Archive for November, 2017

A Stranded New Zealand Whale

Friday, November 17th, 2017

Many responsibilities come with the role of leadership. But of foremost importance leaders must provide a vision that gives the organization direction and purpose. Planning the organisation’s future is basic management 101. And for a year now that function has been non-existent in Swimming New Zealand. I have no idea what the Board of Directors do at Antares Place. It certainly seems to have little to do with vision, direction and purpose. A time line of events during the past twelve months illustrates the point.

December 2016

In December 2016 High Performance Sport New Zealand decided swimming was failing and reduced the government’s financial support. The reaction of Swimming New Zealand Chairman, Bruce Cotterill, was a classic example of what has turned out to be ridiculous nonsense. First of all he said he was “surprised and disappointed”. If he was then he was alone in the world. Every person involved in swimming was well aware of the poor performance that led to that decision. And if Cotterill wasn’t, he shouldn’t be Chairman.

Cotterill then doubled down on the fault by saying, “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?”

I would have thought the answer to those questions was pretty bloody obvious. For twenty years the sport hasn’t won anything. But perhaps Cotterill doesn’t know enough to see the obvious. All that was twelve months ago and we’ve not heard from Cotterill why or what we need to do to get back in the good books. Is that because, a year down the track, Cotterill still doesn’t know or is it because he knows but has no idea how to fix the problem?

In a lovely insight into the wisdom that Swimming New Zealand brings to sport’s management Cotterill concluded his remarks by telling New Zealand, “I think we’ve got the right coaching in place and a new facility [at the Millennium Institute].” The right coaching was an American age group club coach called Jerry Olszewski and two New Zealanders, Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid. Since then all three have left. Olszewski clearly had enough and went back to the United States and the other two were sacked by those who, five minutes before, were calling them the “right coaching”.

And so in December 2106 the signs were that the management of swimming in New Zealand was unravelling at a hundred miles an hour.

April 2017

Swimming New Zealand sent 16 swimmers to a high altitude training camp in the United States. I was about to say the camp was planned, but that’s not true. Without any clear plan someone decided that a three week altitude camp, three months before the World Championships was perfect preparation. You don’t need to know much about swim coaching to know that in three months any benefit of altitude training will have long gone. Five minutes after typing “altitude training” into Google you could learn that. The result of Swimming New Zealand’s camp was that a team of tired, poorly prepared swimmers went off to Budapest to take on the world.

It may not seem important but, in my opinion, the decision to program that camp in April is the simplest and most graphic example of a Board who have no idea what they are doing. And the end result of that is that they actually end up doing things that cause harm.

July 2017

A New Zealand team went off to compete in the World Championships in Budapest. As expected the performance was disappointing: worse than the previous three World Championships. No gold, no silver, no bronze, one swim in the finals, two swims in semi-finals, not appearing on the medal table and an average place in their events of 26th – down 3 places from two years ago and 7 places from four years ago. A train wreck by any measure.

Another way of looking at the fiasco was the number and percentage of personal bests. A PB percentage of 14% is not good enough. A club coach would rightly have serious committee problems with that performance record. An international coach should pack his or her stopwatch and white board marker and head through the Waterview Tunnel bound for Auckland Airport.

August 2017

And that is exactly what Head Coach, Jerry Olszewski, decided to do. He was out of here; on the plane back to Arizona. I suspect that as Coleridge put it, “He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn.”

In the meantime the much vaunted National Elite Program that for twenty years we were told was New Zealand’s pathway to international swimming honors and for twenty years cost a million dollars a year is now being directed and coached by someone the Swimming New Zealand website describes as an “intern”. The internet tells me an intern is “a trainee who works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification.” Except at the comedy they call Swimming New Zealand. Intern there means you’re the boss.

September 2017

At least one member of the Swimming New Zealand Board saw there was a problem and decided to write a report recommending the sport be re-structured into several autonomous regions. On Swimwatch I welcomed the initiative and said this “The report recommends a good path forward but, on its own, it is not enough. The real work is to make sure the Zones 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.”

