New Zealand Junior Swimming Championships

By David

The New Zealand Junior Championship was held this past weekend. The event has nothing in common with the United States version of a Junior Championship. The American meet is a single age group event for good athletes aged eighteen and under. The New Zealand event is for swimmers twelve and under and is swum in ten and under, eleven and twelve year age groups. To reduce travel costs the New Zealand Junior Championship is held in two locations; one in the south of the country and the other in the north; almost always at the West Wave Pool in Auckland.

The New Zealand meet has been around forever. When I was twelve years old, and that’s fifty years ago, it was called the “Teleprinters” because the results were sent by teleprinter to Wellington where they were collated and the national champions declared. As technology progressed the name changed to the Cannon Fax Meet and finally, in the age of the internet, to the Junior Championship.

I do not like the meet. It is an awful concept. Just about everything about it is bad. I am certain that it is held each year, primarily as a money grab for Swimming New Zealand. That and to satisfy the blood lust of those parents in New Zealand who happen to have bred an early maturing young swimmer. The fact it doesn’t work as a development tool for the sport is clearly demonstrated by the close to 100% failure rate of Junior Championship winners to progress to Open Nationals success.

For example, I had a quick look at the results of the first few races in the 2000 Junior Nationals. That’s ten years ago which means the winners then are nineteen, twenty, twenty-one or twenty-two years of age now; in their prime, you would think, to be winning the 2010 Senior Nationals. Here are the first twelve names of 2000 Junior National winners I came across; Elliot Box, Keitiria McColl, Luke Pervan, Rachel Mercer, Nicholas Rolfe, Emma Hunter, Sanjeev Deo, Emma Hotchin, Samuel Vinton-Boot, Amini Fonua, Rachel Mercer and Brooke Jackson. In every case besides Fonua, who is swimming in the United States, not only were these swimmers not winning in 2010, they weren’t even entered in the National Open Championships. Hopefully more than just Fonua has moved on to bigger and better things. However the Junior Championship as an indicator and development tool for their precocious talent was almost completely worthless. No relevance whatsoever.

In addition, you could take results from alternative years and find similar casualty rates.

Why is this? Well, as you have probably come to expect, I have a theory. Just about every champion athlete will tell you it’s much harder to stay at the top than it is to get there in the first place. The burden of success can be heavy. If all that’s true it is probably not surprising that nine year old Samuel, Luke and Rachel found staying at the top for ten years a bit too much. It is likely that their Junior National success proved only that they had developed physically early. And research has shown that maturing early is probably a poisonous chalice. Just prior to the Atlanta Olympic Games the research boffins at the National Swimming Centre in Colorado tested the maturation rate of the US swim team. Only two swimmers were found to have physically matured early. The rest were normal or physically matured later than normal. Researchers, in this case, put the failure of early maturing swimmers to go on to Olympic success down to the difficulty of constantly repeating year after year their early success. Late developers on the other hand enjoyed the unexpected excitement of winning later and benefited from it for longer. It seems to be true that if you want to win the Olympic Games one day do everything in your power to lose the New Zealand Junior Nationals.

As usual Swimming New Zealand run the Junior Championships with a supreme and arrogant disregard for the facts and the research surrounding junior championship swimming. Senior staff members in the Swimming New Zealand office have no real knowledge of swimming and one has to say, it shows. In this case Cameron has made many of the choices that have resulted in the current format of the Junior Championship. As usual she has taken a very long time to reach the wrong decision.

Now remember what the evidence, the research and the science have told us. The people winning New Zealand Junior Championships are early developers who will probably find the burden of their premature success too much and will give the sport away before they have the chance to experience senior success. Also remember that the future Olympian is probably struggling away at the back of the lane waiting for a tardy body-clock to catch up with his or her burning ambition. So what does Cameron do?

