Well Bugger Me

September 17th, 2018

Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) has sent out an email today announcing that the centralised training group is about to be closed. That’s good news. It is twenty years and thirty million dollars too late. It is especially too late for the talented New Zealanders who put their trust in SNZ and were rewarded with incompetence and chaos. But I guess as they say, “Better late than never”. It will be interesting to see how long it takes SNZ to actually stop the program. Announcing the change is one thing, causing it to happen is another. They were all still there this morning. Through Swimwatch, I will let you know when they, thankfully, leave.

Today’s announcement does highlight the random nature of SNZ decision making. The way things are done leaves the impression of making up policy on the fly. Someone read or heard something today and that became the new plan. The way SNZ do things gives no impression that decisions are part of a long-term and well thought-out strategy. Johns calls it part of the “2018-2020 High Performance Strategic Plan”, but that’s hard to believe.

For example, a couple of months ago SNZ held their first meeting in Wellington to discuss the introduction of the new High Performance Strategic Plan. Johns, Francis and White were all there explaining, in great detail, their plans for the Francis position. One feature, made abundantly clear, was that the centralised training group in Auckland would remain in place. Francis explained that the centralised training group was needed for swimmers who were limited by what he thought they could achieve in their home clubs. At the time I asked what gave a club age-group coach like Francis the right to decide what a swimmer could achieve and how was anything done in the failure that is the SNZ centralised program any better? So there we had it. Word from the top; the SNZ centralised training program was here to stay. It was a settled part of the 2018-2020 High Performance Strategic Plan.

Two months later the centralised training program has gone. How does that work? The decision has to be a knee-jerk reaction to something. Clearly the squad was part of the plan two months ago. Why is it not now? I’m happy that it has gone. I just wish I could feel more confident that SNZ are not making all this up as they go along. A knee-jerk here, a knee jerk there. I guess we are lucky that this time the knee jerked in the right direction.

Perhaps I should also be pleased that the decision reflects so well the argument pushed endlessly on Swimwatch that the SNZ squad should be terminated. Remember when Johns wrote to me and said, “If you think your little blogs and constant attacks are helping swimming in NZ, then you are seriously mistaken.” It seems on this occasion Swimwatch may have helped. Certainly what Johns has finally done reflects the Swimwatch position perfectly.

Here is how Steve Johns told New Zealand about his new idea.

 I write today to formally announce that as part of our continued roll out of the 2018-2024 High Performance Strategic Plan, we will be ending the daily training squad programme currently operated here at the National Training Centre.  The move away from offering this daily training environment to selected performance athletes, will enable Swimming NZ to relocate the resources currently required to deliver this programme into other priority initiatives contained within the strategy including greater support for all targeted athletes and coaches and increased opportunities for coach development and education.

In ending the daily training squad programme, we acknowledge the commitment made by the swimmers in the squad, some of whom who have moved away from their homes to train, and the support provided by AUT Millennium in terms of the world class facilities provided, but believe that the time is right to move away from a centralised training environment to a system where Swimming NZ is able to provide support to a larger group of athletes and coaches regardless of where they live and train.  The introduction of the Targeted Athlete & Coach Programme at the beginning of this year has been a positive step forward but one that requires additional financial resource to ensure it can be delivered to a level and quality that means it will make a real difference to the swimmers involved, whether in NZ or overseas.  With a reduction in funding from High Performance Sport NZ in early 2017, we simply don’t have the funds available to continue to deliver a daily training programme and implement other priority initiatives contained within the strategy.

We will however continue to promote the Sir Owen G Glenn National Aquatic Centre and AUT Millennium facilities as our National Training Centre.  We have already increased the number of training camps and development opportunities available to both the Targeted Athlete & Coach Programme and the wider swimming community with the October National Squad Camp and December Senior Squad Camp and a further seven (7) on the 2019 National Squad Calendar.

We are currently working with the swimmers who have been training at the centre on their individual transitions into suitable club programmes and will continue to have a high level of interest and involvement in their swimming careers.