Two months have gone by since the report was written and the initiative appears to have withered and died. We have heard nothing. At last someone produced something of value. I hope it has not been the victim of Swimming New Zealand infanticide.

November 2017

Swimming New Zealand has decided there will be no national trials for the Commonwealth Games. Swimmers will instead be able to qualify in regional meets. National trials are a good and proper and important part of preparing for international events. This Commonwealth Games begin on the 4 April 2018. Swimming New Zealand should have programmed a full National LC Championships and Trials from the 1st to the 6th March.

New Zealand’s greatest success in Commonwealth competition was at the Auckland Games in 1990. Just like the 2018 Games, the 1990 Games were held early in the year. On that occasion Swimming New Zealand had the National Championships and Trials very shortly before the Games. The result was that swimmers like Simcic, Moss, Kingsman, Tapper, Anderson, Jeffs, Steel and Langrell were swimming at their very best. The same thing will not happen on this occasion. In fact, as I understand it, right now only two swimmers have even qualified to swim in the event.

Conclusion

I read recently a social media comment about the current state of swimming in New Zealand. This is what it said.

“Our top swimmers are actually getting better – we had a NZ record this week ( Matthew Stanley) in Beijing and several at NZ Short course champs, among others. Our top age group swimmers are better than ever with so many NAG records set this year – one 14-year-old even tied with an Olympian at the recent nationals. Swimming NZ has a huge role to play in that – it organised the meet – one of the best national meets seen in years.”

I have no idea what planet the author has been living on for the past year. But I guess in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. It seems to me that events at Swimming New Zealand since December 2016 hardly justify the description of “actually getting better”. In my view the facts seem to support a description of “quickly getting worse”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s Nowt So Strange As Folk

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

I’ve been told that an involvement in sport has character building qualities. Participants learn the value of fair play, learn to comply with a strict set of rules and, above all, learn to handle wins and losses with dignity and grace. Or, as Rudyard Kipling eloquently put it If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

I’m sure there is value in that view. Well-coached sport does yield benefits. Society does profit from the all those games being played in pools, tracks and parks. But it is not only sport that teaches life lessons. There are more role models in New Zealand than Richie McCaw, Peter Snell or Valerie Adams.

For example the behaviour of high profile politicians can be no less persuasive. And, for that reason, when they behave badly it is sad because of what it says about them and because of the hurt it does to those they influence. In New Zealand we are witnessing a classic case of what it means to be a bad loser. A month ago the National Party lost power to a Labour, Green and NZ First coalition. The penalty kick that sank the National team was delivered by the NZ First captain Winston Peters. He chose to play with Labour and relegated National to the second division.

And since then National politicians, in the best traditions of sore losers, have complained about everything. The rules, the playing field, the referee and the integrity of the opposition have all been called into question.

Since Mr Peters chose to form a government with Labour, it’s become known that before the election he initiated legal action against former Prime Minister Bill English and others over the leaked details of a pension overpayment. National Party leader, Bill English, said he thought it would have been in the public interest for voters to have known about the legal action before the election, not after it. Former minister Judith Collins last week said Mr Peters should front up. “I think New Zealanders are owed an explanation – was he being genuine?” she said.

The behaviour of English and Collins is stunningly similar to the USA soccer goalkeeper, Hope Solo.  In 2016 Solo was suspended from the women’s national team for six months as a direct result of critical comments Solo made after the United States was eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. After the loss in a penalty-kick shootout, which sent the Americans home from the Games without a medal for the first time, Solo responded by assailing the Swedes’ conservative tactics and calling them “a bunch of cowards”. The comments were widely criticized as unsportsmanlike.

The same accusation, with equal validity, could be levelled at English and Collins. Sadly we have no federation with the power to send those two home for six months.

