soccer, and even Highland games. In each case, I sought out either coaching or an organized group to learn more about the sport before competing for the first time.
Some activities like running and cycling don’t require any special instruction before racing the first time, after all, anyone can run, and most people learned to roll on two wheels as children, and you know what they say about riding a bike. Even with ball sports like basketball, soccer, and volleyball, most people can at least kick, dribble, shoot, and serve underhand well enough to play with their friends on the weekends. But there are some activities that are quite complex or even too dangerous to try without some basic instruction. Some examples include martial arts, any form of explosive weightlifting, and especially swimming.
Consider joining a Masters swim team.
The obvious difference between swimming and all the other activities listed above is that swimming takes place in the water, an environment alien to most. Although this fact makes swimming inherently more dangerous than land-based activities, it also provides a range of health benefits that other activities do not. This is why I urge people to add swimming to their fitness routines, and this is where a Masters swim team comes in. Even for those with a swimming background, joining a Masters swim team eliminates one more potential barrier to maintaining your fitness, i.e., you don’t have to think about what to do in your workout. You just show up, hop in the tank, and do what your coach tells you. What could be easier?
So now that I’ve made my case for the importance of Masters swimming, here’s my advice for how to get started. Before looking for a Masters swim team, I suggest answering two simple questions first.
#1 What is your primary motivation for adding swimming to your fitness routine?
There is no wrong answer to this question, but it will provide some guidance on which team to choose. Some people just want to squeeze in an hour-long workout before work, or at lunch. Others want the comradery of a group of kindred spirits, where light competition is mixed with “social kicking sets,” when everyone is chatting about their weekend plans or what they saw on TV last night. Most Masters teams have several practice sessions throughout the day, each with their own personalities and a different emphasis. The first Masters team that I swam with had three groups, at 5 AM, noon, and 6 PM.
The 5 AM crew was mostly those who needed an hour-long workout before going to the office. Everyone was too sleepy to talk much. When I swam with this group, we got in, did the workout, took a shower, and headed to the office. The noon group was mostly those who were learning to swim and those folks who had little interest in competition. There was a lot more conversation in this group and the mood was warm and low-key. Although I enjoyed swimming with the noon group as a change of pace, my favorite was the evening crowd. This was a mix of triathletes who were relatively new to swimming, middle-aged professionals who swam in college, and serious Masters swimmers ranging in age from 50-70. Generally speaking, the members of this group were very competitive. There was always a lot of loud conversation until the main set. Then, all you heard was a periodic yelp, “Let’s go gang! This one is fast! Three more!”
Most Masters teams will cater to your specific needs. Picking the right team, and the right session for you may take some trial and error. Be patient, ask the questions, and don’t be surprised if your emphasis changes over time. You may not have interest in going to a swim meet, until you do.
#2 Can you at least swim freestyle competently, or do you need to learn to swim first?
If you can’t swim freestyle competently for at least one length of the pool, you should probably invest in some swim lessons before going to your first Masters’ practice. Most Masters coaches provide one-on-one lessons for an extra fee. If they don’t, they should be able refer you to someone who does. Once you can swim freestyle, you can learn the other strokes in practice.
Although not knowing how to swim will require some preliminary work before trying a Masters team, being out of shape should not. Don’t talk yourself into the idea that you need to get into better shape by yourself before you join a team. The whole point of joining a Masters swim team is to improve your fitness. Any competent coach will modify your workout to allow you to progress slowly. So, don’t wait. Get started!
Now do some research!
After you’ve answered these two questions, go to the U.S. Masters Swimming website and click on the Club Finder tab to start searching for a team. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I live, there are 12 teams, six of which swim out of multiple locations. Look at the teams that are closest to you and work your way out until you find what you’re looking for. Go to the team websites and read their coaching philosophies, look at their practice schedules, and call or email each with your questions. Most Masters teams provide at least one free workout, and some give you a whole week before you have to commit!
And get some basic equipment.
The last thing you need to do is get the basic swimming equipment: a swimsuit, kickboard, goggles, and pull-buoy. I would also invest in a pair of swimming fins. Some Masters teams use hand paddles, but you can get these in a few months after your shoulder muscles have strengthened. You can get your equipment as your local swim or triathlon shop, or you can shop online. My favorite place to shop for gear is SwimOutlet.com. But your team may have a sponsorship deal with an online outlet or a brick-and-mortar store that will get you some big discounts. Be sure to ask about this too.
In my experience Masters swimming is a welcoming and inclusive organization that has something for everyone at all levels of swimming.
For more information about how swimming provides health benefits that land-based exercise does not, I invite you to read my new book, The Swim Prescription. Happy swimming!
ALEXANDER HUTCHISON, PH.D., is a fitness and wellness expert in Dallas, TX and the owner of The Athlete Company. The Senior Editor for the journal Advanced Biology, he has experience coachine swimming, water polo, triathlon, marathon, and most recently, strength and conditioning. After completing his master’s degree in Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, Alexander was named the head swimming coach at Austin College. He received his doctorate in Exercise Physiology and Immunology at the University of Houston. He reviews for several journals in exercise science, nutrition, and immunology, and is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. He is the author of Exercise Ain’t Enough: HIIT, Honey, and the Hadza and The Swim Prescription.