She makes the qualifying standards for the New Zealand Junior Championships harder and harder; way out of the reach of the majority of young New Zealand swimmers; certainly way out of the reach of all New Zealand’s late developers. How long did it take Cameron to work out a plan that would make the majority of New Zealand’s best late developing swimmers feel inadequate; feel like failures. I don’t think for a second that Cameron deliberately set out to destroy the next generation of this country’s best swimmers. But the qualification policy Swimming New Zealand has in place for its Junior National Championships is doing its best to drive our late developing Olympians out of the sport; failures, broken and disillusioned; beaten by the knowledge that they weren’t good enough to swim in the Junior Championships.

If it was me, I wouldn’t have a qualifying standard at all. I’d open the meet to everyone. And if that made the current two meets too big, I’d increase the number to four or five; one in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland. Sure as hell I’d find a way of making sure the swimming version of Peter Snell, who couldn’t win his school sports half mile, had the satisfaction of taking part with his physically more mature mates. Cameron thrives on exclusion when the real formula for success is inclusion, especially at the Junior Championship level. New Zealand’s next Olympic winner probably won’t make the top eight but he or she should be at the event.

  • Paul Kent

    David, I have to agree with some of what you have written. I have publicly made it known that I have never been in favour of celebrating 12 under National champions. I have also discussed this topic many times with Jan and I believe that she is also not a fan of Junior National Championships in this format. I believe you are correct in your assumption that it is a money maker for SNZ. I have no problem with SNZ wanting and needing to make some $$ – after all without $$ the wheels stop moving. I don’t however believe crowning a National junior champion helps that athlete or the parents of that athlete in the future.
    I was coaching Keitiria McColl, Luke Pervan, Nicholas Rolfe, and Brooke Jackson around the time you mentioned. These kids where very talented, Luke, Nick and Brooke won 8 or 9 gold medals at each Nationals they attend.

    None of these swimmers went past the age of about 14 -15 and they all moved to high volume programmes because they were not “given enough” mileage in my program, Alot of parents should take responsibility for the demise of a talented swimmer thru a lack of knowledge that allows these kids to get smashed in the pool far too early.

    I didn’t go to Juniors this year but we had a good young coach attend with a small team of 5 swimmers (out of about 70+ 12 under in the program) I think the best result was 11 Nationally, we didn’t make it to the points table even. Already I have had calls from very keen parents to increase the work load to keep up with some of the highly worked teams that turned up over the weekend.
    As a performance Coach of some of carded athletes aged between 18 and 23 I will give this advice – Young swimmers need to enjoy their swimming by competing in events such as the Auckland Swimming League – If we must have a National champion at 10, 11, 12 or even 13 then do it Monthly or quarterly based on times swum from around the country, Junior Nationals is a false event that comes to its conclusion of a National Junior champion based on a good birthday and early developments.
    Juniors encourages coaches to miss steps of learning and work swimmers beyond what they are physically ready for, purely to keep up with the rest and to get that result that justifies the program and more importantly keeps those parents happy (who generally employ the coach). We need swimmers ready to chase it at 18 years of age – not retiring at 15. Get rid of Junior Nationals!

