Cut Rhi Some Slack

June 19th, 2018

I’ve written about this subject before. You can find the post by clicking on this link.

I could well be in trouble with Rhi for coming back to have a second crack at the issue. But I think it is worth running the risk anyway. You see, on Rhi’s Facebook page this morning, I read the following comment.

As the fight for our pool space ramps up, we will be sending in letters to the paper and more city people. If you really want to help out the Cannonball Swim club, a letter of recommendation or really anything about why us being kicked out is ridiculous, would help! Please send them to my DM or ANYTHING HELPS! The more support we can show for these kids the easier it will be for us to try and reverse this decision. Thank you everyone!

I suspect it’s time to be brutally honest with whoever the authority is that decides on the allocation of the Cannonball Club’s pool space. I coached Rhi for three or four years. You get to know a person pretty well in that time. You live with them through some pretty remarkable highs and some equally extreme lows. You see them physically pushed close to breaking point. You share their journey.

So let me tell you about Rhi – the good, the bad and the ugly. Let me explain why you should cut her some slack. Let me put the case for Rhi and her Cannonball Swimming Club. First let’s consider the tough bits. No one would say that Rhi was the easiest person in the world to coach. She is bright, opinionated, knows everything there is to know about the subject, speaks her mind without fear or favor and has no time for fools.

From time to time that can make her a real handful to manage. But is that unusual? Of course not. Rhi is no different from many of the others who have stood on top of the world in their chosen sport. To get there they had to expect the highest standards of themselves and those around them. That’s what you get when you get Rhi around a swimming pool. You get an uncompromising professional who knows what quality tuition looks like and insists on that standard.

The question in dealing with Rhi is not her standards. They are of the highest order. The question is – is your supervision up to managing the jewel in your midst?

But is that unusual. Not in the world’s best, it’s not. Mark Schubert, Arthur Lydiard and Don Talbot were not known for their “warm-cozies” around a swimming pool. I’ve heard all three referred to as difficult by the less able. But you would struggle to find better or more successful coaches; coaches with great determination and huge hearts for their athletes; coaches who knew when to be tough and when to back off and show care for a struggling swimmer.

And of course that’s the point, isn’t it? Good coaches intuitively know when to push for more and better results and when to gently nurse a wounded swimmer through a bad patch. Rhi understands that difference.

So I would suggest those responsible for allocating pool space revisit any decision that adversely affects the Cannonball team. As you can well imagine I am really very picky when it comes to swim coaches. My daughter, Jane, was a very good swimmer and ended up representing New Zealand and swimming in the NCAA Division One Championships finals. All through her club swimming I was her coach. In my mind no one else would take the correct care of my daughter. But I’d have happily let Jane be coached by Rhi. In Rhi’s hands she would make sensible swimming progress and she would be safe. But what are the qualities that would have lead me to that decision?

Well first Rhi knows the product. She is an Olympic Gold Medalist after all. But she is an Olympic Gold Medalist with brains. She not only knows what to do; she knows and can explain why it needs to be done in a certain way.

Second she knows the meaning of hard work. Believe me there are many lazy coaches in this world. Rhi is not one of those.

Three, as I have already said she is tough but fair; hard but gentle; serious but funny. She brings with her a finely tuned sense of balance.

Four, she is honest. Her financial responsibilities will be met. You will always get the truth from Rhi even if you don’t want to hear it.

Five, she is fun to be around. With Rhi as their boss young swimmers in your town will enjoy their time involved in swimming. And more than that, they will benefit as people for their time in her care.

Six, she is a leader.

And so I would recommend allocating Rhi the pool space she needs. You might not have the easiest coach in the world to manage but you do have one of the best. Use her well.

Why We Should Care

June 18th, 2018

I imagine there are some who believe I have already written too much about the horrors of the Francis’ high performance plan. “Give it a rest,” I hear them say, “Gary’s a nice guy. He’s trying his best.” But the chances of me leaving this alone are nil. There is too much at stake. In this post I want to address why Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) cannot be allowed to wander off on their elitist path. Let’s discuss why it is important for you to attend their future meetings.

