Swim Together: A new model of co-participation for women and girls in sportJune 17, 2021
“… as a mom, it’s really easy to tell your kids what you expect. But to show them what you expect is harder. And so I think the benefit of Swim Together is feeling good about what I’m modeling for my kids.”– mom participant in the Swim Together program
Parents and guardians are frequently left on the “sidelines” watching their children participate in sport. By prioritizing their child’s involvement, adults often don’t participate in sport and physical activity themselves, and their own well-being may suffer (Misener, 2020). In particular, mothers may view recreational sport for themselves as either a guilt-laden activity or a luxury due to both cost and time (Jones et al., 2010).
Research suggests that while mothers recognize the benefits of physical activity, they often put the needs of their children, household or employer above their own needs (Hamilton & White, 2010). With adult obesity and daily working hours on the rise (Statistics Canada, 2016), coupled with greater social isolation and many pandemic challenges, this lack of participation in sport and recreation among parents may persist. That could have detrimental psychological and health consequences, particularly for women.
When it comes recreational sport, girls also face many barriers to participation, including stigma associated with body image, negative peer influence, and lack of social support and positive role models (Canadian Women & Sport, 2020). Research also tells us that parental involvement plays a critical role in motivating children to remain active in sport. In particular, girls who were engaged in more sports and practised more often per week were those who had a mother practising organized physical activity regularly (Rodrigues et al., 2018).
This blog shares early findings from a mother-daughter swim program. It also encourages sport leaders to think about sport programs differently and re-shape how to offer sport to female youth and their parents. A SIRC Researcher/Practitioner Match Grant and a Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA) Gender Equity in Recreational Sport – Community Grant provided funding support for this research partnership and program.
The Swim Together program
In fall 2020, a swim club piloted an 8-week, co-participation swim program at the Woolwich Memorial Centre in Elmira, Ontario. The program design stemmed from talking and consulting with stakeholders, including coaches, researchers in community sport, swim club administrators, a municipal facility manager, women, and girls (ages 8 to 13).
Titled Swim Together, the program brought mothers and daughters to the pool at a shared time for 45 minutes of weekly coaching (individual, small group and large-group). In all, 14 moms and 18 girls participated in sessions on swimming technique, cardiovascular fitness, and having fun in the water. Some sessions focused on particular peer groups (moms or girls) and others were mother-daughter activities.
Impact for women and girls
Other than alleviating constraints that women and girls face, Swim Together aimed to contribute to positive outcomes like improving physical and mental health, increasing self-confidence and mastery, opening doors for parent-child role modeling, increasing social connectedness, and giving sport clubs a model to implement organized, intentional opportunities for family health and well-being, particularly for women and girls. The pilot program’s early impact included:
Physical activity and fitness
Swim Together showed that women and girls both experienced significant positive change in their physical activity level and perceived fitness. Participants appreciated that the program was designed to be fun and non-competitive. The organized nature held mothers accountable to attend and helped motivate them to be physically active.
“When (the kids) swim at other times, I don’t really do a whole lot of physical activity. So this was nice to be able to actually do it with them and get that physical activity instead of just hopping in the car and dropping them off and then going back half an hour later and picking them up.”– mom participant
Self-confidence and mastery
Moms like being coached! Coaching was central to helping women and girls develop their skills and see improvement in their own abilities. The program’s consistent, weekly training translated into greater confidence for participants. As their skill level developed, they were more likely to come swim lengths on their own at other times of the week.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions posing some barriers, Swim Together still created a sense of community among women who didn’t necessarily see themselves as “active” or “athletic.” Now, they ‘re swimming regularly with new friends who enjoy a similar recreational pursuit.
“Especially because of COVID, I am struggling to find a social circle. Swim Together has given me a social circle on a regular basis… being able to actually be in a group in a safe space again, it’s something that I’ve definitely been missing.”– mom participant
Positive role modeling and shared interest within families
Positive role modeling was particularly important for women who felt like they weren’t necessarily modeling the values that they were trying to instill in their children. For example, values like being lifelong physically active individuals and trying new forms of physical activity. Women appreciated the structured opportunity to demonstrate these values and behaviours to their children while cultivating a shared interest.
“I value health. And yet, I’m not living a life where it looks like I value my health. And so for me, I think the benefit is twofold…. as a mom, it’s really easy to tell your kids what you expect. But to show them what you expect is harder… I think the benefit of Swim Together is feeling good about what I’m modeling for my kids.”– mom participant
3 strategies for sport clubs to build a co-participation program
1. Use your club’s capacity strengths to experiment with co-participation
The swim club had strong coaches with shared values (that is, promoting positive outcomes for women and girls, and supporting positive family dynamics). Coaches and swim club administrators worked together to embrace new ways to use the pool facility for a program that wasn’t exclusive to youth. By successfully applying for grants to cover part of the participant fees, they were able to offer a low-cost program. If future grants are unavailable, it will be vital to communicate during the registration process that coaching has value, even though it adds to registration costs.