  • Clarky

    Hey Paul and David I have a bunch of questions and realize as coaches you have limited time, but as most decent things you cannot put in once sentence- so any thoughts would be really appreciated. As you stated the meet does not put the champions on future Olympic teams- but does it then not provide motivation for the ones who come through in the end? I’m sure that not all the champions are over trained or 6ft at this meet, so what happens to them? Is not attendance enough at these meets anyway and who cares if they get 1st or 5th? How many 13 or 14 year old national champions have made the Olympics as well? Is it the meets problem/ a coaches problem or a parental education issue that the swimmers have here? With any age group competition not just juniors you are pitting kids that are biologically advantaged/ disadvantaged, but you have to sell the dream that if they increase the amount of deliberate practice they are doing they will have a chance in the end. By choosing swimmers based on fina points or xcelerate for national training camps are you not just encouraging/ favoring the swimmers who are either training the most (distance points are ‘easier’ to obtain at a younger age….but do we produce internationally ranked distance swimmers?) or biologically ahead? are they the future Olympic champions? The kids/coaches on these camps are resourced/educated and have a higher level of ‘help’- does that mean that we should over-train our swimmers so that they have the best chance of getting this ‘help’? I’m sure you have heard that most NHL players share similar birth months of the year- their birthdate at a young age has given them a biological development advantage of their competition and being in select teams they come into contact with a higher level of coaching and resources….do we/should we do the same in swimming? Four swimmers doing 1.06.- in the 100 back at nationals were born 3 months apart and compete in different age groups- who is really the best of these? the 3 month older/younger, the one who has trained the least/most, the tallest/shortest…?
    To finish off David I look at your web page regularly and want to thank you for challenging my thinking- your stats are super accurate and thoughts even though one sided(you are passionate about your views so understandable) are clear, concise and have merit in many aspects. While visiting Auckland champs last year I took down a few of your sessions and cannot work out what they are trying to achieve I listened to what you said to the kids, which wasn’t much(did you have other talks off poolside before the sessions?)- with anything ‘you can look at something but don’t always see whats actually going on’ I wonder if you can help me- these were the sessions(the week of age groups for you cycle purposes)
    1.5 x 200 swim on 3.00, 10 x100 pull on 1.30, 1000 kick, 1500 straight swim, 1500 done as 500 fly, 500 back, 500 free, 5 x200 swim on 3.00, 500 kick, 5 x 100 on 1.30.
    2.2000 straight swim, 20 x 100 on 1.30 swim, 1000 kick, 20 x 100 pull on 1.30, 1000 kick, 20 x 100 swim with fins on 1.30.
    3.20 x 100 on 1.45, 1200 kick, 8 x 100 pull on 1.45, 7 x 200 swim on 3.00, 800 kick, 400 Im with fins, 1 x 800Im with fins, 400 kick, 200 Im with fins.
    4.5 x 200 swim on 3.00, 10 x100 pull on 1.30, 1000 kick, 1500 straight swim, 1500 done as 500 fly, 500 back, 500 free, 5 x200 swim on 3.00, 1500 kick, 5 x 100 on 1.30.
    5.1000 straight swim, 1000 straight kick, 1000 straight pull, 10 x 100 with fins Im on 1.45, 10 x 100 swim on 1.30, 10 x 100 with fins Im on 1.45, 10 x 100 pull on 1.30, 1000 swim straight, 1000 kick straight, 1000 pull straight.
    After the first couple I did not see you for the meet, but would have not really been sure what to ask but heard second hand that these are normal sessions for your groups. You have had some great swimmers under you in the past is this the same formula that created them? I know that Peter Snell would sneak out with the group to do extra ‘speed’ sessions(what they constituted of who knows) without Lydiards knowledge- is this what is happened?

  • Thank you for the comments. I never knew that you had not swum in the Juniors, Paul. You certainly could have won them – lol. Clarky – the questions you ask about Lydiard training are very relevant and I will answer them in a full post later in the week.
    In the meantime set out below is an email I got from a mate of mine who lives in the South Island and says he can’t work out how to use our comments function. What is it about the mainland!

    “Once again I find myself agreeing with you. Get rid of NZ Juniors all together! Find some other broad based method to recognize ongoing achievement but not an annual championships which serves to ensure the continuing high attrition rate of young participants along with the egos of coaches. Success at an annual Junior Championships reflects parental motivation (with many extreme and disturbing examples having been on show at this particular event), coach motivation, early maturation, when your birthday is relative to the meet being held, time spent in the water (and worryingly, but quite obviously at this meet time spent in the gym!) Sadly nor is technical ability rewarded unless you are a part of the officious NZ Technical team who insist on running a Junior Championships as though they are the Olympics.”