Maybe There Is Good News

April 21st, 2018

I met William Benson this morning. Like many others he is in Auckland at the Age Group Championships. He wandered over to where I was sitting timing a set of Eyad’s 20×100. Among a number of interesting things he had to say he made the point that he felt Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) was in the process of trying to change. For example, he said, he had been asked on several occasions during the week, what did Swimming New Zealand need to do to reverse a six year long decline? What could be done better?

That sounded like very good news to me. If it is true, if it is sincere and if it results in change then the consultation with coaches like William Benson is nothing but good. The view expressed in this blog for a decade has always been that SNZ with its flash Auckland pool and foreign coaches has never had all the answers; has never had even half the answers. But around New Zealand 246 William Bensons do have all the answers and more. SNZ simply needed the humility to understand that the Federation did not know as much about the sport as the coaches. Success depended on harnessing the coaching resource not on putting them in their place. Coaches are not mere suppliers of talent to David Lyles or Jerry Olszewski. Coaches from Invercargill to Whangarei are the solution.

If William Benson’s observation is right perhaps the penny has dropped, perhaps that truth has finally dawned on SNZ as well. We will see.

In the previous Swimwatch post I said this:

But of as much concern is what is Gary Francis doing? He was hired for the expressed purpose of bringing reform to SNZ. Instead it seems SNZ has corrupted Gary Francis. Months ago we were promised meetings to discuss his new job. In true SNZ style nothing has happened; no meetings, no newsletters and no change.

That opinion is valid. What has Francis done in the past two months? However I do see that he is programmed to speak at the New Zealand Swim Coaches and Teachers Association Conference next week. The Conference timetable tells me that the subject of the future role of SNZ in swimmer’s coaching will be discussed at the times shown in the table below.

Friday 27 April 2018

The Role of the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager 11.00 to 11.40am Gary Francis

Saturday 28 April 2018

Strategic Planning – Into the Future Together 10.30 to 11.10am Gary Francis

The Future role of the NTC 11.15 to 11.55am Matt Woofe

Sadly I will not be around on Friday or Saturday next week. I would love to hear SNZ’s plans for the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager and the National Training Centre. It is a subject for which I have a deep interest. The jargon and hyperbolic enthusiasm of “Strategic Planning – Into the Future Together” puts me off a bit. It is sad when any organisation feels that they need to sound pretentious in order to be important. In the conference slot immediately after Francis, Jana Wilkitzki is scheduled to discuss “Learning’s from the World Champs, Budapest”. What she means is “Lessons” from the World Champs. But, because “learning’s” sounds so supremely pompous it is enthusiastically embraced by lovers of obfuscation.  Oh Nevill, if you are going to insist on the word “Learning’s”, there is no apostrophe.

But what puts me off more than NZSCTA’s affected use of the English language is the fee they intend to charge. Coaches wanting to travel with Francis “into the future together” are going to have to pay $466.07 just to hear what that involves. For all three discussions that’s $3.88 a minute. And that’s daylight robbery.

If William Benson is right, and SNZ are in the process of putting right a decade of hurt, charging coaches $466.07 to hear about their plans is not a good way to start. They need coaches more than coaches need them. And finding another way to make a quick buck from coaches is no way to earn their support. It is as arrogant as ever. Whatever Francis plans, he requires the cooperation of coaches. Charging $466.07 is a really bad way to earn that cooperation.

In 2018 every coach in New Zealand should see the Francis presentation on their phone for free.

Just as bad of course is the fact that Nevill Sutton and the NZSCTA Board let SNZ get away with exploiting coaches as a money making piggy-bank. Remember the Sutton song and dance about Gary and Donna being fired. But nothing happened. Sutton came to Auckland and folded. For a decade New Zealand coaches have been treated appallingly by SNZ. The NZSCTA Board had a responsibility to protect the jobs and status of their members. They say their vision is “to improve professional standards through professional development and ethical practice.” They have not done that. They have not spoken truth to power. For a decade and for all the good it has done the NZSCTA might as well have not existed. And now when there is something coaches need to know, Sutton will let you in on the Francis secret as long as you pay him $466.07 first.

