Playing Marbles

A few years ago I coached a swimmer who ended up as a national open champion, open record holder and national representative. I’m not giving away her identity. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach five female swimmers who meet that specification.

Before she was an international competitor she was among the top New Zealand age group swimmers in a number of events. One weekend she was entered in a provincial championship. She began the competition by winning one of her off-events, the 200 IM. However I was annoyed. The time was slower than her personal best. I thought she had deliberately done enough to win but no more than that.

When she came into the stands I demanded to know what she was “playing at”. Never one to take a backward step she said she had four more races to swim and thought doing enough to win was enough for the first race. I saw red and told her that if that was the way she was going to go about her swimming she would probably be better playing marbles. Swimming was a sport for grown-ups. The swimmer was about to launch into a suggestion that I should try five events in a day when I noticed a lady walk up behind the swimmer. She leaned forward and said to me, “I don’t think you should be talking to your swimmer in that way. The protection of swimmers is an important subject.”

Quick as lighting my swimmer spun around, looked the woman in the eyes and said, “And you can bugger-off too!”

You should have seen the look on the woman’s face. But she did as she was told and trotted away. It was also the end of our debate about the medley swim. We both dissolved in laughter. Later the swimmer explained that she didn’t mind debating her swim with someone like me who clearly had the best interests of her swimming career at heart, but was never going to allow some goody-two-shoes the same liberty.

I think that story shows that every champion has to handle bumps in the road to success. Less than honest officials, weak administrators, jealous parents and biased spectators at some stage will intervene to make the athlete’s journey more difficult than it should be. I think I have written before about the pool manager who demanded a $3.00 pool entry fee from Rhi Jeffrey who had just won an Olympic Gold Medal and was returning to our Florida pool to begin training. Her father lived in New York and was in the process of paying the training fees that included pool entry but because that had not been received the $3.00, Olympic Gold Medal or not, had to be paid. I paid the $3.00 and said to Rhi, “The money is obviously more important to the pool manager than it is to us.

For hardships on the way to success few athletes can match the career difficulties of Mohammed Ali. White America hated the man. At different times he had to put up with being refused entry into restaurants, having bullets fired into his training camps, having his car randomly ticketed and having his license to work suspended.

In spite of all this the champions find a way to survive. My marbles swimmer went on to win medals representing New Zealand. Rhi had an Olympic and World Championship Gold Medals. Mohammed Ali became history’s greatest and best known fighter. Champions find a way. They dig deep into their soul and draw on reserves that put hardships into retreat.

I am reminded of all that every night at about 6.40pm when mealy mouthed, salivating Abbey Wilson, from TV1 News, discovers another athlete complaining about their coach. So far she has “discovered” discontent in cycling, soccer, rowing and hockey. Wilson always follows the same line of attack – player safety is being compromised by aggressive coaches. Wilson loves the accusation of bullying. Hockey is the latest recipient of Wilson’s treatment. Truth is the players need to harden up. Clearly they have sat through too many sport’s psychology tutorials; enjoying more attention from TV for playing the role of victims than winning a game of hockey.

I am certain players now know they will get a sympathetic ear from TV1. In my opinion players are using Wilson’s bias to get rid of coaches who have told them to smarten up and do their jobs better. It is political correctness run riot. It is certainly going to weaken New Zealand sport. There is no way coaches can creep around scared of telling the truth because holier-than-thou Abbey Wilson might spread their names all over the 6.00pm TV News.

Janine Southby tried all that democratic niceness in netball and look where that got New Zealand; fourth in the Commonwealth Games. Show me a good coach that isn’t tough, even to the point of being unreasonable. I’ve been told by ex-Lydiard coached runners that he was a tough as an old boot. Arch Jelley is a much more reasonable coach, but also does not tolerate runners that waste his time. And neither should he. Jon Rudd, Mark Schubert, Dave Salo and Bob Bowman are all known as strict disciplinarians. I’ve known swimmers they have kicked out of training and told to go home and come back tomorrow if they are prepared to do the work. Abbey Wilson would have them all up on a charge. She would have me up on a charge as well. Playing marbles would be an abuse of power in the Abbey Wilson playbook.

There is every reason to believe that her crusade should be stopped before it does damage to New Zealand sport; before we begin to coach a bunch of whinging, pampered babies instead of the hard men and women who win world championships. I’m pretty certain my old swimmer would look Abbey Wilson in the eye and say, “And you can bugger off too.” And my swimmer would be doing us all, and New Zealand sport, a favour.

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