2. Embrace evaluation through research partnerships
To facilitate co-participation programming, all stakeholders must have a voice in the program’s planning, implementation and evaluation. We used a community-based partnership model that involved sport practitioners, university-based researchers, and participants. By conducting focus groups and interviews throughout the program, we learned about people’s experiences and adapted the program on an ongoing basis. Particularly for new sport programs, conducting evaluative research alongside the program provides stakeholders with new insight into specific mechanisms that can help enhance participation.
3. Use co-participation to develop pathways for lifelong participation
Swim Together linked many aspects that lay the foundation for lifelong physical activity and sport participation. Because their mom was present, younger girls found this program made them more comfortable participating. Some girls even expressed interest in joining the regular swim team. Whereas others, who were former members of a swim team, preferred the non-competitive physical activity in the Swim Together program. Some moms said they wouldn’t have been comfortable going solo to swim lanes, but with their daughter involved, they felt more willing to participate. While women and girls face barriers to being active at different points in life, this program offers participants an activity to help mitigate those barriers.
“[Swim Together] brought in more interest in swimming – both competitive swimming and swimming as a health activity. I also love that the program is bringing more girls into our centre. It’s getting parents involved and promoting mother-daughter bonding. I think it’s bringing a whole social aspect as well, so that the moms are working together and getting to know people, especially during this time with COVID.”– Municipal Director of Recreation
Our program shows that having a child participate in sport doesn’t necessarily mean parents miss out on participating in sports themselves. However, sport leaders must think differently about how to organize sport and intentionally create opportunities for family health and well-being.
Swim Together offers a new co-participation model to engage women and girls simultaneously in a sport pursuit. This model has potential to help sport clubs re-imagine programs that promote the health and well-being of women and girls by allowing them to participate together in organized sport.
As SIRC’s recent #MomsGotGame campaign noted, our sport system needs to provide new resources and supports to overcome the unique challenges and circumstances for moms’ sport participation (Allan, 2020), particularly due to the positive influence active mothers have on encouraging their children’s sport participation (Rodrigues et al., 2018).
For more information about this research, please contact Katie Misener at email@example.com.
About the Author(s)
Katie Misener(@MisenerKatie) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on the social impact and organizational capacity of community sport clubs. She is currently a volunteer with the youth in recreation committee of the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation and is on the Board of Parks and Recreation Ontario. She is an active swimmer and skier, and parent of two young athletes in hockey, dance and swimming.
Haley Baxter (@haley_baxter20) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on volunteer management in community sport organizations. Haley is a former varsity women’s hockey player and currently coaches with the Waterloo Ravens Girls Hockey Club and the Woolwich Thrashers Sledge Hockey Club.
Erin Schmidt is the Manager of the Woolwich Wave Swim Team. She and her husband began to volunteer with the Swim Team in 2015 to ensure the continuation of an organization they see as important to families and the Woolwich community. Erin is a recreational runner, swimmer and ultimate frisbee player with three children active across multiple community sports.
Sydney Dysart is pursuing her master’s degree in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on the benefits of co-participation in sport among parent and youth. She is currently a volunteer with the organization CanCommit, which aims to help secondary school students get recruited to top post-secondary athletic programs in Canada. Sydney is a varsity swimmer and has also been a lifelong athlete in soccer, karate and squash.
Jenn Horndl is the Recreation Manager with the Township of Woolwich. She is passionate about supporting recreation and sport participation in Woolwich and in her own community. Jenn is currently a Trainer on her daughter’s hockey team, loves being outdoors and has recently taken up paddleboarding.
Dawn Trussell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University. Her research has a social justice orientation with a focus on youth sport, diverse family structures, and a sense of community. She serves on the Canadian Gender+ Equity in Sport Research Hub, Scientific Committee. She is an active outdoor enthusiast and volleyball player with two young girls in dance, soccer and horseback riding. Together, they love to mountain bike on backcountry trails.
Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. (2016). Popular physical activities among Canadian adults.
Canadian Women & Sport. (2020). The rally report: Encouraging action to improve sport for women and girls.
Maclean, D., (2020). Mom and daughters take the plunge. The Observer.
Misener, K. (2020). Parent well-being through community youth sport: An autoethnography of “sideline” participation. Journal of Sport Management, 34, 329-340. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsm.2019-0201
Rodrigues, D., Padez, C., & Machado-Rodrigues, A. (2018) Active parents, active children: The importance of parental organized physical activity in children’s extracurricular sport participation, Journal of Child Health Care, 22(1), 159-170. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367493517741686
Sport Information Resource Centre. (2020). What the research says.
The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.