For coaches who live on the West Coast or in Invercargill or like me have other things on that day, how are we going to hear about the Francis plan – and how much is our attention going to cost.

Oh, and while all this was going on, Eyad’s 20×100 went well. He averaged 1:01.65.

Incompetent, Corrupt Or Both

April 20th, 2018

 Craig Lord’s SwimVortex website has played an important role in exposing incompetence and corruption in international swimming administration. His most recent editorial is a stunning example. I had no idea things were that bad. From the Lauren Boyle record fiasco, to drug cheating, to fake awards and international rule violations – FINA have practiced them all. The way the UAE went about ignoring Israel’s participation in UAE hosted World Cup events was disgraceful. There should have been serious consequences. But this is FINA. Money was more important.

Bad behaviour at Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) does not have the international consequences of the stuff FINA practice. However, in its own way it is just as incompetent, corrupt or both. For example SNZ played a central role in the Lauren Boyle lie. They signed a form that said all FINA minimum standards had been met when, quite clearly, they had not. That was a lie. They could have told the truth and added a note explaining that the swimmer received no advantage. Their dishonesty was compounded when Layton, the Chairman, used his Annual Report to rubbish SwimVortex and Swimwatch for holding him to account.

The problem with an example like that is it shows the dishonesty the organization will practice when there is money involved. SNZ were well aware that Boyle’s record would find favour with High Performance Sport New Zealand; favour that would probably be reflected in the size of the SNZ’s funding. What did a lie matter when there was money at stake? And that is straight out of the FINA text book.

Recent events on the Australian Gold Coast have further highlighted the consequences of SNZ’s incompetence, corruption or both. Several of these were discussed in a recent Swimwatch post

The post highlighted the following failures.

Between 2011 and 2018 there is not a single measure of the organization’s performance that improved. Everything got worse. Income, membership and results were all in decline.

The performance of the 2018 New Zealand non-para swim team at the Commonwealth Games was the equal worst result since the Games began 88 years ago in 1930.

In announcing the AON NZ sponsorship Swimming New Zealand reported that “The announcement comes following the growth of participating swimmers entering both championships every year.” That was not true. Between 2011 and 2017 the number of entries in the Open Championships dropped by 230 from 997 to 767.

Swimming New Zealand’s single biggest failure is its policy of centralized elite training. Introducing the program was bad enough but the decisions, over ten years, to persevere was inexcusable. In the face of mounting evidence that the program was failing Swimming New Zealand marched on. The damage was terminal.

The selection of three of the Commonwealth Games’ support staff raises concerns about the fitness of Swimming New Zealand to govern.

Only two swimmers met the SNZ qualifying standards. But SNZ, desperate not to send a team of only two, picked an additional ten relay swimmers and entered them in about 30 individual events. In my opinion that is called fiddling the rules.

SNZ booked a camp on the Gold Coast but failed to take into account their last minute army of relay swimmers. The Gold Coast facility was not big enough. The New Zealand pre-Games bonding experience was divided in two.

Bizarre programing of events such as the National Open Championships and a high altitude camp before the 2017 World Championships would have affected the team’s performance.

SNZ has a problem. Poor management is costing the sport financially. The sport is bleeding members and its elite performance at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games has been terrible. But the real problem is those in power, those individuals responsible for the mess, are not held to account.

There can be no arguing with the facts. No one can make an 8% decline in competitive swimmers look good. A 25% drop in total membership is not a success. A 28% drop in government funding is directly related to poor performance and a 15% cut in total funding is hurting the sport. These are not the disgruntled complaints of a “trouble-making” website. These are the facts. They have a cause and they cause harm

But what they don’t have is consequences for those who caused the hurt. They get away with it; home scot free. Why is no one holding Cotterill and Johns to account? Why do those responsible for oversight ignore their duty? What is Keith Bone from Hawkes Bay thinking of? Why does Mark Berge seem to ignore the problem? Is Bronwyn Radford more interested in political status than doing her job? Is Willem Coetzee too interested in his son’s swimming to upset his bosses? By association these delegates are as guilty as the SNZ principals. The time for them to stand-up and take responsibility for addressing the sport’s sorry state of affairs is long overdue.

