A Bone To Pick

February 20th, 2017

Wow, I have clearly been away from New Zealand for too long. Sitting here in the Red Sea port of Jeddah I have lost contact with the comings and goings of swimming in New Zealand. As recent Swimwatch posts will show I have been making an effort to catch up. My plan is to turn up at the New Zealand National Championships in April with one of my better Saudi swimmers. Actually Eyad is not from Saudi Arabia. He’s a Syrian whose family escaped the bombed out destruction of Aleppo. He is a sprinter and will swim in the 50 and 100 freestyle and butterfly events.

But in the course of trolling through various New Zealand swimming sites I came across some information that made my blood boil. You see I have some knowledge of what it’s like to prepare for an Olympic Games and have things not go to plan. Of course I have no knowledge of the deep hurt felt by a swimmer. Their hurt is personal and private; a hurt only known to them and for them to bear.

However in 1992 I was the coach of Toni Jeffs at the Barcelona Olympic Games. After winning a bronze medal in what was then the world short course championship Toni was a favourite to make a final in the Barcelona Games. She ended up 27th in the 50 freestyle. And it was not her fault. I badly misjudged the speed work portion of her training. I pushed way too hard. Nothing was ever good enough. If Toni swam a 45 second trial I demanded 42. If she did 20×100 I increased it to 40×100. This was the Olympic Games – time to go further and faster, much further and much faster. And Toni to her credit delivered.

But, by the time we arrived in Barcelona Toni was desperately unwell. My training had been way over the top. One evening in a café on the Barcelona waterfront we were having dinner and she just fell off her chair, passed out on the floor. She was run down to the point of exhaustion. Looking back on it, she did a remarkable job of swimming the length of the Barcelona Pool.

The result hurt me, because I knew it was my fault. But the result hurts the athlete far more. It is their result. The victories and the losses belong to the athlete. And for that they deserve our respect and our assurance that we will refrain from invading their joy or their sorrow. And do you want to know who taught me that? A guy called Arthur Lydiard.

A week later Toni and I were in a nearly empty Koro Lounge at Auckland Airport, waiting for a flight to Wellington. A family group was sitting not far away. The husband walked over to our table and asked, “Are you David Wright and Toni Jeffs?”

I said, “Yes, hello.”

He said, “Well I just want you to know that our family got up at 1.00 in the morning to watch you swim and you let us down.”

There was nothing I could say to diminish the swimmer’s hurt. What he said was not fair. It was not right. It was ignorant of the facts and oblivious to the pain.

I was reminded of that story when I came across a paragraph written by Lauren Boyle on the news page of her website. This is what it says:       

NOVEMBER 2016 – Radio Sport NZ enquired about having a chat, but can wait until hell freezes over for anything from me. Straight after my races at Rio de Janeiro Radio Sport aired an unjustified character attack on me by an ex Swimming New Zealand official. No apology or retraction was forthcoming. What Mr Bone would know about my illness, fightback, or for that matter anything much around elite competition, I could write on a small piece of rice paper. Age group swimming; maybe! However on a positive note I should record my appreciation for the public support I received in response to this. http://mobile.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.php?c_id=4&objectid=11692660

Of course I then clicked on the New Zealand Herald link to see what Mr. Bone had said. And here is a summarized version of what I found.

12 August, 2016   

Former national swim coach Mark Bone has launched a stinging attack on New Zealand swim star Lauren Boyle, saying she had conceded defeat before she even got to Rio de Janeiro. Boyle’s preparation has been blighted by injury and illness, but Bone said the best swimmers push through those sorts of issues.

“I got the impression going in that that she has already thrown it away. You’ve just got to close your mouth and get on with the job and see what comes out of it,” Bone told Radio Sport’s Kent Johns. “You can pull some excuses after the event. I don’t like to see excuses coming out before the event. You’ve got to get out there and lay it on the line.

“Psychologically, she had given up before the event had even started.

