Archive for September, 2010

Project Vanguard

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

By David

I should preface this post with the obvious. The views expressed on Swimwatch belong to this website alone. They are not endorsed by anyone else, especially not the Club that employs me as their professional swim coach. That qualification is necessary because New Zealand’s clubs have been asked to comment on Swimming New Zealand’s latest brain child; Project Vanguard. I do not want my Club or anyone else to be landed with the opinions expressed on that subject in this post.

Project Vanguard is a Swimming New Zealand initiative. It’s called their strategic plan. The national organization wants to replace the current 17 provincial associations with 8 super regions managed by 8 full time, paid employees who report to Swimming New Zealand in Wellington. Instead of local people running their own affairs from the bottom up we are told the top, that’s Swimming New Zealand, will provide their slick full time executives to make our lives better and our sport more efficient. At a meeting I was at in Auckland on Thursday this was described as “modern management practice at work”. The balance of this post will argue that their plan is flawed and the process that has given it birth is duplicitous.

Swimming New Zealand claims that it has surveyed and consulted New Zealand’s provincial associations and a majority proposed the 8 super regions idea. I just do not believe that’s true. I would need to see the nine provincial submissions that suggest there should be no smaller regional associations and that Hawkes Bay, Southland, Manawatu and Auckland want their affairs run by Wellington employees. Without seeing the evidence I do not believe the provinces surveyed themselves into oblivion or handed over the management of their affairs to a Wellington bureaucrat. I think the idea was spawned in Wellington and is being peddled around the country as Swimming New Zealand’s response to a grassroots demand for change. The truth is Swimming New Zealand saw Surf Lifesaving New Zealand increase the size of their empire recently and thought, “That’s a good idea. We might be able to get away with the same thing”.

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 sent everyone to something Swimming New Zealand controlled in Auckland. 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. American swimming is successful because it has an infrastructure of many strong clubs (North Baltimore, MAC, Texas, Cal, Stanford, Trojans) not because USA swimming controls the training Michael Phelps is going to do tomorrow morning.

Having failed to produce any Olympic results from the centralized elite sport model, what on God’s good earth is the incentive for us all to march down the same path and cede them control of the rest of New Zealand swimming? Someone should tell Swimming New Zealand that when they win four gold medals in London or Buenos Aires we’ll trust them with the rest of the sport. They are not very good at what they do now, without giving them the rest of the organization to play with.

At the Swimming New Zealand Annual General Meeting a remit was passed instructing Swimming New Zealand to stop communicating with members directly and requiring the national body to communicate only through the provincial organizations. The passing of the Manawatu Remit has everything to do with Project Vanguard. It shows that a healthy majority of the swimming regions in New Zealand do not trust the way Swimming New Zealand communicates with their members. The regions want to be responsible for communicating with their membership. And so they should. In a climate that proposed and passed the Manawatu Remit what delusionary national administrator thought there was support for Wellington taking over the running of all the provinces’ affairs. The Manawatu Remit may or may not work, but it certainly sends a clear message. It says the provinces reserve the right to manage their own affairs, lock stock and barrel; not at all what the framers of the current Project Vanguard scheme had in mind. Well done Manawatu!

The big advantage of the current management structure is that local people control their own destiny. Auckland has an Executive Director who manages the affairs of the sport here and reports directly to an Auckland Board of Auckland club elected delegates. The organization is directly responsive to local demands something not guaranteed at all by Project Vanguard where the guy doing Auckland’s work reports to Pelorus Trust Sports House, Hutt Park, Seaview, Wellington. If the Board of Swimming New Zealand believes that the provinces need help with their administration; if there is a call for change; and if Swimming New Zealand has a spare $400,000 to pay for 8 regional administrators then they should be sending $50,000 to each of the provinces to help the provinces pay for their own regional administrator. They should be strengthening diverse local structures, not creating their own personal Soviet empire. I’m sure Auckland would appreciate a $50,000 contribution to the cost of its Executive Director way more than seceding control of half a million dollars worth of its assets to Wellington.

On the subject of assets; I understand there may be more than a million dollars of cash in the various provincial bank accounts. It would be disturbing if any of the motivation for more central control was based on Wellington getting their hands on that money. Give them five minutes and I’d bet the house they would be charging the provinces management fees to pay for their “modern management practices”. In five years the provinces’ cash reserves would be gone; swallowed up to pay for Wellington excesses or the Millennium Institute’s experiment in foreign aid (all their coaches and the boss are Australian). Twenty years ago Swimming New Zealand had pretty substantial cash reserves. They’ve all gone now. Perhaps those who spent them are now looking around for their next cash windfall.