But of as much concern is what is Gary Francis doing? He was hired for the expressed purpose of bringing reform to SNZ. Instead it seems SNZ has corrupted Gary Francis. Months ago we were promised meetings to discuss his new job. In true SNZ style nothing has happened; no meetings, no newsletters and no change. But instead of reform, instead of Gary Francis bringing about change, my bet is SNZ will attach themselves like a limpet to their new golden boy, Lewis Clareburt. Like Boyle he will be seen as their source of future funding and excuse to avoid reform – just like FINA.

The Games Big Boys & Girls Play

April 19th, 2018

 It has been an interesting week at the National Training Centre. The Age Group Championships are in full swing. Everything is stunningly normal. Hundreds of teenagers are busy warming up and cooling down. Nervous coaches pace around the pool with an intensity way beyond anything you’d see at the Olympic Games. Tired parents are beginning show signs of wanting this drama to end. The flight home can’t come soon enough. And all of it reported by self-important experts on Facebook with a passion normally reserved for international conflicts.

I had an enjoyable chat today with two well-known and experienced coaches. We discussed the gap between events in Auckland and the preparation required to be successful in open international swimming. We agreed that success in an age group event is very different from open international swimming. Many swimmers, parents, commentators and even coaches believe that a winning age group swimmer will graduate into a successful senior swimmer by simply doing a bit more of the same thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Success in open international swimming is very different from age group swimming. They might as well be different sports; chalk and cheese. The American sprinter, Carl Lewis, said, “There is no correlation between success as a junior athlete and success as an elite senior competitor.” I agree with that. The intensity, training, pressure, professionalism of senior competition has almost nothing in common with events in Auckland this week.

Let’s consider something as simple as the amount of training as an example. Set out in the table below is a typical season for a senior female swimmer. In this season the swimmer won a national championship, was placed in an international championship and broke a national open record. The table shows the distance and competitions swum each week.

Week Distance Swum Training Type Competition Results
1 100 Aerobic
2 100 Aerobic
3 100 Aerobic
4 100 Aerobic
5 94 Aerobic
6 100 Aerobic
7 95 Aerobic
8 100 Aerobic
9 100 Aerobic
10 96 Aerobic
11 85 Anaerobic
12 80 Anaerobic
13 80 Anaerobic
14 80 Anaerobic
15 56 Anaerobic
16 40 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
17 36 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
18 20 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
19 24 Competition State Championship Australia – First place
20 20 Competition Local Interclub – First place
21 24 Competition National Championship – First place
22 20 Competition
23 30 Competition Regional Champs – First place, Open Record
24 31 Competition
25 28 Competition
26 20 Competition International Champs – Second place
Total 1659

That’s 1659 kilometres in 26 weeks or 3200 kilometres in a year. You will find that is pretty standard fare for a modern international swimmer on an aerobically based program. But certainly, I would think, much more than the training load swum by age group swimmers in Auckland.

In addition to their training, good senior swimmers spend time in the gym. In the season shown in the table, the swimmer lifted weights on 111 occasions. In 26 weeks that a little over an average of 4 gym sessions a week.

I guess there are two points to all this. First is the Carl Lewis point. The training and approach required to prepare an international athlete are very different and have little in common with age group swimming. The coaching skills required are very different. And second, age group success is of limited value in predicting senior international success.

