What I Hate About Training Camps

Have you noticed how Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) has increased the number of their training camps? In the old days Jan Cameron and others were at least honest. They advocated control of New Zealand’s best swimmers by promoting a centralised training school. Good swimmers should leave their home coaches and come to the fount of swimming success run by Jan on Auckland’s North Shore.

For eighteen years I used the pages of Swimwatch to argue that Cameron’s plans would never work. And they never did. Of course Cotterill, Johns and Francis said I was wrong; argued I was a trouble maker; played the man not the ball. Finally they saw their mistake and abandoned centralised training. I am still waiting for an email acknowledging their monumental error and offering an apology for the $20million they wasted and the abuse they piled on Swimwatch for pointing out a mistake they eventually accepted as accurate.

At least SNZ said they accepted the error of their ways. But the truth is SNZ ran out of money. Either centralised training had to go or Johns and others would need to be paid less. As usual with SNZ no swimmer is going to get in the way of Johns’ lifestyle. Centralised training was out. Johns’ pay was safe.

Francis and Johns embarked on a pathetic tour selling their new-found democratic plan to promote swimming by closing the SNZ centralised Millennium program and encouraging swimmers to stay with their home squads. But there was a con in their sermon. There always is. Even when the government recommends they reverse a policy SNZ are prepared to defy the law. There would, SNZ proclaimed, be an increase in training camps. Sure enough that’s exactly what’s happened.

SNZ kept control on the cheap. They no longer had to pay foreign coaches and the other costs associated with a centralised training squad. Instead, every school holidays, SNZ brainwash the country’s best swimmers into believing the beautiful people gathered around the Owen Glenn pool drinking coffee were providing them with the best of coaching advice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Training camps may serve SNZ’s purpose of maintaining control over the country’s best swimmers but as a means of improving their swimming they are useless. Take for example the difference between a good coach like William Benson and me. William runs what is simplistically called a sprint-based program. I run a distance-based programme. As different as chalk and cheese. But both work. Mark Schubert in the USA has had huge success with a distance program. Dave Salo has produced a string of Olympic medallists from his Sprint Salo swim school. All good coaches follow one sound philosophy. No successful coach mixes the two. The only thing William coaching a swimmer brought up in my program would do is cause confusion. The only result I would have on Benson-trained Emma Godwin is to make her confused and slower. Neither of us would be wrong. It’s just that chalk and cheese, oil and water don’t mix.

But SNZ, oblivious to the confusion, drags swimmers to Auckland for a dose of whatever philosophy their selected coach happens to follow. Worse, at one camp the swimmers get someone like me and at the next camp, someone like William. No wonder they end up with no idea of what’s best. No wonder they begin to doubt the value of their home programme. As they have done for twenty years SNZ are continuing to furtively undermine New Zealand’s local club programs.

That’s the reason Lydiard did away with national camps when he became National Coach in Finland. Instead he left runners with their personal coach. He would visit athletes in their home program and offer advice. But he never tried to turn a William-type swimmer into a David-type swimmer the way this lot do. SNZ even boast about the chaos. “Come to our training camp,” they say. “You will learn so many new ideas.” It is rubbish of course. The goal is to produce a fast swimmer, not some academic expert in different types of exercise outcomes.

My advice is to thank SNZ for its invitation but keep your swimmer at home, sleeping in their own bed, eating their normal food, swimming their usual program. It might not be as exciting but, as sure as god made little green apples; it will result in a faster athlete.

Before I leave the subject of SNZ training camps does anyone know what happened to the $30,000 of swimming weight machines that used to line the side of the Owen Glenn Pool? Have they been written off and wasted like the swimming careers of the swimmers who were forced to use them. Are they, like the swimmers, collateral damage of the Cotterill excursion into centralised training? I wonder how their cost is being treated in the SNZ balance sheet. We will never be told.

And finally I see on Facebook there is a training camp planned in Rotorua. The organising genius has decided to call his camp something like “Hell Week”. I can’t imagine a better way of pissing off twenty or thirty young swimmers than subjecting them to a week of “hell” swimming up and down a pool in Rotorua. Talk about amateur hour. But that’s the way stupid people think about training camps – the greater the hurt the better the camp. I’ve coached some of New Zealand’s best swimmers who knew enough to walk out of any camp that practiced “hell” on them.

One of my swimmer’s response to one such genius was to spend a week in camp swimming slowly at the back of the squad. At the end of the week, in the Auckland Championships, she broke the Auckland record for 50m breaststroke. The camp coach came to me and said he didn’t understand how someone as slow as Jane all week could set a new record. Avoiding “Hell” probably had something to do with the answer.

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