Stories from Young Black Female Swimmers
Advisor: John Elia, Associate Professor & Associate Chair, Dept. Health Education
2nd Reader: Mickey Eliason, Assistant Professor, Health Education
This paper focuses on self-efficacy of young Black women and includes a critical review
of the literature and draws on my personal experience as a swim coach serving this constituency.
I address the question: “What are the observable markers of self-efficacy of Black female
swimmers ranging in age from 7-12 at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco?” The field of
sport sociology guides this study. I examine the racism and sexism involved in sports culture;
however, the sport of swimming exists so peripherally that sports sociologists have not
considered the positive impact this sport could make on public health, particularly for young
Black women. The public health implications for this project are that sports participation among
girls positively impacts both their physical and mental health. Swimming in particular provides
young women with more intimate and supportive peer relationships, increased academic focus,
and boosts confidence allowing them to have higher self-efficacy and excel in their day-to-day
lives (Pedersen & Seidman, 2004). Through my relationship with the youth, I explore the role of
coaching coupled with mentoring. This individual leadership role can have a lot of influence and
become important in thinking about the future of public health programming.
The project focuses on Black female swimmers specifically in the context of swim meets,
practices, and other activities at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco Ernest Ingold
Clubhouse, throughout the past three years. I examine signs of self-efficacy such as positive
relationships, body image, physical fitness and coordination, and school performance. From
these observations, I construct narratives about the potential effects of swimming on the girls’
self-efficacy and identify common themes that guide recommendations for future research and
In this paper I examine the possible public health implications organized swimming has
on young Black female swimmers. The field of public health focuses not only on disease threats,
but also on community-based health promotion (American Public Health Association Overview,
2009.). Swimming builds community and increases swim team members’ physical health as
well as their mental strength and abilities. In this paper, I explore how swimming can be a tool
to promote health among a population of people who we often ignore.
I present this paper in three sections, beginning with a review of literature and history that
intertwines sport sociology and self-efficacy of young Black female swimmers. I continue with a
methods section that outlines my personal relationship with the girls I observe and their
connection with the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco organization. In the results and
discussion portion, I tell personal stories of these girls that connect their truths to the field of
public health and to their swim coach and mentor. In this section, I draw conclusions about why
increasing diversity in the sport of swimming is important for the field of public health. Each of
these sections addresses the experience of Black female swimmers relating to four key themes:
positive relationships, body image, physicality, and academics.
“If only we could achieve in housing, in education, and in economic opportunity
all the things we have achieved in sport, the race problem in the United States
would disappear” (McPherson, 1974, p. 127).
Sports sociology research demonstrates how the experience of sports directly connects to
race and gender. People like to believe that sports provides an equal playing field for women
and men, Black and white; however, while this dynamic may sometimes be true, McPherson
(1974) continues, “although the black athlete has been partially integrated into a sport system, he
has not always been integrated into white society” (p. 127). The use of “he” in the explanation
confirms that even radical authors, concerned about race, leave women out of their theories.
Sports have followed the path of American voting rights. After a struggle, Black men gained the
right to vote, then women gained the same right 50 years later. Discussions of Blacks and
women make it seem that all the Blacks are men and all the women are white, yet women of
color have been asking for decades, how do females of color fit into this minefield of inequality?
They conclude that only by focusing on race and gender can issues affecting women of color, in
this case, Black women, be visible (Roth, 2004).
In the United States, 41 million youth engage in after school sports (Hilgers, 2006);
however in spite of this high number, a public health disparity exists in who participates. More
boys than girls participate in sports, but the biggest disparity in youth athletics is the under
representation of girls of color (Pedersen & Seidman, 2004). Specifically, 56% of Black middle
adolescent aged girls report no physical activity, compared to 31% of white middle school girls
(Pedersen & Seidman, 2004). These statistics matter for one main reason. These girls are
missing out on the opportunity to participate in sports, and that missed opportunity may well
adversely impact both their physical and mental health. Both sexism and racism play a role in
this public health gap.
Based on the literature and my personal observations, I focus on athletes who are the
most excluded: Black girls. In this paper, I investigate ways sports participation, specifically
swimming, likely impacts the self-efficacy of Black girls ages 7-12 years old based on the
literature and stories. For the purpose of this project, the working definition of self-efficacy is a
combination of well-being, personal agency, self-esteem, self-concept, and self-worth (Bandura,
1977). I explain the intersection of each of these aspects of confidence, growth, and personal
strength as “self-efficacy.”
Increasing the self-efficacy of young Black girls is a public health issue. According to
the World Health Organization (WHO), children’s health means more today than the traditional
ideas of doctors visits, immunizations, and nutrition. The WHO’s website explains that the future
of societies “depends on children being able to achieve their optimal physical growth and
psychological development” (Child and Adolescent Health and Development, 2009). Through
improving self-efficacy, Black girls will gain the strength and confidence to be active swimmers
in peak physical health. These girls stand to gain a stronger sense of self, personal drive, and
camaraderie from their experience as swimmers. Their mental health grows stronger and their
physical health improves from the aerobic training and nutrition information that goes hand-in-
hand with participation on a rigorous sports team.
The first section of the literature review explains the racist history of swimming and then
gives insight into how the discipline of sports sociology has addressed the sport of swimming.
Next, the section depicts how, even in the context of racism and sexism, girls can develop self-
efficacy. Athletic participation provides one pathway for girls to gain self-efficacy; positive
relationships, body image, physicality, and school achievement play a role. Each of these
avenues for growth demonstrates the necessary role of the swim coach, who works as a leader
and mentor in shaping the perspectives of these girls. The section also acknowledges the gaps in
the literature, including issues of causation or correlation between self-efficacy and sports
The disparity based on race in the sport of swimming is a marked issue. Public health
awareness continues to increase. For example, July 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an
article on the swim team that trains at Martin Luther King pool in the Bayview district that has
representation from swimmers of color. Similarly, in November 2005 KQED radio ran a Forum
segment on Black swimmers. The fact that this topic becomes newsworthy when swimmers are
Black demonstrates the rarity of Black representation in the sport and the importance of goals to
change that reality. This paper tells the stories of those whom society too often ignores.
This paper utilizes the extraordinary power of stories to help people understand and
sympathize with different situations. Stories engage the reader in ways that sterile arguments do
not (Levitt & Rostron, 2007). I chose to tell stories of the lives of young girls whom research
has yet to study. In the words of prominent sociologist Lillian Rubin:
The small sample not randomly chosen makes generalizations suspect. The
anecdotal presentation raises the question of representativeness in the use of data.
The only answer to these criticisms lies in the quality of the work itself—in its
ability to persuade by appealing to a level of “knowing” that exists in all of us
(Rubin, 1976, p. 13).
Stories accomplish telling the truth about real people.