Almost always the accumulation of power by a central organization is a sign of weak management. The Millennium Institute 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.

Junior Swimming

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

By David

Last week’s Swimwatch post was critical of the New Zealand Age Group and Junior Championships. Our concern about the two events should not be mistaken as dissolution with all aspects of junior swimming in New Zealand. This afternoon I went to an event called the Auckland Junior League. It’s a recent Auckland Swimming Association initiative. The idea was to introduce a swimming competition that would act both as a low key “fun” introduction to competitive swimming and a bridge between non-competitive swim schools and competitive clubs. And it seems to be working. The races are all 25 or 50 meters. There are heaps of relays. Team participation is emphasized. The meet only takes an hour. Normally I have an intense dislike of the word fun. It’s so fake; the antithesis of its real meaning. In this instance though the swimmers I coach and who were competing for the Murawai Surf Club seemed to be enjoying themselves. Dare I say it; they were having fun. For American readers the League is the equivalent of a Florida Sizzler meet. Both are good programs, both work.

While the Junior League in New Zealand is a good concept, it’s what happens when things become more competitive that is in need of attention. In Auckland that means Level 3 meets for swimmers beginning their competitive careers, Level 2 for intermediate swimmers and Level 1 for swimmers who are expected to qualify for Auckland Championship and Swimming New Zealand’s national events. Each level has an inter-club swim meet each month. Most certainly the whole thing is one level too many. There are not enough swimmers to support the three Levels. The number of swimmers at an average Level 3 meet is so low, young swimmers end up running from the conclusion of one race to the beginning of the next. I’m pretty certain your average Level 3 swim meet is a better test of track skills than aquatic performance. Level 1 meets are a bit of a joke. I’ve been to four so far and most of Auckland’s best swimmers are never there. There is not much point in having something called Level 1 if whoever coaches Ingram, Bell, Hind, Burmester and Palmer considers their charges too important to support the event. Their absence is not a good look. I’m certain the swimmers don’t think that way but someone does. Otherwise they’d be there.
The whole thing would be better reduced to two levels similar to Florida’s Sub-JO and JO levels. The qualifying times required to graduate from the new Level 2 to Level 1 should be the same as the Auckland Regional Championship qualifying standards. Achieving a Level 1 qualifying time would automatically qualify swimmers for the annual regional Championship. Level 2 swimmers would need to wait before being subject to local championship competition; and that would be a good thing. It may even be worthwhile linking qualification for the regional Championship with attendance at one or two Level One meets. I usually don’t support that sort of compulsion but it looks like it’s the only way to get Millennium coaches to attend the Auckland Association’s swimming competitions.

Regional Championships should be the upper limit of age group competition. For all the reasons discussed in last week’s post there is no place for annual age grouping in national competition. New Zealand swimming would be best served with winter and summer National Championships and winter and summer Junior (under 18) Championships. It will never happen of course. The entry fee cash cow of Age Group and Junior Championships is too attractive for national bureaucrats to relinquish; no matter what the swimming merit might be. As many will recognize, our suggestion is based on the competitive structure in the United States. We think their program is better not because it reduces the teenage dropout rate; the American rate is very similar to New Zealand, but because the American system produces a far faster elite athlete. It’s a long time since New Zealand won a meaningful gold medal in swimming. Changing the National Championship structure would be another small step towards correcting that sorry state. With this structure in place there is a chance the country’s best swimmers will survive long enough to win something significant. Right now the best have had a “guts-full” of swimming and are away playing netball or fishing on the Hauraki Gulf by the time they are mature enough to swim for New Zealand.

While we are on the subject of national championships, one other change that is long overdue is the ridiculous rule that New Zealand swimmers must qualify for World Championships, Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games in the finals of the national trials. The rule is as pathetic as it is meaningless. When swimmers that Cameron and her friends wanted on the 2010 Commonwealth Games team didn’t swim fast enough at the trials, the rule was changed in a heartbeat. The impression of expediency over principle was spectacular. Mind you it’s not the first time expediency has governed the path of international swimming in New Zealand. New Zealand is just not big enough to support a sudden death final qualification system. It does not work. For example New Zealand’s best swimmer missed going to the Beijing Games because she had an average swim in the Trials. Tough standards are good but we should allow New Zealand’s swimmers a six months window to achieve the time.