Should you have any questions relating to the above, please do not hesitate to contact me to discuss.  I would ask that you circulate this information to your clubs and members as you see fit.  For your information, we will be circulating the above to all coaches on our database today.

What all that boils down to is, “We needed more money to pay for our new idea of a dozen training camps. We don’t get enough money from Sport NZ so we’ve dropped the centralised training group to save money and will use the cash to pay for the camps.” Conveniently, I’m sure a chunk of the cash saved will be spent preserving the Johns and Francis’ bloated life-styles.

Isn’t that typical Steve Johns? It is all about money. No thought for whether the centralised training program worked or not. No discussion about the damage it has caused the people who swam there. No mention of the ever decreasing number of swimmers wanting to trust the training they got there. No swimming information at all; just money, money, money.

On this occasion we appear to have a got a good decision, made in unseemly haste, for purely financial gain; not a good way to run a business. The chances of getting a series of good decisions out of a repetition of that process are next to nil.

The next step is to convince SNZ that the camps and the Francis Folly’ squads are a waste of time and money. We will start next week by pointing out that both costs are likely to put pressure on SNZ to honor the Johns and Francis pay checks. That argument seems to have worked on this occasion. Let’s try it again.

Swimming New Zealand & Trump Have This In Common

September 16th, 2018

 I am amazed at how tolerant many Americans are of Donald Trump’s bad behavior. The people in, what they call his base, seem happy to put up with any abuse and any obscenity. Trump said he could shoot someone in the street and it would not affect his popularity. He was probably right. He may not have shot anyone but consider what he has done. In two years he has lied to the American people over 4000 times. Four months after his son was born he slept with a porn star and a Playboy bunny and paid for their sex with hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has defrauded the American people with fake Universities, fake premium steaks and second rate wine. He has boasted about sexual assault and he has cosied up to Putin.

And his base thinks that’s all great. As long as he continues his campaign to stop American women’s right to choose, then Trump is fine by them. I know several American families who wouldn’t tolerate Trump’s behavior in anyone else but happily defend the conduct when it’s Trump. One girl who trained with me was extremely religious. She even owned a plastic Bible that she read during long kick sets. Trump and she would be as far apart as you can get. Yet she voted for him to be President. How does that work? There seems to be no logical reason. But it is real enough. For those Americans any obscenity is allowed as long as the culprit is called Donald Trump.

Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) live the same charmed life. They waste millions, they are world experts in losing, they lie to the membership, they disregard the organisation’s constitution and they violate the law of the land and yet, for a large portion of the membership, that’s just fine. To SNZ’s base the evidence doesn’t seem to matter. Cotterill and Johns are doing a sterling job.

Trump said recently all power is based on fear. In the case of SNZ I think that’s right. SNZ hold onto power because those who should call them to account are too scared. Scared that SNZ might not select their child in the next national team, scared that they will miss out on the next training camp or be overlooked for a lifetime service award. The fear is groundless. SNZ need members much more that the members need SNZ. It may be groundless but, for all that, it is no less real.

I will give you an example. I got an email last week in response to the Swimwatch story about the fake new direction being taken by SNZ. The email sought to defend SNZ. The author must know SNZ lie and cheat and yet every time they come up with a new coach, or a new plan the email’s author grasps the idea that this time it will be different. No it won’t.

Here is the email.

1.    Centralised program has gone.

2.    Now supporting targeted athletes and coaches in their home programmes.

3.    Only swimmers needing to train in Ak from outside Ak for Uni or work are at Mish.

4.    New squads announced (some issues there) and series of camps planned.

5.    Open water still coming together slowly but what’s new.

6.    By the way they pay to be there unless in top squad

Let’s look at each of these points.

Centralised program has gone.

I have no idea why anyone would buy that fiction. Perhaps because SNZ told them that the centralised program had gone. But SNZ lie. They do not tell the truth. It has not gone at all. Every day I am at the SNZ pool and the centralised program is alive and well. And the email author knows that’s true. Point six says, “By the way they pay to be there unless in top squad”. Those two things don’t make sense. The centralised program has gone but top swimmers are swimming there without paying. What’s that if it’s not still the centralised program? The email answers its own question.

