Let Calm Heads Prevail

On the 1 December 2016 the Chairman of Swimming New Zealand, Bruce Cotterill, discussed High Performance Sport New Zealand’s decision to cut the sport’s funding. Cotterill did not think so, but the decision was the right one. For twenty years swimming had been funded by a million tax payer dollars per year. Twenty million dollars and at the Olympic Games level had won nothing. The sport was the ultimate state welfare beneficiary. In fact welfare had become institutionalised. The sport’s financial dependence produced bad habits and lethargy that made international sporting success less and less likely.

Of course Cotterill did not see it that way. Beneficiaries seldom do. His response was reported in the New Zealand Herald. He said:      

“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?’.”

Well, that was on the 1 December 2016; nine months ago. Since then a badly timed high altitude camp has hurt the performance of New Zealand swimmers at the World Championships. A disastrous World Championship’s performance has come and gone. If anything funding is now less likely than it was nine months ago. And still we have not heard whether Cotterill is any closer to understanding the “rationale” or what is needed “to get back in the good books.” As far as we can tell there is no understanding or plan. The Board of Swimming New Zealand is like swimmers leaving the Titanic; tossed in a wild sea, treading water, with no purpose or direction beyond their immediate survival, praying for a miracle.

I suspect that arrogance is the problem. In December a good management team would have called together the best swimming brains available in New Zealand. An agreed plan to move the sport forward would have been prepared and sold to the membership. But no, nine months later and all we have from Cotterill is silence. Why? In my view because the Board members arrogantly think they know best.

The Coaches Association tried to help. Remember when they called for submissions asking what coaches felt would improve the sport. That was a good start. But as normal, for the Coaches Association, there was no conclusion, no follow up and no change. The organization’s good intentions were suffocated in a fog of political correctness. On 30 March 2017 the Association did publish the eleven submissions received. There was a common theme. Here is what Clive Power said:  

The only way you are going to effectively deliver a Coach education and swimmer development programme, with the limited resources that this country, is only ever going to have, is through a coordinated Regional Programme.

Here is what I said:

SNZ would be best to focus on governing the business. Directly running swim schools is not part of the governing role. Improving the performance of NZ swimmers is a task New Zealand domestic coaches must solve. New Zealand’s best swimmers have all come from domestic programs or American University teams.           

Here is what Gary Martin said:

Regional Coach driven Programmes are the way to go.

Here is what Emma Swanwick said:

Each region must put in place a Satellite program of regional development. This gives a common goal throughout as the regions are tasked with raising development and performance and are now also directly linked to the overall umbrella office whose aim is to increase stimulation of that goal.

These four coaches have about 150 years’ experience of swimming gained in about seven different countries. Between them they have coached world record holders, Pan Pacific Game’s medallists, World Short Course medallists, World Long Course medallists and Commonwealth Games medallists.  And independently they had reached the conclusion that a regional diverse, decentralised structure would provide New Zealand with better results. By implication all four were suggesting a move away from the obsession with centralized delivery that has characterised Swimming New Zealand management plans for twenty years – and has consistently failed to deliver.   

When four coaches as different as these four and as experienced as these four agree on something it might be worth a second look. My plea to Swimming New Zealand would be to just look at the possibility of a decentralized approach. Those four people obviously have a thread in common. Get them in for two hours. Ask them to consult widely and prepare a report. Swimming New Zealand doesn’t need to implement the plan, just consider it. What is there to lose – a two hour meeting, possibly $1500 in travel cost and another two hours to read the report?

And just think – what say the regional idea works? What say a decentralized plan offers the prospect of a growing, vibrant and competitive sport? What say it strengthens the national coaching pool and stimulates local pride? What say it finds another Loader, Moss, Simcic or Langrell? What say? What say?

It is no secret that for 274 days since 1 December 2016 Swimming New Zealand has not achieved a lot. The ideas unearthed by the Coaches Association survey are worth investigating. It would be sad if the fact that an idea was supported by Swimwatch became reason enough for it to be rejected out of hand. It seems there is a choice between difficult consultation and progress or stubbornly clinging to the past and repeating twenty years of failure. Progress eventually requires everyone to sit down and talk. Swimming could really benefit from an open investigation of the common thread exposed in the Coaches Association survey. A decentralised, regional structure deserves to be presented and considered at the top table.            


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