What Lydiard thought may not be all that popular these days. The Millennium coaches would consider they’ve moved on since Arthur’s athletes ran around the Waitarua. However the changes suggested here would meet with his approval. You see they conform to an important Lydiard tenant; keep your athletes hungry, keep them searching for more, keep the tiger in the tank. When you are a national champion at ten there isn’t much more you can do. To continue the unfortunate use of analogies; the horse of ambition has well and truly bolted.

Christchurch Earthquake

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

By David

Each week Swimwatch is read in about 35 countries. I imagine readers in most of them will have heard about the 7.1 Richter scale earthquake that recently rocked the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Unbelievably no one was killed, but the Christchurch community was a mess. Dozens of buildings were condemned, water and electricity supplies were spasmodic and events like the New Zealand Short Course Junior Swimming Championships had to be shifted. The Championships were originally scheduled for Christchurch from the 26th to 30th September. With the pool short of water and the pool buildings in need of repair, Swimming New Zealand had no option but to cancel the event or shift it to another location.

Swimming New Zealand handled a difficult problem well. In spite of the limited time available they consulted the swimming community widely and decided to move the Championships to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Our Club has seven swimmers qualified to swim in the Championships but we won’t be going. I’ve never been a great fan of age group nationals. The Americans do well to avoid the national age group events, so popular in New Zealand, Australia and, come to think of it, most of the rest of the world. In my experience the New Zealand version is an awful event.

They 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 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. International swim meet promoters would die to be able to create the nervous energy present at the beginning of your average New Zealand age group championship.

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’s a disappointment born out of expectations set far too high.

As each day goes by the mood darkens and deepens. 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 the hell out of there and make sure no swimmer of mine ever goes back. For someone whose heart is in seeing athletes soar, the New Zealand Age Group and Junior Championships are not something I care to watch.

There was a good article on the US Junior Nationals in an old issue of the USA Swimming magazine “Splash”. In it USA Swimming demonstrates an acute awareness that their event needs to avoid many of the problems characteristic of the New Zealand version. They say:

“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 the problems inherent in New Zealand’s Age Group and Junior Championships to ensure their meet is a whistle stop and not a destination. First of all the American event is an “open” junior event; not an age group championship. Everyone up to a relatively old 18 can swim in their Junior Nationals. There are no single year age group categories. The protection of individual age categories used in New Zealand encourages young swimmers to compete in a false reality; promoting the event as a winning destination rather than a stepping stone to senior swimming. The national body here is about to compound that problem by “nationalising” championships for 10, 11 and 12 year old children. The false reality that is characteristic of New Zealand age group swimming will now start even younger. It is almost impossible to imagine any winning 10 year old ever making it past the seven further national age group hurdles to finally emerge as a winning senior international athlete. A quick look through the year 2000 12 years and under “national” results illustrates the point. Not one winner has made it through to the 2010 Pan Pacs team. The best I could see was Lauren Boyle who was 8th equal in the 12 year old girls 100 freestyle.

Secondly, the American junior qualifying standards are really tough. They reflect their “older” cut off age. An athlete has to be quick just to make the cut. There’s a fair chance swimmers that fast will have the experience and maturity to handle the occasion. A young Lauren Boyle would have to wait a few years before she could even compete in the American National Junior Championships. Her 1.07 in 2000 would have had to become 58.59 to even qualify for the American junior event. In Boyle’s case, she was tough enough to make it through the New Zealand system and prosper; a quality she subsequently confirmed by competing successfully in the world’s toughest swimming environment: the NCAAs.

Thirdly, names included on the US junior meet’s list of alumni suggest their “Juniors” are a successful transition between local and international competition. Unlike the New Zealand results “Splash” tells me Gary Hall, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps swam here. That’s a pretty impressive list. Their “Junior National Championship” is working all right.

