Archive for August, 2007

Homework and Swimming

Friday, August 31st, 2007

I’ve just heard a heart warming story. Lydia, mother of Amy and Liz, has called to say she has been talking to Amy’s math teacher about the amount of homework. Evidently eleven year old Amy is expected to plough through ninety minutes of school homework every night. Lydia explained how difficult it was to program all that homework and swimming and dinner and still make sure Amy got a good night’s sleep. The teacher appears to have understood and has undertaken to reduce Amy’s homework load.

What an enlightened attitude; unfortunately scarce but fortunately not unique. I’ve never understood some school’s fanatical desire to extend the school day well into the night. Teachers who can’t educate the nation’s children between the hours of 8.00am and 3.00pm are pretty bloody poor teachers.

And two Penn State researchers, David P. Baker, Professor of Education and Sociology and Gerald K. LeTendre, Associate Professor of Education agree with me. They have published an interesting book (National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling) on the subject.


Their findings indicate a lack of positive correlation between the amount of homework assigned in a nation and the corresponding level of academic achievement. For example, many countries with the highest scoring students, such as Japan, the Czech Republic and Denmark, have teachers who give little homework. “At the other end of the spectrum, countries with very low average scores – Thailand, Greece, Iran – have teachers who assign a great deal of homework.”

“The United States is among the most homework-intensive countries in the world. American students appear to do as much homework as their peers overseas – if not more – but still only score around the international average. Undue focus on homework as a national quick-fix, may lead a country into wasted expenditures of time and energy.”

Unfortunately, the message does not seem to be getting through. Since I’ve been in the United States, at least twenty parents have come to me and explained that their son or daughter would not be able to swim for a month because their math or English or science grades were not what they expected. I’ve always said, “Oh that’s fine,” knowing full well that in a month the academic problem would still exist and they would have added a swimming one as well. They just do not appreciate that more time is not the solution. Better use of time is where the answer lies. In case anyone feels I’m picking unfairly on the United States, I’ve heard the same “time off swimming to study” argument plenty of times in New Zealand.

The by-product of this academic enthusiasm is the same as the by-product of swimming enthusiasm: burn out. The art of peaking at the right time requires just as much skill in the class room as it does in the swimming pool. Swimming has more than its fair share of coaches who push for peak results at High School without a thought for the long term consequences. Teachers too demand peak High School grades even if it means their charges have little application or enthusiasm left for university.

I’ve coached several international athletes during their Elementary and High School years. In all cases I’ve promoted the idea of reducing their academic load and application as much as possible. For eight years Jane Copland and Nichola Chellingworth attended one of New Zealand’s best and most academic private schools. The principal was a fine and somewhat awe-inspiring woman called Jennifer Button. She ran a tight and disciplined ship. No compromise of academic standards was entertained in her school. But do you know what, Miss Button, whose knowledge of sport was and probably still is zero, never once objected to Jane and Nichola taking a week off school to go to the National Championships or three weeks off to tour the European World Cup Meets. She may have known little about sport but she knew full well the meaning of excellence.

Before she came to the United States, Jane completed her High School education at Hastings Girls’ High School. Geraldine Travers was the principal there and Jane was lucky again. She was allowed time off school to practice and sleep and to travel New Zealand and the world swimming; late or non-existent homework was ignored. Many would consider it all an educational travesty. But did it work?

I guess so: both girls were national champions, both swam in the Pan Pacific Games and the like. Both graduated from university with good grades.

So when it’s late and there’s still Elementary School homework to do, or you want two weeks off school to go swim in a championship meet, my advice is forget the homework, go to bed and swim the meet. Your university career will only improve.

The Allowable Limit of Speculation

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

By David

There is a good item of gossip on the Race Club website. It’s called “What is an Allowable Limit” and is written by Gary Hall. In the article Hall makes the point that the testosterone level in the average male is 1:1. Until 2005 the IOC approved limit was anything under 6:1. Hall then asks several relevant questions, “Prior to 2005, what was there to stop a male athlete taking testosterone that kept his testosterone level up at a legal 5:1? And what would happen when in 2005 the legal limit was dropped to 4:1 and an athlete, who was previously a “legal” but artificial 5:1, got caught by the rule change? Could this very circumstance be what happened in the Ian Thorpe case?

Hall’s argument is certainly logical. All that he postulates could happen; probably has happened. Does it mean that Ian Thorpe did it? Certainly not: There are many logical events happening in this world that do not happen to everyone. Flying to the International Space Station is quite logical: that does not mean to say I’ve done it.

