MARK OF A FOOL

July 6th, 2022

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that sports journalism in New Zealand is in a sad and sorry state. When an intellectually challenged scribe can earn the title of “senior sports columnist”, the discipline has a problem.

Take Stuff’s Mark Reason for example. He has written a column today that begins with this paragraph.

“There are times when one thinks that it might be a very good idea to assemble all the sports coaches in the world on the deck of a big ocean liner and then abandon them in the vast depths of the Pacific.”   

Now, tell me, what is the point of that? It is not funny. It is not enlightening. It contributes nothing to the progress of sport or mankind. But it is stupid. Reason struggles on, trying to make the point that the All Blacks would play better if they coached themselves. If his point is that this one team is “over-coached”, Reason may well have a point. But that is a criticism of one particular coach of one particular team.

And how he connects his opinion of Brendon McCullum with the idea that all coaches should be swimming around in the Pacific Ocean, I have no idea. Remember the story Reason wrote two months ago about McCullum. His appointment was a terrible decision by English cricket. McCullum was a short form specialist. Nothing could save England with McCullum as the coach. Three tests against New Zealand and one against India and England, under McCullum, have yet to lose a game.

And with a run rate of more that 4 per over, it would be hard to make the argument that England would have done as well with McCullum swimming around the Pacific. As I say, Reason’s opinions are stupid.

Try and convince John Walker he would have run faster with Arch Jelley practicing breaststroke off the Samoan coast. Try and convince Murray Halberg that Lydiard was unnecessary. Or Danyon Loader that Duncan Laing should go away. Or Anne Audain that John Davies ruined her running. No, the coach/athlete team is invaluable and does not deserve to be degraded by an airhead with a pen.

And so, before I leave for the pool, to ruin another swimmer’s career let me reinforce the role of the coach. This is a quote from a guy who can write about sport, Roger Robinson. In fact, I owe Robinson an apology for comparing the two. Robinson’s ability is a gift. He entertains. He informs. Qualities Reason will never achieve. This is what Reason’s post could have said. It is not difficult to pick the difference.

“To define the coach’s role, I should like to be dryly academic for a moment and define the word itself. Kotcz is a small place in Hungary, between Raab and Buda, which gave its name back in the fourteenth century to a special kind of vehicle, a “kotczi-wagon” or “kotczi-car”, used for passengers on the rugged local roads. The term passed across to England after a hundred years or so, and by 1556 was anglicised as “coach”. “Come, my coach,” calls Ophelia in Hamlet, and she was a lady who could certainly have used help with her swimming. In fact, the word began to take on the modern meaning of an instructor only in nineteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge universities, where by 1849 to “coach” a pupil meant to “prepare in special subjects”, to carry the student along, as it were, like a coach and horses, to the destination. Soon, sporting “coaches” appeared, first of all in rowing, the social leader of Victorian sports. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “…coaching from Mr Price’s steamboat”.  Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) keeps the sense of conveying passengers when he describes Mr Crisparkle, Minor Canon of the Cathedral and previously a private tutor in Latin and Greek, as lately “Coach upon the chief Pagan high roads.”

So a coach is someone with whom you travel, who is a means of conveying the student or athlete along a rough road to a difficult destination. There is a moral in the dry dust of the dictionary. If we think of coaching as a means of travel, we may perceive more clearly both the importance and the limits of the coach’s role. The coach has indispensable functions: to instruct, to motivate and to inculcate strategy, especially that    long-term strategy which no young competitor can know by instinct. The coach should also observe clearly defined limits: not to intrude into the ultimate aloneness of the competitor nor to diminish the essentially individual satisfaction of sporting achievement. The coach’s achievement and satisfaction are equally real, equally valid, but different. The means of travel is not the traveller. I am made uneasy by coaches who speak of “we”, as if athlete and coach were a composite being.”

See how that text lifts and inspires. We are better for Robinson’s insight, his choice of words and his knowledge. He even mentions Ophelia’s swimming problems in Hamlet – a more uplifting comparison than walking Reason’s plank off a cruise liner in mid-Pacific. I commit nothing to heart written by Reason. But this Robinson sentence will forever be my coaching guide.

