Archive for March, 2017

Saudi Arabia On First-Aid

Monday, March 27th, 2017

I was fortunate enough to go to school in New Zealand and the United States. I have worked in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Virgin Islands, the United States and Saudi Arabia. The company that transferred me to the United Kingdom took time to instruct me on a phenomenon called “cultural shock”. Even in a society as familiar as the United Kingdom, I was told, I would pass through four stages as I adjusted to my new environment.

There would be a “honeymoon” phase during which, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. After about three months I would enter the “negotiation” stage where differences between the old and new culture would give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration as I experienced unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange to my cultural attitudes. After about seven months, in the “adjustment” period, I would become accustomed to the new culture and develop coping routines. I would know what to expect. And finally after ten months, in the “adaptation” phase, I would be able to participate comfortably in the host culture.

The UK was so familiar, so similar to New Zealand that I moved seamlessly through these stages. I began to think that the perils of cultural shock were largely mumble-jumble academic sociology. A year coaching in Saudi Arabia has corrected that naïve view. After ten months I can relate absolutely with the process of honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and adaptation.        

My Saudi experience means I know more about the Middle East than when I lived in New Zealand. Mind you that would not be difficult. Before I went to Saudi Arabia my knowledge of this part of the world was poor. Dubai was a flash airport I stopped at on the way to London. Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain were names on a screen as I cruised at 35,000 feet above them. A year does not make me an expert on the Middle East but I do know a little more.

Of course there are a dozen cultural experiences I could discuss – everything from the lack women’s rights, to the harsh judicial process, to the obscene wealth of the Saudi royal family, to the discomfort of sitting on the floor to eat and the awkwardness of using my hands to tear apart a full sheep carcass. But instead I want to discuss a psychological difference I discovered in Saudi: a difference that sometimes caused confusion and on one occasion resulted in one of my funnier Saudi memories.

I have mentioned before the quality of the swimmers I coached in Jeddah. I have also mentioned that three of them were refugees from war ravaged Syria. Fouad is a high school student. Eyad is coming to New Zealand for the Open Nationals and is half way through a marine engineering degree. Yamen is about to graduate as a Doctor of Dentistry.

It is Yamen I want to discuss. He captures so well the psychology I found puzzling. Among the Arab people I met, and Yamen in particular, there seems to be a tremendous wish to please. There is a cultural respect for age that I was not used to. In New Zealand you would call the quality I found in Yamen – “being well brought up”. He is polite, concerned, gentle, educated, hardworking and successful. He showed sincere concern for my wellbeing and health. He ordered the hotel to service my room, he administered IV antibiotics for my infected foot and he bought fruit for a coach he was sure was not eating properly. In fact he was so caring I occasionally had to demand the right to carry my own suitcase or get my own supplies from the local shop.

Yamen asked me if he could do the Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation life-guard course. I did think it was odd that a Doctor of Dentistry would want a life-guard certificate. Yamen explained that he had an academic interest in the subject – and so I signed him up. In Saudi Arabia life-guard courses are taught by a South African ex-swimmer employed by the Federation. He may be a first class instructor, I wouldn’t know, but his social skills are in need of serious attention. This guy is no Nelson Mandela. In New Zealand he would be told to piss off after the first morning. But Yamen patiently showed no concern at the Yarpie’s brutal behaviour. Yamen complained to me but sat through the South African’s lessons politely smiling.

But the pinnacle of irony came when it was time to do the first aid portion of the lifeguard course. Now remember the South African was teaching Yamen alone. Here is how Yamen described the first aid portion of his dentistry course to me.

“I have two CPR and first aid qualifications. The first one is a main subject, studied for a semester (4 months) of two classes each week. And I passed with A+. It was very intensive and detailed and included all parts of trauma, poisoning, burning, suffocating and pregnancy emergencies.  We have a first aid professor. The second one is a normal practicing certificate.  It takes one day and is mandatory for any doctor to do before starting work.  In the end we get a CPR and first aid certificate valid for two years.”