Racism in Swimming
Swimming is one of the so-called country club sports. Other traditionally white sports
have witnessed professional breakthroughs from athletes of color. Tiger Woods’ presence as a
golf icon has begun to pave the way for African American and Asian golfers; Venus and Serena
Williams have visibly broken racial barriers in tennis. However, swimming’s groundbreaking
African American athletes go virtually unnoticed. For example, it is likely that most readers
have never heard of Cullen Jones, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist, or less recent but prominent
swimmers Sabir Muhammad, Byron Davis, or Maritza Correia. Two factors fuel the invisibility
of role models in the sport of swimming. Primarily, swimming only gets recognition every four
years for a few months before and during the summer Olympic Games. Also, swimming
remains such a white-dominated sport at the youth level that swimming has yet to find its Tiger-
caliber athlete (Wiltse, 2007). History contributes to this white hegemony of swimming.
In the 1920s cities in the United States segregated their municipal pools by gender and
class, not by race (Wiltse, 2007). City governments integrated pools by gender in the late 1920s
to foster familial relationships where husbands, wives, and children could play together and
relax. Simultaneously, the new development of centrally located pools in cities sought to
diminish the social and physical distance between rich and poor. Finally, the Great Black
Migration between 1915 and 1930 heightened perceptions of racial difference in the North when
over one million Black people migrated to northern US states to seek employment and hope for
improved race relations. With an influx of Black people to traditionally more segregated land,
white people developed a stronger attachment to their skin. People believed in the myth that class
differences diminished in importance, while maintaining class-based structures and expanding
racial difference. Whites of all social classes forged a common identity out of their shared
whiteness, without even realizing it (Wiltse, 2007).
As these central city pools became popular in the 1920s, swimsuits became briefer.
Women no longer wore full pant-legs. Suits revealed legs and arms, reflecting society’s
sexualization of women. Black men, who typically held manual labor-type jobs, often had more
muscular physiques than white men. Thus, Black men displaying their bodies “implicitly
undermined white supremacy” (Wiltse, 2007). City officials did not want Black men near the
white women, so they segregated municipal pools (Wiltse, 2007).
Today in USA Swimming, the governing body of the sport in the United States, the
officials are mostly white, mostly older, and mostly men. Coaches in United States Swimming
are also mostly white, and only 4-5% of athletes registered in USA Swimming are swimmers of
color (J. Cruzat, USA Swimming, personal communication, May 12, 2008). The legacy of
segregated pools remains. As Tanica Jamison, former University of Texas swimmer, says, “If I
had to sum up my experience as an African American swimmer I would sum it up in one word,
difficult” (T. Jamison, Personal Comminication, April 28, 2009).
The sociology of sport focuses on sports as a social phenomenon and on social and
cultural patterns that emerge in sports. Sports receive a separate section in every daily
newspaper (Edwards, 1973). Sports sociology deconstructs how sports impact people’s
everyday life and vice versa. For example, sports sociologist Harry Edwards stood on the streets
of New York and asked 150 people “Who is going to win?” (Edwards, 1973, p. 4). At the time
New York was involved in a tight political race for Mayor of the city as well as a close World
Series where the Mets were playing. Edwards reported that 103 people he spoke to answered
“the Mets” to his question. Sports are on the forefront of American minds, often more so than
politics or daily news. The topic is pervasive in society, yet both sexism and racism in sports
Most people point to the year 1946, when Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, as the
beginning of change (Tygiel, 1997). Even greater awareness of the issue, which had been
dormant since Robinson, began when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic
medal stand in 1968 after winning gold and silver in the 200-meter event and shot up their fists
in the black power salute. Years after the International Olympic Committee stripped their
medals, the world barely notices that race is still an issue in sports.
Harry Edwards explains, “Recreation and athletics have traditionally been billed as
essentially therapeutic measures—measures that cure faulty or deteriorating character, that
weaken prejudice, and that bind men of all races and nationalities closer together. The evidence
does not support the theory” (Edwards, 1969, p. xiv). The economic nature of sports and
recreation provides little opportunity for segregation to diminish.
Sports sociology addresses race and gender. However, in spite of offering many
groundbreaking ideas on the nature of sports, the discipline does not take into consideration the
sport of swimming. Many argue that sports are an equalizer of abilities and help conquer racism
because of the success of Blacks in sports. However, Edwards argues that Black domination in
athletics, “far from being an indicator of Afro-American advancement in the general society, is
perhaps one of the surest barometers of a continuing lack of equal opportunity for blacks in
America” (Edwards, 1973, p. 203). Overall, the average Black high school ball player is not
going to receive a full ride scholarship, or even achieve more than 2nd or 3rd string status
(Edwards, 1973). Black youth are drawn to sports to achieve the dream they see on TV, the
glamour and money of the sports superstar. African American professional athletes provide role
models for young boys, making the sport appealing and visibly offering hopes of professional
high-paying jobs (Eitle & Eitle, 2002). School-age athletes see people who look like them
succeeding and believe they can, too (Eitle & Eitle, 2002). Edwards explains that the talents of
the Black male are disproportionately concentrated in sports and that “outside the sports realm,
black role models are an all but insignificant few” (Edwards, 1973, p. 202). Edwards laments the
lack of Black role models in other sectors of society and blames sports for sequestering the
individuals with high achievement, focus, and talent.
This argument, however, would take a different shape if the sport of swimming were
included. Swimming does not offer an illusion of high-paying professional jobs, so swimmers
know they need to study in school. Swimming has no professional organization equivalent to the
National Basketball Association and only receives five minutes of fame when Mark Spitz or
Michael Phelps comes along every few decades. Swimmers are traditionally great students,
likely because they develop focus as athletes that transfers to academics. If more Black people
swam competitively, they might both excel in the sport and develop well-roundedness.
Including more Black people in swimming might be a piece of the solution necessary to address
the disparity of Black athletes in other prominent professions. Sports facilitate achieving goals
through the development of interpersonal skills and self-confidence (Eitle & Eitle, 2002).
Swimmers can use the sport as a tool that will lead to these athletes gaining prestigious jobs in
other sectors, becoming a new wave of Black role models and breaking new race barriers.
The sport of swimming also challenges prevalent sports sociology frameworks around
gender in sport. According to Jennifer Hargreaves, sport sociology researchers have taken three
main approaches to sexism. The first is to disregard women by “using the term sports
unproblematically, ignoring that what is really being examined is male sports” (Hargreaves,
1994, p. 8). Here, authors make generalizations about athletes, grouping women with men. The
second approach is to give female sports a subhead or a section in a book on overall sports,
belittling their existence as an afterthought (Hargreaves, 1994). The third approach is a
sociology exclusively of females in sports; it “subverts dominant gender relations in sports
sociology” (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 8). This last, minority perspective challenges the traditional
methods of discussing women. This paper utilizes this third approach, focusing on girl’s needs
alone, without the context of men to dictate what components of sports matter to women.
Society’s individualistic value system about competition and being the best, even within team
contexts, contributes to the male-domination in sports. It is necessary to think about the potential
gender differences to imagine how sport could have new meanings. As Paul Willis suggests:
Sport could be presented as a form of activity which emphasizes human similarity
and not dissimilarity, a form of activity which isn’t competitive and
measured…which is concerned with individual well-being and satisfaction rather
than with comparison. In such a view of sport, differences between the sexes
would be unimportant, unnoticed (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 34).