“So a coach is someone with whom you travel, who is a means of conveying the student or athlete along a rough road to a difficult destination.”

LISTENER – BUT DOES IT LISTEN

July 4th, 2022

The Listener magazine is a regular addition to our weekly shopping cart. It is a good read – just enough substance to set it apart from the vacuous Woman’s Weekly or New Idea. But not so serious that it fits into a shelf alongside the British Medical Journal or The Economist. In fact, three members of our family have appeared in the Listener. I received the best advice from any New Zealand journalist when Joseph Romanos wrote the Listener’s sport page. I appreciated his knowledge and honesty. He was not always kind, but very often, as things turned out, absolutely right. My daughter Jane and wife Alison have had several letters published in the Listener. In fact, I believe they are yet to submit a letter and have it rejected.

I do hope my admiration for the Listener is not about to change. You see, this week’s Listener has a “Profile” article called “Kerre, quite contrary”. It is three pages written by Michele Hewitson about Newstalk ZB morning host, Kerre Woodham.

The story has no place in the Listener. It is badly written about a bad subject. Surely the Listener has access to good writers who can write 1000 words about an interesting and inspiring subject. This rubbish might just make a Woman’s Weekly cut-off. On second thoughts the Listener masterpiece makes the Woman’s Weekly look like a candidate for the Noble Prize in Literature.  

Readers of the Listener are not interested in what Kerre thought when she was photographed in her togs with a turtle. Keere is described as a “huckery sheila from Hamilton”. That is probably true. Roget’s Thesaurus tells me “huckery” means disagreeable, unpleasant and objectionable.  So why devote three pages to the subject? Victoria Street (the main street in Hamilton for those geographically challenged about New Zealand) had told us all we needed to know. And as for the portrait of Woodham “blissfully happy now,” sitting alone with her “red feathered lampshade” and “deep green velvet” chairs. Wow that’s important. I bet every reader of the Listener couldn’t wait to read that stunning news.

No Woman’s Weekly story would be complete without a deep and detailed description of a relationship breakup. And Woodham doesn’t disappoint. “Her celebrity was a problem in their relationship”. I bet it was. Coming home to read this stuff about togs and turtles would break the best of us.

I had to laugh at her in-depth political commentary. She says, “I thought Jacinda Ardern was a very pleasant young woman with no detail”.  Wow, the “huckery sheila from Hamilton” thinks Jacinda has no detail. Look in the mirror, Kerre – that’s what no detail looks like.

And then the Listener bombshell. The former general manager of Newstalk ZB defending an accusation that the station was too right-wing, “retorted that you couldn’t say Keere Woodham was right wing”. What? He can’t be listening to the same station I have on when I leave swimming training most mornings. Woodham is right up there with Hosking, Franco of Spain and du Plessis-Allan – as far right as the eye can see. She has the politics but lacks the brains to sell it as well as the other three.

Anyway if you have nothing to do, avoid the mistake I made of reading the article. You will end up, still with nothing to do, but needing a shower to wash-off that feeling of having wasted 15 minutes that you will never get back. The “huckery sheila from Hamilton” and author Michele Hewitson are not worth the effort. Finally, on the subject of Hewitson, I see she is a contributor to the Muck Rack website. She sure has scored big this time.

IN THE END A NEW BEGINNING

July 3rd, 2022

Swimwatch has followed Eyad’s progress through the Mare Nostrum tour and the FINA World Championships. Eyad arrived back in New Zealand on Thursday night. It seems appropriate to conclude with a blog that reviews his performance and suggests lessons for the future.

Foreign travel quickly reveals true character. The response of athletes to overseas tours fall into one of three categories.

Some see the opportunity as an excuse to party, party, party. I remember talking to a well-known New Zealand runner about an American athlete we knew. I commented how sad it was that the American was running so badly. My New Zealand friend snorted and replied, “Perhaps if he spent a night sleeping in his own bed, he would run better.” Temptations to eat, drink and misbehave are huge on big sporting trips.