Let’s look at how the pathetic response of the Wellington meeting sabotaged the careers of every swimmer in the district. The audience at that meeting did not have the best interest of the region’s swimmers at heart. Or if they did, they had a strange way of showing it. Let’s also consider whether Dave Crampton’s rush to curry favour with Steve Johns after the meeting had the best interests of swimming at heart. Or were the audience and Crampton, in particular, going through the same servile genuflexion that has allowed SNZ to rule unchecked for a decade. Let’s consider how future meetings can be made more relevant and more important to swimming.

Eight years ago, on Sunday, September 26th 2010, I wrote the following Swimwatch post.

Swimwatch contributors have never liked the power building practiced by Swimming New Zealand. To no avail, we have spoken out against the central control that is now a key feature of New Zealand’s elite swimming program. New Zealand performed better when Loader was in Dunedin, Simcic and Langrell were in Christchurch, Jeffs was in Wellington and Kingsman and Moss were in Auckland. What Swimming New Zealand needed to do was strengthen the structures that produced those swimmers; local structures that were owned and managed by good local coaches and administrators. Instead they built an empire. And since then New Zealand has been unable to win an Olympic medal of any sort. The centralized model has failed. That should not surprise anyone. Long term success in sport is best driven from the bottom up. SNZ should be strengthening diverse local structures, not creating their own personal Soviet empire.

Almost always the accumulation of power by a central organization is a sign of weak management. Swimming New Zealand is an example. Weak management strengthens itself. Strong management strengthens the surrounding community. Swimming New Zealand has not learned that particular “modern management practice”. While they do, it should not be at the expense of the good people who bought and paid for this sport in New Zealand.

What this said, eight years ago, was that the policy of a central training centre would not work. Eight years ago SNZ were told. Eight years ago SNZ did not listen. Eight years ago parents at meetings were as accepting as the Wellington audience. Eight years ago sycophants like Crampton rushed to pay homage. And for eight years two generations of New Zealand’s best swimmers failed to fulfil their potential – New Zealand swimming’s lost generations.

And now Gary Francis is proposing that we repeat the disaster. Because it is a repetition. Oh, they are calling it “new” and “refreshed” and a “move away from a centralized to a targeted program”, but it is not. It is a Francis and Johns’ con. If you believe this is new I have a London bridge I’d like you to buy.

Their centralised program was targeted. That’s the same. Their central national training centre is staying. That’s the same. With the exception of the forced transportation to Auckland and times invented by a mate of Francis rather than FINA nothing has changed. And when nothing changes there is no reason to believe the results will be any different.

What that means is accepting the Francis’ plan will mean continuing the decline that has characterised the sport in the past eight years. The table below shows the decline in key performance factors between 2011 and 2017. The second table then predicts what the sport will look like after eight years of the Francis plan.

Item 2011 2017 Change
Competitive Swimmers 6161 5,660 Down By 8.1%
Coaches 543 246 Down By 54.7%
Total Membership 25,467 19,118 Down By 24.9%
Clubs 180 165 Down By 8.3%
Government Funding 1,962,838 1,413,148 Down By 28.0%
Membership Fees 288,712 286,777 Down By 0.7%
Total Funding 4,158,493 3,546,861 Down By 14.7%
Olympic Medals 0 0 No Change

And after eight years.

Item 2017 2025 Prediction Change
Competitive Swimmers 5,660 5000 Down By 11%
Coaches 246 200 Down By 18%
Total Membership 19,118 17,000 Down By 11%
Clubs 165 160 Down By 3%
Government Funding 1,413,148 600,000 Down By 57%
Membership Fees 286,777 285,000 No Change
Total Funding 3,546,861 3,000,000 Down By 15%
Olympic Medals 0 0 No Change

So what does all this mean for the sport? Here are the key outcomes likely to arise from eight years of Francis’ plan rule.