“They overcome adversity and they do it in spite of [illness]… You have to look at the campaign that she’s had. Swimming New Zealand has given her everything that she’s wanted – the opportunity to train offshore, all the resources. I’m disappointed with the fact she swum, I guess, as badly as she has done.

“Is it good enough for Lauren Boyle? Absolutely not.”

The comments of Mark Bone did not surprise. On several occasions I have been the subject of Bone vitriol. I have heard him publically pull apart swimmers coached by me and, I suspect, principally only because they were coached by me. It has long been my opinion that he is an unsuitable person to comment on swimming matters during television broadcasts. And I have that view, not because he does not know the sport. But because he has opinions like those reported in the New Zealand Herald. You see I’ve come across Mark Bone types before. Indeed I met one once in the Koru Lounge at Auckland Airport.   


Our Performance And Success Will Inspire Greater Participation

February 15th, 2017

Because Swimwatch is publishing stories again I have started receiving messages from New Zealand telling me all sorts of interesting swimming chatter. Many of them I cannot write about. Swimwatch is a hobby, recording personal views about a subject dear to me. Writing about every email would be a full time job. However I am aware of a document that I’m told is the new Swimming Wellington “Strategic Plan”. This certainly is worthy of comment.  

But before I discuss this document why are plans these days always “strategic”? Is a “strategic” plan different from a “non-strategic” plan? I don’t know. I suspect it’s normally a case of an author who wants the plan to sound more important. The dictionary tells me the definition of “strategic” is the “identification of long-term aims and the means of achieving them.” That sounds pretty much like the definition of “plan” as well. Perhaps “strategic plan” just means “planning plan”.

But back to the Wellington “Strategic Plan”. My first thought was to wonder who wrote this masterpiece. My guess is it was Mark Berge. And it is a real guess. I could be wrong. It is just that many of the phrases used and the direction being promoted sound like the Mark Berge that I knew before leaving New Zealand. But if I’m wrong and Mr Berge is not the principal author I apologize. Please email me and I will publish a retraction.

Most of this document, like many papers of this sort, is pretty obvious. After all who could argue with wanting a “vibrant and successful sport”? Who would not want to develop “great swimming skills” or “exciting competitions”? And certainly the “strategic plan” to “grow participation” is in serious need of attention. The number of competitive swimmers registered in Wellington has declined in each of the past three years from 814 to 804 and to 783 in 2016. Clearly there is work to be done in Wellington. Participation numbers suggest the sport has not been vibrant, great or exciting.  

But the aspect of the Wellington “Strategic Plan” that I do want to focus on is the pathway it promotes for swimming success. And it is the overt promotion of the Swimming New Zealand corporate line that primarily leads me to believe that Berge has been the principal author. If you want to keep in good with the big boys promote what they promote. But, hey, I might be wrong.

Anyway the plan says:

Swimming success depends on “quality development pathways for our swimmers, coaches, officials, administrators and clubs.”

And the way to do this, we are told is:

“Enhanced club capability ie strong, sustainable and well managed clubs” and

“Coaches growing and developing their skills against a defined pathway”

And one of the actions required is to:

“Support the High Performance Centre interaction with clubs.”

I do hope regular Swimwatch readers can identify the real contradiction, the paradox and blind stupidity of that plan – even if it is strategic. I defy anyone, even someone as gifted as Mark Berge, to explain to me how coaches and clubs become stronger and provide a better pathway for Wellington swimmers when any swimmer who shows promise is bundled into an airplane and sent to the Millennium Institute in Auckland.

That sort of plan is a betrayal of the sport in Wellington.

The author of the plan does not understand that the High Performance Centre has gutted the ability of New Zealand coaches and regions to develop high performance swimmers. For twenty years clubs have been told to do exactly what this plan says – “support the High Performance Centre interaction with clubs.” What that has meant is that provincial clubs and coaches have taken second place; are considered not as good as the super star coaches, clubs and swimmers at the Millennium Institute.