I have also seen athletes overcome by the experience. A few years ago, I took a team to the New South Wales Championships. A promising swimmer walked into the Homebush Olympic Pool and burst into tears. “I can’t swim here,” she said. The size of the pool, the flags, the lights, the spectator seating and the live music were all too much. No amount of explaining that the pool was the same size as the one she swam in every day in New Zealand would calm her fears. She swam terribly and couldn’t wait to get home. Another swimmer I took to Mare Nostrum had the same problem. She left the team after the first event in Barcelona to fly home to the United States.

And the third category respond positively to the whole experience. This is the life of a professional athlete. What a great opportunity. And they get on with their job in a professional, low key and balanced manner. I’ve watched a number of fine athletes on tour. Walker, Quax, Dixon, Loader, my wife Alison, my daughter Jane and Olympic gold medalist Rhi. All of them followed the rules of this third category. This was their job. This is what they were on tour to do. At a meet in West Berlin, I remember Alison telling me how much better it was running with 40,000 people watching. That is the sign of a professional.

This trip has confirmed Eyad as a category three member. I have been delighted with his calm professionalism. He may not be the fastest swimmer yet, but he has certainly demonstrated the personal qualities that could take him there.

The table below sets out the result of Eyad’s races.

EVENT PB TIME PB
Monaco 50 free 23.85 24.38 No
Monaco 50 fly 25.89 26.27 No
Monaco 100 fly 1.00.48 59.79 Yes
Barcelona 50 free 23.85 24.01 No
Barcelona 50 fly 25.89 25.95 No
Canet 50 free 23.85 24.31 No
Canet 50 fly 25.89 25.84 Yes
Budapest 50 fly 25.84 25.27 Yes
Budapest 100 fly 59.79 59.78 Yes
Budapest 50 Fr TT 23.85 23.77 Yes

Ten races in six weeks. Five PBs for a 50% ratio. By any standards that is a successful outcome. In the best tradition of athletes who have left New Zealand to take on the world, Eyad is tough, he is professional and he will deliver his very best.

And so, what have we learned? Has the trip taught us anything that can progress Eyad’s swimming to world class?

With thanks to three sources, we have been provided with information that shines a light into Eyad’s swimming future.

First there is the knowledge Eyad has gained through contact with swimming legends such as Ranomi Kromowidjojo and Anthony Ervin. Even sitting in the wait room with swimmers like Caleb Dressel is a maturing experience. But I must thank coaches like Andy McMillan, Graham Smith, Michelle Gillies and Gary Francis for their knowledge and assistance in getting Eyad through this six weeks. Swimming in New Zealand is in good hands with people like these in control.  

Second, the knowledge we gained through watching Eyad compete at this level is invaluable. Where is he competitive? Where is there ground to make up? It was all there on full display.

And third, the analysis of each race provided by High Performance Sport New Zealand’s Elliot Snedden. The statistical confirmation that what we were seeing in Eyad’s races was confirmed is worth its weight in gold.

So, what is there to work on? Here is how I described it to Eyad in a recent newsletter.

“TECHNIQUE – better underwater at the start, improved and longer kick, less swimming.

POWER – more power in the middle section to hold 8% more of your dive speed. Lift heavier weights in the gym.

AEROBIC FITNESS – hold your 35m speed through to the finish. More swims around the swimming Waitakeres. Ah, the joys of those 10k sessions.”

No report on Eyad’s trip would be complete without mentioning that the day Eyad arrived back in New Zealand he tested positive for Covid. How’s that for good timing. And so, our start to the new program is going to have to wait a couple of weeks while Eyad gets through and over all that.

Thank you again to all those who have helped Eyad through his first international swimming trip. Swimming New Zealand, FINA, the IOC and the NZOC have all played a part in making this journey possible. Thank you. It has been invaluable.   

SERIOUSLY FOLK

July 2nd, 2022

In about twelve months New Zealanders are going to have to decide who to vote for in the General Election. I’ve decided to go with Jacinda. Let me explain why.

The Negative

Beware of the right. I know many will say what happens in the United States has no bearing on how the right wing of New Zealand politics will behave. Don’t believe that for a minute. Remember this.