  1. Membership numbers will decline by a further 11% to 5000. Young people these days simply will not accept the elitist, exclusion it involves. They will go to activities that offer a more democratic chance to shine. Steve Johns and Gary Francis complain about the advantages of new sports. But with decisions like these they are the architects of their own demise. They are the ones keeping the sport “traditional”.
  2. International Olympic results will remain at zero. There is nothing in the Francis plan that offers a path out of the wilderness. The world of swimming is changing at a hundred miles an hour and this lot simply do not have what it takes to keep up.
  3. Government funding will further decline to $600,000. Peter Miskimmin does not take to failure well. He has a long history of punishing sports that fail to perform. Swimming can expect the failure of the Francis’ plan to get a rough reception in Wellington.
  4. But the biggest change for you and me is that Cotterill, Johns and Francis are going to be forced into a massive increase in the income generated by members – they call it user pays. Membership fees, meet entry fees and international team fees can be expected to double in this period. SNZ staff members are not going to reduce their bloated lifestyles. With the collapse of government funding and falling membership they will have no option but to charge you and me more for everything – so that’s what they will do. The table below shows what I expect Francis and Johns will need to charge members by the year 2025 to preserve the organisation’s income.
Item $ 2018 $ 2025 Prediction
Swimmer Affiliation 60 200
Club Affiliation 175 500
Coach Affiliation 25.50 100
Opens Entries 22.50 100
Open Spectator 7.50 25

Swimwatch is on its knees begging. Eight years ago we predicted the current perilous state. In another eight years of this Francis’ nonsense we will be in an even worse position. For the sake of swimmers needing your help, please, please, please don’t let it happen.

So What Should Francis Have Done?

June 17th, 2018

Two previous posts have discussed the missed opportunity to change the sport of swimming. Instead of a revolution Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) delivered more of the same old, same old. Instead of Vladimir Lenin we got Mary Francis Poppins. It is fine for me to be critical but legitimate criticism requires the critic to put forward an alternative; to say this is what was wrong and this is what should have been done instead. This post will attempt to address the question of what Gary Francis didn’t do but should have done.

Several years ago SNZ had a brilliant motto. It said, “Excellence in every pool”. I can already hear the laughter from Antares Place. “You can’t have excellence in every pool,” I hear them say. “Of course you have to be selective. Of course you have to be targeted,” they chortle away to themselves. And their belief in the policy of exclusion led SNZ to the formation of the famous Francis Points Table – invented by a Francis’ university friend at a cost of how much to Swimming New Zealand? I’d love to find out.

But of course, a policy of inclusion is needed, not a policy of exclusion as is common to both the old SNZ Centralised Training program and the new Francis Plan. “Excellence in every pool” is both possible and essential to the success of SNZ. Let’s deal with those two words separately – possible and essential.

It is possible because the business of SNZ is not all that big. Especially after the most recent eight years, the business is, at best, a medium size corporation. The table below shows a comparison of the size of SNZ with the size of some well-known New Zealand corporations.

Corporation Name Clubs/Branches Coaches/Managers Members/Employees
SNZ 165 246 5,660
Progressive Ent. 244 300 Est 18,000
Air New Zealand 51 na 10,527
Spark 1.6m customers na 5,562
McDonald’s 167 180 Est 10,000
BNZ 180 200 Est 5,000
Barefoot & Thompson 66 na 2,200
Fonterra 10,500 Farms na 21,400
Fisher & Paykel 7 na 3,300
Alliance 9 na 5,000

So what are we to make of those figures? As you can see SNZ is a lot smaller than the supermarket owner, Progressive Enterprises. Smaller that Air New Zealand, McDonald’s, Fonterra and about the same employee base as Spark, BNZ and the Alliance meat company. It seems to me to be pretty obvious that if McDonald’s, the BNZ and Progressive can expect the same standard of service from all their outlets SNZ should be able to do the same. I’m sure the Countdown Store on Waiheke Island is expected to deliver the same customer service as their Remuera Branch. If they can do it why can’t SNZ? I’m certain the bank teller in BNZ Wairoa is as well trained and customer friendly as the one in BNZ North Shore. If the BNZ can do it why can’t SNZ? I had a Big Mac in Huntly a week ago and it was just as good, just as promptly delivered as in Queen Street, Auckland or in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia or even the leisurely US Virgin Islands. If McDonald’s can deliver their best around the world SNZ should be able to do the same thing in New Zealand. “Excellence in every pool” is possible. Dozens of organizations are doing it, or its equivalent, in businesses throughout the country every day. They don’t need some mathematical genius to calculate a table of which branch should perform well and which should be left to waste away. Only Gary Francis would do that. But then McDonald’s, BNZ and Progressive are well managed. The same cannot be said for SNZ.

