I have to preface this whole article by saying, neither my husband, nor I, a Houston native, grew up in the world of swim teams. We both played baseball and softball and then co-ed softball before we were responsible for another human being. We always expected our kid would follow in our cleated footsteps, squatting behind the plate or ready at third.
However, parenting is chock full of surprises, twists and turns. And while our daughter inherited my undying love for the water, we never anticipated she would turn that love into competitive seconds long events of perfected dives and structured strokes. But there we were, screaming and cheering like wild people as our four year old dove into a pool at the sound of a buzzer, made her way across said pool, between two floating ropes, to the end of the lane, pulling her tiny body out of the water and over the edge to receive a time and convene with her coaches.
Fast forward several years and our daughter is now 10, I sit on the swim team board and my husband will do the training to become an official this year. Parenting is funny isn’t it? We’ve learned a lot over the seasons and we remember what it’s like to be brand new to the sport. It can feel daunting, but I am hopeful our learned experience will aid you if you choose to venture into the land of summer swim teams in Houston.
About Summer Swim Teams in Houston
Summer swim teams in the greater Houston area are orchestrated by the Northwest Aquatic League, more commonly known as NWAL (pronounced en-wall). They’re Texas’ largest summer swimming organization and the second largest summer program in the nation. The heart of NWAL lies on the north side of Houston, between Cypress and Humble, but teams stretch across the city and as far as Cosby, Giddings, and Bryan. NWAL was founded by five dads back in the 1970s with five teams (which still exist today).
Today over 15,000 swimmers ages 4 to 18 call NWAL’s almost 100 teams their own. Teams are broken down into divisions of 5 or 6 teams, based on algorithms I still don’t fully understand. From May through June these 5-6 teams play each other in Saturday morning swim meets, followed by a divisional meet where all teams swim against each other. If you’re a fan of Brene Brown, and all of this is sounding familiar, yes, these are the same Houston teams she talks about in her Netflix specials and books.
Teams are mostly non-profit organizations run by a board of elected volunteers. These board members work hard all through the year to make a summer swim team happen. If you’re on a team long enough, be prepared to be asked to run for something.
How to Join a Summer Swim Team
Find a Team
First step is to find out if you have a swim team that serves your neighborhood. If you do, that is your default team. There are some exceptions to this, which can be found in NWAL’s rulebook if you’re interested. If your neighborhood does not have a team, your kid is basically a free agent and can swim for any team. Check out the league map to find a team close to you.
Is Your Kid the Right Age
According to NWAL rules, your child has to be between ages 4-18. According to this year’s rules, eligibility for an age group is determined by the individual age as of the end of day on May 1 of the current year.
Swimmers are broken up into age groups and compete against kids in their own age group. Younger swimmers are eligible for fewer events, which means if you’re a parent of a younger swimmer, you are usually done earlier in the day on a Saturday meet.
Does Your Swimmer Need to Know the Strokes
The answer to this is no. The whole point of summer league is for kids to learn the strokes and gain confidence in the water.
How strong of a swimmer your child needs to be depends on the team. Our team has a special program to help swimmers who aren’t confident making it across the pool, but not all teams have this so it’s important to check with your team before joining.
If you want your kid to be extra prepared, swim schools across the city offer lessons to help swimmers get ready for summer swim league. So check out your local swim school.
Things to Know About Swim Teams
Your practice schedule is completely up to your team and coaches. Our team practices 4 times a week during designated times based on age. We practice after school while school is in session, and then in the morning once summer starts. Many teams are in rented or loaned pools from neighborhoods, schools, private clubs or county parks and are subject to the time available and rules of those pools.
Kinds of Swim Meets
There are four kinds of swim meets during summer league. Most teams host a Timed Trial Meet, at the start of the season. Timed Trials are exactly that, an opportunity for every swimmer to get a time on the books for events they qualify for or might qualify for. The Timed Trial Meet is typically against your own teammates.
Dual Meets are the regular meets throughout the season against the other teams in your division. These are the Saturday meets, where two teams are competing against each other. Dual Meets can be at your home pool or at an away pool.
Invitational Meets, are, you guessed it, by invitation only. You receive an invitation if your swimmer has a qualifying time for that Invitational Meet. There are several throughout the season, with different qualifying times, hosted by different groups at different pools. Not every team chooses to compete in every Invitational Meet, and for most teams, Invitational Meets are optional.