There are dangers in the gulf that exists between age group and senior swimming. The most serious is the damage of too much praise. New Zealand is especially bad at this. Swimming New Zealand and Facebook write up the conquering feats of the young using a stunningly extensive vocabulary of superlatives. Swimmers “star” in “record breaking form”. And “Ciara Smith did a pretty handy 1:09.83 faster than anyone at NZ opens and think that time would have got her a semi-final at the Commonwealth Games.” It is extremely easy for that praise to become a burden. Commentators know not the damage they inflict.

It is for this reason that the Americans did away with national age group competition. The damage caused could not be justified. The Americans do have a junior under 18 championship but that’s it. Clearly that protects younger swimmers from the stress of national competition. I refused to let two very good age group swimmers I coached even attend the New Zealand age group meet. Both were age group record holders but, on Lydiard’s advice, I desperately wanted them to avoid the dangers of age group championship swimming. Both went on to represent New Zealand in senior international events and set open national records.

Facts appear to support the idea that Age Group Championships are a bad indicator of senior success. I prepared a list of the winners of every event in the 2007 and 2010 Championships. So there were two questions – how many of the junior national champions were still swimming in their late teens and early twenties and how many were swimming at the same championship winning level?

The answer is that the events at these two championships were won by 71 swimmers. Of the 71 swimmers, 58 (82%) were no longer swimming and 13 swimmers (18%) were still competing. Of those still competing 5 swimmers (7%) had won a senior national title. So the figures fully support the rule of thumb 80% drop-out rate. However, remember the swimmers studied were the winners; the national champions. And yet even in this group the drop-out rate was 82%. It could be even higher for less successful swimmers.

Dr John Mullen, editor of the “Swimming Science Research Review”, conducted a study similar to my New Zealand analysis. His findings are published on the website, “Swimming Science”. Mullen looked at swimmers at a much higher level than those in my New Zealand analysis. His study examined 87 swimmers who had competed in the 2008 Junior World Championships and evaluated their performance in the 2012 Olympic Games. Of the 87 swimmers, 66 swimmers (76%) did not participate in the Olympic Games. Of the 21 swimmers (24%) who did qualify to compete in the Games, no one won a medal and just 3 (4%) managed to qualify for a final.

The table below summarises and compares my New Zealand Championship study results with Dr Mullen’s Junior World Championship results.

Item NZ Study Olympic Study
Number % Number %
Number of swimmers in study 71 100 87 100
Number of drop-outs 58 82 66 76
Number in senior event 13 18 21 24
Number swimming successfully in senior event 5 7 3 4

The studies looked at very different levels of competition; one local and the other international. The findings however are remarkably similar. The data confirms that in both studies about three quarters of the swimmers retire from swimming after their success at a junior event. About one quarter make it through to the senior ranks and about 5% are successful. Drop-out, it seems, is a problem at all levels of junior swimming. The shift from the junior to the national swimming team is one of the most challenging milestones in a swimmer’s career.

Employ The Best People

April 18th, 2018

 Gary Hurring will hate this post. He is quiet, unassuming and modest. The last thing in the world he needs or would want is anyone writing about him on the internet. The fact that it’s David Wright doing the writing won’t help. I imagine that the prospect of support for Gary around the Swimming New Zealand Board table will not be helped by my backing.

However Gary came to mind yesterday when I was talking to ex-national representative, Michelle Burke. Gary was her coach. For the life of me I cannot understand why Swimming New Zealand has not made more use of Gary Hurring. One of the key attributes of successful management is the ability to bring into the organization the very best people. Swimming New Zealand has failed that test. I think that Cotterill and Johns are scared of people like Gary Hurring. The gulf between their product knowledge and someone like Gary is embarrassingly huge, and they know it. But instead of welcoming the contribution of those who know more, Cotterill and Johns surround themselves with employees that make them look good and feel comfortable. Why else would a coaching intern be left in charge of a swimmer like Bradlee Ashby?

It is ironic that the last time I spoke to Gary was about a month ago. The call was put through to his phone in Hawaii. He had been employed to take a training camp for senior swimmers. Absolutely brilliant, I thought. He gets employed by the best swimming nation in the world. But in New Zealand the Federation sacked him. Pretty much says it all really.

