Authors: Douglas Wharam, Ed. D., Sandra Geringer, Ed. D., Roch King, Ph. D., Mickey Kerr, DSM

Corresponding Author:
Doug Wharam, Ed.D.
222 25th Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37203

Doug Wharam is the Associate Head Coach of the Nashville Aquatic Club in Nashville, Tennessee, and a three-time USA Swimming National Team and four-time USA Swimming National Junior Team coach. 

Dr. Sandra Geringer is the Director of Recreation Management and Sports Studies at the United States Sports Academy. 

Dr. Roch King is the chair of Sports Coaching at the United States Sports Academy. 

Dr. Mickey Kerr is the Associate Dean of the School of Exercise and Sport Science at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Local sport club structures and their effect on athletic performance:  the relationship between formalization and athletic performance in swimming


The purpose of this study applies an organizational structure perspective to athletic performance in competitive swimming in the United States. This research examines via survey the top USA Swimming clubs in the country as defined by their Club Excellence Program ranking. The Club Excellence Program is a voluntary program administered by USA Swimming that ranks teams based on the achievements of their elite 18 years and younger performers. The research focused on collecting contextual variables and structural variables relating to formalization. The relationship between the level of club formalization and elite athletic performance was examined.

Surveys were collected via Survey Monkey and were distributed to 241 teams who appeared on the 2018 and 2019 USA Swimming Club Excellence list. There were 128 responses received, a response rate of 52.6% and 121 cases were selected for analysis. A Spearman’s rho correlation was run to assess the correlation between the total formalization score a club attained and their Club Excellence ranking. There was no statistically significant correlation between the ranked data of Club Excellence Ranking and Total Dimension score, rs(112) = .113, p = .237. A multiple regression analysis was run to determine whether the survey questions could predict Club Excellence ranking.  The multiple regression model statistically significantly predicted Club Excellence ranking, F(21, 90) = 1.824, p < .05, adj. R2 = .135. Variables that added statistically significance to the prediction included: Does your club have formal work plans? Does your club have a policies and procedures manual? and How often are athlete training programs, progress, and competition plans evaluated?

The results are relevant for coaches and team administrators and suggest the existence of a positive relationship between elements of organizational formalization and athletic performance within the sample. USA Swimming club teams, as well as other local sport clubs wanting to have athletes perform at a consistently high level should assess their current level of formalization and determine whether it meets the baselines established in this survey.

Key words: organizational structure, professionalization, non-profit sport organizations, National Governing Body (NGB) performance


Previous research into the efficacy of local sports organizations has primarily focused on operational metrics such as financial solvency or community relations.  To date there has been little research that has looked at the relationship between operational efficacy and high-level athlete performance.  Clubs associated with USA Swimming provide an opportunity to explore this relationship and the role of organizational formalization.  The purpose of this study was to identify how the formalization of a member club in United States competitive swimming relates with athletic performance.

Despite a variety of different organizational structures (non-profit, institution owned, coach owned) all swimming clubs in the United States can be held to the same standards of performance by finite performance data (i.e. times).  This study identifies the positive relationship of the level of formalization within a local competitive swimming program and athlete performance.

Formalization in sport is defined by Ruoranen et al. (13) as, “being business- like” (p. 56) or more specifically as a process which moves organizations away from amateurism. Organizations embarking on this path have several main features including employment of professionals with expert knowledge, a process towards rationalization, efficiency, project management, and commercialization to legitimize activities. Formalization is also known as standardization in other scholarly works (7, 8, 11, 20). Fahlen (4) provides a definition, “standardization reflects the degree of formalized procedures and the extent of documentation, such as variability in procedures and coordination of tasks. It reflects the freedom of action for the individuals, units, and groups in an organization related to supervision and control” (p. 61).

Slack and Hinings (17) presented an important framework for the formalization of a sport organization. Having studied National Governing Bodies (NGBs) in Canada, Slack and Hinings determined through the use of their Quadrennial Planning Programinterviews and questionnaires that one organizational form, the professional bureaucracy, was, “the type of structure most conducive to the production of elite athletes” (p. 115).  Slack and Hinings explained the shift to professional bureaucracy was to be achieved by, “increasing the number of professional staff in these organizations, reducing volunteer involvement to the setting of policy, developing systems and structures to improve coordination and control, and changing the authority structure to take the day-to-day control of operations away from volunteers and put it in the hands of professional staff” (p. 115). Other studies (5, 10) have built upon the work of Slack and Hinings. However, these studies found it difficult to compare the impact of non-profit sport organization structure on athletic performance.

