Swimming Without Knowledge Is Blind

For three years I studied Political Science and Business Administration at Victoria University in Wellington. An interesting feature of the Business Administration course was the question of how much product knowledge was needed to manage a corporation. Would the boss of Boeing be a better boss if he had a pilot’s license? Did the CEO of the Blue Star Shipping Line need a deep sea captain’s ticket? How much mechanical engineering knowledge was required to manage Ford Motor Company?

My tutors seemed to think that there was no need for a CEO to have the detailed knowledge of a specialist operator. However, they argued, some specialist knowledge was necessary. Effective management required market and customer knowledge and some familiarity with the applicable technology; sufficient certainly to understand the organisation’s specialists. There was no need for the CEO of Boeing to pilot the company’s new aircraft but he did need to understand the information test pilots provided.      

Later experience partially confirmed that view. For several years I was the CEO of New Zealand’s largest exporter of animal by-products. I knew a fair amount about hides, skins, tallow and meat and bone meal. However to a huge extent I relied on product experts. As long as I knew enough to understand their advice we could make good collective decisions.

Since those days I have increasingly changed my opinion. Academically “some specialist knowledge” might be viewed as enough but the best decisions require more than that. Successful management involves having a much deeper understanding of the product; not to the level of a specialist perhaps but certainly a shared understanding, a similar feel for the product, a common language.

And so what does all this have to do with swimming? Well, I have experienced two organisations recently, The Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation and Swimming New Zealand. Both suffer because their CEOs, in my opinion, have insufficient specialist knowledge. In both cases, the problem is made worse by having no one in either organisation capable of providing good technical advice.

Let’s deal with Saudi Arabia first. The CEO there is a New Zealander who prior to Saudi Arabia served as a swimming administrator in New Zealand. Administration is one thing, a deep and abiding understanding of what makes a champion swimmer is something altogether different. In Saudi Arabia the lack of technical knowledge is fatal because the organisation has no specialists. Some foreigners with little technical knowledge are leading a group of Saudis who have no specialist knowledge. The blind leading the blind; at least that’s the impression. And it results in bad decisions. For example huge resources are put into learn to swim on the assumption that if a boy (there are no girls) is taught to swim well he will be better able to achieve elite success. That, of course is nonsense. Swimmers coming from a good learn to swim program will be better prepared for competitive training but if their training is poor they will fail. The problem in Saudi Arabia is that the training senior swimmers receive is rubbish. Around the world good coaches provide a balanced program. That means the aerobic content should occupy 40% of the time, anaerobic content 20% of the time and speed training 40% of the time. The programs I studied in Saudi Arabia provided aerobic training 4% of the time, anaerobic training 38% of the time and speed training 58% of the time.

Anyone providing swimming training in a 4/38/58 ratio will never win a big swimming race, ever. The Saudi Arabian Government spends millions of Riyal sending swimmers all over the world in the hope that exposing them to international competition will lift the standard of the nation’s swimming. But it is wasted money when the swimmers come home and swim in a 96% speed only program. And the problem will not go away. No one in the organization knows there is a problem, let alone possesses the knowledge required to fix it.   

And Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) is no better. There are or were three individuals in SNZ who have an understanding of elite swimming; Clive Power, Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid. And SNZ sacked two of them and the third has retired. At the top that has left SNZ with a CEO whose experience on their website is described as “a former New Zealand water polo representative and a titleholder in national surf lifesaving and age group swimming.” None of that is elite swimming. However his experience is probably marginally sufficient for a CEO if he had access to and was getting top flight elite swimming advice. But, in my opinion, the CEO of SNZ is not receiving advice of that calibre. The current Head Coach is an American whose experience in the United States was principally as an age group, local swim club coach. I have a pilot’s license that makes me well able to fly my Cessna Arrow between Auckland and Wellington. I am not however equipped to get anyone to London in an A380 wide body jet.

In my opinion the interests of elite New Zealand swimmers are not being properly managed because no one in the organisation understands their world; no one has the required specialist knowledge. And because of that the decision making process is unsound and the conclusions flawed. And if proof is required just look at the swimming medals won in 2000 in Sydney, in 2004 in Athens, in 2008 in Beijing, in 2012 in London and in 2016 in Rio – oh that’s right, there were none. Five Olympics and 15 million tax payer dollars and no result – something must be wrong. And in my opinion, the blind leading the blind, is a fair conclusion.

On that subject it is relevant to ask, what has happened to the coaching organisation’s initiative to intervene on behalf of Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid? There was a lot of noise and bluster when their sackings were announced. Opinions were called for and meetings were held. But since then nothing. I predicted at the time that the coaches association did not have the courage to force real change. Sadly, really sadly, that appears to be the case.   


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