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A Beginners’ Guide to Competitive Swimming

A Beginners’ Guide to Competitive Swimming

The following is intended as a guide for parents of children who have just joined Liverpool Penguin Swimming Club (LPSC).

For more definitive answers, obviously the best people to ask are the club coaches and officials – however these notes may answer a few questions…

There are different Types of Swimming Galas

At Penguins swimming galas basically come in 2 flavours:

  • Galas where the club competes as a team against other clubs in Leagues or friendly Galas.
  • Galas where the swimmer competes individually in licensed meets.

Team Galas

LPSC competes in several leagues such as : the North West Micro League; the Merseyside & District League; the North West Region Arena League plus some local knock out type competitions namely the Echo Cup and Presidents cup. In addition LPSC also receive invitations to compete in friendly galas organised by other local clubs these include the Postcode and Papoose galas organised by Warrington Warriors SC, the McMonagle gala organised by Garston SC together with our own gala’s the Macmillan gala held in June and the Derrick Lodge Memorial gala held in September.

The Echo Cup is a competition for swimmers aged from 9 yrs to 12 yr old and takes place during September and October each year with all of the local clubs involved, so every club hopes to reach the final and win. During the preliminary rounds the club tries to get a lot of the swimmers involved so that they gain experience in competition swimming but for the final the club tries to swim its strongest team. It’s always a difficult decision to leave out swimmers but parents must trust the judgement of its coaching staff in doing this.

The Tadpole Development galas take place of a Friday evening from September to November each year. The main purpose of this is to give young inexperienced swimmers a taste of competition. One of the characteristics is that swimmers who have previously won medals in the competition are not allowed to swim the following year.

Swimmers Classification

It is worth mentioning at this stage a swimmers classification before we move onto Open Individual galas. In swimming there are three Classification groups

Cat 1.

This classification is basically for young new swimmers who are starting off in swimming and have just joined the club in the teaching groups. All of the competitions and leagues mentioned above allows the swimmer to swim for the club.

Cat 2

This classification is basically for the more advanced swimmer who wishes to enter licensed swim meets like the City of Liverpool winter meet, the summer meet, Wirral Metro meets, the Liverpool and District Association meets held in February each year, Lancashire and North West region meets.

Cat 3

This classification is Coaches and Officials plus committee members of the Club.


When you join LPSC a membership fee is paid, this membership fee is renewed each year in September. From this fee the Club then pays for the swimmers yearly registration to the ASA, the North West Region and to Lancashire Country. This then covers the swimmer for Insurance purposes. For Cat 1 swimmers the club pays all of the swimmers registration fees for you, but for Cat 2 swimmers the swimmer needs to pay the ASA yearly fee which is approx £24.

It must be noted that swimmers who are asked to join the City of Liverpool Swimming club have to also pay another membership fee to join the City club. Swimmers joining the City club must also have a Cat 2 classification so will need to pay the upgrade cost of £24 before being allowed to join.

Your Coach will advice you if there is a requirement to join the City swimming club or Squad scheme. Please take time to understand what the requirements are for joining and what will be expected. Joining the City club is basically for elite swimmers who will end up training in early morning and evening sessions most days of the week.

Licensed Galas

Licensed galas are those galas where the competitor is swimming for themselves – although the entry for these can be made through the club. Each licensed Gala is given a grade of gala this starts at level 4 which is basically for Club Championships. In May each year Liverpool Penguins runs its own Club Championships and runs this as a level 4 Licensed meet, not many clubs in the local area do this, so it is a good opportunity for swimmers at Cat 1 classification to get there times entered onto the ASA Rankings website.

For level 1, 2 and 3 meets the swimmer needs to have a Cat 2 Classification so remember to pay the additional fee of £24 before entering say the City of Liverpool Summer meet at Picton in June each year or none of the times will count and you will have wasted your money in entering.

Licensed meets come in various standards and all have qualifying times that the swimmer must have achieved before they are allowed to enter.

Details of open galas are posted on the club website and the swimmers enter as they wish.

It is important that parent’s know about gala entries because there is a cost involved (approx £3 to £5 per event which if 4 events are entered amounts to getting on for £20 per gala) which made must be paid once the club has submitted they entries.

How Does a Team Gala work?

Team Selection

The Head Coach makes the selections for the team galas – initially selecting the swimmers with the best times. The club this year will be holding a series of 50m timed sprint sessions so that swimmers can test themselves against each other and to see what time they can achieve. This will also help in team selection.

What to Take

A swimmer needs a 2 costumes, 2 pairs of goggles, two towels (one for poolside so that between the races they can get dry and stay warm), and 2 hats, they will also need plenty drinks and possibly some food – they are going to be poolside for about 3 hours so some jelly sweets are also good a good idea…You (the parent) will need something to drink (and eat) as it is usually very warm and humid at a swimming pool. Dress in such a way that you can cope with very hot conditions.