Now supporting targeted athletes and coaches in their home programmes.     

We will see how that works. Remember SNZ had no option but to promote the fiction that they were going to support swimmers in their home programs. It was their last chance at holding onto power. The centralised program had clearly failed. No matter what SNZ decided swimmers were sensibly staying with their clubs or accepting opportunities in Australia or the USA. SNZ had become irrelevant. And so in order to hold onto power what better way than to muscle in on a swimmer’s home program and sell it as a benefit. And that is what Francis has done. Sadly there are many who are taken in by the con.

Only swimmers needing to train in Ak from outside Ak for Uni or work are at Mish.

I have no idea what that thought is attempting to justify. Because a swimmer comes from outside Auckland does not mean they can’t swim at the North Shore Club or United or Waterhole. Where the swimmer comes from and their reason for shifting to Auckland is irrelevant. SNZ should not be competing against private operators in the provision of coaching. Incidentally local swimmers don’t train with the SNZ centralised program because they sensibly don’t want to, not because SNZ wouldn’t take them.

New squads announced (some issues there) and series of camps planned.

If anything proved that nothing has changed this point does. Several Swimwatch posts have discussed why the selection of squads by SNZ is a recipe for disaster. Whether a squad is selected to swim in Auckland permanently or in a weekend training camp the issues around having designated elites remain a real danger. A second email last week also told me about the wonderful new camps planned by SNZ. That too is a con. SNZ’s power demands that they are seen to be doing something. What better way than to put on a camp and call it something new. But it is not new. SNZ have been putting on camps for thirty years and swimming has got worse and worse. My argument has only ever been that nothing has changed. The “new policy” is not new. If anything proves that nothing has changed, the mention of selected squads and camps must come close. Both of those are old and discredited.

Open water still coming together slowly but what’s new. 

I know very little about open water but I’ve yet to see anything new or relevant happen in that area. Open water will likely remain as neglected as it has always been. Certainly nothing I have seen alters my view that the great Francis folly has changed nothing.

By the way they pay to be there unless in top squad 

I have mentioned previously that the fact swimmers in the top squad do not have to pay proves my point. Nothing has changed. Besides which paying, or not paying, is irrelevant. The point is nothing has changed. Training fees should not be paid to SNZ. They should be paid to North Shore or Coast or United or Waterhole. But it has forever been that way.

It is nice that there are good people who are loyal to the national federation. It is sad when their loyalty and old fashioned values are taken advantage of. Both Trump and the occupants of the Antares Place office are masters of exploiting trust – beware.

Don’t Tell Me The Policy Has Changed

September 14th, 2018

Remember when Gary Francis was employed by Swimming New Zealand (SNZ)? We were told this was a new beginning. The old centralised training program had failed. Millions had been wasted on a fool’s mission. Dozens of promising swimming careers were lost. For ten years membership, income and medals had all declined. Finally, faced with sporting oblivion, SNZ had to announce a change in policy. Gary Francis was the answer.

That announcement must have caused Cotterill and Johns some embarrassment. What they said sounded very much the same as Swimwatch had been saying for years. Surely they were not agreeing with Swimwatch? Their sense of embarrassment must have been heightened by the realisation that the change in policy meant accepting ten years of waste and failure. But the really sad part is their abject refusal to accept responsibility for the hurt. The sport lost millions and dozens of young New Zealanders lost their careers and SNZ response was a shoulder shrug and a, “Too bad, oh well never mind, move on.”

Well that is not acceptable. The hurt caused by a policy that SNZ now admits was a failure needs to be addressed. Who was to blame? Was it Peter Miskimmin? Was it Bruce Cotterill? Was it other members of the Board? Was it a succession of Head Coaches like David Lyles? Was it one of the CEOs like Christian Renford? Someone had to be responsible; but not at SNZ. There they have no understanding of the importance of responsibility. They simply brush failure under the carpet and move on to something new.

