The final Swimwatch post on the report into Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) recommended three steps that would reduce the welfare crisis afflicting sport in New Zealand and would also improve our international results. The three steps were:

  1. Reject the policy of centralised training.
  2. Increase and modify the financial support paid to athletes.
  3. Restore each sport’s democratic institutions.

The next three Swimwatch posts will look at each step and explain the reason for the recommendation. Today’s post will address the policy of centralised training.  

Reject the policy of centralised training.

Four words explain the reason for rejecting the policy of centralised training – it does not work. I have no idea what made Peter Miskimmin think he could impose a policy on New Zealand that the Soviets tried and failed to make work. But that is what Miskimmin did. An athlete welfare crisis, culminating in the death of Olivia Podmore, is its most obvious achievement.

Remember too when the Australians tried to enforce centralisation through their Canberra Institute of Sport. Pretty soon they found that was a disaster and reverted to the decentralised training that had served them well in the past.

And finally in the best example of all, look at what happened to swimming in New Zealand. Jan Cameron and Peter Miskimmin forced swimming to adopt a centralised policy. A pool was built, coaches were hired, and swimmers were lured from their homes to the “state” training centre. International success was sold as the inevitable prize.

For 20 years Swimming New Zealand tried to make centralised training work. Sport NZ handed Swimming New Zealand $31,547,603, so there was plenty of taxpayer’s money. And the result was no Olympic medals and a competitive membership decline of over 30%. $31.5 million for nothing.  

Do not blame Swimming New Zealand for the wasted $31.5 million. Like the Soviet Union, like Australia, Swimming New Zealand were sent on a fool’s errand. Miskimmin should be, but won’t be, held accountable for wasting $31.5 million and the death of a fine cyclist. In my opinion, his centralised policy caused both.         

And so, I think we have established that centralised training does not work. The next question is – why? There are many answers. Here are two of the more important:

1. In individual sport it is impossible for one coach to coach all the country’s best swimmers or athletes. In all coach/athlete relationships, personality and methods are important.

For example, Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard employ a similar coaching philosophy. But they have very different personalities. My wife, Alison would have lasted about five minutes with Arthur but got on supremely well with Arch. That wasn’t anyone’s fault. But it is one reason centralised training does not work. Athletes must have the freedom to select a coach they get along with.  

Similarly, methods can be different. Dave Salo in Los Angeles has been successful with a sprint-based training programme. Mark Schubert has had equal success with distance-based training. Paul Kent at Waitakere is a Dave Salo type coach. Duncan Laing was a New Zealand Mark Schubert. Both work, neither is right or wrong. But certainly, athletes find they respond to and improve using one or the other.

Forcing an athlete who prefers sprint training to accept a Jelley/Lydiard program is doomed from the start. Forcing an athlete who prefers a distance program to accept Kent’s sprint program is equally doomed. Again, both work, neither is right or wrong. But certainly, athletes find they respond to and improve using one or the other.

2. Centralised training cannot accommodate that flexibility, cannot provide a program that suits every good swimmer. Forcing the athlete to fit into a Miskimmin bureaucratic mould distorts the athlete/coach relationship. The athlete’s coach and his or her methods, must accommodate the athlete’s preferences. It is NOT the athletes’ responsibility to accommodate an environment imposed on them by Miskimmin, Castle or some NSO.  

And yet for 20 years and at a cost of $31.5 million that is what Sport NZ, Swimming New Zealand and Miskimmin tried to do. Remember when Lauren Boyle left the Swimming New Zealand centralised program because the coach and the training she was being given were not right for her. The very nature of centralised training and its failure to accommodate the athlete but to compel the athlete to accept “state” imposed training, inevitably causes stress, failure and in cycling – death. Whoever invented New Zealand’s centralised training structure clearly had no idea of the importance of athlete choice.  

Centralised training means athletes are dragged away from their homes, their mates, their own beds and forced to live in the exorbitantly high rental areas of Auckland’s North Shore or Cambridge. A rent-free family home is replaced by an expensive, pokey bed-sit. Mum’s dinner at night becomes McDonald’s on the way home from training.

A coach who has known me all my swimming life, who knows my mum and dad, who knows my boyfriend or girlfriend is replaced by someone I don’t know and clearly sees me as a pawn in his or her ambition to earn more of Sport NZ’s money. A familiar welcome from my home coach and training mates is replaced by, am I wearing the right label, are the elites laughing at my old Datsun, have I understood my new psychologist, does my new life-coach understand I will inherit 1000 acres of Marlborough vineyards one day, why does my new physiotherapist say my back needs straightening when I feel just fine and why does that woman from Sport NZ always ask about how I feel “as a woman” when I’ve never thought about that before? Centralised training is just asking for trouble.     

Remember the very good Wairarapa breaststroke swimmer who was dragged away from her Greytown home to swim in the centralised program. For all the reasons I have mentioned the move failed. They said she wasn’t tough enough. That was never true.

Remember the fantastic backstroke swimmer from Poverty Bay that came to Auckland, broke a New Zealand record (13 years ago in 1.00.22), got a medal in the Pan Pacific Games and went back to Poverty Bay. I don’t blame her a bit. I know where I’d rather live.

Remember the North Island breaststroke swimmer that came to the centralised programme, only to be assaulted by her Auckland billet.

How an “Olivia Podmore” event never happened in swimming is sheer good luck. The centralised training system lends itself to welfare problems. From a sport point of view – it does not work.    

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