But for real bad sportsmanship former cabinet minister Chris Finlayson takes the biscuit. He has told parliament the coalition negotiations carried out after the election by NZ First leader Winston Peters were “essentially a fraud”. Finlayson said Winston Peters simply used the negotiations to play the main parties off against each other. He had “absolutely no regard” for Mr Peters.

Sporting examples of Finlayson style abuse are all too common. For example in the 1990 Australian Tennis Open Championships John McEnroe threw his racquet to the ground in frustration. The racquet broke and McEnroe received a point penalty for “racquet abuse”. McEnroe objected to the penalty and asked to see, Ken Farrar, the tournament supervisor. Farrar arrived, explained that the penalty would stand and turned to leave the court. As he walked away McEnroe shouted, “Just go fuck you mother.” Farrar returned and awarded the game to McEnroe’s opponent.

McEnroe’s response may have been more colourful but the Finlayson accusation of fraud is no less hurtful; no less revolting as an example of bad sportsmanship; no better as a nauseating example to New Zealand of how not to behave. Because Finlayson made his insult inside the safety of the House of Parliament we have no means of awarding the game to Winston Peters.

I suspect New Zealand will soon identify the National team as a bunch of old, grumpy, poor losers. They say you can tell more about character in adversity than in victory. Recent events mean we are learning much about the character of English, Collins and Finlayson. And it is not looking good. A team that behaves like this, when they lose, does not deserve to win. As their supporters begin to label them as poor losers National’s supporters will leave to cheer and vote for another better behaved team.

Post Script: I have written before about the Syrian swimmer I am helping with his training. It is amazing how something as innocent as a sign on a swimming pool wall can mean different things to different people. A couple of weeks ago we were in Whangarei at a swim meet. We walked into the pool and Eyad stopped and said to me, “Did they know I was coming?” I had no idea what he meant. Eyad pointed to a large sign on the back wall. It said, “NO BOMBING”.

I should add you will find no more peaceful and quiet person than Eyad. The irony of his comment though does reflect the sad and broken condition of his home country.

QUESTION MARK

Monday, November 13th, 2017

On far too many occasions the Wellington swimming administrator Mark Berge has been the subject of comment in this blog. We have asked questions about management actions involving swimming in Wellington. Most recently we have questioned the ethics of his long term membership on the Swimming Wellington Board.

With this history it will surprise no one to learn that, in my opinion, I do not have much time for Mark Berge or his influence on swimming in New Zealand. In fact I disagree with just about everything I’ve heard he supports. And of course I have no doubt he disagrees with equal passion with the views expressed in Swimwatch. That is of no personal concern. In fact I would be far more concerned if Mark Berge agreed with me.

My previous Swimwatch post discussed aspects of the decision of Gabrielle Fa’amausili to accept a swimming scholarship at the University of Georgia. We were prompted to write the post as a result of comments about the scholarship that appeared on the Facebook page called NZSwim. Of course I do not always agree with everything posted on the NZSwim page. That is not to say I think the page is bad for swimming or should be closed down. On the contrary the presence of NZSwim is healthy and good for the sport. Open discussion and sharing of views is something that should be encouraged. The last thing good for any society is the suppression of discussion even when the views expressed question the action of those in power: especially when the views expressed question the action of those in power. Good administrators encourage dissent. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is more than a well-known phrase. It is essential to good governance. And in swimming NZSwim has an important role in providing that service.

So how, you may be asking, is Mark Berge and the publication of NZSwim related. Well, from what I have heard Mark Berge does not approve of NZSwim one little bit. If that is true, I have absolutely no idea why he would object to the publication. The NZSwim page has a lot of good information. I’ve not seen anything published that would encourage Wellington swimmers to riot along Lambton Quay. From as far away as I am it appears Mark Berge may have a Donald Trump like aversion to a free and functioning press.

While that might be bad and sad the opinions of Mark Berge do not really matter as long as he is unable to prevent the voice of NZSwim or Swimwatch or any one else being heard. But is that exactly what he might be trying to do?

