A Sure Sign Of Nothing Better To Do

By David

I do want to assure you that what follows is not personal. In order to do this ,I need your permission to indulge in a very small amount of biography; just enough to verify that the content of this article is not influenced by any personal shortcomings.

I can swim. Not as well as many I have coached, but well enough. In my day I won championships in New Zealand’s capital province of Wellington and in New Zealand’s largest province, Auckland. I trained with Don Talbot in Sydney and swam in the New South Wales Championships. I was second twice to the New Zealand open water champion in the Lake Taupo five kilometer race and second (also twice) in two stormy Kapiti Island to Paraparaumu Beach swims [Editor’s note: Yuck]. In life saving, I am the holder of the Royal Life Saving Society’s Bronze Medallion, Bronze Cross, Silver Medallion and Award of Merit. I have passed American Red Cross exams in Coaches Safety, CPR for infants, children and adults and first aid.

That’s the biography bit over. I hope it avoids the accusation that the subject of this article is motivated by a personal inability to swim. But now for the complaint. USA Swimming has just introduced a rule that in order to coach swimming you have to take part and pass a four hour life saving water course and test. Why is that a sure sign of nothing better to do?

Well, first of all, I know of no relationship between the ability to swim and the ability to coach swimming. There is no reason why someone who cannot swim at all should not be a fine swim coach. I never met him, but others may recall a great coach from Ashburton in New Zealand who coached a number of fast swimmers (including national champion Karen Taite) who was confined to a wheelchair. In the US, I guess his days of coaching would be about to end. Returning limbless Iraq veterans better not look to swim coaching as a possible occupation. So much for equal opportunities for the physically challenged. And if the Ashburton coach or the Iraq veteran can be excused, why can’t any other person who can’t swim. In his later years, New Zealand’s best coach Duncan Laing would have struggled with any physical water test. He was still New Zealand’s best swimming coach and produced double Olympic Champion, Danyon Loader. I once employed an elderly coach called Ted Hazel who could no more have passed a physical water test than fly to the moon. For three years he coached my junior swimmers and laid the foundation for three national champions, two national record holders and two medalists at international events. US Swimming’s current rule would have excluded a generation of young people benefiting from his knowledge.

I guess the counter argument is that the coach needs some water skills in case something goes wrong. But how far is that argument going to be taken? When are we going to need a helicopter license to fly an injured athlete to hospital or a defensive driving course in case we decide to drive a swimmer home? I don’t know what the rules are in every pool in the country but at our pool in Florida, a minimum of two life guards are on duty whenever the swim team practice. That’s now effectively three life guards and that’s called overkill.

Question: has anyone in the history of world swimming ever drowned because the coach couldn’t swim? I’ve never heard of it. I notice that the Department of Health and Social Services lists five major drowning risks; lack of barriers, age and recreation in natural water settings, lack of appropriate choices in recreational boating, alcohol use and seizure disorders. No mention of swimming coaches at all. In the United States approximately 3500 people drown each year. Four times that many suffer water related mishaps. Of the 3500 deaths, approximately 650 occur in public pools. Of the 650 deaths, 450 were being directly supervised by their parents. That leaves 200 public pool drownings in the United States of children who relied solely on pool staff supervision. None, as far as I can see, were practicing with a swim team at the time they died. They may have been, but I can’t find any data saying that was the case. I guess my point is: is this measure a safe guard against a non-existent problem?

In saying this, I am not arguing that drownings are not a problem. But are swim team drownings part of that problem? I am not saying that US Swimming’s water safety initiatives are not good and valuable. But is this initiative necessary? It comes with costs that may not be justified by the imagined benefits.

When a public pool is normally staffed by a full compliment of life guards, this measure is good but is unnecessary and certainly should not be compulsory. Only when a pool’s coaching staff is the sole supervision does this measure have validity. That modification would cure the impression of another rule just for the sake of another rule; of nothing better to do.

Some readers appear to need the assurance that a critique of one aspect of an organization is not a condemnation of the whole. A strong case could be made for the proposition that US Swimming is the best run national federation in world swimming. This particular measure is just not a part of that case.