The author of Wellington’s Strategic Plan cannot have his cake and eat it too. He cannot say that Wellington wants the best and most successful clubs and coaches and at the same time promote the idea that the region’s best swimmers should bugger off to better clubs and better coaches in Auckland. And how can the Wellington “All Stars” team be known as a regional team “in much the same way as the Hurricanes and the Pulse”? If the author really wanted what is best for Wellington swimmers this plan should read “Do not support the High Performance Centre interaction with clubs.”

It should promote a policy of gifted swimmers staying with the Wellington coaches and clubs who nurtured their talent. The plan should promote Wellington clubs and coaches for everything from learn to swim to Olympic Gold medals. One of Wellington’s strongest periods was when Gary Hurring did his own thing exclusively in Wellington. I would have thought that the lessons of Loader and Lange in Dunedin, Snell and Lydiard in New Lynn, Simsic and Naylor in Christchurch would have been enough proof for the author of any “Strategic Plan” to avoid the centralised High Performance Centre.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider this. The USA experimented with a High Performance Centre in Colorado. They dropped the idea when swimmers like Michael Phelps chose to stay with their home coach in the programs that had nurtured their early talent. The best swimmers in the USA were not seduced by the offer of free tuition, a foreign coach and a fancy swimming pool in the Colorado mountains.

And even in New Zealand, why on God’s good earth would anyone write a regional plan promoting the idea of herding Wellington’s best swimmers toward the Millennium Institute when New Zealand’s best swimmer, Lauren Boyle, couldn’t wait to get out of the place? Either Lauren Boyle was wrong or the author of the Wellington’s Strategic plan is leading you towards competitive failure. If it was my career, or the career of anyone I could advise, I’d pay close attention to Lauren’s example. Avoid this strategic plan like the plague. It is not worth the paper it’s written on.  







Follow The Money

February 14th, 2017

“Follow the money” is a line made famous in the movie, “All the President’s Men”. The movie tells the story of the corruption of Watergate and the Nixon presidency. “Follow the Money” is the advice given by an informant helping the Washington Post journalists investigating Nixon. No one would compare Swimming New Zealand to the excesses of Watergate. However the advice to follow the money may be no less pertinent.

I should point out that I am writing this from a hotel room in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and am therefore somewhat detached from the events that produced these accounts.  

However, with that qualification, here is a summary of what the SNZ’s 2016 financial accounts tell us about the financial health of the organisation.

Income – Grants and Donations

Income from grants and donations is down by $K374 from $K2,850 to $K2,476. That is bad and has been caused by a $K500 reduction in Government funding from $2.2 million down to $1.7 million.

The government’s reduction has been offset to some extent by an increase in other grants, up by $K122, from $K651 to $K773. This income is mainly charity type donations, so someone at SNZ has been burning the midnight oil filling out grant application forms. My take on what has happened is that SNZ has responded to loosing Miskimmin’s money by doubling their efforts to obtain money from other charities. And in this SNZ has been partially successful. But it is a strategy that has risks. Private charities tend to spread their support and therefore are an unreliable source of long term income.

Now that Miskimmin has reduced his 2017 funding by another $K600 SNZ are going to have to double their efforts again with private charities this year. But beware!    

Income – From the Business

Income from grants and donations is all well and good but the real measure of the health of an organisation is what it earns from its normal business activities. And in this area the SNZ 2016 accounts have good news and bad news. Membership fees are down by $K4 (1%) from $K293 to $K289.  I suspect the drop in membership income is because the number of competitive swimmers paying fees has gone down from 5909 in 2015 to 5605 in 2016 (5%) – and that is very bad. It means the business is contracting.

Income from other fees however has gone up: primarily because SNZ has charged fewer swimmers and their families much higher fees. Meet entry fees have risen by $K47 (16%), program fees are up by $K15 (8%) and merchandise sales have increased by $K14 (100%). Not good at all is the huge increase SNZ has charged in user pays contributions, up by $K220 (116%). It is an accolade to be chosen to represent New Zealand but if your sport is swimming you are going to have to pay and pay and pay for the honour.