  • Previous leader of the National Party, Todd Muller, was determined to display a Donald Trump hat in pride of place in his Beehive office. The National Party wanted a Trump clone to be their leader.
  • The current leader of the National Party, Chris Luxon, has joined the mob waving supporter’s flags and cheering on ultra-right American politician, Ted Cruz. Luxon learned his political views at a Ted Cruz rally. The National Party has chosen an admitted American right-wing sycophant as its leader.  
  • There are 33 National Party MPs in parliament. 17 (52%) of those are bigots who voted against New Zealand’s liberal abortion laws. They called the legislation worse than the Holocaust and tantamount to murder. They welcomed the American Supreme Court decision to ban abortions. They called it “a great day”.
  •  Listen to National Party supporters, Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis-Allan. Their views are hand in glove with their vile American twins, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Every day they tear at the fabric of civil New Zealand society. The National Party love them for it. The rest of us tremble at our fate.

The Positive and Negative

  • The National Party refers to the Labour Party’s vision for New Zealand as the “Nanny State” – a country where the government provide services from “the cradle to the grave”.
  • The National Party prefers a more capitalist vision where each person is expected to provide for themselves. They say the incentive of money makes us all more efficient. It provides a cutting competitive edge.  
  • And that vision is why, in the United States, the Supreme Court can strip central government of the right to protect abortion rights, can do away with central government’s power to control green-house gasses and can make national health care illegal. For the National Party these decisions are for individuals to decide – nothing to do with governments.
  • If you like that choice the National Party is for you.
  • However, if you prefer a more caring society, where the ringing of cash machines does not dominate every hospital visit. Where the average cost paid by a mother to her hospital for having a baby is $10,808. If you like a transport network that does not charge a toll every 20 kilometers. If you enjoy free tuition in the first year at university. If you appreciate help towards paying for winter electricity. If you benefit from Universal Superannuation, or ACC, or a dozen other social benefits. Then the Nanny State should get your vote.
  • The National Party can scream, “Nanny State” as long as it likes. But as for me, I call it caring for those who live here. And there is nothing wrong with that.     

The Positive

  • The leader of the Labour Party, Jacinda Ardern, is positive, progressive and non-judgmental Prime Minister.
  • The Deputy Leader, Grant Robertson, is equally positive, progressive and non-judgmental. Together they form a team trying to build the socialist, egalitarian society we like to call home. Sure, our wages might be a little lower than in Australia. Our house prices might be higher. Some items in Countdown may even cost a bit more. But with Jacinda and Grant we are in this boat together, working to improve.
  • In their current five years in power, the Labour Party has dramatically reformed health, foreign trade with free trade deals signed with Australia, the UK and the EU, foreign speculation in the housing market, a comprehensive Families Package, first year fees-free education, and ended new offshore oil and gas exploration. Legislation on education, unemployment, social insurance and tenant protection has also been passed.
  • New Zealand may not have the wealth of central New York or Monte Carlo, but we are in the process of becoming more of a socialist, egalitarian and comfortable society.

For those like Hosking and du Plessis-Allan and members of the National Party who want a different, divided, them and us racist New Zealand – go to the US, go to Australia. Find what you are looking for there. In the meantime, do not tear apart our social experiment. We do not want the black hole chaos of disappearing women’s rights, racial intolerance, electoral dishonesty and capitalist health that are the inevitable products of your Party’s vision.

There is no place for you here. Do not destroy what we are about. New Zealand has many imperfections. But it is our home, just the way we want it. If you don’t like it here, go find the evil you want somewhere else.

HERE I AM, DOWN IN THE GUTTER AGAIN

June 30th, 2022

I have just read this:.

“Eventually Swimming NZ staffers will wake up and ask why Wellingtonians, who have a decent long course pool in the region, have no decent long course times and why so many qualifying times for new NAGs swimmers in the region are short course conversions.”

I have no idea of the author’s name, occupation, or location. Possibly, it’s a lady called Mildred from Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island. I’m told she may swim a 1000m double lap of the Hokitika River every day.

The author goes on to blame declining numbers of young swimmers in Wellington on not enough racing, not enough long course records, not enough competition. Now normally I would not comment on opinions like that. However, Mildred’s call is so dangerous, something just has to be said.