Clearly, this hypothetical world of sports does not reflect the American reality. However, in this
scenario sports would potentially contribute to individual enjoyment and allow people to
continue particular benefits of sports as we know it, such as making friends and staying healthy.
Even given the male-dominance of American sports, swimming continues to be different.
Age-group swimming, which includes youth from under 8 years old through 18, includes over
50% female participants. Swimmers learn early that their focus is to achieve a personal best
time. Winning and losing are not part of the common rhetoric of most swimmers. A swimmer’s
goal becomes self-improvement or qualifying for the next level of competition. Because of these
mental factors that focus on personal bests, the sport constructs a different mindset that conquers
some of the sexism. Additionally, swimming does not physically objectify women as blatantly
as other sports like tennis or field hockey, which require skirts. In fact, in swimming, the
stereotype reverses; men wear Speedo briefs that are even skimpier than the women’s suits.
Albert Bandura coined the concept of self-efficacy in 1977 to explain in essence the
overlap of a number of self-identification concepts including well-being, personal agency, self-
esteem, self-concept, and self-worth. Bandura identified four main factors that lead to self-
efficacy: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and
physiological states (Bandura, 1977). Specifically, (1) a person’s mastery or performance
experience creates confidence: an individual interprets a previous attainment and gains
confidence from that success (Bandura, 1977; Usher & Pajares, 2006). Also, (2) the vicarious
experience of watching others succeed can motivate another individual (Bandura, 1977; Usher &
Pajares, 2006). (3) Verbal persuasions, which include social motivations from peers, coaches,
and parents, can boost a person’s confidence (Bandura, 1977; Usher & Pajares, 2006). And
lastly, (4) emotional and psychological states, including mood and stress, affect people’s
reactions to events and predict their behavior (Bandura, 1977; Usher & Pajares, 2006).
For the purpose of this project, the operational definition of self-efficacy takes into
account Bandura’s four factors and means overall well-being, positive self-image, confidence,
and agency to create change. I use the term self-efficacy because it includes not only positive
feelings but also a drive to excel. Perceived self-efficacy is similar to self-esteem and
confidence; it influences a person’s image of themselves and thus individual behavior. “People
fear and tend to avoid threatening situations they believe exceed their coping skills, whereas they
get involved in activities and behave assuredly when they judge themselves capable of handling
situations that would otherwise be intimidating” (Bandura, 1977, p.194).
Self-efficacy also describes the agency, willingness, and confidence to make decisions
and take action, taking “self-esteem” one step further. In spite of the decision to use “self-
efficacy” in this paper, much research on girls in sports often uses the term “self-esteem” to
explain similar concepts.
Observable qualities of self-efficacy appear in girls’ relationships, body image,
physicality, specifically physical abilities and accomplishments, and school achievement based
on grades and confidence in their mastery of concepts. Girls who maintain positive relationships
with parents, adult mentors or coaches, and their peers have high levels of self-efficacy. Building
self-efficacy for young girls ties into the public health issue of community promotion. These
females will be involved in positive relationships, including include open communication,
honesty, and compassion as opposed to becoming victims of violence, peer pressure or neglect.
As a result of team sports, girls develop self-efficacy particularly because of the relationships
they build. They gain more intimate and supportive peer relationships, lower rates of sexual
activity, and enhanced social skills (Pedersen & Seidman, 2004).
Research explains that often one adult can influence the well-being of a young person.
This individual can be a coach. Often supportive mentoring relationships occur when adults see
youth as a younger version of themselves (Videon, 2002). Girls may derive fewer benefits from
relationships with coaches than boys do because girls are more likely to have a different-gender
coach (Videon, 2002). The percent of female coaches in all sports who coach girls teams has
decreased from 90% in 1972, when Title IX became a law, to 47% in 2000 (Videon, 2002).
Additionally, the peer support that athletics brings young girls is likely to increase their
self-efficacy. Supportive peer relationships include having friends on the team who cheer for one
another, train together, and enjoy each other’s company. According to one longitudinal study,
girls derived self-esteem from sports participation because of the peer acceptance they
experienced as a result of sports (Daniels & Leaper, 2006). The study used a clustering sample
from 80 high schools across the US and from 52 middle schools. Researchers assessed girls’
global self-esteem and perceived peer acceptance over two time periods. They concluded that
peer acceptance mediated the relationship between sports participation and self-esteem (Daniels
& Leaper, 2006). The researchers expect that as society accepts girls’ athleticism, girls will reap
the positive emotional benefits of sports (Daniels & Leaper, 2006).
According to Pedersen & Seidman (2004), sports team participation provides young
people with the opportunity to engage with adults and peers in a positive light and to set
collective goals. Coaches and teammates interact in constructive ways, working toward a
common purpose of achieving an outcome, be it a goal, a win, a particular time, or cooperating
on making a play. This sense of belonging to a team fosters both collaboration and
responsibility, important life skills that can be challenging to learn during adolescence (Pedersen
& Seidman, 2004). Self-esteem for girls connects to the idea of community and belonging. To
the extent that sports teams create a team environment, they can be beneficial to improving girls’
self-efficacy. Girls with a high self-esteem and the ability and confidence to set goals for
themselves exhibit increased degrees of self-efficacy.
Body image also impacts girls’ self-efficacy and thus overall public health. Girls with a
positive body image feel confident in their own skin, including weight, gender, race, and
physical features. As the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty points out, “Girls are under more
pressure than ever” to meet beauty industry standards (Campaign for Real Beauty, www.dove.us,
Nov. 8, 2008). Low body image can inhibit people, particularly girls, from feeling good on a
daily basis and taking ownership of their own lives. Girls with strong self-efficacy about their
body image do not talk about other girls’ bodies behind their backs, insult aspects of their own or
others’ bodies, or exhibit shame about parts of their own body. Boys have higher physical-self
concept than girls (Klomsten, Skaalvik, & Espnes, 2004).
Often an inhibiting factor among girls is weight. Overweight children and adolescents
suffer from teasing and emotional consequences (O’Dea, 2006). Being teased at a young age
may represent a risk factor for negative body image in adulthood (Grilo, Wilfley, Brownell &
Rodin, 1994). Actual body weight correlates negatively with self-esteem in girls as young as age
five (O’Dea, 2006). One particular study reported a racial difference between Black girls and
white girls. Over 4 years, self-esteem of obese white girls declined, but not Black girls’ (O’Dea,
2006). This study suggests that Black girls do not have to feel slim to feel confident. Race
impacts each individual’s self-perception with respect to body image.
Swimming provides a unique solution to issues around body image. Swimming offers
opportunities that other sports do not. First, swimming is highly aerobic, with athletes often
training 6 days per week. Swimmers are in excellent physical condition. Additionally, the fact
that swimmers’ uniforms are swimsuits helps body image. Swimmers respect the reality that to
be good at the sport, athletes must wear very little. Swimmers are used to other people’s bodies.