The net effect of the reduced swimming membership combined with the much higher fees is that the income from the core business has increased by $K328 (33%) from $K1,004 to $K1,332.

But that good news on income is offset by the fact that the business has shrunk. SNZ’s response has been to charge those involved a whole lot more. Growing the business membership plus some modest increase in fees is a healthier means of improving income.       

Expenses –

It looks like expenses have been controlled well in 2016. It was an Olympic year when cost tend to be higher but SNZ managed to hold overall expenses at $K3,873, only $K128 (3%) higher than 2015. Hidden within that good result there are several questions that should be answered by the Board.

  1. The cost of running the high performance centre, excluding the cost of the Rio Olympic team, was still a huge $K1,024. A million dollars for what? Every year SNZ spend a million dollars on some American, Australian or Englishman coaching a pampered few in the Millennium Pool; and for no result. Or certainly no result that could not have been the same or better by leaving swimmers with the coach who nurtured their talent in the first place. And SNZ would have been a million dollars a year better off. Over 20 years that’s $20 million in the bank. No need for any user pays with $20 million to spend. SNZ has spent $20 million for what result? Absolutely zero.
  2. Legal expenses went up by $K23 from $K10 to $K33. This is explained in the notes to the accounts as being the cost of fighting and losing Kane Radford’s Olympic selection appeal. Why on earth did SNZ chose that fight? It was a dumb and costly decision.
  3. Motor lease costs have come down by $K6 per year, but are still a huge $K30. No wonder Mazda are listed as a principle sponsor. The core activity of the business is supposed to be swimming, not leasing fancy motor cars.
  4. It appears that the Award Function cost SNZ $K24. That’s a lot of money for an embarrassingly “try-hard” occasion.
  5. It is a shame that some of SNZ’s positive spending on items such as the PEGS / PM Scholarship Expenses and the Rewards Incentive Scheme has been savagely cut from a combined $K234 to $K132 (44%). Savings should come from unnecessary costs like motor cars, legal bills and failed high performance spending before client incentives are cut to ribbons.
  6. However, overall SNZ appear to have kept their costs well controlled – except, of course, for the elephant in the room. Why on earth spend a million dollars a year on a high performance coaching program that has never worked?          

Profit and Loss

When an organisation is subsidised by the government to the extent of SNZ the concept of profit and loss does not mean a lot. However for the record SNZ in 2016 made a loss of $K64 compared to a profit of $K110 in 2015. In an Olympic year that’s a good result.

The worth of the business is also pretty meaningless. Swimming is worth what Miskimmin decides he wants it to be worth. In 2016 equity fell from from $K425 to $K361. Five more years of those losses and the business will be broke; suggesting it might be time to restructure. A million dollars of wasted Millennium coaching spending might be a good place to start.  


Cross Your Palm

February 11th, 2017

In 1964 New Zealand athletics was enjoying the best of days. At the Tokyo Olympic Games Peter Snell had won two gold medals, John Davies and Marise Chamberlain had each won a bronze medal, Valerie Sloper had placed fourth in the discus and Bill Ballie was sixth in the 5000 meters. I knew the coach behind much of that success. Arthur Lydiard and I frequently sat in his Beachland’s home discussing the principles of preparing world class athletes. And in one of those conversations Arthur told me the following story.

When the New Zealand Tokyo Olympic team arrived home Arthur felt it would be good for New Zealanders to see their best runners in action. He invited several Tokyo finalists to Auckland and on the 17 November 1964 an international track meet took place at Western Springs Stadium. The response from the Auckland public was remarkable. To this day the attendance at that track meet is the largest crowd ever recorded for the Stadium. Arthur said just getting to Western Springs was chaos. There were cars and people everywhere. Parking was impossible. It was so difficult that by the time Arthur made it to the gate the meet was about to start. And then there was an unexpected problem. The official on the gate would not let Arthur in without a ticket or payment.