It would be equally logical for me to hypothesize that there are, in this world, men and women who are born with an advantage. They are bigger or stronger, have more testosterone, have less fat, are taller or shorter than the “normal” population. Thorpe, Armstrong, Ali and Spitz and maybe even Hall could all fall into one of those categories. They have a talent that could well be expressed as a raised and natural level of testosterone. My concern is that a talent that is as natural as the color of an athlete’s eyes becomes illegal. Especially when drug officials tighten and tighten the limits of what is legal. They have no right though, to legislate out the naturally talented.

Remember the disgusting case of Eva Klobukowska, the Polish track sprinter, who passed a qynaecological sex test inspection in 1965 but failed a sex chromosome test introduced the next year. Called the Buccal Smear test, it is based on a sample of cells from the inside of the cheek. Eva had one chromosome too many to be declared a woman for the purposes of competition and she was banned. A few years later, she gave birth. As a result of her case and others such as Maria Patino, the Spanish hurdles champion, ridiculous sex testing has been abolished.

Two of my athletes have been subjected to the Buccal Smear femininity test; Alison at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games and Toni at the Barcelona Olympic. In both cases they received their femininity certificates. In both cases, if there had been a problem, it would have been with the testing criteria, not the athletes. Fortunately, and not before time, Olympic authorities now take the same enlightened view.

In the case of men’s testosterone, my concern is that men do not become the new gender discriminated against, because of the natural level of their manliness. The authorities have tightened the limits from 6:1 to 4:1; a drop of 33%. A change of that amount means either the 6:1 was too high or the 4:1 is way too low.

Two other questions: where are over zealous drug officials going to go next, if normal is 1:1 why allow 4:1 and how prevalent are “natural” men with 4:1? And if you tell me no male has a natural 4:1, you are probably in the same group that believes women with an X and Y chromosome can’t have babies.

For about ten years I used to go to the annual New South Wales State and Australian National Championships. I watched the teenager Ian Thorpe win State Championships in spectacular times. His versatility and speed led me to tell one of Australia’s National Coaches, Peter Freney, that Thorpe was being so exploited; by 16 he’d be gone and forgotten. Not the world’s best prediction; by 16 Thorpe had won the 400m freestyle at the 1998 Perth World Championships in 3:46.29. As a completely irrelevant aside, Toni Jeffs from our Club swam the 50m and 100m freestyle in the same meet.

My point is that from 12 years of age Thorpe was a special case. If by some chance he has been tested over the new 4:1 testosterone limit, I would like to hear his submission before making the accusation of cheat. I would like to know what his normal testosterone levels were before rushing to judgment. I do not want to be included among the brain-dead who said Eva Klobukowska was a man.

Of all the people on this earth, I would have thought Gary Hall was one who would cut “Thorpie” some slack before penning his logical but precipitous hypothesis. Usually people like Hall who have been the subject of scurrilous rumors themselves are more discreet about pointing the finger at others. He may well be right about Thorpe, but he could just as well be as wrong as I was a decade or so ago. I hope Thorpe is as tough on Hall’s prediction as he was on mine.

High School Swimming Problems

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

By David

Here, in Florida, we’re about to start the High School swimming season. One hesitates to be critical of any aspect of swimming in the United States. The country’s record of international success suggests that most of what they do works. But some aspects of High School swimming sure are an enigma.

I can understand the educational appeal of providing sedentary teens with constructive physical activity. I can also appreciate the competitive value of the end of season State Finals. High School swimming does both and does them well.

The confusion lies in the effort to unite these two incompatible goals; to mix oil and water. Parochial coaches and local media are obsessed with promoting (as they see it) the primary educational good of High School swimming and the ethereal competitive importance of local high school championships. Add to that muddle the separate and powerful program promoted by USA Swimming and it is little wonder outsiders finds it all a bit puzzling.

Let’s have a look at some of the confusions, contradictions and downright dishonesty, the conflict between High School swimming and USA Swimming’s urbane vision for the sport, have caused.

For example, in ten months time USA Swimming will hold its Olympic Trials. High School age swimmers, good enough to swim in the Trials, would be best to spend the next ten weeks preparing for that meet. It may be the most important swimming event of their lives. Instead a potent union of school, peers, media and other pressures will be brought to bear. Competition between local High Schools, in pools probably too shallow to permit dive starts, will compromise the young athletes’ Trial’s preparation.

Besides the disruption to their training, the demands on a swimmers’ racing budgets are selfish and stunning. Coach Gennadi Touretski had a good rule-of-thumb that a well conditioned athlete should swim 100 races per annum. Certainly that’s about what Alexander Popov managed. Few High School swimmers are Alexander Popov. Most are going to risk burn out well before 100 races per annum. One of the best swimmers on our team has swum 53 races so far in 2007 and was clearly tired by the time he got to the Junior Nationals.