I would have thought the instructor, knowing Yamen’s academic training, might have asked about Yamen’s first aid background. But not this guy. I sat and listened for two days while the South African swimmer lectured Yamen about first aid and CPR. What made it worse was the condescending tone of superiority that characterised everything he said. I had the uncomfortable feeling the South African was back lecturing a pre-1994 native in his homeland. I have a private pilot’s license but I would not tell the captain of an A380 how to fly.  

But through it all Yamen remained calm and respectful. At one stage he even expressed concern to me that one of the first aid instructions was wrong. “Tell him,” I said.

“Oh, no,” said Yamen. “That would be rude.”

I said, “Okay then – but promise me this. If I pass out beside the pool can you administer first aid? Keep me away from your instructor.”

Yamen agreed. The whole episode was culturally revealing and ironically hilarious.

Swimming New Zealand Communicate?

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

I have not been in New Zealand for quite some time. Unless I’ve missed something Swimming New Zealand’s communication with its membership is about as forthcoming as asking Donald Trump to admit he’s wrong. However this week I got an email from the Swimming New Zealand CEO that might indicate a change for the better.

The email explained that Shannon Courtney and Kent Stead were leaving and that Swimming New Zealand was in the process of deciding what to do about covering their work. I don’t know Shannon Courtney but I have had to contact Kent Stead on several occasions to help with an event or a membership problem. There were times when I dialled his number wondering whether my Swimwatch activity would influence Kent’s willingness to assist. But there was never a problem. Kent was polite and helpful – sometimes above and beyond normal service.

Writing Swimwatch stories has been an interesting experience. Some people stop me at swim meets to say how much they enjoy the website. Others, like the Swimming New Zealand Chairman, dismissively say they have heard I write a blog but they have never read it. One official in Hawke Bay denied any knowledge of the existence of Swimwatch. That was strange because the company he worked for had its own server. Their company’s internet address appeared everyday on my analytics report. But Kent was different. I never detected whether he even knew about Swimwatch – whether he approved or disapproved. It was not relevant and he treated me accordingly. I will always be grateful for his professionalism and wish him well.

And on the subject of the Swimming New Zealand Chairman, Bruce Cotterill, denying he had read Swimwatch – I doubt whether that’s true. If it is true, in my opinion, it demonstrates a mind closed to ideas different from his own. And if that is true it is not good for our organization. A lot of what is written in Swimwatch is open to argument and a fair portion could be flat-out wrong. But the blog is read by an average of 150 New Zealand swimming people every day. Cotterill might do a better job if he came into contact with what some of us are thinking.     

So thank you Steve Johns at Swimming New Zealand for communicating these staff changes. The openness it represents will garner loyalty and support from your members. The silence practiced by the Swimming New Zealand Board encourages suspicion and mistrust.

Let me give you an example.

On the 1 December 2016 the Chairman of Swimming New Zealand said in reaction to the decision to reduce swimming’s government funding.

“We’re still going through the process to understand the rationale. The reality is the funding decision is made, but what we would like to understand is ‘why?’ and ‘what do we need to do to get back in the good books?”

It has been four months since Cotterill said he was “going through the process to understand the rationale.” So what has he come up with? Four months is long enough for him to find out and tell us how he is going to turn Swimming New Zealand around.  

But no, nothing, silence until on 10 March 2017 the NZSCTA Board emailed its members with the news that the Chairman of Swimming New Zealand, Bruce Cotterill, had written to all the Regional Chairpersons to announce that due to the HPSNZ funding decision announced in December 2016 the positions of the High-Performance Coaching Director and the High-Performance Athlete Development Coach were to be disestablished and removed.

NZSCTA also announced that the NZSCTA President, Nevill Sutton was meeting by Skype with the Swimming New Zealand CEO, Steve Johns, during week commencing the 13 March 2017 and that the NZSCTA Board would meet to discuss future Swimming New Zealand plans on Sunday 19 March 2017.

So, what has happened? We want to know. Cotterill has been on the lookout for rationale for four months. Has he found any? What conclusions has he come to? He must have come to some decisions. After all he clearly thought he knew enough to sack Gary and Donna. We have a right to be told the basis on which Cotterill decided to let them go.