There is no way it should be as easy as that. If lessons are to be learned from the past there needs to be an open and public enquiry into what went wrong. The scale of the waste was too great to ignore. Those responsible need to be held to account. Their irresponsible stewardship cannot be left unaddressed. SNZ cannot be allowed to shrug off the destruction they have caused.

Except, in this instance SNZ has not moved on to something new. They have simply hidden the old policy behind a fake new screen. Nothing has changed. If anything the waste is even worse. Take this morning for example.

Occupying six lanes of a 25 meter pool was the, so called, “SNZ centralised training squad”. Hovering around, watching their every move, were the Coaching Intern, Mathew Woofe, the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager, Gary Francis, the High Performance and Operations Manager, Amanda White and a couple of hangers on that I didn’t recognise. There were close to as many people sitting around the pool as swimmers in the pool. And sadly we are paying for all of them. Every one of them, swimmers included, is living on the member’s dime. They need to know that I am not at all happy about paying for what I see in that pool. As far as I am concerned Francis lied when he told the world SNZ was about to embark on a new journey. We were entering a brave new world. That was not true.

If it was true there would be no centralised training group. Those swimmers would all be in the other pool training with North Shore or across in Auckland training with United or out west swimming with Waterhole or up north at Coast. They would not be wasting my membership fees training with SNZ.

But that is what they are doing. Every day at that pool, spending our fees like they always have, like there is no tomorrow. The dishonesty of it all is stunning. The waste is obscene. And as has always been the case – it will not work.

In my time involved in coaching I have lived and coached in six countries. I have met and watched world-class coaches at work; men like Arch Jelley, Arthur Lydiard, Duncan Laing, Mark Schubert. I have coached an Olympic Gold medallist (after she won in Athens), a masters world record holder, 5 international medallists and 24 national champions. In all that time I have never seen anything like the shambles that goes on in the SNZ centralised training group every morning. Believe me it is nothing like a world class swimming program; nowhere near. There is no chance that what goes on there will produce world class swimmers. Our money is being wasted.

I will resist the temptation to spend time here telling you the things SNZ do badly. However I have devoted a whole chapter in my new book, “Shaping Successful Junior Swimmers”, (Chapter Six, page 30) to the coaching faults I have observed in the SNZ centralised training program. If you do take time to read that chapter remember this is not the opinion of one person. These are concrete examples that the coaching world recognises as serious training faults. As you read the chapter and take in the incompetence of the SNZ program, remember that the joke really is still on us. The charade that promotes itself as an international training program; this SNZ swimming folly and is being paid for by us.

Sadly I don’t think those responsible are aware of their inadequacy. I don’t think they know that what they are doing is a waste of their time and our money. But I guess that when it’s all being led by an ex-club age-group coach and an intern we should not expect much more; the blind leading the blind.

No one would allow a bed-orderly to run Middlemore Hospital, or a maid to manage the Sheraton, or a boning-room trimmer to be in charge of an AFFCO meat plant. In my opinion that is exactly what SNZ does every day. Out of their depth they flounder around, costing us money, achieving nothing.

And so we were promised a new direction; a fresh start. Nothing like that has been delivered. It is the same old, same old. In fact it is worse than it has ever been.

A Brat Without Class

September 13th, 2018

It seems like every commentator alive is having a say on Serena Williams’ meltdown in the USA Open tennis final. I guess it’s only fair that Swimwatch adds its voice to the noise. Regular Swimwatch readers probably suspect I have a predisposition to side with the athlete, especially in an argument between an athlete and an official. I admit that suspicion is true. Loyalty to those who play the game is highest on my list of sporting priorities, except on this occasion.

Like most of the world, I have had little personal contact with Serena Williams. I have said hello to her once. When Alison and I lived in Florida our apartment was in a community called the Delray Beach Racquet Club. Our back door opened out onto half a dozen all weather tennis courts. On my way home one evening I was surprised to hear thunderous whacks of a tennis ball coming from behind the tall green mesh fence that surrounded one of the courts. I thought I must check this out, this is not normal.