I bet the average, stand-in PE teacher, High School swim coach has no idea that their season of 11 weeks, involving 10 dual meets and four “Championship” meets could entail 60 races; that’s 60% of a swimmer’s annual budget. That leaves 40 races to conduct the athlete’s entire USA Swimming program, and that’s not enough.

I guess the options are to restrict the number of High School races or crash on, racing under-prepared athletes through 140 races per annum, hoping they are going to be among the few that survive. But that “Charge of the Light Brigade” and to hell with the casualties strategy is not something to promote or be proud of.

It’s not only swimmers and coaches that have problems around High School swimming. When I was at the Nationals in Indianapolis I met a coach from the west coast who told me a most remarkable tale. See what you think.

His team’s Parent Board elected a new President. My coaching friend thought it would be an ideal opportunity to ask if she and the Board would object to him coaching a local High School team in addition to his USA team duties. It was a good fit; after all the High School and the USA team swam at the same pool. The President was emphatic. Under no circumstances was that possible. In fact if the Coach went ahead with his suggestion, she would remove her daughter from the team. My friend backed off and did not contact the High School about their coaching vacancy. About four months later the new President, probably predictably, just up and left anyway. Unbelievably she moved to a pool where there was not only both a USA team and a High School team, but where the joint Coach placed a passionate emphasis on his High School program. There’s none as bloody strange as folk, is there?

I guess all I can do now is compromise my way through the next ten weeks and hope that the damaged caused to the best and brightest will not be too severe. If any of you have a better plan please let me know. You will have an avid listener.

Notes on the Nationals

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Well the Nationals are over. That means there are 321 days to the US Olympic Trials. We have two swimmers, Rhi and John, who have qualified to swim and I will be working as best I can to get a third on his way to Omaha, Nebraska.

So, what were the Nationals like? Bloody great, is the answer. The competition, the efficiency, the pool, everything was just as a Nationals should be. The meet was like an old overcoat, it felt warm, it felt comfortable, it was just right, a good fit. But it wasn’t only the swimming that stood out. In fact the swimming was pretty much as I expected. Of course Michael Phelps and company are fast. There is no surprise there. Sadly, those guys are so good, it’s only when they swim slowly that we are surprised and that’s not often.

Rather, I was surprised at the small, peripheral things. Take for example the “Athletes’ Lounge”. Here was an area set aside for athletes to sit, watch TV and relax. It was well stocked with food and drink. It was the equal, in every way, of the fine fare being enjoyed by coaches and officials at the other end of the pool. What a revolution, what progress, what a victory for swimming liberals; an “Athletes’ Lounge”. There is not another Championship in the World that athletes are afforded this hospitality. If there is, I’ve not been there. The message it sends, is that USA Swimming cares. Athletes are as important as coaches and officials. Compare that with the New Zealand custom of providing officials with boundless chardonnay hospitality while coaches and swimmers swelter on the pool deck. They say a nation gets the athletes it deserves. I guess that’s true in both countries.

The officials are very good. Being my first USA Nationals I had to ask some pretty basic questions. Where could I get the morning’s heat sheets; all that sort of thing. In every case, I was helped way beyond what was asked for or required. One well known official told me how good it was to see Rhi’s pink hair around the pool. Made him feel quite at home, he said. I know his comments made me feel quite at home too.

At other Nationals I’ve been spied on, abused and ignored. At one Mexico City Championship I tried to get my swimmer off a disqualification because the Disqualification Form had been filled out in Spanish and I couldn’t read it, and the date on the form was the previous year. The referee said I was a disgrace and was clearly the sort of person who would get rapists off on a technicality. He was a very angry official. In Indianapolis there was none of that. Incidentally, I have occasionally wondered what my Mexican official thought about the USA team getting Peirsol off a disqualification in the men’s 200 backstroke in Athens for very similar reasons. In Mexico that would have been enough to put Mark Schubert in my club of people well known for protecting rapists.

The other thing I liked about the officials in Indianapolis; they know how to run a swim meet. They start on time and keep the meet running on time. You can trust the time line, even the one prepared at 10.00 am for the 12.00 noon time trials. But probably the best example of what I’m trying to explain is illustrated by the Indianapolis referees and starters. In most meets these officials have a little space at the starting end of the pool that is defended jealously. Several German Shepard dogs would not be out of place in some meets I’ve attended. At Indianapolis the volume of traffic was such that, while each race was in the water, the referee’s and starter’s space was a pedestrian freeway. On a number of occasions I guiltily walked through it, trying desperately to avoid eye contact with anyone dressed in white. Several times I received a warm, “Good morning” from the officials whose space I was so brazenly invading. Whatever USA Swimming is doing to train their officials, don’t change. It’s not broke.