Arthur explained that he was the meet promoter, most of the runners were coached by him and he was seriously late. The official was unmoved. No one gets into this meet without paying. So Arthur paid. Two hours later one of Arthur’s runners, Peter Snell, set a world record for the one mile.  

Some years later I was coaching swimmers in Florida. The Fort Lauderdale International is a major annual event. As I joined the queue waiting to get into the meet two celebrated faces were ahead of me. About to enter the gate was a swimmer I knew well, Rhi Jeffrey. She is an Athens Olympic Gold medalist. An honor she earned as part of the USA team that won the 4×200 relay. Just behind her in the queue was Gary Hall Jr the 2000 and 2004 Olympic 50 freestyle champion. I knew that Rhi had been invited to the meet to present medals. I assumed Gary Hall Jr was there for the same reason. When Rhi reached the ticket booth the lady in the booth demanded payment. Rhi explained that because she was an Olympic gold medalist she had been invited to present medals. But this gate keeper was not about to accept that excuse and continued to demand payment. Rhi was easily up to the challenge and asked to speak to the meet organizer. The lady agreed and sent someone to find the boss. While Rhi waited Gary Hall Jr reached the gate. He told Rhi he had seen her problem and to avoid the ticket sentry was just going to pay. A few minutes and $5 lighter he was allowed through the gate. Ten minutes later the boss arrived, paid Rhi’s $5 and she was through Check Point Charlie as well. Wow I thought, three Olympic Gold Medals and working at the meet and still that wasn’t excuse enough to avoid paying.

And so, you may be asking what is the point of all this. Well the stories came to mind when I read that New Zealand coaches were about to be charged $60 to attend the National Championships. Even by Western Springs and Fort Lauderdale standards that seemed like a lot of money. I see that someone else must have had the same thought. The charge has been reduced to $20. Now I know there will be many who object to even $20 and I understand why. The natural inclination of every New Zealander is that volunteers and coaches should be admitted for free. Hospitals, armies, schools and swim meets are paid for by the state.

However as I have argued in Swimwatch before I support Swimming New Zealand becoming more user pays. But my support is offered on the condition that we see a concerted effort by the organization to wean itself off state subsidies. If my $20 helps swimming get rid of Miskimmin then it is a payment well worth making. Why? Because a financially independent organization will serve New Zealand’s swimmers better than the state welfare beneficiary we have now. If I feel that my $20 is contributing to the formation of a lean, independent organization responsive to the needs of New Zealand swimmers then it is money well spent. But if I am paying $20 to fund the bloated lifestyle that became the norm at SNZ then any amount is too much.

And so the message to SNZ should be – you are welcome to my $20. I am happy to pay to enter the National Championships. But you are on notice. You are no longer living on the largess of the state. You are now spending money paid to you by your members. Spend it wisely. Manage an efficient, lean and responsive business and you will earn our generous support.   

PS – Frequently small symbols can make a big difference. If we are all expected to pay $20 to work at the National Championships we need the urgent confirmation of SNZ that Donna, Peter, Shannon, Amy, Gary, Keegan, Scott, Jerry, Kent, Amanda and Mathew are putting their hand in their pockets. Oh and $20 should also be paid by Bruce, Geoff, Margaret, Nick, Anna and Simon. What’s good for the goose, they say, is good for the gander. Just ask Arthur, Rhi and Gary.

PPS – for anyone who does not recognize the names listed they are the staff and Board of SNZ who will, or should be, at the National Championships in April.


Christian Renford Has Gone

February 8th, 2017

Two features of Christian Renford’s time as the CEO of Swimming New Zealand caused me concern. First the attack he launched on the quality of New Zealand coaches within a week of arriving here. Second his criticism of me without having ever met me and the uncomfortable feeling I had that he was looking after his personal interests first rather than the welfare of the sport – that he might, in other words, be a bit of a chancer.

