A Matter of Timing

From a New Zealand perspective one of the most concerning issues to come out of the 2019 World Swimming Championship was the appalling lack of personal best swims. Ignoring individual swims in relays New Zealand swimmers managed just three personal bests from twenty trips to the starting blocks. 15% is a terrible statistic. Any number below 50% means a country’s swimming is not progressing.

It is important to examine why. There has to be a reason. Numbers as bad as 15% do not happen by chance. Everyone just had a bad week does not excuse New Zealand’s failure to perform. The excellent swimming of one swimmer should never be allowed to hide from the issues affecting all the others. That trick was used by Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) for years. The performances of Lauren Boyle and before her Danyon Loader were used to paper over issues that the sport should have addressed. Make no mistake, the current batch of poor SNZ administrators will have no problem using Clareburt’s bronze medal to hide from a rotten core that is of their making.

So why did New Zealand only swim three PB’s from twenty swims. Why was it that Clareburt in the 400IM, the men’s 4×200 relay team and Galyer in the 100 backstroke were the only three to perform better than ever before? Define the question as personal bests in an individual swimmer’s main event and only one swimmer, Clareburt, managed that. One was a relay, Galyer was in her off-event the 100m and only Clareburt swam a personal best in his main championship event. One out of 20 – 5%, wow that’s a problem.

So what is the reason? Oh, Johns and Cotterill will blame the coaches. They always do. The number of times I’ve heard them and others from SNZ say that our coaches need “education” is countless. For 15 years the SNZ policy of centralised training tore the heart out of New Zealand swim coaches. The destruction was stunning to watch. The national body went around telling New Zealand’s best swimmers that only SNZ could provide them with international standard coaching. That is Jan Cameron’s legacy to New Zealand – a broken and dispirited coaching structure. It will take time for that to be repaired. It is a wonder that any who lived through those years has survived at all. It is no coincidence that Clareburt’s coach arrived in New Zealand after Jan Cameron, Cotterill and others had done their worst. Clareburt’s coach took over after a very good coach called Gary Hurring had taken the worst SNZ had to offer. In comparison to New Zealand coaches who lived here through the 15 years of SNZ abuse Clareburt’s coach has had a VERY easy ride indeed.

And second we must never ignore the importance of the timing of selection trials. In my opinion this has been a major factor handicapping the performance of New Zealand swimmers in championship meets. Let’s talk about the theory of that first.

Setting a date for the final trial to decide on team selection depends on one central performance concern. The date has to be soon enough before the main event that the swimmer peaks for the trial and continues their peak on to the championship. Or the trial has to be far enough away from the main event that the swimmer and their coach have time to go back to training basics and prepare again for the championship meet. Both these timings work well. What does not work is a trial placed between continuing on and starting again. All that does is leave the coach and swimmer in the impossible position of not knowing whether to hold the trial peak or squash in a short and invariably inadequate short second season.

The table below attempts to put into graph form this timing issue.

Weeks prior to meet Weeks prior to meet Weeks prior to meet
More than 20 weeks 4 to 20 weeks 3 weeks or less
Trial in this period OK Never trial in this period Trial in this period OK
Begin new season to  prepare for main meet Unsure what to do Continue peak through to main meet

And so after 3 weeks and before 20 weeks is forbidden territory when it comes to timing a trial for an international swimming competition. So what did the geniuses who run SNZ do before the 2019 World Championships? They program the trials 5.5 weeks before the World Championship, well into the “never trial” period. And next year they have done the same thing again. Final trials before the Tokyo Olympic Games are 15 weeks prior to the Games, still inside the “never trial” period – but at the other end from their mistake this time. They couldn’t organise a “proverbial” in Speights’ brewery. The rules are so bloody simple – why don’t they just do what they are told.

But, I hear some say, how come Clareburt did so well if there was all that much wrong with SNZ’s trial dates? Good question with a simple answer that proves the point. You see Clareburt had already qualified for the World Championships. He did not have to peak for the trials. His coach could, and told us all he was continuing on with Clareburt’s training as though the trials were not there. In other words Clareburt had the luxury of timing his own preparation unaffected by the ridiculous trial dates set by SNZ. And it worked. Of course it worked. Obey the rules and it always does.

The other swimmers who did not have the luxury of having qualified and had to peak according to a SNZ-imposed timetable for the trials and then peak again at the World Championship – failed. Break the rules and it always does.

The conclusion? Inevitably SNZ screwed up and it affected most of the team. SNZ need to do something about the Tokyo trial or the same thing will happen again. Clareburt will not be affected. His Korea swim qualifies for Tokyo. He will be able to set his own schedule unaffected by SNZ’s ignorance.

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