While it may not be about swimming, I was impressed with the town of Indianapolis. Downtown is historic, colorful and clean. There are horse and cart rides through the town center, massive monuments to the Civil War and a selection of pubs and restaurants to die for. Even the homeless seem to be doing all right. One guy sat on the same corner most days. On my first day I gave him some of my change. As I put the money in his tin I couldn’t help but notice that the cell phone he was talking into was one of those new $600 iphones and his very up-market music ipod probably cost about the same.

Being as Indiana was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew and I decided to visit the Civil War museum. That Civil War was a pretty deadly period of American history. The tents soldiers lived in weren’t up to much either. If the medical kits on display were anything to go by it would have been best not to get wounded. One had an amputation saw that would never cut cleanly through anything. A museum like that makes you realize that in most cases there has to be a better solution to an argument than wars that kill thousands.

On our last night in Indianapolis Rhi’s Dad took Rhi, John, Haley McGregory and me to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I had the most fantastic lamb chops ever eaten. I don’t know whether they were from New Zealand or Montana but wherever, they were bloody good and a reminder of home. I also had a touch too much white wine. I refuse to comment on the drinking or eating habits of my companions. It was fun; just the very best way to end a great meet.

The "Hard Training" Excuse

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

By David

Swimwatch has just received the following email.

To whom it may concern:

I just was made aware of your printing an e-mail, I sent to meet organizers, in Missouri, back in February. I am not sure where you got ahold of my e-mail, but you do not have all of the facts. Numerous coaches complained. I was the only one who hit the, “reply all”, button. In the Florida LSC, which I have coached in for 25 years, the deadline is the deadline!

I appreciate rules and deadlines. Unfortunately, coaches who make mistakes, do not. Jay Fitzgerald and I are friends, and he had no problem with my objection. It was another South Florida Coach, who could not enter his two swimmers correctly, by the deadline. The meet organizers did offer time trials, which I supported.

Also, concerning my teams performance, we were the only ones not wearing fastskin suits and before each prelim session, we came in early and worked out, 7,000-8,000 meters. Keep up the informative work, but please research the facts more carefully in the future.

Larry Shofe

Head Swim Coach

Sarasota YMCA Sharks

Most of the email is confusing and has little relevance to the original Swimwatch Missouri story. For example:

  1. Shofe says he does not know how Swimwatch got hold of his email. In the next sentence he says he “hit the reply all button.” Well, puzzling as it may be, that’s how we got his email. He sent it to us.
  2. Shofe says that coaches who make mistakes don’t appreciate rules and deadlines. That’s just rubbish. Most of us make plenty of mistakes, which never diminish or change our respect for rules and deadlines.
  3. I appreciate Shofe’s advice that he and Jay Fitzgerald are friends. What has that got to do with the rest of the United States swimming in the Missouri Meet? I have no idea.
  4. We appreciate hearing that Shofe has coached in Florida for 25 years. What has that got to do with the rest of the United States swimming in the Missouri Meet? Again I have no idea.

None of this is all that interesting. The paragraph about his team’s performance though is worth a second look. He says they were the only team not wearing Fastskin suits and prior to each preliminary session they worked out 7,000 – 8,000 meters.

That’s just not true. All but one of our team did not swim in Fastskin suits. At that stage, I think, only Rhi owned a Fastskin suit. More importantly, we spent the meet sitting next to Michael Phelps. He swam most of the meet in his Speedos; understandable given that he was clearly in the middle of his preparation for the Pan Pacific Games. I find it arrogant to suggest that others beat Shofe’s team only because his swimmers didn’t wear Fastskin racing suits; they weren’t really trying. Shofe’s perception of reality appears to be only in his own mind.

But the really interesting bit is the 7,000 – 8,000 workouts. I’ve heard hundreds of coaches make this sort of excuse. The implication is their team would have swum much faster but were in the middle of hard training. I can assure any coaches who’d like to make this excuse that they would not give a darn how far my team had swum prior to them beating us. A win’s a win, and so is a loss.

If it is good enough to turn up, then swim the race as a legitimate event and accept the result. Do not, by implication, diminish the performance of those who beat you by inferring you could have swum faster; that you may have even won the event.

Some time ago I received an email from a swimmer I coached prior to her going to college. He said his college coach always used the “we’re in hard training” excuse, especially when “we got our asses handed to us” by our rivals. It is an excuse borne out of weakness. It is self important and demeaning to others. At the Missouri Meet, Michael Phelps was also obviously in the middle of hard training and never felt the need to make the “7,000 meters” excuse. He also broke a world record, didn’t he?