And then Nevill Sutton met with Steve Johns. What was discussed and what conclusions were reached? We need to know. The sport belongs to the members. There is no justification for autocratic rule.

Finally NZSCAT held a Board meeting four days ago. We were asked to contribute ideas. We did that. But their feedback in return has been nil, nothing, silence.

Anyone looking at this would conclude that the communication is just not good enough. The definition of mushroom management is – keep them in the dark and feed them shit. Well we are not members of the fungi kingdom. We want to be informed.

But do not insult our intelligence by claiming that the weekly newsletter is evidence of Swimming New Zealand’s willingness to communicate. Of course it is good to know that “water babies are making a splash for Plunket” and that “community support strengthens water safety on Great Barrier” but we need a lot more than that. We need to be involved in the “rationale” that is going into managing our organization. For five years the Board of SNZ has been left alone to do their thing in secret. The result is such a mess that HPSNZ has slashed funding by close to $1.0 million a year. Now we need to be involved in the decision making process. We need to see minutes of Board meetings published in the newsletter. To coin a phrase from American politics, What did the President know and when did he know it?” And I would add, “What does he plan to do about it?”          

It appears as if Johns may want to do the right thing. It would help if he could educate his boss on the meaning of communication and the benefit of good manners. For we know that Cotterill is not going to read about it in Swimwatch.        


Today Is Whatever We Say It Is

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Many of you may recall this photograph. It is the cover illustration on Swimming New Zealand’s 2015 Annual Report. I’m sure you will agree. It perfectly illustrates the fun of competitive swimming. And yet, ironically, the picture also graphically validates a disturbing feature that is characteristic of the 2017 version of Swimming New Zealand. Let me explain why.

When I was coaching in Florida my best female swimmer was Rhi Jeffrey. Before I knew Rhi she had won a gold medal in the Athens’ Olympic Games as a member of the American 4×200 relay. After five years in Florida in 2010 I returned to New Zealand and started coaching at the West Wave Aquatic Centre in Auckland. Back in Florida Rhi retired from swimming. In early 2011 Rhi emailed to say she wanted to come to New Zealand and possibly get back into swimming. I agreed and in February 2011 Rhi bounded off the flight from Los Angeles.

Everyone who knows Rhi will understand why I use the word “bounded”. An “on-form” Rhi doesn’t just walk anywhere. The term larger than life was invented for Rhi. She is bright, intelligent and has a super-sized personality. The American Olympic coach, Mark Schubert told me Rhi was as talented as any swimmer he had known. And from Mark that was high praise indeed. On a night out, at a party or over lunch Rhi was the very best of company – funny, interesting and entertaining. Her huge presence made her a leader of many and a frightening ogre to some. I enjoyed being her coach but I have had others ask how I managed. I think you either enjoy being around challenging, interesting people or you don’t.

Anyway, when Rhi arrived we were about to go to Sydney for the 2011 New South Wales Swimming Championships. I asked Rhi to come on the trip. She agreed on the condition that she would not have to swim. She had done no training for six months and was 30 pounds overweight. However the pull of competition was too much. On the second day of the meet she asked me whether she could attempt the 50 freestyle. I agreed. We went to the pool shop and purchased a swim suit, goggles and cap. Rhi managed the length – just. She was 144th in a time of 29.20 and she looked so done that a timekeeper on her lane asked if she needed assistance getting out of the pool. He would have had no idea that the object of his concern was an Olympic gold medallist.

Back in New Zealand Rhi, I think stung by the 144th, got into training. Several pool-deck experts, including employees of Auckland Swimming, told me Rhi was wasting her time and mine. I think they were looking at her current weight, her various tattoos and pink hair and, like small minded people everywhere, rushed to make a rash and baseless judgement.   

I did not agree. But then I was at the pool every day watching Rhi drag herself back into shape. The months went by. The improvements gradually came. In twelve months she was back. Her long course 50 free had improved to 25.59 and she could get out of the pool without help. Her 100 free was 55.65 and her 200 free was 2.02.31. The pool deck experts were wrong.