Therein lies the rub. “Excellence in every pool” is possible but it requires good management. What Francis wants is the easy and lazy option – identify early talent and to hell with the “flowers, born to blush unseen”. Late developers may be hard work but are often the most rewarding. Remember the US study that found that all but four of the US Olympic swim team were late developers. The Francis’ tables would, most likely, have missed most of that team.

And so while dozens of New Zealand companies implement principles of “Excellence in every pool” everyday it is a strategy probably beyond SNZ. Fault for that lies in the inadequacy of Franicis, Johns and Cotterill. However, having established that “Excellence in every pool” is possible, why is it important? Why is it a hundred times more important than the Francis’ elitist policy of exclusion?

Well the first very practical reason is the vast number of New Zealand’s best athletes who come from small towns. Lydiard believed that the reason was because of their healthier, tougher lifestyle. Whatever the reason, the facts do seem to support the small-town theory. There is Jack Lovelock from Reefton, Peter Snell from Opunake, Murray Halberg from Eketahuna,  Toni Jeffs from Whakatane, Moss Burmester from Hastings, Lisa Carrington from Ohope Beach and Peter Burling from Tauranga. Representatives from small town New Zealand are simply not common in swimming. I hate to imagine the waste of talent that has occurred by the SNZ neglect of small towns. When was the last time anyone from Antares Place paid any attention to what was happening in the pool at Wairoa or Taumaranui or Waiouru. The problem with the Francis Plan is that the ridiculously academic points table is going to do nothing to capture the talent that abounds in rural New Zealand.

And finally the hard work required to ensure every New Zealander is offered the chance to excel is good in its own right. New Zealanders born outside the boundaries of the Capital or United Clubs are no less deserving of the chance to shine. SNZ has a duty to the least of these – not just the Wholefood’s Coffee Shop set. The arrogance of the SNZ Francis plan is nauseating in the extreme and it is bound to fail. “Excellence in every pool” is the future. Francis needs to wake up and then catch up.

On Further Reflection

June 15th, 2018

Yesterday’s post described my immediate reaction to the Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) Wellington high performance meeting. I have now had time to consider what was said in more detail. And, if anything, the Francis’ plan gets worse by the minute. I guess there are many who would assume that would be my reaction and will dismiss it with a shrug and a, “What else would you expect?” It is therefore important to explain clearly why the plan is so bad. This post will attempt to provide that clarification.

The Francis’ plan is replacing the SNZ Centralised Training Centre policy. For eighteen years the policy of centralised training has been promoted by SNZ and HPSNZ as the key to international swimming success. Shows what they know. Lack of success has finally forced them into the realisation that the policy was flawed and to come up with something new – hence the Francis plan. It is off the point but the fact it took SNZ and HPSNZ eighteen years to realise the obvious flaws in centralised training is a criminal disgrace. Two generations of young committed swimmers’ lives were lost on an altar of their bigoted stupidity. And no one paid for their vandalism.

And now we have SNZ’s idea of a “new way”; a replacement for the centralised model. We have the Francis’ plan. I never write in capital letters but let me be very clear on this point.


It will fail for many of the reasons the old policy failed. The inherent problems of the old policy remain and are on full display in the new Francis’ version. For example, in the old policy, swimmers were selected on the basis of speed and shipped off to Auckland for a swimming life of privilege. In the Francis’ plan swimmers are still going to be selected on the basis of speed. The only difference is their deportation to Auckland has been dropped. Now Francis plans to provide their life of privilege at their home program. The poison of arrogance is about to spread to every club in the country. At least in the old plan self-importance was contained in Antares Place. Now your club can be infected too. But you may be lucky. Francis may decide your local coach is no good, in which case, he told the meeting, he would recommend a flight to Australia or presumably to the, dishonestly retained, Millennium squad.