When they are on deck, they seldom tease teammates about their bodies. People can walk
around on the pool deck at practice and feel confident wearing very little because they know it is
necessary for their sport performance. After these athletes spend enough time in suits, they
develop confidence in their body. They also associate with coaches and teammates in their
swimsuits and develop a sense of self through their athletic experience while wearing a swimsuit.
Swimmers learn that their appearance has little value in an on-deck athletic situation.
High levels of physicality also lead to high self-efficacy and thus greater public health. If
a girl feels confident in her physical ability to accomplish a task at hand, she will enter into it
with her head high and as a result achieve her goal. That goal can range from walking up stairs
without feeling winded to completing a challenging set at swim practice. Maintaining an
average weight is also a sign of physicality and increased self-efficacy as well as an important
step in personal health. Improving the physical health of communities remains a central
component to public health organizations and professionals. Several cross-sectional studies have
determined that an association exists between lower physical activity among adolescents and
poorer ratings on broad-based measures of psychological well being (Ussher, Cook, & Whincup,
2006). Ethnic minority girls are at greater risk of low levels of physical activity (Pedersen &
Seidman, 2004). According to a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine Committee on
Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth, about 9 million American Children over age 6 are
obese (Hood, 2005). Obesity disproportionately affects Black and Latino girls. 16.4% of Black
girls and 14.3% of Latino girls between the ages of 6-11 are obese, compared to 9.2% of white
girls. For girls ages 12-17, the numbers are similar; 15.7% of Black girls and 14.3% of Latino
girls experience obesity, while only 8.5% of whites do the same (Crawford, Mitchell, & Ikeda,
2000). The disparities in physicality make it even more important to involve Black girls in sports
Additionally, strong self-esteem correlates with physical activity (Parfitt & Eston, 2005).
The positive effects of physical movement carry over into adulthood, making it even more
important to create a pattern of regular physical activity at a young age (Parfitt & Eston, 2005).
Physical self-worth is connected to health-related behaviors and emotions that girls experience
during adolescence (Crocker, Sabiston, Kowalski, McDonough, & Kowalski, 2006). In a three-
year longitudinal study of 9-11th grade adolescent girls, the researchers found a group mean
decrease in activity levels across the three years. Adolescent girls began exercising less as they
grew older. This data alone suggests that girls need specific opportunities and encouragement to
become involved in athletics at this crucial age. In the study, body image was negatively
associated with physical activity in year three: the less physical activity, the lower a girl’s body
image. Girls who participated in physical activity had a higher body image. However, low body
image did not cause girls to decrease their athletics participation. Body image did not predict
change in physical activity (Crocker et al., 2006).
Finally, a measure of self-efficacy is academic achievement. Girls who do well in school
gain a sense of self-efficacy when they understand material, read well, solve problems, or even
get good grades. School achievement and public health are tightly linked because youth who stay
in school are more likely to gain employment and become productive, emotionally healthy
citizens (Braziel & Kortering, 1999). Athletes often feel more confident than non-athletes,
become more involved at school, and work as better students (Videon, 2002). Research
demonstrates that sport participation predicts increased school attachment and lower levels of
isolation (Daniels & Leaper, 2006). Additionally, swimmers have a reputation for high academic
excellence. In 2009, the women’s swim team at the University of California at Berkeley won
NCAA championships. That same season, the women’s swim team had the highest grade point
average out of all 27 sports teams on the Berkeley campus (McCaffrey, 2009). The phenomenon
of swimmers excelling in school is not unique to Berkeley.
Gaps in the literature
The limitations of this project include the challenge that little social science research has
focused on the sport of swimming, a very different after-school sport than most. For example, a
search of “swim” and “academics” in Academic Search Premier yields no results that discuss the
relationship of scholar athletes to academic performance, whereas a search with “basketball” and
“academics” yields numerous articles on school achievement among different ages, ethnicities,
Swimming traditionally draws different types of youth than land sports. Swimmers often
brag that they are better students than other athletes. Parents of swimmers note the focus
swimming gives to their children. Whatever the reason for these anecdotal observations, sports
research does not represent swimmers. Research is also lacking on how swimming compares to
other sports in terms of aerobic improvement or team building. Yet, from observing swimmers
for years, I see the strength in the sport. Swimming focuses on personal improvement as
opposed to winning, on long term goals rather than instant success, and on accepting
disappointment instead of hating losing. The sport develops qualities in young swimmers that
differ from those that other sports value. Swimming readies youth for success at many non-sport
challenges life brings.
Research also demonstrates how a parent, mentor, or coach can influence a young
person’s life as a positive role model. Research has yet to explore how swim coaches in
particular could mentor youth to help them achieve confidence and self-efficacy.
The literature may seem conclusive that sports participation leads to greater self-efficacy.
However, gaps in research leave a question mark. Girls can achieve self-efficacy through
athletic participation. However, these facts alone may not indicate that sports participation
causes improved well-being. Research suggests that this direct causal link is possible, even
probable, but “the rival interpretation is that high-achieving, disciplined, determined, motivated
youth are drawn to the competition, achievement, structure, and goal orientation that are inherent
in athletics” (Videon, 2002, p. 416). The question the research does not yet answer becomes one
of causation or correlation. The assumption underlying this project is that a causal relationship
does exist between sports participation and high performance in life.
Overall, the causal link between sports participation and positive well-being is unclear.
Research debates whether only a correlation exists between positive self-efficacy and sports
participation (Videon, 2002). However, by definition, sports participation increases physical
activity levels among girls, which positively impacts their health. Through this project, I also
seek to develop research about an invisible population: young female swimmers of color.
The methodology for this project is a critical review of the literature coupled with story-
telling data that draws on my personal experience as a coach. I observed Black females ages 7-
12 who participate in swimming at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco Ernest Ingold
Clubhouse in the Haight-Ashbury. I tell the stories of swimmers that resonate within the
framework of sports sociology and that describe changes in self-efficacy because of swimming.
The methods involve (a) keeping field notes to record stories, (b) selecting those that hold a
powerful message, and (c) developing recommendations for future research and programming.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco began as two different organizations: The San
Francisco Boys Club in 1891 and Columbia Park Boys Club in 1894. In 2001 a merger
combined these organizations. The Boys & Girls Club is a unique organization in San Francisco
that offers after school services for only $10 per year.
Today, Ernest Ingold (EI), located on Page Street at Stanyan Street, is one of nine clubs
in the citywide community. The former Ernest Ingold Program Director, Ken Smith, who is
embarking on his 32nd year working at the Club, says “We are a community within a
community” (K. Smith, Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, Personal Communication, October
21, 2006). EI’s community history is different from the other clubs because it is family-based.
Youth who attend this Club come from generations of club members. Their grandparents came
here as children. Many of the staff members grew up at the Club as well and work here to give
back to the community. Ken explained that when he thinks of the Boys & Girls Club
community, “I think family” (Smith, 2006). He includes young people, staff, and parents as part
of the network of support. “You know that old saying that it takes a village to raise a child? Well,
it’s true here” (Smith, 2006).