I opened the gate and walked into the court. I soon realised why the sounds were different. Going through an evening practice were Serena and her sister Venus Williams. I sat down and, for 15 minutes or so, watched in awe. The power, the skill, the training and the fitness were unbelievable. How their racquet strings withstood the force of each blow was impossible to believe. I even recovered a wayward ball and threw it back to Serena. She said, “Thank you” and I stupidly said, “Hello”.

However I guess events in Florida mean I can claim to have spoken to Serena Williams and have acted as her practice ball-boy.

But her behaviour in the 2018 USA final was inexcusable. And believe me I should know. In my younger days involved in swimming I have questioned official decisions on many occasions. Whenever things began to go against me I can well remember feeling a sense of frustration and anger. Frequently that escalated the dispute and resulted in accusations being made that I eventually regretted. I remember angrily telling the President of Athletics New Zealand, Arthur Eustace, that if he didn’t agree with what I wanted he would have “egg all over his face”.

In later years I have adopted a more sensible approach. Knocking quietly on the back door is usually more effective than beating down the front door. I would have thought an athlete as experienced as Serena Williams would have learned the same lesson. But it appears not.

She should be mature enough to have recognised the escalation moments that were leading her down an impossibly blind alley. The first of those was triggered by the decision of her coach to provide advice from the side-line. She was deducted a point for that indiscretion. Instead of getting on with the game she decided to debate the justice of the umpire’s call. That was dumb. The coach had erred. The rules required a penalty. It was a stupid argument.

Then Serena decided to smash her racket in frustration and accuse the umpire of picking on her because she was a woman. To make matters worse she brought her new baby into the debate by claiming that motherhood meant she would never cheat. The end result was that Serena lost a game and eventually the match.

So, what is wrong with what Serena did?

  1. Her coach did break the rules. Whether Serena used the information or not does not matter. It was enough that the coach was sending it out to the court where it could have been used. The moral is, if you are in the wrong, don’t keep digging.
  2. Rather than getting on with the game she decided to escalate the argument. That is seldom going to have a successful outcome.
  3. Without any evidence she accused the umpire of treating her worse than male players. That is not true. Serena was callously calling on the wider “Me Too” movement to justify her frustration. It was a cynical argument that undermined the cause of women who do have valid claims of mistreatment. Women everywhere should be appalled that one of their own would use their plight in order to win a tennis game.
  4. She decided to bring her baby into the argument. Serena Williams has received a typical American over-reaction to her tennis comeback after the birth of her daughter. What she has done was commendable but not unique. Here are some women that I can remember who have successfully combined motherhood with elite athletics; swimmers Dara Torres, Amanda Beard and Janet Evans, soccer player Christie Rampone, tennis player Lindsay Davenport, athlete Wilma Rudolph and marathoner Paula Radcliffe. Many mothers have gone on to compete successfully in all sorts of sports. But Serena was prepared to use her daughter to win a tennis game. Using a baby family member like that is inexcusable.

Those errors by the player are hard to forgive. They smack of a self-indulgent, spoilt brat. The USA Championship crowd that applauded her behaviour at the expense of her rival should be ashamed. National loyalty is one thing. Supporting spoilt and corrupt sportsmanship, applauding bad manners, booing a brave and well-behaved rival and cheering verbal and physical abuse is something altogether different. The influence of Trump has clearly extended to American tennis spectators. I would encourage the suggestion that umpires boycott future Serena matches, perhaps not forever but for at least a year. She has brought the sport into disrepute by behaviour way worse than the Sharapova case. Her punishment should be no less.

What Happens Next?

September 12th, 2018

It has been an interesting week. The Swimming Wellington (SW) Board had to admit they had been managing the business with an unconstitutional number of Board members. A 139 page report was distributed to the Wellington swimming community. There seems to be little dispute; SW behaved badly. The questions are, should there be consequences and what should they be?