It is as though the brains trust in Antares Place decided that the old policy’s forced deportation was its singular weakness. Fix that and all would be well. Of course because the diagnosis was flawed the cure is equally faulty. I will attempt to highlight the faults.

The principle of selection on the basis of speed is defective. It damages those who miss out on selection and it damages those who make the selection times. The members of one group see themselves as failures and go off to surf or play water polo. Those who make the cut begin to see their life of privilege as a right and adopt a fatal arrogance. In other words the primary faults of the old policy remain unaddressed in the new.

I have mentioned before the inclusive team character of the swimmers and runners coached by Lydiard, Jelley and Schubert. John Walker, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon happily went running with me. There is not a lot of class selection there. That democracy was important. It boosted my ego no end and it kept the champions grounded. SNZ will have no idea what I’m talking about, but the concept of inclusion is important – especially in New Zealand. The exclusion inherent in the old centralised plan and in the new Francis’ plan is fatal.

I doubt there is a parent anywhere who wants their offspring to feel failures or to be subject to the insufferable arrogance of privilege. Both are wrong; both are unnecessary. Therefore my recommendation is that if Gary Francis comes knocking, tell him politely, no thank you and ask him to leave. There are many better ways than the Francis’ plan – ways that do not involve the risks of the Francis’ plan.

A fundamental problem in the old centralised plan was that it weakened the coaching and club infrastructure throughout New Zealand. As the message went out from SNZ that the best coaching was only available in the pool at Antares Place the effect on the rest of the country was catastrophic. Treated like second class citizens New Zealand coaches began to act the same way. At least the new Francis’ plan does not have a trip to Auckland as its first option. Now swimmers can stay in their home programs unless Gary Francis suspects the coach is not up to the job in which case Francis told us he would exercise the option of a trip to Australia or Auckland.

Lydiard or Jelley would never act that way. They were educators in the true sense of that word. They instructed and tutored trainee coaches and athletes. They deliberately strengthened the coaching infrastructure and competitive performance. How do I know? Because I was a direct beneficiary of the educational care offered by both men. They didn’t say to Alison or Toni that they should get another coach in Australia. No, they guided and directed me on how to be a better coach.

But a better example is the four times Olympic Gold Medallist, Lasse Viren. He lived and trained in the small Finnish town of Myrskyla, population 1992. That’s about half the size of a New Zealand town like Waipukurau. When Lydiard took over as the Finland national coach he didn’t recommend Viren shift to the big city but worked with his coach, Rolf Haikkola. Together they put together a program that won the 5,000 and 10,000 at two Olympic Games. The clear intent behind the Francis’ plan is to dismiss small town programs in favour of North Shore or Australia. And the result will further weaken swimming in New Zealand.

Francis showed his true colours when he proudly told us the story of recently sending a New Zealand swimmer to train in Australia and approving the plan to continue wasting money on the Centralised National Swim Program. My advice is – don’t trust him. Your swimmer could be next on his list of Australian swimming refugees.

The function and purpose of a SNZ elite program should be to strengthen swimming throughout the country; to create an environment where success is just as possible from Greymouth and Taumaranui as it is from United or Capital. Sadly that is not the way the new Francis’ plan is going to work. The arrogant “we know best” that killed eighteen years of the centralised policy is just as alive and well in the new Francis’ version. If this is the best SNZ have in mind – stay well away.

Words! Words! Words!

June 14th, 2018

Thank you Swimming Wellington for posting a YouTube recording of the Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) high performance meeting. I have just finished watching the 90 minute film. There is a lot to take in. Initial impressions are not always best. However here is my first-off gut reaction.    

First, the 90 minutes seemed long on words and short of specifics. And in the words of the My Fair Lady song, “I’m so sick of words. Tell me no dreams. If you’re on fire, show me!” The problem highlighted by critics of the Trump deal with North Korea is the lack of specifics. When is the rogue state going to dismantle their bombs? How are they going to dismantle their nukes? Who is going to check that it has been done?