The Ernest Ingold Clubhouse has a rich history and contemporary community. Also, the
Club dynamic Ken identifies at EI demonstrates the importance of the concept of social support
academic observers describe. My own perspective as both an insider and outsider at the Club
shapes how I perceive the community. My personal role as the Aquatics Director and swim
coach allows me to be an insider to the swim team. However, because I did not grow up in the
club, nor am I lower income or a person of color, I recognize that in many ways my place
remains that of an outsider.
The Boys & Girls Club is an after-school community for kids ages 6-18. EI is home to
predominantly Black children but also Latino, White, and Asian youth. The community also
includes the staff, which is approximately 50% Black, 50% white, and the parents, mostly lower-
income, many of them single mothers. EI is unique in its diversity. Ken explained the citywide
If you go to different clubs, you see at Mission, most kids are Hispanic, at
Tenderloin, most kids are Asian, and Sunnydale, most kids are Black, here—
everything. It’s really harmonized. Which to me is really impressive. Everyone
talks about how [diversity] won’t work, won’t work, but here, it works (Smith,
Observing the Boys & Girls Club youth provides one concrete example of how sports
participation affects female urban youth.
The procedure for this project consisted of a critical review of the literature,
supplemented by personal observations from my 3 years of experience as a swim coach at the
Boys & Girls Club and my 20 years involvement in the swimming community. The procedure
included observing and talking with Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco’s Ernest Ingold
Clubhouse participants. I kept a journal including cues to look for self-efficacy, particularly
positive relationships, body image, physicality, and school performance. All the names of the
youth are changed.
I observed female swim program participants at the Boys & Girls Club and at swim
meets off site. The observations occurred primarily at swim lessons and swim practice, but some
occurrence in other contexts, such as other programs or meetings. Overall, I have exposure to
these girls for 2 hours each day at swim practice, 1.5 additional hours twice per week with girls
involved in swim lessons, one hour each day with girls in “power hour” homework time, and 16
hours at swim meets on weekends once per month.
In addition to the critical review of the literature and my own observation, I make
recommendations for future programming that have public health implications. These
recommendations are based on the research and observations.
Stories that relate to youth’s self-efficacy are part of this project. The methodology
involved keeping a daily journal of field note observations. It focused on how swimming
impacts the well-being of Black female youth. The data analysis was a content analysis of the
daily journal. After I recorded the stories, I conducted a content analysis of the stories explaining
how they build on the existing literature of sports sociology. The stories continue the themes of
self-efficacy and the invisibility of females of color in sports. I analyzed my observations of how
these girls are gaining the confidence that leads to self-efficacy. I looked for patterns in the
observations as well as highlighted individual stories.
Results and Discussion
Throughout my interactions with the Boys & Girls Club swimmers, I discovered four
themes that ran through many observations. First, youth’s positive relationships with both peers
and adults often affected their experience of gaining confidence. Second, girls’ personal body
image frequently impacted their overall self-efficacy. Third, the swimmer’s physical
accomplishments, or physicality, repeatedly played a role in their confidence and enjoyment of
the sport. Lastly, school achievement sometimes shaped the experience of most of these girls’
personal agency. Some of these influences are more pronounced than others; some are positive,
while others are not. Also, a pervasive theme throughout my observations remained how youth
interacted with me as their coach.
Josephine, age 7, was a very fast swimmer. She routinely placed at the top of her event
in competitions, but sometimes she would decide not to swim. At USA swim meets, athletes
arrive at 8am for warm ups. The meet begins at 9. Each swimmer generally races about 4 events
throughout the day, spaced out over 1-2 hour time periods, adding up to a very long day. On one
occasion Josephine showed up to the meet in Walnut Creek, which is one hour from her home,
but then adamantly refused to get in the pool. She hid in the tent, crying that she did not want to
race. Her mom and I both reasoned with her, all the while demanding that she step up and swim.
She stubbornly decided not to move.
Later that same day, after conversations with other coaches, I changed my approach. I
told Josephine she could make her own decisions. I said “You are a responsible athlete. You are
in charge.” I explained that she should swim because she made the trip, because the Boys &
Girls Club paid for her events, but most importantly so she wouldn’t let the team down. I told
her she was a role model. She was important. Then I left.
Josephine ended up racing her final event with a smile on her face and teammates
cheering her on. Josephine’s young age contributed to her stubbornness and her neediness. Yet,
ultimately, the peer and family influence was a key component for Josephine, as for most girls
participating in sports. Perhaps most important was the role of her coach, who researched
approaches to dealing with swimmers who refused to swim. Her coach happened to say the right
sentence that drove Josephine to swim. However, even though it was partially lucky, the speech
was well thought out and passionate, and Josephine responded well. Social support that parents
or peers provide is positively associated with the youth’s physical activity (Beets & Pitetti,
2006). Boys perceive more support from their family and friends than girls do (Beets & Pitetti,
2006). Teammates and family greatly influence how well girls enjoy their sport and their
likeliness to continue.
Another story that demonstrates peer influence and relationships involves Ajanee’s
biases. Ajanee stormed into the pool, tears in her eyes, telling me that Janiah hit her. The day
before Ajanee had been in the pool crying, telling me her dad said they might have to move into
a hotel. Ajanee was talking about a nightly hotel where the “lucky” homeless get placed. Her
dad had argued with her aunt, whose house they were living in. The aunt had accused Ajanee of
stealing her bracelets. Her dad had stuck up for her, and now they were about to be kicked out.
So when, as I was standing on deck in the middle of swim lessons, Ajanee told me that
she hit Janiah back, I was not surprised. She told me that her dad said if anybody’s messing with
her, she had to hit them back or they wouldn’t leave her alone. I hadn’t expected that reasoning,
though. I gave her a long talk about taking the higher road. I explained how if you walk away,
you save yourself and the other person looks stupid. I desperately wanted her to remember our
many previous conversations and to recall the Golden Rule, which I had taught her a few months
prior. She only shrugged.
So when her dad came to pick her up, I explained the fight and Ajanee’s violent reaction.
Her dad was visibly upset about the story, but he argued when I told him about my taking the
higher road lecture. He disagreed with me, claiming that sometimes people will follow you and
seek you out to mess with you more. He condoned the violence. I pictured Ajanee in 10 years
being chased down an alley by a girl with a gun. If she herself had a weapon and pulled the
trigger back, she’d end up dead or in jail. I felt strongly that my advice to walk away was
I hoped that over time Ajanee’s relationship with me as her coach would help her
understand that she could step away from physical confrontation. Through my constant
reinforcement of “using words” not physical violence, I thought it might sink in. I could
continue to give her verbal tools and phrases to say to others she became frustrated with. I also
thought about how being an athlete means that people have a profound respect for their bodies. I
hoped Ajanee would grow into that understanding through participating in a sport that was
physically demanding and required a lot from her body. Ajanee’s positive relationships with her
swim coaches and with herself ultimately could impact her attitude toward violence. She could
gain the verbal tools and the confidence to handle a situation differently.