Because I have been told that Mark Berge is contacting the Wellington swimming community with the story that the journalist who writes for NZSwim has been “banned from Swimming NZ meets.” The NZSwim journalist attended and reported on the recent New Zealand Short Course Championships. And so if Berge is spreading that story it seems unlikely to be true. I have also heard that the journalist’s wife has been contacted by Berge with the banning story.

Those are the accusations. They may or may not be true. But they should certainly be investigated by New Zealand Swimming and Wellington Swimming. The truth needs to be established. No one should be allowed to threaten a journalist’s right to make a living.                      Stand-over tactics and lies have no place in the sport. If the accusations are true the behaviour is bullying and harassment and cannot be tolerated.

Even before these alleged events it was my opinion that Mark Berge had passed his sell-by date. The sport now needs to establish the veracity of these new accusations. Because if Mark Berge has been involved, as told to me, the sell-by date has not only expired the product needs to be discarded.

 

 

 

Swimming New Zealand Innocent of this Charge

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

Most readers will be aware that I am a serial critic of Swimming New Zealand. However not every event involving swimming should reflect negatively on the Federation. For example in the past two days the NZSwim Facebook page published a comment on Gabrielle Fa’amausili’s decision to accept a swimming scholarship at the University of Georgia. This is what the Facebook post says.

“Now official. You read it first here. Another swimmer off to the US to study. It appears very few top swimmers want to stay in NZ to swim after leaving secondary school.

There is nothing left to keep them in the country now. Already many national Open titles are being held by swimmers who are not NZ’s best. This is something Swimming NZ is simply too afraid of discussing openly.

Even coaches are returning to compete at nationals and getting good results – including… podium results, because they can now. For example in the 200m freestyle a coach got a silver medal at NZSC. Our best swimmer was overseas – and that swimmer, Matthew Stanley, got a NZ record in the event this week – well over three seconds faster than the winner at this year’s New Zealand Short Course champs.

Even masters swimmer Moss Burmester is top 15 in 50m backstroke on NZ Opens times – and he’s approaching 40.

Anyway, Gabrielle Fa’amausili is off to the University of Georgia – officially signed up.”

The clear implication is that the number of swimmers accepting American university scholarships reflects badly on Swimming New Zealand’s management of the sport. And that is simply not true. You see, I have had some experience of swimmers taking up the opportunity to swim and be educated in the United States. Over the years six swimmers coached by me have gone on to swim at university in the United States. I have been involved in contacting schools and arranging the tests and terms of the scholarships. In all cases I coached the swimmers when they came home for the summer holidays and maintained regular contact with their university coach.

I have never considered that a swimmer accepting a swimming scholarship to be a negative. Just look at the advantages. If a swimmer is good enough to be offered a full ride scholarship, this is what they can expect in return.

  1. University tuition fees paid.
  2. Books and stationary supplies paid.
  3. Accommodation paid.
  4. Meals paid.
  5. Extensive travel through the USA paid.
  6. Holiday training camps in California, Florida, Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands paid.
  7. A good degree earned.
  8. The opportunity to be coached and compete in the world’s most competitive swimming environment.

Compare that to the domestic problems of working during school holidays to pay living expenses, paying for coaching, paying to travel to swim meets, paying education fees and paying off an average student loan debt of $21,000 at the end of it all. Any sane person given the choice is going to jump at the American chance. Not because of problems created by Swimming New Zealand. But simply because four years of “free” education in the United States provides a good and subsidised start to life that is not available in New Zealand.

Accepting an American scholarship is not a negative comment on New Zealand or the national federation. It is rather a reflection of the positive benefits available to good swimmers in the United States. This Facebook post would have been far more effective and accurate if it had been written as “Wow, Gabrielle Fa’amausili has just jumped at the chance of receiving a free education at the first class University of Georgia. Isn’t that fantastic news?”