If Swimming New Zealand paid any attention to Mildred’s advice this is what would happen. It is a long and heavily edited quote from my most recent book on swimming, “Shaping Successful Junior Swimmers”.

Most of us would accept that the leading example of a swimmer capable of swimming multiple events is Michael Phelps. In the Beijing Olympic Games, he entered and won eight events.

Eight events in a week is an incredible feat of application, training and commitment. By the time he swam in Beijing Phelps had been swimming at an Olympic level for eight years. He was an internationally hardened competitor. He was also a grown man, aged 23.

But, as it turns out, the Phelps’ Beijing schedule was an easy week compared to the race programme followed by many junior swimmers. For example, in two recent meets, Susan, the swimmer mentioned earlier in this book swam in ten races in two days and six races in one day. Her schedule makes Phelps look positively lazy.   

But in case you are thinking Susan might be an unrepresentative anomaly I looked at the 2017 New Zealand Age Group Championships and the 2017 New Zealand Junior Championships. I noted the number of races entered by every swimmer and made a record of the number of swimmers who entered and swam eight or more events. In other words, swimmers who matched or exceeded Michael Phelps Beijing schedule. The results were stunning and are recorded in the table below.

Each column shows the number of swimmers entered in between eight and sixteen events. 

8 Events Enter 9 Events Enter 10 Events Enter 11 Events Enter 12 Events Enter 13 Events Enter 14 Events Enter 15 Events Enter 16 Events Enter Total Events Enter
  New Zealand 2017 Age Group Championships
55 29 17 2 2 1 0 0 0 106
  New Zealand 2017 Age Group and Junior Championships Combined Total
226 154 111 54 24 4 1 1 0 575

So, what does this table say?

It tells us that at the combined Age Group Championships and the Junior Championships a total of 575 swimmers swam in programmes the same as or harder than Phelps’ Beijing programme. Two swimmers came within one event of doubling Phelp’s Beijing total.

This is a stunning number of young people flogged through an impossible number of events and facing an early exit from the sport. Phelps was a hardened international competitor. The 575 swimmers in this group are all at school: many of them at primary school.

It is ironic that at the same time as Mildred is acclaiming the deeds of swimmers competing in multiple events world tennis authorities have imposed a limit on the number of tournaments players under eighteen years of age can play in a year. Limiting the number of tournaments young tennis players can enter is credited with an 85% drop in premature retirements prior to age 22 and careers lasting 24% longer. Tennis players are 73% more likely to enjoy a 15 year career today compared to 1994.

Mildred actually sees merit in the news that a teenager has been flogged through a dozen races in two days. And as for the clubs that participate; that too is a scandal.

Scientists at the American Aquatic Research Centre agree. In one study they scanned the hand joints of every member of the American Olympic swimming team. Their purpose was to determine what portion of the swimmers had been early developers, on time and late developers. Of the forty athletes tested only two had matured early, five had matured on time and the majority were late developers.

The American scientists concluded that the probable explanation for the stunning failure of swimmers who develop early is the almost impossible burden of handling their early success, followed by the struggle to stay ahead of late developers who were such easy beats a few years earlier. Interpreting it all as a failure on their part the early superstars go off to the local surf patrol or to a water polo team.

Take Ashley Rupapera for example. In 2006/07 she was amazing; at 14 years old she claimed her second New Zealand national age group record with a 100IM time of 1:05.30. In the Junior Championships she entered 13 individual events, swam in 22 races and won four gold medals and two silver medals. That’s ten more races than Phelps in six fewer days. I don’t know what Ashley is doing today. However, sadly, it does not include elite New Zealand swimming.  

Age group championship meets are the scene of too much hurt. At the beginning of the week keen, enthusiastic, happy young people arrive full of anticipation, coached and honed to a competitive edge. Parents dash around the pool checking that their charge’s start list seed times have been properly entered and locating the town’s best source of pasta. Coaches patrol the pre-meet practice with all the intensity of an Olympic warm up.