But the race I remember most was a 100 fly Rhi swam at the Anthony Moss meet on the 26 January 2012. Rhi came to me before the swim and asked if she could swim in a novel swim cap she had just bought. The cap was a bright red version of the blue cap pictured on the front cover of the 2015 Swimming New Zealand Annual Report. Same neat little fins on the back and big yellow eyes at the front. I said, “Yes, of course.” I thought it was fun. Only Rhi could carry it off. She clearly enjoyed the idea of the Olympic gold medallist having some fun and the younger members of our team loved it.

Rhi lined up for her swim and I became aware that all was not well. I went to investigate. One of the pool side experts was demanding that Rhi change her cap. Otherwise she would be disqualified. I asked why?

FINA Rule 10.8, I was told.

I discovered FINA Rule 10.8 says  “No  swimmer  shall  be  permitted  to  use  or  wear  any  device  or  swimsuit  that  may  aid  his/her speed,  buoyancy  or  endurance  during  a  competition  (such  as  webbed  gloves,  flippers,  fins,  power bands,  or  adhesive  substances,  etc.).”    

The fin on Rhi’s cap, this Swimming New Zealand god of justice announced, would provide “directional stability”. She would be disqualified. My immediate thought was to wonder about the referee’s sanity. My concern broadened when he told me he had consulted with the CEO of Auckland Swimming and they agreed the cap had to go. Somethings are just not worth the fight. I told Rhi the whole affair was the ridiculous ravings of small men who got a kick out of pushing around a high profile female Olympic champion. “Change the cap Rhi. It means more to them that it does to us,” I told her.

In a final act of defiance she pulled a plain cap over the red fins version. She would swim with the cap come hell or high water. Just over a minute later she finished the 100 fly. Her time was 1.01.70 a life-time personal best time. I guess he who laughs last does laugh longest.

So now you can see my interest in the picture on the 2015 Swimming New Zealand Annual Report. Swimming New Zealand is either advertising an item of swimwear banned by FINA Rule 10.8 or their official, responsible for the 2012 Anthony Moss meet, is in need of some retraining.

There is a serious side to this sort of paradox. Participants in a sport rely on a consistent set of rules. Recently Swimming New Zealand have imposed fees and withdrawn fees, have stopped final swims and introduced final swims and now they have banned a swim cap with fins and advertised the same cap.

PS – Rhi is now coach of her own club back in the United States. I see on Facebook that we agree not only on the New Zealand officials that ban fun caps but also on the lunatic running her country just now. Bring on the 25th Amendment.       


A Camel At Bahrain Airport

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

My year in Saudi Arabia was arranged in haste. Brian Palmer, the CEO of the Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation (SASF), and ex-CEO of Auckland Swimming, made me the offer in a phone call and a week later an annual contract had been signed and I was on the airplane. I knew almost nothing about the countries I was about to visit. Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia meant only oil, sand and war. Brian had told me my destination was the Red Sea city of Jeddah. But even my knowledge of the location of the Red Sea was limited to, “Somewhere over there.”   

I did read one or two internet articles and noted one that said, “The Middle East is a diverse, challenging, infuriating and ultimately fascinating environment. It’s not for the squeamish or the fainthearted.” The problems it said were:

Heat: This is obvious.

Noise: Many cities have horrendous traffic problems and there are the mosques with loudspeakers.

Pollution: Sandstorms leave dust in the atmosphere for days.

Bureaucracy: What you encounter will do your blood pressure no favours.

Rights and Equality: Abuses of human rights and discrimination on grounds of race and sex might offend you.

Customer Service: Expect to be delighted one day, and pitched into a stupor of disbelief the next.

Safety: The important thing to consider is how you cope with fear of the unknown.

I dismissed these warnings. After all, for two years I coached swimming in the US Virgin Islands where the local black population frequently, and with some justification, referred to Europeans as “complaining white people”. I was sure that problems in the Middle East were also being exaggerated by “complaining white people”. Besides here I was on a Middle Eastern airplane half way to Dubai and the service was as good as, probably better than, any western airline.