You see, far too many New Zealand swimmers end their careers without a return; without a payback for their efforts. When one of the swimmers, coached by me, left to be educated and swim in the United States she had been training eleven times a week for six years. She had swum 18,538 kilometres, or 741,520 lengths or 10,381,280 strokes. She had been to the gym 1032 times and had lifted 5366 tonnes. That’s the weight of twenty A380 airplanes. She had broken national open records, won national open championships and represented the country. But if she had retired at that point there would have been little to show for all that effort. There would have been personal satisfaction, certainly. There would have been a lifetime of memories, without question. There would have been valuable life skills learned. But there would have been no tangible, “take-it-to-the-bank” reward.

Her four years in the United States provided the reward. The 18,538 kilometres bought her a good education and opened doors to a new and exciting life. Now Gabrielle Fa’amausili has been offered and has accepted the same opportunity. And now, not as a put-down of Swimming New Zealand or her current coach or club, she has rightly decided to give it a go. All we should do is applaud her success and wish her well.

We should remember too that these offers are not made by USA Swimming. Swimming scholarships are the private concern of 664 independent universities. The Facebook argument that it is somehow Swimming New Zealand’s responsibility to match what several hundred American universities provide in nonsense. Not even USA Swimming would attempt that feat. Swimming New Zealand can only be responsible for what it can control. And Fa’amausili’s education is not their concern.

The Facebook report goes on to mention that some coaches and masters swimmers are performing well in open competition. This fact, we are told, supports the idea that the standard of swimming in New Zealand is getting worse. That is probably true. The sport currently has a real quality problem. A problem largely of Swimming New Zealand’s making. And a problem that appears to be getting worse.

My argument here though is that Gabrielle Fa’amausili’s decision to head to the United States is not part of that problem. Her decision is entirely positive and should not be tainted by negative criticism of Swimming New Zealand. Good luck Gabrielle. Georgia is a good school with a great swim program – have fun.

 

 

 

 

Should You Read My Book?

Monday, November 6th, 2017

A book I have titled “How to Survive Junior Swimming – and how to prosper” will be published shortly. The book has the same publisher as my two previous books on swimming. It will be for sale in book shops and on amazon.com. My intention is to offer a practical guide to navigating the difficulties that can affect the transition years between promising junior and successful adult swimmer; difficulties that if left unresolved can result in early drop-out from the sport.

Prior to the publication date we will post a series of short extracts from the book. The purpose is to let you know the problems that the book seeks to address and, of course, to encourage you buy a copy. As a start here is a summary of the book’s second chapter.

Is There An Individual Problem?

Swimmer drop-out comes with symptoms. It is important to identify them quickly. Left unaddressed and it is 99% certain to be too late. Teenage drop-out can be prevented but it can seldom be cured.

Arthur Lydiard is quoted as saying, “There are champions everywhere. Every street has got them. All we need to do is train them properly.” Lydiard stressed the importance of building an aerobic base. He accepted that the emphasis on aerobic training would probably mean early results would not be as spectacular as swimmers in sprint trained teams. However long term success meant doing the right thing. It meant accepting that swimmers could be lost when parents saw juniors in other teams swimming faster times.

Like many Lydiard predictions this one proved to be accurate. I don’t know how many times I have watched swimmers travel from balanced aerobic, to exploitation, to struggle and drop-out. Two swimmers illustrate the point.

First a swimmer from Delray Beach in Florida. We will call her Mary. She came to the team at 10 years of age and swam with me doing a balanced programme through to 13 when her parent’s, hungry for instant results, took her to a sprint programme. Three years later she changed clubs again and two years after that, after just one year of college swimming, she retired. Her mother made no secret of the fact that her goal for Mary’s swimming was to secure a good university swimming scholarship. I am sure that for two years after changing to the sprint based programme both parents were congratulating themselves on making a great choice. Sadly they were completely oblivious to the cost of their decision; unaware that the aerobic conditioning established in Mary’s early training was being exploited far too soon. Mary’s talent was easily capable of seeing her complete a successful university swimming career and much more. Her parent’s greed ensured that Mary’s talent was never realised.

