The Future of Swimming New Zealand

This week Swimming New Zealand produced an email titled “Zonal Structure – The Future”. Attached to the email is a report called “Swimming in New Zealand – The Current State of Play”. The email and report discuss structural changes aimed at improving the performance of the organization. About 28 recipients, not including me, were invited to review the document and consider the following questions.

“1) do you generally agree with the facts, figures and issues presented?

2) do you support a move towards reframing the Zonal boundaries as recommended? (Noting there are various possible permutations you may wish to raise)

3) do you have any other feedback or suggestions to make?”

Although my opinion was not asked for I will give it anyway. I feel no embarrassment about doing that. Long before reform became popular Swimwatch was warning Swimming New Zealand of the intrinsic dangers in their so called High Performance Program. Ten years too late the penny has dropped. There is a problem. Reform is required. I should and am deeply grateful that swimming in New Zealand is having a “road to Damascus experience”. I can only hope the conversion from enemy to advocate is as dramatic as it was for Paul the Apostle.  

And so the balance of this post will consider each of the questions. First – “do you generally agree with the facts, figures and issues presented?”

The answer is yes. It is refreshing indeed to read that Swimming New Zealand accepts that their experiment with the centralized delivery of training has not worked. The report does not sugar coat the disaster of the sport’s high performance program. Even the report’s cover photograph of a drowning swimmer’s hand reaching above the water, pleading for help, speaks volumes about the issues being presented. Providing facts and figures that support the presence of a problem is welcome. The report is a far cry from the blind futility with which successive Swimming New Zealand Boards have clung onto a policy that has hurt two generations of New Zealand swimmers.

Back in 2010 the Annual Report said “These changes will ensure our development towards closing the gap on the world’s best. The exciting news that the government is investing significant funding into the expansion of the high performance environment at the Millennium Institute will further strengthen our programme in future years.”

In 2014 the Swimming New Zealand CEO reported that, “The High Performance programme is broadly delivering on its objectives and has the right leadership, programme elements, initiatives and systems in place to be successful.”

The 2015 Annual Report continued to tell us that international success was imminent. The CEO reported that, “We are very fortunate to have such wonderful ambassadors for our sport and New Zealand. I have no doubt that their current and future success will inspire the next generation of swimmers for many years to come.”

And as recently as early 2017 a senior Swimming New Zealand staff member was quoted in the press as saying, ““It has been an outstanding week of results for our young swimmers coming up. The development of the sport is looking very good in New Zealand.”

And it was all a lie; all smoking mirrors; all fake news. With this new report those days appear to have gone. The drunk has acknowledged there is a problem. He is an alcoholic. The half empty bottle of vodka in his desk drawer is not right. Recognition of the problem is an important first step to recovery and maybe redemption.

Question two – “do you support a move towards reframing the Zonal boundaries as recommended? (Noting there are various possible permutations you may wish to raise)”

I imagine my attitude to this question could best be described as ambivalent. I guess it is best to have the Zones as evenly matched as possible. From this point of view the proposed changes to the Zone boundaries are good. My problem is that while I support the Zone structure for managing the delivering of high performance coaching, I struggle with the use of Zones to deliver competition. For management of the sport Zones add value. For competition, I’m not so sure. That’s no to say I see anything wrong with four Zone teams competing against each other. I’m just not sure that, in an individual sport, artificially created Zones will add much. However I would also be delighted to be proven wrong.  

Certainly the boundary changes necessary to produce four relatively even Zones should not occupy too much attention or time. There are far more serious issues to be addressed. My recommendation would be to make the recommended changes quickly and move on to more important matters.         

Question three – “do you have any other feedback or suggestions to make?”

The proposals in this report are mainly structural. It is recommended that the management of high performance swimming change from one central location to four Zone based locations. Each Zone would have a Head Coach responsible for developing the Zone’s coaching structure and performance. The Zone Head Coach would work with club coaches to promote swimming excellence in the Zone.

As far as the recommendations go the proposed Zone structure will have more success than the Millennium centralized model. Four smaller units focusing on local needs clearly have more potential for success than one national monolith. So why then is it necessary to qualify my support with the thought “as far as the recommendations go”?

My concern is that the recommendations do not go far enough. Structural change alone is not enough. How the structure is going to work must be included in the reform. Without that addition there is the very real prospect that the four Zones will be no more effective than the single Millennium model. The last thing swimming needs is four mini-Millenniums; not as big but just as ineffective. Avoiding that possibility depends on rules put in place now; during the reform’s birth.    

The report makes much of what it calls the Waikato “pilot program”. The Zone concept has been of benefit to swimming in the region. It has provided an indication of the better care provided by a local compact Zone management structure. The Waikato experiment is however only a qualified success. The report points to the fact that “six of the current World Championship team were supported in their development from the Aquaknights development hub” as evidence that the Zone concept works. That result is good but is also only partial success. These six swimmers have 2017 world rankings as shown in the table below.

Name Event 2017 World Ranking
Charlotte Webby Open Water 40
Mathew Stanley 200 Free 53
Samuel Perry 50 Free 91
Bradley Ashby 200 IM 25
Helena Gasson 200 IM 46
Bobbi Gichard 100 Back 91

An average ranking of 58th in the world is hardly proof that the Zone structure on its own guarantees competitive success. Swimming in New Zealand can do better than that. It seems that the structure is good but to work well it needs something more.

Perhaps an extreme example illustrates the point I am trying to make. A few years ago Saudi Arabia was desperate for swimming success. The Saudi royal family decided two things were needed – better facilities and a better management structure. The Germans were called in to build three aquatic centers. Lord Sebastian Coe’s management consulting company was employed to restructure the sport. Money was not a problem. The Kingdom ended up with the best swimming pools and management structure that money could buy. And it hasn’t worked. Saudi swimming still comes last in their area championships. That does not mean there is anything wrong with the pools the Germans built or the structure Lord Coe put in place. It does mean the Saudis have no idea how to make what they have bought work.

It’s a bit like putting me behind the wheel of a Formula One Ferrari. The car has potential way beyond the driver’s ability. I could not drive a Ferrari much faster than an old Ford Cortina.

It would be disastrous if the initiative that produced this effort at reforming swimming in New Zealand was wasted because insufficient attention was paid to the rules required to make the new Zone structure work. We do not want to make the Saudi mistake. The report recommends a good path forward but, on its own, it is not enough. The real work is to make sure the Zone Head Coaches and club coaches are working to agreed plans and established procedures. The recommended structure is a good start but, in all seriousness, the plan to put something that works in place is only half done.          



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