Brian had told me I would be met in Bahrain by a SASF agent who would take me to my hotel. Brian would arrive later that day and would spend two days with me in Bahrain collecting my Saudi Arabian visa and discussing my work in Jeddah. An efficient workable plan, I thought, and took another sip of my Emirates dry white wine.

Getting through customs in Bahrain further boosted my confidence. The queue was short, the officer was efficient and friendly and for $30 I had an instant six month visa. At 10.00am I walked into the reception hall looking for a sign with my name on it. But there was none. An hour later the reception hall was empty and there was still no SASF agent. Never mind, I thought, buy a Bahrain sim card, get a coffee and call Brian. Six hours later I was on first name terms with the friendly concrete camel protecting the entrance to Bahrain’s international arrivals terminal. Finally I got a text message from Brian. He was sorry. The SASF agent had not gone to the airport. I resisted the temptation to say I already knew that. I should, Brian said, get a taxi to take me to the hotel booked for me by the SASF. An hour later I arrived at the hotel but there was no booking. I paid and checked in.

Perhaps I thought there was something in the internet view – “Customer Service: Expect to be delighted one day, and pitched into a stupor of disbelief the next.”

Brian arrived late that night and we agreed to meet the next day. And I was delighted. For $175 a Saudi Arabian visa was secured and Brian explained my role in Jeddah swimming. I would, he said, be the CEO of swimming in the Mecca Province that includes the city of Jeddah. Although Mecca Swimming did not exist just yet “next week” a contract would be signed by the provincial Governor that would establish Mecca as a stand-alone swimming entity. And best of all he said “I’ve booked you into a “lovely boutique” hotel not far from the pool and your Jeddah office.”

Perfect, I thought, a new stand-alone swimming business of my own to look after, a copy of the Munich Olympic Pool to work in, a couple of Saudi Arabia’s best swimmers to coach and through it all living in a “lovely boutique” hotel.

I’ve been in Jeddah ten months now. The Mecca Governor did not sign the swimming contract next week, or next month or in the nine months since then. It just did not happen. The pool is fantastic but there is no office. And my “lovely boutique” hotel is a slum. Rooms are cleaned once a month, there is no hotel food and the reception staff clearly resent English speaking foreigners.

The only promise kept was the quality and character of the swimmers. They were and are exceptional. Some are refugees from war-destroyed Syria. They are humble, sincere people. One of them I am delighted to report has been provided with a visa to swim in the New Zealand Open Championships beginning at the Millennium Institute on 4 April. His name is Eyad and he will swim the 50 fly and the 100 and 50 freestyle.  

The Syrian swimmers visited me shortly after I moved into Brian’s “lovely boutique” hotel and were so appalled they disappeared down stairs and demanded that a cleaning squad immediately move into my room and make it fit for human occupation. To ensure the cleaning was done to their standard they purchased some serious disinfectant at a local supermarket and commanded that the hotel staff use only this product in their cleaning duties.                     

And now I know for sure that in Saudi Arabia there is a mountain of truth in the internet view – “Customer Service: Expect to be delighted one day, and pitched into a stupor of disbelief the next.”


Ethical Leadership Is Mostly About Leader Integrity

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

For about fifty days we have witnessed, in the United States, what happens when a lack of integrity characterises the actions of government. When alternative facts and fake news are accepted, chaos will soon follow. A good example of unethical leadership is the recent dismissal of the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Under normal circumstances there would be nothing unusual in a new President replacing an attorney from a previous administration. Except, in this case, Bharara met with Trump in November and received an assurance that his job was secure. He would continue to act as the US attorney for New York. Four months later Trump sacked him – and that was unethical. It was the product of a leader without integrity.

On 18 December 2016 the President of Swimming NZ, Bruce Cotterill, told the NZ Herald, “I think we’ve got the right coaching in place.”

The “right coaching” he referred to was three people.

Donna Bouzaid is responsible for High Performance coaching strategy. In her swimming days she completed a crossing of Cook Strait. Donna coached successfully in Naenae, Masterton, North Shore, West Auckland and New Plymouth and was a Coach and Head Coach for a number of Swimming NZ teams. In 2014 she was presented with a Swimming NZ Honours Award.