Sporting Intelligence

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

By David

Swimwatch received two interesting items of correspondence recently from New Zealand Athletic Coaching Hall of Fame member, Arch Jelley. The first referred to a Swimwatch article published last week which said that quite a few Kenyan runners, “don’t even own a pair of running shoes until pretty late in their careers.” Arch’s photograph clearly shows that quite a few Kenyan runners do own a pair of running shoes. The photograph is also proof positive of the accuracy of another claim in last week’s Swimwatch post. It said Kenyan runners were the world’s best because “they run a lot.” Just take one look at the state of some of those shoes. There is no way shoes get into that condition without having traveled quite a few miles. When Alison was among the world’s best runners we used to count on a pair of shoes lasting 1000 miles. At 100 miles a week that’s a new pair of shoes each ten weeks. My guess is that quite a few of the shoes in this photograph have seen more that their 1000 mile quota; and probably in a lot less than 10 weeks.

I wonder if any of the shoes belong to David Rudisha? This week, in Rieti Italy, the amazing Kenyan lowered the world 800 meters track record. He went through the first 400 meters in 48.20 and held on to record 1:41.01. In March 2010 the New Zealand 400 meter national track title was won by Tim Jones in 48.43. David Rudisha was 0.23 faster at 400 and still had another lap to run. The aerobic conditioning required to run that fast through the first 400 and keep going means that while none of the shoes in the photograph may be his, he has undoubtedly owned several pairs that have ended up in a similar condition.

Mind you runners are not the only ones who store their personal sporting belongings badly. The photograph below was taken this morning in my team’s equipment storage room. As you can see too many swimmers are using the floor to store their gear instead of the carefully supplied wall hooks. Fortunately our swimming equipment doesn’t show the obvious signs of wear and caked-on dirt that the Kenyans have accumulated. I also imagine the Kenyans are doing many more miles in their sporting accessories. West Auckland’s swimmers are improving though. As their miles go up the appearance of the gear room may further deteriorate but their athletic performance will hopefully become more Kenyan.

The comparison between running and swimming was taken a step further by Arch Jelley’s second item of correspondence; a copy of a British news report on the effect of running on intelligence. Evidently neuroscientists at Cambridge University have shown that running stimulates the brain to grow fresh gray matter and has a big impact on mental ability. A few days of running led to the growth of hundreds of thousands of new brain cells that improved the ability to recall memories without confusing them, a skill that is crucial for learning and other cognitive tasks, researchers said.

The new brain cells appeared in a region of the brain that is linked to the formation and recollection of memories. The work revealed why running can improve memory and learning. They studied two groups of mice, one of which had unlimited access to a running wheel throughout. The other mice formed a control group. The running mice clocked up an average of 15 miles (24km) a day. Their scores in a memory test for mice were nearly twice as high as those of the control group.

Brain tissue taken from the rodents showed that the running mice had grown fresh grey matter during the experiment. Tissue samples from the dentate gyrus part of the brain revealed on average 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimeter. The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampus, one of the few regions of the adult human brain that can grow fresh brain cells.

Arch felt his two news reports were related; the shoes being the means by which we could all achieve superior intelligence. He was unable to resist commenting under the Guardian’s news story, “I’m not sure if swimming does the same thing.”

Well I happen to know that not only does swimming do the same thing; it does it better. The Americans keep statistics on this sort of thing. Come to think of it, the Americans keep statistics on just about everything. When Jane was a sophomore at Washington State University, on a swimming scholarship, her team ranked first in the United States among all NCAA Division One swimming teams for academic performance. There were about 23 swimmers on the Washington State team reading a range of majors that included Zoology, English (that was Jane), Criminology and Education. Their combined Grade Point Average was an impressive 3.66 (that’s a standard American academic measure graded out of a maximum score of 4).

All this academic horse power in the Washington State swim team was marginally tarnished when Jane pointed out that the team still had to read the lettering above the record board when doing the chant that spelled out “Washington State”, letter by letter. But don’t tell Arch.

[from Jane: Hahaha, yes we did always look at the back wall of the pool and read off the letters, and even then, there were screw-ups every now and again.]

–> Good memories :)

Junior Pan Pacs

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

By NZSwimmingFan

Note: This post was written by a guest contributor who has commented here several times, such as on Pan Pacs Preview a week ago.

Over the last couple of weeks, these under-18 versions of their senior counterparts were held in Maui and Singapore respectively – New Zealand sending small teams to both, their fortunes unfortunately mirroring those of the senior Pan Pac team – getting better, but not as quickly as the rest of the world.