Another swimmer, Tori, involved her friends in her decision-making. Tori was 9 years
old and constantly saying she did not like the sport. She would attend practice two days in a row
and not appear again for 2 months. She would show up when her friends came and then decide
she did not enjoy swimming. I was constantly trying to get her to commit. In one of our
conversations, she admitted that she only wanted to come if Leticia was there, otherwise she did
not feel comfortable.
I explained that Leticia attended 4 days per week, so that solution would be excellent.
However, that conversation occurred months ago and she still has not decided to swim regularly.
Potentially, Leticia’s positive commitment to swimming could influence Tori. Friends play an
important role in sports. Even though Tori apparently has decided not to swim, other athletes
may be convinced by a friend like Leticia, who would ask why she wasn’t at practice and
encourage her to swim. As the mentor, I had a limited role in Tori’s ultimate decision not to
swim. The coach’s role is not to solve every crisis, but rather to challenge youth to come to
conclusions good for their mental and physical health.
Research shows that enjoyment of sports strengthens the relationship between sports and
self-esteem. Specifically, according to Weiss and Smith (2002), high quality sport friendships are
connected to a more enjoyable experience. Kids with low social support for physical activity are
less likely to be active (Kurc & Leatherdale, 2009). Earlier sports participation for young girls
actively fosters self-esteem if they enjoy the sport activity, but if the girls do not enjoy the sport,
their self-esteem will decrease (Shaffer & Wittes, 2006). Implications of this enjoyment factor
suggest that parents and coaches can focus on the quality of the sports experience for girls
(Shaffer & Wittes, 2006). The coach plays the crucial role of fostering enjoyment and making
girls feel good about their participation in the sport. The coach has a duty to be complimentary
and to cultivate team building.
One additional aspect of positive relationships is harder to measure but centers around
whom the peer support comes from. Brianna, an 11-year-old who made the Zone 3 all-star team,
competed at an all-star meet with 10 other girls in her age group from teams around Northern
California. The all-star meet etiquette is similar to that of an overnight camp. Swimmers are not
supposed to contact their usual coaches or families. They are encouraged to make new friends
and to experience the process of developing into elite athletes. I watched this meet as a spectator
and saw Brianna laughing in the warm up lanes with another swimmer. Out of a pool deck full
of approximately 400 swimmers, these two girls were the only visibly Black girls I saw.
In a heavily white sport, Black swimmers notice when other people look like them,
because usually they do not have that experience. Research demonstrates the importance of
social support in encouraging girls to participate in sports. For these girls, feeling the less
tangible social support of other athletes who look like them might be highly important. Girls
may feel stigma or unwanted attention because they are Black at a swim meet. University of
Texas swimmer, Tanica Jamison, reflects on her experience as a Black swimmer.
I remember many occasions of my sisters and I getting disqualified after we
would win a race, high point trophies given to the runner up and nasty name
calling. In a sport that is predominantly white I stuck out like a sore thumb. I can
still remember the stares that I would get by my competitors or the looks I would
get from the timers or parents (T. Jamison, Personal Communication, April 28,
If the sport had more Black swimmers, the increasing normalcy of being a Black
swimmer might eliminate the feelings of outcast or negative attention that swimmers sometimes
note. For example, at one meet Sally exclaimed her excitement that the Oakland Undercurrents
were at the meet. The Oakland team has a similar demographic of swimmers as the Boys &
Girls Club team. Sally did not or could not verbalize why she felt her excitement, but to me it
seemed apparent that having more Black swimmers on deck would increase comfort and give
more credence to the idea of a fast Black swimmer. As the number of Black swimmers increases
over time, Black girls may be more encouraged to participate through feeling the unspoken
support of other athletes of their race.
Teasing and infighting affect body image, which impacts self-efficacy. One Monday
when I was supervising our homework hour with Tori, Leticia, Symone, and Simone, they began
laughing hysterically. They couldn’t control themselves and the hiccupping laughter turned into
insults in a manner that young kids have for quick changes in tone. First, Tori told Leticia she
had janky dreads. Leticia followed by saying that at least she herself was not fat. Then Symone
became the instigator, egging them on by agreeing with each insult. Tori answered back by
telling Leticia that she had a moustache.
Regardless of how I chose to discipline them or force them into a discussion on putting
themselves in the other person’s shoes, the harm was done. In this situation, self-efficacy links
with body image because, “The issue of control, a factor closely tied to self-efficacy, may be
symbolized by the perfect body” (Field, 2002, p. 21).
Every girl and woman has particular aspects of her body that she doesn’t like. When
people draw attention to these issues, it makes girls gawky and nervous. However, self-efficacy
and confidence can lessen the blow. Although these four girls all participate in the swim
program, that membership itself does not turn them into nicer people. However, over time they
will begin to learn how sportsmanship is an integral component of the sport. They will gain
self-efficacy in their own ability to conduct themselves around others. They will develop
interpersonal confidence, which will lesson the blows.
In the conversation, Leticia told Tori that she knew she had nappy dreads but she didn’t
care. I actually think she believed that. Adult staff members at the club, including myself, tell
The word “sportsmanship” again implies a male camaraderie while leaving out females.
Language does not provide a sufficient alternative, so I use “sportsmanship” here, but feel it
necessary to note how insufficient words further contribute to sexism in sports.
her how beautiful her hair is every day. She has collected enough positive feelings about herself
to be able to ignore harmful insults. Social persuasions from adults can counteract the negative
comments. A coach in a mentorship role can assist in the development of positive self-esteem.
Regardless of these girls’ self-efficacy around body image, they express the issue of
bodies at the forefront of their dialogue. Often the most obvious manifestation of this topic is
race. Ajanee, who looks white and has been raised by her Black father, often talks about race.
Whenever she tells me a story about another person in the Club, she identifies other people by
race. She’ll tell a story about Jessica and specify she means the Black one, not the white one,
since two Jessica’s attend the club. I explained to her that using race as an identifier demeans
other aspects of the person. I challenged her to describe the people she referred to in other ways.
Ajanee rose to the challenge, beginning to describe hair color, age, height, other factors to draw a
reference. She understood what I meant, because she hated when people asked her how she was
so white when her dad was so Black. Sometimes youth need an adult to calmly make a
connection for them and teach them why their language can be hurtful.
When Ajanee entered middle school, our relationship changed. She began to come only
once or twice per week, no longer seeking my advice. She said she was confused and didn’t
know what her priorities were. I drove home a few swimmers, and Lexi, Ajanee, and Jessica
began a conversation about whose school was better. Lexi maintained that her school was near
pizza and Thai food as well as Office Max, so Roosevelt Middle School was better than Presidio.
Ajanee, who attended Presidio acted insulted, maintaining her school was better. After various
arguments over specific eateries, Ajanee admitted that she did not like her school because there
were too many Chinese people there.
Lexi, who was older and also half Chinese, was ready to jump down her throat. I decided
not to let it escalate. I angrily called out Ajanee. I asked her to remember what were talking
about earlier about how it’s frustrating when people call you out for race. She knew what I
meant. I told her that she had just acted like that unjustified, prejudiced person she usually
despised. The car went silent.