USA Swimming provides several standardized methods of measuring club performance that allow for an assessment of elite athlete performance across the country.  The Club Excellence Program, utilized in this study, focuses on 18 years of age and younger athletes who have the potential to impact the national and international scene and awards points to the home club based on clearly defined performance time standards.

Despite its elite athletic performance status, USA Swimming has been identified as an NGB whose support for clubs and athletes had very little to do with athlete performance (18).  USA Swimming athletes, however, are continuing to perform at a very high level as evidenced by their achievements at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games where, “U.S. swimmers topped all nations in both the overall (33) and gold-medal (16) charts – marking the team’s greatest medal haul since 2000. Winning five of the six relays, the U.S. garnered nearly half of the 34 gold medals up for grabs, while no other country won more than three” (19, para. 9).

With USA Swimming performing so well in the pool, but research indicating that USA Swimming/NGB support has very little correlation to the athletic performance, the question remains as to what is continuing to drive high-level athlete performance. In many cases, young American athletes achieve international recognition before they matriculate to the ranks of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  While resources are provided by the NGB that can ultimately impact performance, there are no centralized training locations or coaches.  The club teams and the resources and stakeholders within them, then, are the engines by which athlete performance begins to develop and warrants an assessment with an eye towards Slack and Hinings (17) assertion that formalized organizations may beget elite athletic performance. This study set out to determine if there is a relationship between organizational formalization and athlete performance as defined by Club Excellence rankings.


Selection of Subjects

A survey of club head coaches, high-performance coaches, or club administrators whose teams were ranked in USA Swimming’s Club Excellence program for 2018 or 2019 was conducted.  These lists are independent of one another and represent the best performing clubs annually under USA Swimming’s umbrella. Prior to data collection Institutional Review Board approval (USSA.2019.007-1R-EP-G) was obtained.

The population for this sample is N = 243, as determined by the total number of teams on the lists (400) minus duplicates (157).


The survey used in this study consisted of questions presented on a Likert scale.  The survey was based on two scholarly works. The first, Papadimitriou (10), proposed a framework for the collection of contextual information (organizational size, age, and resource dependence) in local sport clubs.  The second, identified formalization information using Slack’s Interview Questions for Organization Design Index (n.d.) modified to fit the sample. 

The range of responses available on the survey closely follows the thoughts of Fahlen, who states that, “Slack and Hinings (1987) argue for definition and specification assessed on a continuum from non-existent to relatively simple to complex, and by Thibault, Slack, and Hinings’ (1991) rating scale 1 (low), 2 (medium), 3 (high). The categories were created to facilitate comparison and understanding, not with the belief that categories represent groups in reality” (p. 63).

The survey attempted to assess formalization across four of Slack’s dimensions: human resources, evaluation, head coach or high-performance coach development, and athlete training programs.


The survey was a web-based survey delivered online via Survey Monkey.  E-mail addresses were collected via each club’s official website, found through links provided by USA Swimming on their Club Excellence rankings page.  Upon collection of the e-mail addresses, steps included a pre-notification e-mail message before administering the survey containing an introductory letter on the importance of the research.  In addition, two follow-up reminders at intervals of 8 days and 14 days were used to remind participants to complete the survey (2).

Design and Preparation for Data Analysis

While the concept of formalization can be nuanced within an organization, this study follows Fahlen’s suggestion that data collected shall facilitate comparison and understanding (4).  Statistics employed included Spearman’s rho rank order correlation and a standard multiple regression.  The Spearman correlation coefficient, a type of bivariate correlation, was used to evaluate the degree of the relationship between a club’s highest Club Excellence ranking and their total dimension (formalization) score.  A standard multiple regression was utilized to determine whether the results of the survey are a good fit and to find the best combination of the independent variables surveyed that best predicted the dependent variable.

