The Science That Says Francis Is Wrong

 A hugely knowledgeable Swimwatch reader’s email this week suggested that I read a new item of research described on the BBC website and written by, London based science writer, David Robson.  I recommend the Board of Swimming New Zealand, Steve Johns and Gary Francis read it. I recommend everyone with an interest in New Zealand swimming read it. You see, it proves beyond doubt several important features of top class international sport. In particular it proves the truth of the following characteristics of Swimming New Zealand’s (SNZ) behaviour over the past 25 years and predicts the fate of the Francis Plan.

·         The policy followed by SNZ for 25 years and on which they spent $30million was flawed from the beginning.

·         The fatal policy errors that ruined the swimming potential of two generations of New Zealand’s best swimmers and highlighted on Swimwatch was right.

·         The Francis Plan contains the same fatal mistakes and will eventually lead the sport nowhere.

On a bigger stage the findings also destroy the theoretical basis on which Miskimmin has built his empire. Karapiro might work just fine for a couple of minor world sports but for cycling, running and swimming centralised elite training won’t work. It is a folly on which Miskimmin has wasted a fortune.

So what does a “Big Fish in a Little Pond” say? Here is a very shortened summary.

Some organisational scientists believe the rise of certain athletes can offer success strategies for everyone, with some particular insights into a phenomenon known as the “Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect”. Is it better to enter a prestigious company, for instance, where the large pool of talent may include some intimidatingly talented colleagues? Or should you settle for a humbler organisation, where you may find that you are king of the small fry? Far from being an ego boost, attending a prestigious school can actually make you feel more stupid, quenching their motivation and reducing their chances of success.

Consider two children, equally bright, one of whom appears to be relatively mediocre at a more competitive school, and one of whom scores far above average at a less competitive school. Elsner’s research shows the latter child will be more likely to continue their education, just as the Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect would predict.

Consider an American and Canadian study that analyzed where top professional athletes grew up. In each case, the researchers found that the professional players were far more likely to come from relatively small cities – where they could have a better chance of rising to the top of a smaller league – rather than bigger cities.

Around half the US population comes from smaller cities yet the researchers found that these cities provided a whopping 87% of all NHL players, with similar figures for the MLB and PGA. The NBA was slightly more balanced, but not by much: overall, 71% of the players came from those smaller cities – over 20% more than you would expect from chance alone.

Many factors may help to explain why smaller cities are so effective at nurturing talent. But at least some of the benefits might come from the Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect, and the additional opportunities that may come from starting out as a top player in a smaller league. The Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect will be particularly important when you are at the very start of your career but in the long-term, you may benefit more from honing your skills in shallower waters.

What does that mean? Well first up it means putting all your best athletes into the same site like SNZ did for 25 years can have some severe negative consequences – just like they were told it would. It means that SNZ spent $30 million on a policy that actually caused harm to the participants. The Board of SNZ deserve to be sued by swimming’s lost generations for negligence. It means it should surprise no one that Loader came from Dunedin, Van Wellie from Invercargill, Jeffs from Whakatane, Burmester from Tauranga, Winter from Carterton and Smith from Whangarei. It means that the policy once promoted by SNZ of “excellence in every pool” from Wairoa to the Millennium Institute was right and this Francis targeted rubbish will lead nowhere.

But above all, it starkly focusses our attention on the lack of thought and inevitable failure of the Francis Plan.

Everything Francis does assumes a premise of fake elitism – words like “targeted” for example and his daily tour of the Millennium Pool. His pathetic tables of time standards. They are already an embarrassment – an exercise in what not to do. Certainly the big fish in a small pond theory says that the Francis Plan is not the way champions are found.

I was even asked recently if I had compared the Francis times with the performance of swimmers at the Open Championships. Why would I bother doing that? If this “Big Fish Small Pond” theory is right, and I think it is, I would have more chance of picking a champion from a list of the swimmers who failed to swim the Francis times. The moral of the story is getting close to – if you want to be a champion stay off the Francis list.

The times mean nothing and whether some teenager from central Auckland is swimming them means even less. The chances are that some struggling swimmer in New Plymouth or Nelson or Invercargill is where the next Loader lies.

But for six months Francis has haunted the Millennium Pool when in reality he should have been in Hastings helping William Benson or in Kapiti with Jon Winter or New Plymouth with Donna Bouzaid finding out why she is successful again. That’s the trouble with Francis and Johns – no substance just show. Sadly the Johns email confirms they are convinced of their own righteousness and unable to learn. Well, the academic world of learning is turning against them. They would do well to pause and consider the direction they have chosen before another generation is added to the two SNZ has cost us already.

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