For Tim Hart, a former world-class swimmer and transplanted Englishman from Essex situated northeast of London, engaging children and their parents starts and ends with communication.

Hart, the Director of Competitive Swimming for the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati and a former member of the English World Team, heads up the highly successful ABLY (Anderson Barracudas Lyons YMCA) program. Hart told Loyalty 360 he believes that solid communication fosters engagement and loyalty from swimmers and their parents.

“I expect all my coaches at a minimum to send out one email a week to the parents letting them know what we’re doing and what’s coming up,” Hart said. “And I try to send out at least one email every couple of weeks to the whole team. It creates more of a team atmosphere.”

An effective strategy in creating comfort, engagement, and loyalty is one of ABLY’s policies. “To prevent burnout, especially with swimming, we don’t have a practice attendance policy in our groups 12 and under,” Hart explained. “We don’t emphasize pushing kids at a very young age.

It’s a unique and different philosophy that I think the parents very much enjoy and appreciate. Every kid develops at a different pace and every kid is different. I feel our way works better for the long-term of the child. The big payout comes later in life. I don’t think coaches realize how much of a difference they make in these kids’ lives until they come back and say how much they were impacted by the program.”

Although there aren’t strict attendance guidelines for the 12-and-under swimmers, Hart also doesn’t want an 8-year-old coming to practice six times a week. “It’s those who do that who end up quitting the program at a very early age,” Hart said.

Hart was a competitive swimmer for 17 years and trains kids up through age 18. He’s very cognizant of a potential burnout factor and encourages swimmers to participate in other activities such as art and music.

ABLY members create individual goal sheets that “as coaches we have to remind them of those goals to keep them on track,” Hart said. “They have to be personal goals.” Socially, Hart said, ABLY coordinates several team activities such as pep rallies, cookouts, attending a Reds’ game, a water park outing, and banquet.

“We hold a lot of collaborative activities that promote loyalty and engagement,” Hart said. “There’s that sense of belonging and being part of something bigger than a swim team.”

Hart’s top swimmers practice 20 hours per week and “that’s a lot if they’re not focused on their goals. We do different types of sets that measure progress. We’ll go off the block and race sometimes. We change it up, keep them focused, and stress the stroke work.”

Hart was with the ABLY program from 1998-2000, left for a bit and came back in 2006 before assuming the helm last April.

“The nature of youth sports has changed,” Hart said. “I think parents spoil their kids more now than they used to and kids are not as tough as they used to be. Plus, there are a lot more athletic opportunities now than in 1998, like lacrosse which is growing rapidly.”

Hart is very proud of the ABLY program and points to its uniqueness and guiding principles as the main reasons for continued engagement with kids and parents.

“We do not emphasize pushing the kids at a very young age,” Hart said. “We push for them to peak in high school. Socially, we have a lot of collaborative type activities. I want them to get faster. I want them to improve their strokes. I want them to have fun and that’s the most important thing because they won’t want to come to practice otherwise.”


Part three of a three part series connecting lessons in youth sports engagement to broader customer loyalty, experience and engagement strategies.

Read also:
 Part 1: A Loyalty Promise at Kings Soccer Academy
Part 2: 
Ginga “Touches” the Engagement Factor

By: Mark Johnson, CEO, Loyalty 360 - The Loyalty Marketer's Association

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