His attack on the standard of New Zealand coaches within a week of arriving in the country was a cheap shot. It confirmed the administrator driven nature of swimming in New Zealand. The best swimming nations, the USA for example, are coach driven. Renford’s early attack was all the evidence we needed that, while he was in charge, the culture of the sport in New Zealand was not going to change. And it still hasn’t. And that’s a shame. The experience of swimming nations around the world is clear and beyond contest. Coach driven sports are successful. Administrator led sports fail.

I’ve coached in the UK, the USA, the Virgin Islands, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia. The UK and USA are coach driven and succeed. The Virgin Islands, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia are administrator driven and are swimming barren lands. In administrator led regimes the prevailing view is that coaches are “too big for their boots” and need to be “kept in line”. I’ve had senior officials in all the administrator led countries tell me, with some pride, their low opinion of the country’s coaches and how good they are at keeping coaches in their place. Sadly and in every case those administrators have got the results their foolishness deserves. In coach led countries the views, contribution and importance of coaches are respected and given paramount weight. These regimes always yield the highest success. Renford never understood that truth and as a result he failed to reform the sport and failed to achieve the competitive results that were possible.

It is off the subject of this post but I feel the New Zealand Swim Coaches and Teachers Association must shoulder some of the guilt for the poor status of New Zealand coaches. The organization has been too nice. It has not demanded attention with sufficient force. And to that extent the Association has let New Zealand swimmers down. The guys running NZSCAT are genuinely nice guys – polite, friendly and concerned. Men like Neville Sutton, Clive Power, Graham Price and Gary Hurring are intelligent, good coaches who have forgotten more about swimming than Renford and his like have ever known. But they have not aggressively demanded the right to be heard – and they should have.  

And as far as Renford not meeting me is concerned, it is interesting that within a week of starting coaching in Florida I was contacted by USA Swimming and a meeting was arranged to discuss my coaching philosophy and plans. In New Zealand I coached for five years at the country’s leading pool and was never contacted by Swimming New Zealand to discuss anything. I did not meet Renford until West Auckland Aquatics was falling apart. And when I did meet him, I will forever remember the look of surprise and concern on the face of Chairman Bruce Cotterill when he realized Renford and me were meeting for the first time. Clearly he, like me, thought good management demanded better than that. But appearances seemed to be pretty important to Renford and even I understand that talking to David Wright is not the best way of keeping in with the “cool” group.


Having said all that negative stuff my opinion of Christian Renford changed during the period West Auckland Aquatics was dying. He met me on my own in the SNZ offices and in spite of the pretty horrible things I had said in Swimwatch about his management of the business he listened carefully to my views on the problems at West Auckland Aquatics (WAQ). Later he met with the four remaining members of the WAQ Board and offered us a generous proposal aimed at saving the Club. In return for the four of us resigning from the WAQ Board for five years SNZ would assume a form of statutory management of the club. Their management would stay in place for about six months until such time as a new Board could be elected.

Renford’s proposal was generous beyond anything required of a sport’s governing body. Two of us accepted his offer. Unbelievably Susan Turner and Bridget Maher turned him down. The fate of WAQ was sealed. A week or so later Renford terminated WAQ’s registration. Through all this, and in spite of our differences, he communicated with me openly and with compassion. Every couple of days I would get a phone call updating me with what SNZ were doing and asking me about how I was getting on. I could not have been treated better. When the chips were down Christian Renford delivered and you can’t ask for more than that.

Obviously I don’t know the new CEO, Scott Newman. Meeting him is a bit more difficult than the fifteen minute drive it took to meet Renford. I do hope though that when the opportunity arises it does not take three years to discover that the CEO is a good guy. The time it took to meet Christian Renford was wrong and just plain dumb. Perhaps we have both learned from that mistake.