Gary Hurring is the High Performance Athlete Development Coach responsible for overseeing the Swimming NZ pathways for swimmers from club to elite levels. Gary was a gold medallist at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games (which earned him the Sportsman of the Year Halberg Award). Shortly after that he won a World Championship silver medal in the 200m backstroke. For several years Gary coached the hugely successful Capital Swim Team.

Jerry Olszewski is the newcomer and is the National Head Coach. Olszewski has been coaching at club level in the USA for twenty-five years. The Swimming NZ website tells me he also has considerable experience in the business of swim coaching, administration and organisation.

So that is the coaching team. That is the group that the President of Swimming NZ, Bruce Cotterill told us on 18 December 2016, “I think we’ve got the right coaching in place”.

And on 9 March 2017 the President of Swimming NZ, Bruce Cotterill, announced that he was sacking both Donna and Gary. Less than three months and two thirds of “the right coaching” were gone.

Of course there is nothing wrong with an organization cutting back its costs when its income has been slashed. In that Swimming New Zealand acted properly. What is not right is the comfort and assurance given to the Swimming NZ coaching team only to reverse that pledge 81 days later. Swimming NZ has been doing too much of that recently. A fee was going to be charged to attend the Nationals then it was dropped. Finals were not going to be swum at some National events and then they were. Times were not going to be recognized and then they were okay. The impression of chaos is not good. Can we trust what comes out of Antares Place? It is an open question right now.

And so the real problem is the way Swimming NZ behaved – giving comfort and assurance and then sacking two of the team anyway. But what they did is also problematic. Two questions are obvious.

One – did they sack the right people? In my view, no. If coaching changes were required Gary and Donna should have been kept on and Olszewski sent back to Arizona. Just look at their CVs and length of service. Gary has long been the best person in New Zealand to be National Head Coach. The only reason I can think of for sacking the two New Zealanders was that they were appointed by an earlier administration. Asking Donna and Gary to go could be spun as correcting the mistakes of others. Olszewski, on the other hand, was recently appointed by the Cotterill regime. Sacking him would have meant answering the question of whether he should have been appointed in the first place. Possibly, rather than admit the appointment of Olszewski was an error, the two New Zealanders had to go.   

Two – were there better cuts that could have been made elsewhere? In my view, yes. A dozen previous Swimwatch posts have recommended that Swimming NZ get out of the expensive business of high performance coaching. It is expensive. Swimming NZ do it badly. It has had no Olympic success. Savings of between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per year would result. And second Swimming NZ should do what the Moller Report recommended in 2012. The Report’s second recommendation was that Swimming NZ should get out of the “teach the teachers” function. The Moller Report said learn to swim was something clubs could manage on their own. And in that regard the Moller Report was right. It is the ultimate irony that this one recommendation is the only recommendation Swimming NZ chose to reject.

I never understood why the Moller Report said it was fine for Swimming NZ to teach Lauren Boyle to swim but recommended getting out of anything to do with teaching learners. Moller correctly saw being involved in learn to swim as a distraction from the core purpose of governing. But Moller saw no distraction in holding on to the training of senior swimmers. Moller continued to confuse the operator and governance functions. As we have seen that confusion has caused terminal problems. Especially when Swimming NZ chose to try and do both – that is to govern the sport and at the same time operate both a high performance program and a “teach the teachers” program.

As one would expect Swimming NZ has ended up doing everything badly. Swimming NZ should focus on its core duty to govern. That means controlling and directing an environment conducive to superior performance.  Swimming NZ should get out of the operating functions of junior learn to swim and high performance coaching and leave the operation of these two functions to others. That decision would save the organization a $1million or more every year and would dramatically improve swimming in New Zealand. Oh, and would also keep Donna and Gary in a job.  

And so the decision to sack Donna and Gary was bad because of the way it was done and because there are better savings that could accrue: savings that would actually improve the organization’s performance. Swimming NZ should focus on its core governance responsibility and stop running around operating businesses that New Zealand coaches and swim schools do so much better.