Gary’s resume explains why he is valued by the Americans. Here is how Wikipedia describes his swimming career.

Gary Norman Hurring (born 10 October 1961 in Auckland) is a former swimmer from New Zealand, who won the gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in the men’s 200 metres backstroke. He gained silver in the same event at the 1978 World Aquatics Championships.

Hurring was considered a possible medallist for the 1980 Summer Olympics but was denied the opportunity due to the boycott by the majority of New Zealand Olympic sports associations. At the 1984 Summer Olympics he just missed medals in both backstroke events finishing fourth in the 100m and fifth in the 200m.

Wikipedia doesn’t mention that Gary also won the 1978 New Zealand Sportsman of the Year Halberg Award or that he has been equally successful as a coach. His list of New Zealand champions and representatives is incredible. Here are the ones I can remember – Toni Jeffs, Michelle Burke, Mark Haumona, Jon Winter, Gareth Keane, Tash Hind, Samantha Lee, Samantha Lucie-Smith, Clair Benson and Emma Robinson.

But instead of using Gary, what have Swimming New Zealand done in recent years? Well when Mark Regan was forced out of the Head Coach’s job SNZ brought in Bill Sweetenham as coaching cover. Only SNZ knows the cost of that exercise – but it would have been huge. I hate to think what Sweetenham’s fee, his travel and accommodation in a good Auckland hotel cost. Gary could have done a better job at a fraction of the cost.

Then Lyles, an English foreigner from China, was employed. That didn’t work out. SNZ argued before the Employment Authority that the Head Coach’s job was going to change and Lyles didn’t have the skills needed for the new position. The Employment Authority agreed. I think the whole thing was a SNZ ploy to get rid of David Lyles. For a year after Lyles had gone Clive Power did what looked like the same job, but did it, in my view, better. Instead of going overseas to find another foreigner, if SNZ had employed someone like Gary, supported on the SNZ Board by Clive Power, all the heart ache would have been avoided – and New Zealand’s best swimmers would have had a better coach. But of even greater importance, swimmers like Boyle and Stanley could have stayed in New Zealand.

But Swimming New Zealand is a very slow learner. When Clive Power called it a day after the Rio Olympic Games SNZ went off around the world looking for another foreigner and, this time identified an American age group coach as just the person needed to lead swimming to international fame. Only SNZ could reach the conclusion that the American had a superior resume to Gary. The American only survived a year and was gone. In that time he made two decisions that, in my opinion, highlighted his shortcomings. He programed a high altitude camp in his home state of Arizona three months before the World Championships. Every international coach knows that timing a high altitude camp three months before a major competition will only cause harm. And the American changed the 2018 Open Championships to three months after the Commonwealth Games, in the middle of the New Zealand winter. The whole saga would be funny if it wasn’t so serious and expensive.

And, after the American disappeared back to Arizona to coach another club side, SNZ decided it didn’t need to scour the world for a foreign coach any longer and left the national training squad, including Bradlee Ashby, in the hands of the squad’s coaching intern. The incompetence of these events, right from the time Regan left, is stunning. The only decision that made sense was to bring Clive Power in for the year prior to the Rio Olympic Games.

But why on earth, instead of Lyles or Power or the American or the intern, SNZ didn’t do the obvious and appoint Gary when Regan left I will never understand. It has to be either because they were scared of his superior knowledge or so obsessed by anything foreign they were unable to see the obvious. In the meantime a hugely important New Zealand coaching resource is being wasted. Sadly instead of being used in New Zealand Gary is off helping the Americans leave us even further behind. You have to give it to the Americans – they know about swimming. That’s why they call on Gary Hurring and we don’t.