The results from the survey were analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 25.  The Alpha level was set at p < .05 in order to determine the significance of the findings and assess the hypotheses (2).


A Spearman’s rho correlation was run to assess the relationship between the ranked data of Club Excellence Ranking and the ranked data of Total Dimension score.  There were 112 cases analyzed.  The variable Rank of CE Adjusted Highest Rank classifies the highest ranking, best performing Club Excellence teams as the lowest number within the dataset (1-120) to mimic the Club Excellence ranking.  The variable Rank of Total Dimension Score classifies the highest dimension score aggregates as the highest number within the dataset (1-120).  Ties were assigned mean values to compensate for meshing two years of ranking data.  An analysis was conducted where ties were assigned low values and no significant difference was presented.  Analysis showed the relationship to be positively monotonic as assessed by visual inspection of a scatterplot (Figure 1).  There was no statistically significant correlation between the ranked data of Club Excellence Ranking and Total Dimension score, rs(112) = .113, p = .237.

Figure 1

A multiple regression was run to predict Club Excellence Ranking from the items on the structural portion of the survey.  There was linearity as assessed by partial regression plots and a plot of student-ized residuals against the predicted values.  There was independence of residuals, as assessed by a Durbin-Watson statistic of 1.941.  There was homoscedasticity, as assessed by visual inspection of a plot of student-ized residuals versus unstandardized predicted values.  There was no evidence of multi-collinearity, as assessed by tolerance values greater than 0.1.  There were no student-ized deleted residuals greater than +/- 3 standard deviations, no leverage values greater than .31 and values for Cooks distance above 1.  The assumption of normality was met as assessed by a Q-Q Plot.  The multiple regression model statistically significantly predicted Club Excellence ranking, F(21, 90) = 1.824, p < .05, adj. R2 = .135.  Variables that added statistically significantly to the prediction included: Does your club have formal work plans? Does your club have a policies and procedures manual? and How often are athlete training programs, progress, and competition plans evaluated?


As the data indicated above reflects, the survey itself does significantly predict Club Excellence ranking.  However, as indicated in the results above, there is not a statistically significant correlation with this set of cases.

The purpose of this study was to identify how the formalization of a member club in United States competitive swimming relates with athletic performance.     Through the data collected, there was not a significant correlation between the level of formalization and the Club Excellence ranking.  However, analysis indicates that the survey significantly predicts Club Excellence ranking from within the sample of clubs.  Additional research that includes clubs not achieving Club Excellence status is recommended to understand how this predictive factor may impact the entire USA Swimming club system.  Research to achieve a better understanding of how formalization of a club over time may impact Club Excellence ranking should also be considered for future study.

Local sport club coaches face many important challenges every day and most take on many roles within their organization. Areas where high performance can be positively impacted that may not require daily attention should interest coaches and team administrators and is further supported by other researchers (4, 14). In Fletcher and Streeter’s (6) analysis of Dutch high-performance swimming, they state, “although the body of knowledge is still in its infancy, the evidence indicates that organizational and environmental factors do have a significant impact on individual and team performance in elite sport” (p. 124). The results of this study indicate that their analysis regarding organizational factors is correct and warrants further study.

There was not a significant correlation between organizational formalization, defined by the codified and totaled responses to the survey, and athletic performance with the teams examined in this study.  However, the multiple regression analysis resulted in finding that the survey questions administered did significantly predict Club Excellence ranking.  Despite a lower adjusted R2 (.135), small changes may be significant at this level.  The clubs selected for this study already represent a very small percentage of clubs – 243 of 2,800, or 8.6% – all with athletes who are performing at an elite level.  With the specificity of the sample in mind, an adjusted R2 = .135 means that a further analysis into how these small changes may make a big impact on athletic performance should be undertaken.

Three questions from the survey were identified as significantly impacting the prediction.  When clubs are attempting to create environments where high performance is attainable, the questions outlined below should be considered critical first steps in establishing administrative systems that help foster performance.  A more thorough understanding of the data from these questions is presented below – but these questions do work together to help create a new sense of understanding of formalization within an elite sport organization.  While some authors of organizational structure research found a negative correlation (12, 16), the results of this study indicate that in the context of elite sport there appears to be a positive correlation.  In addition, these questions and the survey itself work to confirm studies (13, 1, 3, 17, 15) that the move towards professionalization is a positive one and warrants investigations into the role of professionalization and athletic performance.