The same waffle was evident in Wellington. Lots of fine sounding aims and goals; lots of let’s all pull together; but no specifics of who, where and how. After five months I would have thought we deserved more meat on the bones that we got.

So what did we learn? Well the Francis’ approach is flawed at birth. That we know for sure and certain. He has based his future on a fanatical and amazing set of statistics. Some University boffin has provided Francis with what he believes are New Zealand time standards that mathematically measure a swimmer’s chances of success. FINA points have gone, welcome Francis points. But the error in all that is simple and obvious. People are not numbers. They mature at different ages. The Francis plan is going to miss late developers such as Toni Jeffs. There is no way Toni would have met any of the Francis points plan. Her bronze medals at World Short Course, Pan Pacific Games and two Commonwealth Games appear however to confirm her class. Alex Popov only learned to swim at eight and only began competing in freestyle when he was 18. The Francis plan would have missed Popov’s four Olympic Gold Medals. Peter Snell couldn’t win his school 800 meters. Francis’ tables of times would not target New Zealand’s best runner. A handful of countries have tried the Francis statistical approach and it has never worked.

The criticism Francis used to dismiss using FINA points was that points are theoretical but medals at the Games are specific and real. It beats me how the Francis points table is any less theoretical or any more practical than FINA. People are still people. Oh and one other thing, in all my years of close co-operation with world renowned coaches like Lydiard, Jelley and Schubert I have never once heard them select athletes of the basis of speed. You would never hear Jelley say, “You are too slow. Go away and run a four minute mile and then I will coach you.” They just don’t do it. That’s part of what makes Jelley great and is why Francis and SNZ will fail. I would never turn away a swimmer because of their speed. Do that and you are doomed to miss the next Jeffs, Popov and Snell. I certainly would not be coaching Eyad if speed was the measure. At 19 he could barely break a minute for 100m freestyle. He’s faster than that now and Auckland champion.

My third impression of the meeting was the obsession with money; Miskimmin’s money. Johns and Francis clearly admitted that their plans require the approval of HPSNZ. Without that approval there would be no money. So now we know. Miskimmin and the new guy, Scott, have the ultimate control of my swimmer’s career. For thirty pieces of silver SNZ have bought Johns and Francis body and soul. If anything was an incentive to stay well away from the Francis’ plan, the thought that Miskimmin and Scott have direct influence in its birth is more than enough.

A few years ago the CEO of Auckland Swimming, Brian Palmer, asked Arch Jelley how he would spend $1.3million on preparing athletes. Arch thought for a while and said, “$1.3 million. That’s a huge amount of money.” To hear this lot at the meeting, it was not nearly enough. Rowing got more. So did cycling. Poor us, we are being screwed.

My next impression refers more to the audience than Johns and Francis. If this audience is representative of swimming supporters in general we are in trouble. The negative tone of the questions was stunning. The only thing worse was the enthusiasm with which Johns and Francis stoked the disgruntled fires. One lady clearly thought any swimmer training overseas should be abandoned. That would have seen the end of Lauren Boyle, Gary Hurring, Anthony Mosse and Paul Kingsman. Another guy seemed to suggest that New Zealand coaches weren’t up to the job. Sadly, Gary Francis agreed with him. He told a story of recently recommending a swimmer move to Australia because his New Zealand coach did not have the skills to take him further. That story is bloody disgraceful. I know what Lydiard would have told the same swimmer. He would have said, “Go back to your home program and I will work with your coach to make you and him the best in the world.” And I guess, right there, is why Lydiard was middle distance coach of the millennium and Francis never will be.

I was disappointed that no one used the question time to ask why, with all this “evidence based approach”, was SNZ holding on to the Millennium training group. If clubs are one of the pillars of the future why is SNZ holding on to the policy of the past – especially when the evidence points to 20 years of failure.

And finally when the meeting ended the clip seemed to show Dave Crampton, editor of the Facebook NZSwim page, sprint forward to accost Steve Johns. If it was Crampton I got the distinct impression that Johns was not best pleased. The body language was negative to say the least. It was the best part of the meeting as Johns with All Black center skill evaded Crampton and fled to the far side of the room.