The Good Old Days

April 17th, 2018

I was sitting outside the Millennium Pool this morning waiting to time Eyad for a main set of 10×200 swim and 1×400 kick. The complex was packed with swimmers. It was the first day of the 2018 NZ Age Group Championships. One of the lifeguards told me that 800 swimmers have entered the meet. I can believe it. The place was like a zoo; anxious parents running about finding water to “hydrate” their children, coaches unsure how to work their three expensive Seiko stopwatches.

The first morning of this meet has always been the same. Hundreds of enthusiastic young swimmers certain this was their first step towards making the next Commonwealth Games team in Birmingham, England. As the five days go by I’ve noticed the mood darkens, the activity becomes less frenetic as the reality of disqualifications and modest results begins to bite. The reality is that of the 40 swimmers entering an event, 10 make the final, 3 get a medal and 1 wins. Potentially every event has 39 disappointed parents who can’t wait to get back to the motel to sooth their nerves with an over generous gin and tonic.

But none of that mattered this morning. Today was all about a happy mix of excitement and anticipation. As I sat enjoying the atmosphere I was aware of a young woman walking up to me.

“Hello David,” she said, “Do you remember me?”

I had to admit that I had no idea of her identity. “Do you remember Michelle Burke?” she said.

“Oh my God, you aren’t?” I said.

Let me tell you about Michelle Burke. When I was appointed CEO of the Boys and Girls Institute Club in Wellington, later to become the Capital Club, Michelle Burke was their best swimmer. She was the national 100, 200 and 400 freestyle champion. However, I felt that if she was to progress, to become a truly international competitor, I needed to get her better coaching. I went to Auckland and approached Auckland coaches, Lincoln Hurring and Ross Anderson. Did they have any ideas of a coach who could help me in Wellington? Both suggested the same name.

Lincoln’s son Gary had just completed four years swimming at the University of Hawaii. He had won the Commonwealth Games, been second in the World Championships, won the Sportsman of the Year, Halberg Award, and placed fourth in the Olympic Games. Even better he had just arrived back in New Zealand and was looking for a job.

Gary and I discussed the Wellington position for half an hour. A deal was done and Gary was on his way to Wellington. Right from the beginning he was a brilliant asset. Every swimmer in the team benefited from his warm personality and international experience. But especially Michelle Burke thrived and prospered.

From our club Michelle and Toni Jeffs were selected to swim in the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. Michelle had a huge program swimming the individual 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 butterfly and the 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relays. Her teams placed fourth in the 4×100 and won a bronze medal in the 4×200 relay.

I remember two things about that time. First of all Michelle was a genuinely nice person. Modest and happy she was a lovely person to be around. She was the best middle distance freestyle swimmer in the country but you would never have thought it. Good people can win. Gary Hurring and Michelle were the perfect coach and swimmer match. And second, her kick was outstanding. I’ve never seen a swimmer kick the way Michelle could through a 200 and 400 freestyle. It was worth going to training just to watch her kick sets.

But what was she doing in Auckland? Well, unbelievably she has two daughters of her own now. Even more unbelievable the oldest is 13 years old and is swimming in the Age Group Championships. Brooke is a good 1.04 100 freestyle swimmer. I asked Michelle about her daughter’s swimming and straight away the wisdom of her class was apparent.

“I’m only letting her swim one event most days,” she said. Compare that to the Michael Phelps Beijing programs followed by dozens of swimmers at this meet. Michelle was working at avoiding her daughter adding to swimming’s 90% drop-out rate.

“Where are you staying in Auckland?” I asked.

“I’m staying with Megan Luff,” she said.

There was another name from the old days. Megan swam for the Waterhole Club. She represented New Zealand at the Auckland 1990 Commonwealth Games in the 50 freestyle and 4×100 freestyle relay. And so 50% of that relay team were sharing a week in Auckland. What a reunion.

It was great to catch up with Michelle again. She was an important part of a fantastic period in New Zealand swimming; a period that included names like Simcic, Jeffs, Langrell, Mosse, Kingsman and Sanders. But more important she is as nice, as modest and kind as she was almost thirty years ago. It is hugely pleasing to know that good things have happened to good people.