1. Does your club have formal work plans?

The results from this survey question as seen in Figure 2 provide an understanding that either simple or detailed formal work plans are in place at 79% of the teams who responded.  Formal work plans are defined as defined goals and expectations for employees with pre-determined assessment periods.

Figure 2

2. Does your club have a policies and procedures manual?

As illustrated by Figure 3, 90% of the clubs that responded indicated that they had a policies and procedures manual for their employees to follow.  In the context of formalization, providing employees with a policies and procedures manual may be an important step in creating organizational factors that positively impact athletic performance.

Figure 3

3. How often are athlete training programs, progress, and competition plans evaluated?

Of the teams who responded to the survey, zero teams selected that they never evaluate their athlete training programs, progress, and competition plans.  Nearly 81% of teams who responded indicated that these items are evaluated either regularly or continuously (see Figure 4).

Figure 4


When working to build an organization that has elite athletic performance goals, there are many factors that converge.  In order to consistently achieve elite athletic performance, there must be processes or systems in place that work to support the coaches and athletes who execute the day to day training plans.  This study provides a glimpse at how the formalization of the organization may be a piece of the process or system that allows high achieving teams, as measured by their Club Excellence ranking, to consistently produce elite athletes.

While many studies have focused on organizational performance through the lens of finances, community relations, or stakeholder views, an understanding of the theories behind the management of local sport clubs as related to athletic performance are limited at best.  Miles, Snow, Meyer, and Coleman’s (9) belief that, “top executives’ theories of management are an important factor in analyzing an organization’s ability to adapt to its environment” (p. 558) lends even more credence to the necessity of understanding how top executives – in these cases, head coaches – view the elements of their organization.

When viewed through the prism of Fahlen’s classification system, most of the clubs that responded to the survey could be considered highly formalized.  When taken as an overall picture of formalization for Club Excellence ranked teams, the average club that responded to the survey had a total dimension score of 19 out of a maximum of 44 points.  The mode of the total dimension score in this dataset was 21.  While these values may seem low when compared to the maximum, the nature of the coding system means that teams that were “detailed” in their level of formalization as assessed by the survey far surpass the minimum expectation for Fahlen’s highly formalized category.  Fahlen defined high formalization for his clubs – in this case ice hockey in Sweden, as follows:

These clubs operate in a very corporate-like manner when it comes to rules, policies, routines, manuals, and guidelines. The clubs all have well documented principles guiding daily operations, goals directing these operations (both economic and sports-wise), and visions governing long-term plans. Sports-wise, the clubs have a number of formalized principles for drafting and training, as well as for transfers of players and coaches. (p. 67)

This macro level snapshot of the teams that responded to the survey, combined with the positively monotonic relationship between Club Excellence ranking and formalization provides solid ground for further investigation into the relationship between these two variables.  To capture a better understanding of how these variables may impact the entire USA Swimming club population, a more expansive research study that includes clubs who did not achieve Club Excellence ranking should be conducted.  In addition, an analysis of a club’s changes in formalization over time and the impact on Club Excellence ranking should also be considered.

One exceptional data point, a case where the Club Excellence ranking was high while the Total Dimension score was low, warrants discussion.  This club had the lowest Total Dimension score of any club surveyed while also having one of the highest Club Excellence rankings.  It is important to note that despite the recommendations outlined in this study, there is no singular avenue to ensure high performance goals are met.  One of the inherent flaws in the Club Excellence ranking system is a failure to account for team size.  This means that teams with more than 1,000 swimmers are compared equally to teams of less than 100 swimmers.  The exceptional data point highlighted here reported a large number of athletes, which may be a contributing factor to its outlier position.

Finally, the results of this study provide evidence that coaches and administrators should be sure to ask three questions of their organization if they want to begin to work towards sustained high athletic performance:  Does your club have formal work plans?, Does your club have a policies and procedures manual?, and  How often are athlete training programs, progress, and competition plans evaluated?


Thank you to Dr. Josef Fahlen for providing helpful resources to aid in the completion of this research project.


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