I find a career like Mary’s really upsetting. Here was a swimmer who at 12 years of age was ranked in the top ten of her age group in the United States. She was capable of swimming well under 0.55 seconds for 100 meters and under 1:57 for 200 meters and it just did not happen.

The table below shows Mary’s best long course times each year for 100 meters freestyle and 200 meters freestyle.

Phase Year Age Time Time Discussion
Balanced Aerobic 2006 10 1:33 - A period of aerobic training and steady but not spectacular improvement. Mary improved by  an average of 7% per annum in the 100 and 4% in the 200 – both ahead of the goal of 3% per annum
2007 11 1:16 2.45
2008 12 1:11 2.35
2009 13 1:06 2.23
Exploitation 2010 14 1:03 2.14 Mary changed clubs and quickly dropped to 1:01 and 2:10. Both an average of about 5% per annum.
2011 15 1.01 2.10
Struggle and Drop-out 2012 16 1:02 2.12 For three years Mary struggled to improve. Her average improvement in both events was less than 1%. At the end of 2014 she dropped out
2013 17 1:00 2.10
2014 18 1:00 2.09

My second example is a swimmer in Auckland, New Zealand. We will call her Emily. Emily began modest aerobic type training when she was 9 years of age. She swam with me through to 12 and then moved to a sprint based programme. She made spectacular progress for two years. I know her mother was beside herself with joy. On several occasions she approached other swimmers in my team recommending the same change. “Just look at how much Emily has improved,” she said: completely unaware of the price her daughter was paying for that improvement. Emily is now 15 years of age and is one year into the “Struggle” period. Emily’s mother had high ambitions of United States university scholarships and international success. The figures suggest this is now unlikely. The symptoms have been left unaddressed for too long. In one more year it will all be over.

EMILY’S CAREER OVER 50 METERS AND 100 METERS BACKSTROKE

Phase Year Age Time Time Discussion
Balanced Aerobic 2011 9 54 - A period of aerobic training and steady progress. Emily improved by  an average of 7% per annum in the 50 backstroke and 4% in the 100 – both ahead of the goal of 3% per annum
2012 10 44 1:33
2013 11 40 1:25
2014 12 38 1:22
Exploitation 2015 13 33 1:12 Emily changed clubs and quickly dropped to 33 and 1:10. Both an average of about 7% per annum.
2016 14 33 1:10
Struggle and Drop-out 2017 15 34 1.10 After two years exploiting her aerobic conditioning Emily’s progress has stalled. The most likely conclusion? Drop-out is probably one year away.

The number of races swum further demonstrates the transition from care to exploitation. In the early stages of Emily’s career I kept her racing load down to around 40 races a year. Emily then left for a sprint based programme. Overnight her racing load doubled to close to 80 races. Coaches and parents should know better. You cannot just double someone’s workload without consequences. The result is that Emily has entered the struggle stage and will soon be another teenage drop-out.

 

Mary was the other example of a swimmer whose career moved from balanced aerobic to exploitation to struggle and drop-out. Her racing programme further illustrates the point. In her early career I entered Mary in about 30 races a year. She then left to swim in a sprint based programme. The number of races immediately more than doubled to 70 and then doubled again to 137. For Mary’s swimming career it was to prove lethal. I imagine her parents just could not understand why Mary’s career began to struggle. Three years later she gave the whole thing away.

In both cases the exploitation characteristic of Emily and Mary’s training was reflected in their competition programmes. Competition hurts. When a person gets hurt often enough they eventually go off to do something else. The rule of thumb for a senior swimmer is a maximum of 100 races a year and for junior swimmers a lot less. Stick to that rule. Your swimmer’s future probably depends on it.