Firstly, special mention must be made of Gareth Kean’s 1:57.78 200 back in Maui, currently 14th in the world and 3rd equal in the Commonwealth. Stripping away the Swimming New Zealand hype, he is a genuine contender in Delhi. What was even more impressive is that his improvement over his 1:58.5 at Pan Pacs was almost all on the 3rd 50, a 30.45 vs. a 31.05. He clearly learned from his pacing mistake in Irvine (I’m sure some clear water and racing in lane 4 helped too). Watching his race at Pan Pacs, it looks like the prime determinant of whether he only makes the finals or instead medals in Delhi and beyond will be how much he can improve on his walls – his swimming is world class, but his turns aren’t much better than solid age groupers’.

It will be a measure of his class to see how quickly he can get back into hard work, if he manages to again improve in Delhi with such a short (4 weeks) build-up, New Zealand swimming fans should be rightfully excited.

New Zealand’s other outstanding backstroke prospect, Sophia Batchelor, didn’t fare as well as Kean in Maui, finishing roughly a second off her best in all her events except the 100 free. She broke Rebecca Perrott’s long-standing record in this event and once again SNZ got overly excited, saying the record was 24 years old when it was 34 years old. They also credit Sophia’s 2:06 in the final of the 200 Free as being a PB, when she in fact swam a 2:02 in March and has swum under 2:06 numerous times since then (including a 2:03 in the heats in Maui). They also say she swam a worrying 2:34 in her 200 IM heat, when she in fact did a 2:24. SNZ screw-ups aside, I’m sure Batchelor, at just 15, will be stronger for the experience and back to her best at NZ Short Course NAGS in late September.

The other two pool swimmers in Maui, Sam Lucie-Smith and Sam Lee also had up and down meets. Lucie-Smith has steadily dropped her 200 Free time and again PB’d with a 2:02.8, which puts her in the conversation for the promising womens 4×200 free relay that is building towards London. She also raced the final of the 400 Free, but finished 2 seconds off the 4:17 she swam at the 2009 NAGS – back then it looked as if she may have been a quality 400 free prospect but she has subsequently failed to recapture that form. Butterflyer Sam Lee was also off her best, swimming slower in her 200 Fly than she did at the 2009 Junior Pan Pacs 20 months ago, and also finishing off her PB in the 100 Fly after flirting with being the first Kiwi woman under 60 seconds last year.

At the Youth Olympics in Singapore, the story was much the same. The SNZ hype machine never misses out on an opportunity to pump young male freestylers up as the second coming of Danyon Loader, and Matt Stanley was no exception. He swam a solid 3:56 in his 400 Free, but must have been a little disappointed after clocking a short course 3:48 prior to the meet. He then came 5th in the 200 in a 1:51, a time which would have placed him 6th in Maui, indicating that there were very few swimming powerhouses that sent full strength teams to Singapore. These were both good swims, but comparisons to Loader are unfair and unwarranted. Backstroker Renee Stothard was close to her best, while Chloe Francis was relatively disappointing, failing to back up a good 200 IM heat in the final. Francis also missed out in her other events, most notably in the 200 free, after putting down an awesome 2:01.2 in March she only managed a 2:03 in Singapore.

The most frustrating thing about these results is that SNZ seems to pick our national teams as if we are one of the leading swimming nations in the world. We sent 4 swimmers to Maui and 3 to Singapore – why did we split them up? We don’t have the luxury of sending a ‘development’ team to meets like these and I understand that cost of travel is a legitimate issue so why didn’t we just send everyone to one meet, even if it was the weaker Youth Olympics (on the basis of experiencing a multi-sport event.) When we do this, swimmers miss out on racing in relays, which I think are hugely important and lift the best out of many people, and being able to support swimmers in lots of races, rather than one or two a session. I also think this attitude pervades the selection criteria for these meets, I appreciate we need to send high quality teams to these events but for those swimmers on the fringes it can be the difference between quitting and continuing. A case in point of this would be Tash Hind; she had always been a solid, if unspectacular, age-grouper and was given the opportunity to race in the womens 4×200 relay at Beijing after finishing 4th in a relatively slow 2:04.8 at the Olympic trials. Since then, she’s dropped to a 1:58.8 and looks to have room for improvement.

One final note from the meet in Maui, in the mens 4×100 medley relay, which New Zealand (Kean, Simpson, Bell, Burrows) won in an incredible upset in 2009, but weren’t even able to field a team to defend the title in 2010. The USA under 18 team swam faster than our senior team did at Pan Pacs, NZ faster on 3 legs, but 1.5 sec slower on the butterfly – a massive worry for a Kiwi group that looked to be medal contenders in London.