Ajanee’s personal issues with race, compounded by her lack of understanding of other
people, present a complicated pattern. If Ajanee felt more confident in her own skin, she might
not insult other people as freely. Racial identity is important to having a positive body image
(Bracey et al, 2004). Girl’s racial identity determines much of their worldview and their
personal self-worth. As Bracey et. al. (2004) explain, the causal direction of the relationship
between racial identity and self-esteem is unclear, but the association is apparent.
While Ajanee was swimming daily and developing positive self-efficacy around her
ability in the sport, as well as routinely interacting with a positive role model around race, she
began to show improvements in her attitude. As Ajanee grows up and slowly gains self-efficacy
around issues of race and her own body and identity, she may act more maturely toward others
on issues regarding race. Swimming and her relationship with a mentor she trusts can facilitate
this process if she chooses to stay with the sport.
An additional critical component of body image is menstrual periods. At Zone 3
Championships, a swim meet that included teams from San Francisco north to Humboldt
County, Brianna got her period for the first time. Brianna, her twin sister Lia, and their friend
Rachel ran out of the locker room to tell me the news.
The three girls were attached at the hip. Brianna looked up at me, exclaiming that her
stomach hurt. She had complained that her stomach ached all day Saturday, but she had swum
fast, so she clearly was not sick. Today was Sunday. I motioned over my stomach and over my
abdomen, trying to find out where exactly Brianna was in pain. She hurt over her abdomen, and I
let her know that was cramps. I sent a mom to look for a pad and tampon, pressing my luck that
Brianna might try a tampon. I sat her down and asked if she understood what was happening to
her body. She said she remembered the time I taught the girls on the team about periods and
tampons, but she didn’t remember anything.
I began my story in the least shocking way I could think of. Think about your heart.
How amazing is it that it beats many times a minute, pumping blood and oxygen through your
body? I told her that her body was a work of art. I explained how her period was the same idea.
Your body is getting you ready to have a baby some day when you choose to. I pointed to each
side of my hips with each hand. This is where your ovaries are. I continued to detail the biology
behind periods, to help her understand.
I wanted Brianna to see that her body was doing its biological job, but I didn’t want to
scare her. I explained how 100 years ago women had babies when they were fifteen. We don’t
usually do that now, but our bodies still are programmed to be ready. I paused, backtracking. I
smiled pointedly, “But do me a favor, don’t have a baby until you graduate from college.” She
laughed. She was loosening up. Brianna pointed to Rachel and her twin sister wanting to know
why they didn’t have their periods but she did. This is what every girl wants to know. Why does
she have her period? Why does she have a boyfriend? Why is she married?
I continued my biological explanations about how everyone’s body changes at different
speeds. Wouldn’t the world be boring if everyone were exactly the same?” I thought about what
else I could tell her. I thought about Stephanie and Moesha, other twins on our team. I told
Brianna how Stephanie got her period before Moesha. Immediately Brianna relaxed. I could feel
her shoulder soften. I was glad I had that piece of knowledge to share in my back pocket. That
twin mentality would never make sense to me. But now she had confirmation she was normal.
Having moved on from fear to the present circumstance at hand, the next statement
Brianna said was that she did not want to swim. I let her know that she didn’t have to do
anything she didn’t want to do. I also made it clear why she should swim. I told her:
• This is a team meet. Swim for your team. Don’t let them down.
• If you don’t swim, you’ll always wonder what would have happened if you did.
• When it’s over and done with, you’ll be proud of yourself for trying.
• You’ll have a great sleepover story about what you did when you got your period.
Brianna decided to swim. She was in a sensitive state about her body, worried that blood
would drip down her leg. She was at her most vulnerable, yet she decided to contribute to the
team. She ended up swimming a personal best time, a huge achievement even under the best of
circumstances. Her commitment to swimming allowed her to step out of her comfort zone and
race. Upon succeeding at her race (with no period disasters), she gained confidence and self-
efficacy in her own body and her ability to take control of a challenging situation. If Brianna had
been left to her own devices, I doubt that she would have swam and ended up gaining the
positive benefits from the experience. Through talking with her coach, calming down, and
putting the event in perspective, Brianna was able to make a clear decision. The role of coaching
mentorship played a part.
Physicality describes how changes in physical strength, awareness, or know-how can
impact girls’ self-efficacy. Leticia was having a tantrum. I hated those days. It took all my
energy away from the other kids who were listening. As much as we try not to, most people who
work with youth have favorites. Leticia was one of mine. Her older brother was raising her after
her mom died last year. She got into trouble at school often for throwing tantrums and rude
behavior. About 6 months ago, her brother threatened that she’d have to go to foster care if she
didn’t shape up. So I understood her fits, her overreactions, and her quickness to break down,
but that didn’t mean I had to like it or condone it.
This time her breakdown was related to the butterfly stroke. Butterfly is the hardest of
the four competitive strokes, involving both arms simultaneously swinging over the water and
forward as your hips come up to propel you. As the coach, I was having the swimmers stop and
stand up in the shallow end to isolate the arm movements. For the novice group, I found that
technique to be a useful teaching tool. Most swimmers were beginning to understand the
motion, but Leticia was not. Leticia was a perfectionist. Her math homework also often drove
her to the point of tantrum. She really had to understand and perfectly execute what she was
doing or she felt bad. She got mad at herself when she did not succeed immediately.
She began splashing other swimmers and whining that she could not do it. I pulled her
out of the water to address her individually. I gave her a lecture, interjecting “Yes you can” into
every sentence and stopping her “can’t” craze. I felt a little like Barak Obama but mostly like
my always-helpful role model, The Little Engine That Could.
Eventually, I had Leticia face me and I moved her arms the proper way. I let her know
how well she was doing the fly arms up on land. So, wiping her eyes, she asked how she could
get them to go over the water. To a non-swimmer, that seems like a boring, obvious question,
but I thought it was very intelligent. She intellectualized the motion and then thought that her
body was not in sync with the motion she visualized.
That day, the victory was that Leticia stopped crying and began trying again. A few
weeks later, she grasped the basic stroke. As she gained physicality around difficult technique
work, she gained confidence in her ability to do challenging tasks. This physical
accomplishment is the most direct form of coaching and what most people think of when they
consider a coach’s role: teaching physical improvement. However, in this situation, the point I
underline is the coach as a motivator. The more Leticia proved to herself she could succeed,
then the more likely she was to try, according to Albert Bandura’s idea that mastery experience
Another example of physicality leading to greater self-efficacy is provided by Anya, age
11, who began swimming recently. Two months after her first practice, she competed in the
200-yard breaststroke at a meet. Before her race, Anya calmly told me she didn’t want to do it.
She said that her mom thought she couldn’t make it. I knew she could do it, but I also knew it
would be hard and that she would likely place last. I wanted her to try, so I talked to her mom to
convince her to tell Anya to go for it. Thankfully, Anya’s mom and her older brother backed me
up. But as her race got closer, Anya was in tears. She stood in our team tent crying and covering
her eyes. Her tears turned to sobs and real fear. She did not think she could do it. I was close to
capitulating, but held my ground.