It seems to me that members of the Wellington Board are collectively responsible for the events that occurred during their watch. The error of allowing an unconstitutional Board to govern is serious. It is not something that can, or should, be swept under the carpet. Redress needs to be done and needs to be seen to be done. I don’t see any option but for delegates at the Wellington Annual General Meeting to elect a new Board. The current Board has forfeited its right to govern. No one on the current Board should stand for re-election let alone be re-elected. If the old Board was prepared to govern unconstitutionally, what else has it done that we don’t know about? It is time for Wellington to find six new people, untainted by this scandal.

But there are others who must share the blame. In my view Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) is equally guilty. Remember they were asked to approve a request from Wellington for the Board to stay at seven members. SNZ gave that approval. There is nothing wrong with that. SNZ has the constitutional authority to make that decision. However SNZ was negligent when it did nothing about the failure of SW to obtain the approval of their members for the change. In my view, that neglect makes the Board of SNZ as remiss as the Board of SW.

There are too many occasions when the Board of SNZ disregards its responsibilities. They have done it on this occasion and they are still doing it by refusing to provide me with the report into the complaint about my coaching. And there should be consequences. SNZ Board members who approved the SW request should resign or be fired. Their actions have brought the sport into disrepute. For that there is a price that should be paid.

But is standing down the Board of SW and several members of the SNZ Board enough? Remember what these guys did. They operated the Board unconstitutionally. They conspired with SNZ for an unconstitutional Board to continue without the approval of the membership. When they were caught there was no sign of apology or contrition. Instead there was an attack on Swimwatch for pointing out their unconstitutional behaviour. It seems the Boards of SW and SNZ have learned nothing from this experience. They remain as arrogantly unrepentant as ever.

The purpose of punishment is to sanction bad behaviour and prevent it being repeated. I doubt that standing down members of these two Boards will achieve those goals. In the 139 pages distributed to Wellington members there is no sign of apology or repentance. All that can be seen is the egotism that caused their misbehaviour. Therefore I would recommend that some legal way is found to prevent the Board members involved in this fiasco from serving on any company or society board for one year. I’m no lawyer but there seems to be plenty of allowance in the Registered Societies Act for this to be achieved.

A clear message needs to be sent to all swimming administrators that you cannot operate unconstitutionally, you cannot ignore the membership and you cannot hide behind blaming the media for your bad behaviour. For these reasons a one year ban from all positions of management seems to be entirely appropriate.

For a long time Swimwatch has pointed out swimming’s management shortcomings. This episode proves that view was right. Events in Wellington contain lessons of value throughout the country. What other Regions have unconstitutional Boards? We know Auckland has five members on a Board requiring six. Manawatu appears to have seven members on a Board constitutionally limited to six; Wellington’s problem. And Board members like Lin Tozer and Bronwen Radford skirt with the rules by sitting on Regional Boards and working as club coaches at the same time. Lawyers can excuse or justify some of this bad behaviour. Just look at the effort the SNZ lawyer has made to explain away SW’s and SNZ’s actions in this case. But the reality and purpose of the rules should not be avoided by legal manipulation.

If six members is the approved constitutional limit then six members it should be. If the purpose of the rule is to prevent coaches associated with a swimming club sitting on Regional Boards then that is what should happen. No manipulation of employment contracts should allow the rule to be avoided. In my view that is dishonest.

Swimming in New Zealand is being badly managed. It is the ultimate irony that administrators happily disqualify a seven year old for a slight breaststroke hook and sit for years around a table with an unconstitutional Board. Ask them about the disqualification and you would be told that the rules are the rules. Young swimmers have to learn. But apply that logic to their behaviour and, oh no, it’s the fault of Swimwatch.

Remember when the Chairman of SNZ, Bret Layton used his annual report to rip into Swimwatch for pointing out that SNZ had lied on Lauren Boyle’s world record application. In my opinion he used legal niceties to excuse poor management and bad behaviour. What SW and SNZ have done in this case is not new.

Wellington members have an opportunity, at their AGM, to clean house and in the process send a message to the sport that poor management decisions will not be tolerated. For all that’s good in the sport of swimming I hope they take that chance. If those responsible for the chaos in SW are not severely sanctioned, poor administrators will see it as a license for them to misbehave.