Coaching New Zealand Swimming

One of the things I enjoy about the National Swimming Championships is the opportunity to say hello to coaches from all over the country. That experience highlights the injustice of Swimming New Zealand’s (SNZ) treatment of New Zealand coaches. It all began with Jan Cameron. She pushed the myth that her club provided the best coaching in the country. That became official doctrine when SNZ adopted the Centralised Training Centre policy. From then on it was all downhill for domestic coaches.

SNZ embarked on a multi-pronged assault.

First, they employed a National Head Coach. Noticeably no New Zealander was ever good enough. In ten years SNZ employed an Australian, an Englishman, a German, another Australian, and another Australian, a Spaniard, another Englishman and an American before a relief New Zealander was chosen. On every occasion SNZ made great play of their “world-wide search”. Clearly SNZ viewed foreign passports as an important coaching asset.

Second, the SNZ website shamelessly promoted their Centralised Training Centre. It was all positively nauseating. The best training, the best pool, the best physio, the best coaching was exclusively offered by the national federation, SNZ. The clear implication was that local coaches were not as good. And that was a flat-out lie. But it was a lie repeated so often it was believed.

Third, SNZ staff bad-mouthed local coaches. CEO, Christian Renford’s first interview with Radio Sport was a disgrace. He said that he had travelled around the country and the weakest feature of New Zealand swimming was its coaching. It became a line Jan Cameron and others used to deflect attention away from their own failures. The buck stops at the top has never been strong in the SNZ character. I always thought it ironic that SNZ demanded the right to coach every good swimmer in the country and then blamed local coaches for the poor results. How does that work?

Fourth, money poured through the SNZ system. The organization received and spent $30 million over 24 years; and local coaches didn’t see a penny. Talk about a world of the “haves and the have-nots”. The centralised program had their, largely unearned, everything. They were encouraged to strut around the pool in their free SNZ uniforms. Their arrogance was overwhelming. Meanwhile every private coach in the country was helping organize a sausage sizzle outside Mitre10 or a raffle night at the RSA in order to get their wages paid or some help with travel to the national championships. The idea of SNZ representing all its members was a distant dream.

And finally there was a savage punitive element in the way SNZ treated swimmers outside the SNZ centralised program. Swimmers who remained loyal to their home coach were denied access to SNZ facilities and services. At the Manchester Commonwealth Games swimmers like Jon Winter, Toni Jeffs and Liz van Wellie, were excluded from team meetings because they trained outside the SNZ centralised program. Their loyalty was punished. Ironically the only swimmers to win medals at that Games were Liz van Wellie and Toni Jeffs. That fact did not receive much mention on the SNZ website or by its arrogant CEO.

It is a wonder that SNZ coaches survived the assault. Certainly their reputation and morale were badly damaged. Tell someone they are not good enough for long enough and their behaviour will begin to reflect the cruelty. That damage will not be repaired in five minutes. Gary Francis may attempt to con the New Zealand swimming world with his soft tones and gentle rhetoric but the organisation he works for were savages without mercy and should not be forgiven quickly. New Zealand coaches are not Nelson Mandela.

In spite of their mauling by the national organisation when I look around the national championships I am inspired. It seems to me New Zealand has a very strong body of very good coaches. Excuse the pun, but the pool of good coaches is very deep. And they do not all work in the big cities. People like Monica Cooper from Northland, the unrelated Paul and Dean Kent from Auckland, Judith Wright and Jana Wilkitzki also from Auckland, Alison Fitch and Graeme Laing from Waikato, William Benson from Hawkes Bay, Jon Winter from Kapiti, Gary Hollywood from Wellington, Dave Prattley from Canterbury, Jeremy Duncan in Southland and a dozen others stand in comparison to coaches anywhere.

Why then was I told today that Gary Francis had gone begging to Hilton Brown and Mark Bone for help in identifying New Zealand’s emerging talent? Yesterday’s men – what would they know? It is difficult to avoid the thought Francis is on a mission to ingratiate himself with some ex-high profile coaches. If so, there is nothing more embarrassing that a little man trying to curry favour.

Whatever the reason, once again it is a Francis and SNZ put down of New Zealand’s current coaches. There are a dozens of coaches in New Zealand capable of providing that sort of advice without resorting to a couple well past their coaching sell-by date. In my view if Brown and Bone had an ounce of good judgement they would have told Francis to start trusting the coaches that the country depends on. The whole thing stinks and points pretty clearly at why we are in such a mess. Right now Francis is digging the SNZ hole deeper rather than getting us out of it.

Until I saw some more sense coming from his work, even if I was coaching a swimmer with the speed talent and ability of Michael Phelps I wouldn’t let that swimmer go within a hundred miles of a Johns, Francis, Bone and Brown cartel. The advice that has been accurate for twenty years remains even more so today. If you are a good swimmer, stay at home, with your own coach. Do your own thing and keep well away from the cancer called SNZ.

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