She walked behind the blocks, cowering in her towel and my arm. She was a highly
motivated swimmer. She always tried her best in practice, and I knew her intrinsic motivation
was kicking in. She stepped up on the blocks, trying not to shake. I stood behind her lane
cheering proudly for the girl in last place.
When she finished the race, she got out and began crying. I ran over to her,
complementing her swimming and her motivation and strength to complete the challenge. I
didn’t know what was wrong. In between pants, and sobs, she told me that she was tired and it
was hard to breathe. I told her that it only gets easier. She was scared and was slowly going to
realize how proud of herself she was. As it turned out, 20 minutes later, she had a huge smile on
her face. I asked her if she was glad she did it. She confidently admitted that she was thrilled
and proud. I explained that if she could race the 200 breaststroke, she could do anything she
wanted. She looked like she believed me.
A few weeks later, Anya competed in the 200 Individual Medley completely proficiently.
She had overcome her initial fear; she had faith and swam well. “When students believe that
their efforts have been successful, their confidence to accomplish similar or related tasks is
raised” (Usher & Pajares, 2006). The physical accomplishment that athletes competing in a
difficult sport can achieve gives them confidence. These swimmers feel pride in their
achievement as they reach goals they sometimes didn’t even know they had. As their coach
pushes them physically, she simultaneously pushes them emotionally to have faith in themselves.
The swimmers at the Boys & Girls Club do their homework during Swimming Power
Hour from 3-4pm daily before practice begins. They receive one-on-one attention and have the
opportunity to ask questions. Additionally, swimmers turn their report cards into me each
quarter. The Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco created an education initiative to focus on
grades, graduation rates, and college admissions. A coach or a school or organization can require
that academics and sports participation must be linked. The swimmers exhibit high levels of
performance, exceeding that of the general club population. If their grades drop below a 2.5, they
will be on probation for the team, but that situation has yet to occur.
In fact, the positive associations with school have a contagious affect. Brianna discussed
how she was frustrated because she only earned a 3.1. She included many highly disgruntled
comments about her social sciences teacher, and other kids jumped in. Rachel almost had a 4.0,
except for math, in which she got a C. The swim team pressure to excel in school encourages
high achievement. Students build their self-efficacy through the vicarious experience of
observing others such as in school (Usher & Pajares, 2006). As these girls realize they are
learning and meeting their personal goals in school, they each gain self-efficacy. They know that
if they put their mind to achieving their desires, they can. When youth believe they are capable in
performing tasks, whether they are academic or swimming related, they are more likely to
succeed (Usher & Pajares, 2006). That belief in success and self-efficacy powerfully influences
subsequent performance (Usher & Pajares, 2006).
Eddie Reese, 2008 Olympic US Swim Team Coach and Head Coach of the University of
Texas at Austin, explains how swimmers have a unique self-efficacy that leads to setting positive
goals and gaining a confident understanding for the world:
Swimming doesn’t make life easy, just easier. The lessons learned are a
microcosm of life: goal setting, delayed gratification, achieving the goals and re-
setting them, failing and then increasing effort to make sure it doesn’t happen
again… and the effect you can have on others’ lives, mainly in a positive
Swimming is a great sport: individuals are better due to the good team dynamics
than they would be on their own. Where else can you get 20th in an event, be
happy, and jump up and down because you went your fastest time of your life?
I do think that swimming is a true accountability experience. You get what you
deserve (E. Reese, Personal Communication, April 12, 2009).
Eddie Reese explains how swimmers develop emotionally with a positive drive and inspiration
and confidence to try new things and also the ability to accept disappointment. The personal
empowerment that self-efficacy creates in youth provides them with the skills and knowledge to
succeed at any aspect of life.
Reese summarizes the benefits of the sport of swimming for youth. Particularly for
Black girls at the Boys & Girls Clubs in San Francisco, the sport of swimming correlates with
positive self-efficacy. Through positive relationships, body image, physicality, and school
performance, these girls develop confidence to carry over into all aspects of their lives. Overall,
I found that Black female swimmers gain social support from teammates and their coach,
develop a positive exercise routine, and boost their confidence from their participation in the
Boys & Girls Club swim team. These three key factors all lead girls to happier and healthier
In conclusion, this project suggests three major implications for the field of public health.
Public health represents a broad and far-reaching concept. Public health involves not only
disease prevention, but positive forces that create well-being. Physical health and fitness provide
one section of this complicated web of factors that lead to public health for an entire community.
Emotional and mental factors create another portion of the puzzle; this health component
includes positive self-efficacy.
All of the issues involving swimming that the results and discussion highlight are critical
issues of public health. The purpose of this paper is to push public health forward through the
sport of swimming. Here I provide an unconventional approach to improving public health by
outlining how the sport of swimming can address, impact, and influence public health in three
The first approach to public health improvement is that the field should expand the use of
stories as a means for research. Public health researchers should continue to increase use of
anecdotal evidence to tell the stories of underserved populations, particularly those of swimmers
who have little research to share their experiences.
The second way to improve public health is through the role of the coach or mentor who
provides an untapped avenue for delivering public health programs. The role of the coach
provides support, encouragement, and communication that can assist girls’ development and
self-efficacy. Through these stories, the role of an adult coach, also a mentor, becomes a critical
piece of the girl’s experience. They learn, grow, and thrive in a feedback loop in harmony with
The third public health implication is the importance of swim programs in underserved
communities. The sport of swimming demonstrates that to be successful in the sport means
increasing the social, mental, and physical health of young girls. Success in swimming equates
positive public health. USA Swimming launched their Make a Splash Campaign in March 2007
in order to increase the number of youth of color who can participate in swimming. In the
United States, almost 60% of Black youth cannot swim, a rate more than double that of white
children (USA Swimming Foundation What is Make a Splash?, 2009; retrieved March 29, 2009).
Make a Splash encourages programs to increase their diversity and include youth of color in the
sport. The next step is for Make a Splash to include funding for local programs as well as to
increase its advertising campaign.
In order to address these three suggestions for improving public health, the primary
intervention is to get more Black females involved in the sport of swimming. A few teams in the
United States have begun this endeavor. The Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR)
team coached by Jim Ellis gained fame in 2007 when Lionsgate filmed a feature movie, Pride,
about Ellis’s efforts to start a swim team for Black youth. The personal stories the film
documents demonstrate success, but sufficient research has yet to focus on swimming.
Developing avenues for young Black swimmers to train under the tutelage of caring, responsible
coaches can provide a new future for public health.
To develop public health in the United States, organizations such as the World Health
Organization and American Public Health Association have begun to center their attention on
prevention. Swimming will help prevent obesity as well as prevent youth from becoming
detached, with low self-esteem, and few opportunities for success. The sport of swimming is a
powerful tool to address these public health issues and to foster physical and emotional growth in
youth, particularly Black females.
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