By the end of the first morning’s heats, you can detect the mood beginning to change. The problem is thirty swimmers enter an event, eight make a final, three get medals and one wins. Potentially there are twenty-nine disappointed swimmers and fifty-eight disappointed parents who can’t wait to get back to the motel for their treble gin and tonic to ease the pain. It is disappointment born out of expectations set far too high.

As each day goes by the mood darkens and deepens. An adult’s most valuable skill is providing comfort to another sobbing teenager. The transformation is stunning. The tremendous high of the first morning slumps during the day; is momentarily revived at the beginning of day two, only to slump even further. By day four all I want to do is get out of the place and make sure no swimmer of mine ever goes back.

Several years ago there was a good article on the USA Junior Nationals in the magazine “Splash”. In it USA Swimming seems to be aware that their event needed to avoid the problems promoted by Mildred. This is what they said:

“Along the way, however, many coaches and others within USA Swimming saw a disturbing trend. Instead of a whistle stop on the way to senior national and international competition the Junior nationals were embedding themselves as a destination.”

 The Americans have done some good things to avoid damaging the nation’s youth. First, their junior event is not a normal age group meet. There are no separate annual age groups. Everyone up to a relatively old 18 years of age can swim in the event. This avoids youngsters being over exposed at too young an age. Second, the qualifying standards are really tough. They reflect the “older” cut off age. An athlete has to be pretty quick just to make the cut. Third, names included on the meet’s list of alumni suggest their “Juniors” are working as a transition between Sectional and International swimming. “Splash” tells me that Gary Hall, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps all swam here. That’s a pretty impressive list. It appears that winning is not essential either. For example, Phelps never won the event, but he seems to have come through unscathed.

In an earlier chapter we discussed the distances swum by Jane Copland Pavlovich through her career from junior to international competitor. In this chapter we have cautioned against entering swimmers in too many races and have recommended a limit, for senior swimmers, of 50 races in a season, 100 races a year. Junior swimmers should swim fewer races than these senior maximum numbers. The table below shows how many races Jane swam before she left New Zealand to attend Washington State University.

Season Age No. Races Races Per Annum
1 12 16  
2 12 16 32
3 13 26  
4 13 19 45
5 14 19  
6 14 68 87
7 15 55  
8 15 42 97
9 16 46  
10 16 36 82
11 17 45  
12 17 37 82
13 18 36  
14 18 32 68

You can see how we kept the racing load quite light when Jane was young; only 32 races in her first year. Great self-control is needed to keep the number down and avoid early career drop-out. Over seven years Jane averaged 70 races each year. As a comparison I entered Olympic Gold Medalist, Rhi Jeffrey, in an average of 58 races each year. Fifty second 100 meter swimmer, Joe Scuba swam an average of 40 races a year. Remember these three swimmers were world class, adult athletes. Now let’s compare their annual number of races with the race numbers swum by some junior swimmers. 

Emma is an example of a swimmer whose racing program illustrates the point. In her early career I entered Emma in about 30 races a year. She then left to swim in a Mildred program. The number of races immediately more than doubled to 70 and then doubled again to 137. For Emma’s swimming career it was to prove lethal. I imagine her parents could not understand why Emma’s career began to struggle. Three years later she gave the whole thing away.

Phase Year Age Time Time Discussion No. Races
Balanced Aerobic 2006 10 1:33 A period of aerobic training and steady but not spectacular improvement. Emma improved by an average of 7% per annum in the 100 and 4% in the 200. 10
2007 11 1:16 2.45 25
2008 12 1:11 2.35 27
2009 13 1:06 2.23 25
             
Exploitation 2010 14 1:03 2.14 Emma changed clubs and quickly dropped by about 5% per annum. 70
2011 15 1.01 2.10 137
             
Struggle and Drop-out 2012 16 1:02 2.12 For three years Emma struggled to improve. At the end of 2014 she dropped out 87
2013 17 1:00 2.10 70
2014 18 1:00 2.09 67

In the case of Emma, her training was reflected in her competition program. Competition hurts. When a person gets hurt often enough, they eventually go off to do something else. The rule of thumb for a senior swimmer is a maximum of 100 races a year and for junior swimmers a lot less. Stick to that rule. Your swimmer’s future probably depends on it.