So How Did We End Up In This Mess?

The most recent Swimwatch post began with these two sentences.

“This weekend hasn’t been the best for Swimming New Zealand. After ten years of appalling decision making the sport’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

Since the story was published I have been asked, “What does that mean? I know what you mean by no one qualifying for the Commonwealth Games and no one ranked in the world’s top ten and all that stuff, but what do you mean by ‘ten years of appalling decision making’? What is the evidence to support that assertion?”

It is a perfectly valid question. No one should accuse the Board of a national sporting federation of incompetence without having a reasoned argument to support that view. So in less than 1000 words let’s try and explain. But before I do that it is proper to address two qualifications.

First there are a many distracting notions. Every second person has a theory to explain what’s gone wrong. The old timers will tell you the swimmers are not as tough as they used to be. Others will blame competing sports for taking the available talent. One Swimming New Zealand CEO blamed the coaches. They weren’t up to scratch. Some say there are not enough pools and the ones that are available are not good enough. I’ve heard it said that there is no longer any respect for rules, especially rules regarding the safety of women. Several commentators lay the blame at frequent changes in the competition program or excessively hard qualifying standards. Administrators have suggested swimming is suffering from a lack of government money. It would be easy to spend an entire post on the reasons detractors give to explain the sport’s poor performance. And by and large, all of their opinions have merit. BUT they are not the reason for the poor performance. Instead they are symptom’s that arise as a product of an underlying cause. They are symptoms of a more serious malaise. For years Swimming New Zealand has treated the symptoms and ignored the cause. The result of that is, of course, terminal.

Second, in the interests of precision, my explanation of the cause deals in generalities, in principles and in ideas. As is always the case critics will shoot holes in the explanation with a barrage of “what abouts”. These specific and probably valid exceptions should not be allowed to take away from the possibility that the explanation given here has merit.

And so with all that cleared up, here is what I believe has happened to New Zealand swimming that has resulted in the current chaos.

It was Jan Cameron who first began moving New Zealand swimming away from club-based preparation of senior swimmers and towards a centralized Auckland-based program. Using a mix of incentives, persuasion and coercion swimmers were encouraged to leave their regional home and head to Auckland’s North Shore. And it worked. Swimmers left Dunedin, Christchurch, Carterton, Napier, Te Puke and Hamilton to swim in Auckland. Jan’s club, North Shore, dominated domestic swimming.

Jan then used her success to put the case to Swimming New Zealand that her informal North Shore Club procedure should be a blue print for a Swimming New Zealand national plan. If the North Shore Club could dominate domestic swimming using a centralized training model, the country could lead the world by following the same strategy.

Swimming New Zealand bought into the argument. Working with Sport New Zealand the centralized Millennium Institute High Performance policy was prepared and implemented. And for ten years the Swimming New Zealand Board has doggedly tried to make it work. To say they have failed would be kind. After ten years, and at a cost of $15million, New Zealand has just held a Commonwealth Games trial at which no one qualified. That is as bad as it gets.

But why has the centralized Millennium Institute High Performance policy brought us to this state? What is it about the policy that causes so much harm? What is it that the Swimming New Zealand Board could not see or would not accept?

The answer is that the policy has two destructive consequences that have gutted swimming in New Zealand. First the national sole provider concept just does not work. And second the effort put into trying to make the sole provider concept work, wreaks destitution on the rest of the sport. Let’s look at each of these evils.

Understanding why the sole provider concept has been tried and rejected around the swimming world is just common sense. It is impossible to believe that every elite swimmer in the country is going to respond to one Millennium-based coach. For example I’ve heard rumours that Lauren Boyle enjoyed her time with Mark Reagan but did not get on with David Lyles. Swimming New Zealand however demanded that she accept both. Because the centralized Millennium Institute High Performance policy eliminates the choice elite swimmers must be given to choose their coach, the policy failed. One size does not fit all. In New Zealand it appeared that swimmers were being forced to stay at the Millennium Institute because of money, services or education. And that sort of coercion is never going to result in international sporting success.

But the destruction to the sport’s infrastructure has been even more serious. As the national federation’s attention and resources increasingly focused on their personal program in Auckland, club programs in the rest of New Zealand were neglected and abandoned. For example when Alison Fitch left her coach in Hamilton, her home program was denied the benefit of learning from an international swimmer’s journey. When Emily Thomas left Gisborne or Glen Ashby left the Bay of Plenty their coaches were denied the development that comes from guiding the careers of a top swimmer. Repeated a hundred times over ten years and the effect on regional coaches has been devastating.

And in addition to the devastating effect of lost swimmers the hurt has been compounded by the resources being exclusively applied to the Millennium program and by the website and media attention given to the Millennium squad. Over ten years $15million has been spent in one place that could have added untold benefits to a New Zealand wide program. On the internet the outlandish promotion of the centralized program left the clear impression that Auckland was the only place to be if you were serious about winning a swimming race. That was not only a lie, the damage it caused elsewhere was devastating. We even went through a period where Jan Cameron had Swimming New Zealand build a raised dais at National Championships for Millennium swimmers to sit on away from and above the rest of New Zealand. How anyone could believe that wasn’t causing harm is beyond me. Call a person second class for long enough and that’s what they will become.

And so that’s my take on the cause of swimming’s current problems. Repairing the damage is going to require the Board to refocus the attention of the sport on the whole national infrastructure. But more of that in our next post.

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