Consider The Divisional Meet as the Super Bowl of the summer swim league. This is the BIG meet at the end of the season, where all swimmers from all 5-6 teams in your division swim against each other for the title of Division Champions. Divisionals are often held at a natatorium or larger pool which is always a blast for the kids. I won’t lie, it’s a long, busy day, but it’s fun and so exciting to see your kid, especially when they are so small, compete in a giant pool. It’s extra exciting when your team is given a giant trophy for winning the title.
This is the one that surprised me most when we entered the swim team world. In baseball there are coaches and assistant coaches, a paid ump and maybe a few parents who volunteer at the snack shack or to run the scoreboard. This is not the case with swim team. A small swim meet, at minimum, needs 30-40 volunteers to run; larger meets need even more. Most teams require families to submit a volunteer deposit. The deposit is only cashed if you don’t meet the volunteer requirements set up by the team.
It all sounds daunting at the start, but there are tons of opportunities to volunteer from timing to setup to concessions to ribbons. Volunteering in different positions for summer swim teams in Houston lends the opportunity to get to know the sport better, the kids and the parents. Without volunteers meets just, would not happen, so volunteering is crucial to the sport.
How a Swim Meet Works
Swim meets remind me a lot of tailgating; you’re there insanely early, there’s food, coffee, tents, lawn chairs, and everyone is just a little bit tired. Swimmers are usually expected to arrive before 7am and circle in (check in) with someone on their team, which lets officials know they are there and plan to compete.
Many teams have team tents with lane parents for the 10 and under swimmers. These tents act as the hub for the younger kids, places where they can hang out and where the lane parents can gather them and get the ready bench (the place swimmers wait for their meet to start) on time. Team tents are also vital to families where only one parent can be at a meet (this was us our first year). The lane parent watches your kid while you volunteer.
There’s a warm up before the meet begins, the start time depends on if you are the home or away team. And trust me, these sleepy kids need those warm ups to get their blood flowing that early in the morning, especially earlier in the season when the mornings (and pools) are still a bit cool.
Before the meet officially begins, there’s a team meeting or pep rally with the coaches where they hype the kids up before the first event begins.
From there the officials and volunteers take over and a well run meet runs like clockwork; buzzers going off, kids in and out of the pool, cheering, a steady flow at the ready bench, volunteers starting and ending their shifts, the smell of burgers grilling and chlorine in the morning air.
NWAL uses Swimptopia to track meets. I highly recommend downloading the app. There is a free version, but the $10/year paid version will get you nearly real time notifications during the meets. This includes notifications that it’s time for your swimmer to get to the ready bench and your kid’s official time for an event. It’s a great resource that makes meets run so much smoother.
What to Bring to a Swim Meet
Remember how I mentioned swim meets feel a lot like tailgating, well, in the same way, what you bring to the meet and how you setup is totally up to you. We don’t do things small in our family so our list probably looks a little extreme to most. I’ve broken it up into the must bring items and optional items.
- Your Swimmer (it’s early, don’t forget your kid)
- Swim Cap
- Flip Flops (or some easy slide waterproof shoe, often they’re walking through grass or hot pavement to get to the pool for their events)
- Sharpie (to write your kid’s events on their arm and yours; it’s a thing)
- Water (stay hydrated)
- Cover Up (Team t-shirt or robe for the kids to wear between events)
- Camping Chairs
- Pop Up Canopy
- Wagon (to carry all the things)
- Blanket (for the ground for kids)
- Camping Tables
- Cooler with drinks, food and snacks
- Trash Bag
- Paper Towels
- Battery Powered Fan (we actually purchased a misting fan last year)
- Items to Keep Cool (cooling towels, neck fans, etc.)
- Bug Spray
- Hats & Sunglasses
- Team Gear (you’re going to want to support the team in a team t-shirt or hat)
We never expected to be a swim family. We signed our daughter up for swim lessons when she was two, and her coach (who is still her coach today) suggested she go out for summer swim. I never expected to serve on our team’s board. I never expected our kid to love it this much. We started year round swim last year and are considering year round competitive in the coming years. I don’t know where all this will lead us or her, but we’re creating memories, our kid has learned how to swim really well and she’s found a sport she loves and is passionate about. We’ve met neighbors and friends through the team. For a few months each year, swim team is a huge part of our lives, and we get to hang out with our neighbors and friends, and I couldn’t recommend the whole thing more.