At the Gala

Once at the gala the swimmers have to go off and change and then have to go poolside by themselves. Parents are not allowed poolside unless they are one of the volunteers helping to manage the team. This can be a bit daunting especially for those younger swimmers in the first couple of galas. There will be coaches and timekeepers from each club on the poolside to make sure that the children are ok and in the right place for each of their races.
What do the parents and supporters do? They get to get to sit poolside and cheer on the swimmers – if you’re lucky the pool will have proper tiered spectator seating – otherwise you end up sitting very close to the pool. There is also a small charge for spectators, and maybe a raffle or two to raise funds for the hosting club.

The swimmers need to be poolside in time to participate in the warm up, it’s quite a sight watching about 100 swimmers in 6 lanes swimming nose to toe!

Once the gala gets going the races happen very quickly and what looks like a daunting list of around 50 races takes around 2 hours, watch out for the posted results (another reason to look at the notice board regularly) to see how fast your swimmer went and whether they got a Personal Best (more on PB’s later).

How Do Open Galas Work

How to Enter

The details of Open Galas are posted on the website (and also sometimes sent out by email) and it is then up to the individual (with the parent’s knowledge) to enter if they wish. Fortunately most are usually within an hour’s drive or less of Liverpool

The notices contain all the details of the various events including any time qualifications. Some galas specify a band of times that your child’s PB should fall between for each event. Some specify a time where your child’s PB must be equal to or faster and occasionally a time is specified where the swimmer’s time must be slower.

Most galas currently cost around £4 per event.

You can only enter open galas through your swimming club. The Open Gala Secretary collects the names and puts the entry in. When the entries are confirmed the swimmer (or more usually the parent) is given a letter with details of the gala and the entry cards (if there are any). Also included is the bill!

What do the Different Levels Mean

When you look at the details for an open gala they often state that they are Level 3, Level 2 etc. The Level indicates the standard of the meet, what the times can be used for in future gala’s and what level of officials are used. Also higher level galas are more competitive level 1 being the top gala’s . To qualify for county championships it is usually initially stated that qualifying times have to done at a Level 3 gala. For regional championships qualification has be at Level 2 or above. As a result most level 2 galas have a large number of regional qualifying swimmers taking part. In other words the standard is very high.

Going to the Gala

It’s usually advisable to aim to get to an open gala about half an hour before the posted warm up time. This gives you time to park (some venues do not have very good parking, especially when 200 kids with parent’s descend on them) and may get you near enough to the front of the queue to get in and get a seat!! This last is very useful for the parent(s) as each session lasts around 3 hours. Take lots to drink – its very hot in most swimming pools.

What to Take

For the swimmers make sure they have plenty to eat and especially to drink. Also, they need clothing (T-Bag) to put on between races and between sessions if you are attending more than one session. Depending on the size of the Penguins entry a fair supply of sweets may also be useful or necessary!

At the Gala

When they arrive the swimmer must place their entry cards (if there are any) in the correct entry boxes or sign in if required. Don’t be late otherwise the swimmer will be excluded from their events. Often the swimmers have to do this as the entry boxes are not in an area accessible to parents and supporters.

Like team events parents are not allowed poolside – one or two people will have been nominated as coaches by Penguins and they will look after the swimmers while they are poolside. The swimmers have to go off and change by themselves or at least with any other likely looking Penguins they can find.

Once in the venue the Penguins parent’s often try to sit together mainly so that they have someone to talk to during the long hours…

The Swimming

Most open galas are split into 2 or more sessions with a separate warm up for each session. Usually there are separate card entry (or signing in) times for each session.

The warm up takes about an hour with the kids split into older/younger boys and girls. Then it is into the races.

At most open galas each event is ranked in the order of the swimmer’s entry time (their PB may have changed since the entry was made). The event is then swum in heats starting with the slowest times irrespective of age. As a result it is unlikely that a swimmer will be completely outclassed (or completely out class the other swimmers) in their particular heat.

Once the event is complete the recorded times are sorted out and the swimmers sorted into their age groups and the results posted – at which point you find out whether you have a medal winner.

Trophies/medals are awarded for anywhere between the top 3 and top six in each of the age groups. It varies with the gala as does the age groups.

So at the end of a great days competition (lasting around 7 hours) you set off home having watched your swimmer competing for all of about 5 minutes (depending on the number of events) but hopefully clutching some trophies (always makes the day) and having recorded one or more PB’s (almost as good as a trophy).

Hopefully your swimmer will have enjoyed the experience – it doesn’t matter about the parent’s they are just there to provide transport and finance!!


For those that don’t know PB means Personal Best.

There is a bit of an obsession with PB’s, you will begin to get obsessed if you child is a keen swimmer!

PB’s are recorded in a Penguins club database but I also find it useful to keep a personal record – in such as a spreadsheet. Soon the club will be issuing to each swimmer a new Personal log book in which the swimmer needs to record his or her times in for each stroke so that they know what there PB times are.

PBs can be recorded at any time e.g. galas, club championships, club sprint sessions that are being planned at regular intervals of approx 12 weeks.

The ASA also holds a database of all official times recorded at licensed open galas.

Once your child has recorded some times at a licensed gala you can go to the ASA web site to see where your child is ranked at county, regional and national level.

It’s at that point you realise how many competitive swimmers there are, and just how good some are! Don’t get carried away thinking you have a good Olympic prospect – there are around 400,000 competitive swimmers in the UK, of which about 20 go to the Olympics!

Happy competing!!!