Commonwealth Games – A Wrap

 Two conclusions appear clear from the performance of the non-para New Zealand swimmers at the Commonwealth Games. First, the team should have performed better. And second, the poor performance was primarily the result of poor decisions made by SNZ; especially their support of a centralized elite training program.

Much has been said already about the performance of the team. One bronze medal and a 27% PB ratio was the equal worst performance by a New Zealand non-para team in Commonwealth Games’ history. Eighty eight years, 21 Commonwealth Games and 2018 was the equal worst.

What has been less well discussed is the reason SNZ’s decision-making must carry primary responsibility. In the past SNZ has dodged blame for the poor performance of swimming by blaming swimmers, coaches, clubs, the regions, parents, the arrival of “new” sports and video games; anyone and anything to avoid the spotlight being shone on them.

Central to the negative influence of Swimming New Zealand has been their unfortunate experiment in centralise elite coaching. That program caused untold damage to the swimmers involved and to the infrastructure of coaches, clubs and members throughout New Zealand. In this post I want to look at three members of the current Commonwealth Games’ team as examples of the harm caused by Swimming New Zealand.

But before we begin let’s look at the coaches Swimming New Zealand has employed since 2013. You need to remember this is the program Swimming New Zealand went around telling every swimmer and their parents was the best there was. Leave your home program, they said, and come to Auckland. We alone can provide you with the elite coaching needed to become an international champion. In a famous Radio New Zealand interview the CEO of Swimming New Zealand, Christian Renford, tore apart the standard of New Zealand’s local coaches. His message was crystal clear. Anyone wanting to swim fast had no option but to pack a suitcase and move to Antares Place.

The table below shows the coaches employed by Swimming New Zealand since 2013.

Coach Employed Left Length of Service
Regan 2010 2013 3 Years
Sweetenham and Villanueva 2013 2013 5 Months
Lyles 2013 2015 2 Years
Power 2015 2016 1 Year
Hurring (Olympic Games only) 2016 2016 2 Months
Olszewski 2016 2017 1 Year
Woofe 2017 2018 1 Year

Seven Head Coaches in seven years. And five of them foreigners; in a clear message, from the top, that New Zealanders were not good enough. What a joke. On those grounds alone the Swimming New Zealand program should have been banned from having anything to do with caring for a swimmer’s career.

You do not need an international coaching qualification to know that a new coach every year is not going to work. No matter how good each coach might be, and there are some good coaches in that list, changing a coach every year will cause certain failure. No swimmer can make progress when their training program changes annually. The training programs offered by Regan, Lyles and Olszewski are as different as chalk and cheese. And yet in a short space of time Swimming New Zealand blindly expected swimmers to adapt to each new coach and beat the world. From Regan’s hard sets of 400IMs to Lyles commitment to sculling drills, swimmers were expected to accommodate, welcome and benefit from the changes.

Swimmers were simply pawns in SNZ’s grand plan to control every aspect of elite swimming. But of course we all know now, it hasn’t worked. Let’s look at three members of the current Commonwealth Games team affected by SNZ’s coaching shambles.

The most obvious example is Matthew Stanley. He has been around the longest and has been most affected. Stanley is a brilliant swimmer. Back in 2012/13 he was coached by Mark Regan in the Swimming New Zealand program. In March 2012 he set the current New Zealand 400 freestyle record of 3:47.67; a time that ranked him 16th in the world. And then in early 2013 Regan was, in my opinion, effectively fired by Swimming New Zealand. Of course SNZ are going to say he resigned and that’s true. But when Regan’s car and his pool office were taken away, his training camp plans were canned and his employment contract was being rolled over monthly, Regan had very little option but to leave.

Stanley stayed on through Sweetenham and Villanueva. Five months was lost while he waited to see what coach SNZ was going to come up with next. And behold along came Lyles. It didn’t take Stanley or Boyle long to work out that his training was not for them. I can hardly blame them for that. What Lyles had to offer was very different from Regan’s training that had brought Stanley to 16th in the world and Boyle to a world short course title. Both swimmers went off to Australia in search of a compatible coaching home. But in the meantime SNZ had stolen a year of their careers; a year never to be recovered.

In my opinion the treatment of Bradlee Ashby has been no better. I’m unsure exactly when he joined the SNZ program. Probably in 2014 during the Lyles’ time in charge. He then lived through Lyles being made redundant and the Employment Authority fight that caused. Then Clive Power took over and, for a year, Ashby got the very best of coaching advice. Gary Hurring was recruited to coach at the Rio Olympic Games and the American Jerry Olszewski was waiting to take over as Ashby’s coach when the team got back from Brazil. Olszewski only lasted a year before he’d seen enough and fled back to a club program in the United States. That left Ashby being coached by the SNZ Coaching Intern, Matt Woofe. That’s five SNZ coaches in four years and we wonder why Ashby struggled to significantly improve at the Commonwealth Games. How he avoided needing medical attention half way through the 200IM is a bloody wonder to me. There is no way anyone should ask a world class athlete to have five coaches in four years but that is exactly what Cotterill’s Swimming New Zealand asked of Bradlee Ashby.

And finally Bobbi Gichard is another swimmer who, in my opinion, has suffered from too many badly thought-out coaching changes. In her early career she was coached by Noel Hardgrave-Booth. He was a great coach; as tough and straight as they come. Gichard prospered under Noel’s diet of hard, uncompromising work. She and Gabrielle Fa’amausili became New Zealand’s best backstroke swimmers and were landed with the public burden of the girls most likely to succeed. Pretty soon SNZ came calling. They had so much more to offer than Noel’s plastic covered pool in Greendale. They had Lyles and a brand new 50m facility in Auckland. What a joke that was. But Gichard shifted to Auckland just before Lyles was told he did not have the skills required by SNZ. Lyles protested but the Employment Authority said SNZ were right and Lyles was gone. For a short time Gichard transferred to Clive Power, a genuine coach somewhat similar to Gichard’s home coach in Hawkes Bay. That didn’t last long before Gichard left the SNZ program to re-join Lyles and do stroke drills somewhere in Auckland. And she hasn’t swum a PB in the 50 or the 100 or the 200 since 2015. In the Commonwealth Games she swam five individual races with no PBs. Once again though, don’t blame the swimmer. Four coaching changes in four years have proven to be too much even for her prodigious talent.

So there you have three examples of the destruction caused by SNZ’s high performance program. In ten years those stories have been repeated a dozen times. And so if you are a swimmer who has to shift to Auckland for education or work, join North Shore, or United or Waterhole or HPK or any one of a dozen other clubs. But stay away from Cotterill’s SNZ program or you too could likely join the long list of their casualties.

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