Archive for April, 2010

Sexual Abuse Allegations: US Swimming’s Preventative Measures

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

By David

I see that US Swimming is currently struggling to handle a series of sexual abuse allegations. Recently two of their coaches have been locked up for thirty years or so for molesting young swimmers and filming swimmers in the girl’s shower room. In the six years I was a member of US Swimming I thought their level of concern and management in this area was about right. They conducted full international background screening checks every two years, their Code of Conduct Rules were clear and while I was in the US close to forty coaches were expelled from the organization for sexual misconduct.

The system wasn’t perfect. I’d been in Florida for four years when a local coach, and President of the Florida Gold Coast region, was locked away for having sex with an underage female swimmer and distributing nude photographs over the internet of young boys taken in the team’s changing rooms. I’d only been in Florida a few months when one of my swimmers pointed out this fellow and said he was sleeping with one of his young swimmers. I heard that said several more times before he was caught. Each time I put the remarks down to malicious poolside gossip. I even told one of my older swimmers he really shouldn’t be spreading that sort of noxious stuff. Being a newcomer I never dreamed of reporting their comments. I also thought that if it’s a topic of open conversation in my team, Florida Gold Coast’s management must have heard the same rumors. They weren’t doing anything; neither would I. We were wrong.

However it’s not an easy thing for the US authorities to get right. I’m certainly not qualified to tell them how to address such a complex and difficult issue. What I do want to discuss are two narrow aspects of this malaise that demonstrate its complexity and its difficulty.

I’ve heard US Swimming is considering making it compulsory for coaches to allow the parents of swimmers to attend all swim practices. It’s fairly unusual in New Zealand for parents not to be allowed into the pool, but in the United States many clubs enforce some version of a “No Parent” rule. For example a club team near where I lived, based at Florida Atlantic University, limited parent access to the pool during practice. The St. Andrews Swim Team, also in Florida, publishes its version of a “no parents allowed” rule in their team rule book. Here’s what it says.

“Parents/Guardians are not permitted on the pool deck during scheduled practice times. Access to the pool deck is permitted during the final ten minutes of each practice session. There are shaded picnic tables at the pavilion for your convenience. This will allow for the coaches to attend to the swimmers without interruptions and will enable us to build an effective coach/swimmer relationship.”

I agree with the US Swimming proposal. It is ludicrous for any club to exclude parents from the pool. Parents have every right to watch their children at practice. What do these clubs have to hide? When it comes to abuse of any sort it is not only important for coaches to be above reproach they should be seen to be above reproach. Parents can’t do much seeing sitting in their car in the pool parking lot. Besides I’ve always considered parents to be an integral part of the swimmer’s coaching team. They have an obvious and vital role to play in an athlete’s sporting success; feeding swimmers, caring for them when they are sick, making sure they rest, all that important “outside the pool” stuff. I actually enjoy parents being around. It makes it a lot easier to communicate how children are progressing when parents can see it for themselves. It also means that when there is something to say, it can be said immediately. So, any move to open up all US Swimming practices to parents would certainly get my vote.

If US Swimming provides the parents of America with additional access, as I think they should, then those rights should come with responsibilities. Without some controls coaches will become an endangered species. Years ago I gave up getting into a pool with learn to swim or training classes. I just wasn’t prepared to take the risk of some parent making a complaint that is almost impossible to defend. In 2005 Nancy Gibbs wrote an article for Time called “Parents Behaving Badly”. In it she tells horror stories of teachers victimized by out of control parents. For example:

“Mara Sapon-Shevin, an education professor at Syracuse University, has had students call their parents from the classroom on a cell phone to complain about a low grade and then pass the phone over to her, in the middle of class, because the parent wanted to intervene. And she has had parents say they are paying a lot of money for their child’s education and imply that anything but an A is an unacceptable return on their investment.”

US Swimming has a duty to protect their good coaches. I’ve been fortunate. I have only experienced one case of “parents behaving badly”.

I should have been cautious of Linda from the start. On her first day at the pool she told me that she had paid for a private detective agency to conduct a thorough check into my life in the Virgin Islands, the USA, New Zealand and the UK and I was approved as a suitable coach for her two daughters. As time went by I discovered she’d seldom traveled outside Florida, she hated things foreign but drove a steel grey Audi SUV, reading “People” magazine was her major intellectual stimulation and she’d caused trouble and walked out of her daughter’s first elementary school. In Barcelona her daughter swam in a 50 freestyle race and came last. Linda sitting behind me in the stands burst into tears and walked out. A week later she emailed a complaint to my employer saying I’d “forced” her daughter to swim. Fortunately the complaint was full of lies. For example she said I’d told her daughter to “splash around in the shallow end” of the Barcelona Pool. The problem is that pool is two meters deep all over; there is no shallow end. Her complaint was full of silly errors like that and was dismissed.

My point is that just as parents need access, good coaches need protection. It is important US Swimming provides added safeguards for parents and their children. They must also ensure good coaches are protected by instituting a range of sanctions that deter parents on the lunatic fringe.

Local History Needed

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

By David

I’ve just been to the Glen Eden library. I had to wait a few minutes while Alison made her selection of what I rudely call “cultural stuff” – Drybread by Allan Marshall, Over by Margaret Forster and The Believers by Zoe Heller. To fill in the time and because I can’t resist the lure of an unused computer I decided to search the library’s files for random titles. Sadly I found that Waitakere City’s library system does not have my two books, “Swim to the Top” and “Swimming, A Training Program”. I completed the form recommending they fix this error by purchasing a copy of “Swim to the Top”. We will see what happens.

Today’s library visit was my second literary encounter in twenty four hours. Yesterday I had Sunday lunch at the Takahe restaurant in Titirangi village. The standard of New Zealand restaurants has definitely improved. This is one those comfortable places with great views over the local bush, tables on the footpath, lots of polished wooden floors and big oak beer barrels along the wall. The food is good too. I had their beef burger and Alison had Eggs Benedict.

After lunch we decided to inspect Slightly Used Books, Titirangi’s second hand book shop. Some second hand book shops are like second hand furniture stores, depressing and a bit run down. Slightly Used Books is not one of those. This is more of a good quality antique boutique for books; full of agreeable titles especially those with a New Zealand theme or author. The owner noticed my US Swimming shirt and explained that he was a regular fitness swimmer at the local pool. There was something wrong with his arms. Could I help? He’d tried to find a swimming book for assistance but decided a more personal approach was needed. I said, of course I’d help, but had he come across a book called “Swim to the Top”? I could certainly vouch for the integrity of its content. He looked up “Swim to the Top” and discovered that there are twelve second hand copies available for sale in New Zealand. Perhaps Waitakere City’s libraries could buy one of them.

I decided to ask my new bookshop friend whether his computer could find second hand copies of Lydiard’s first book, “Run to the Top”, published in 1962. He found that there are nineteen issues available and they’ve become a collector’s item. What cost two pounds fifty years ago is selling now for $100 and if you want one with the original dust jacket it will set you back an additional $20.

In the Glen Eden library I wondered if they had copies of “Run to the Top” and did they know about their windfall profit? The computer came up with good news. “Run to the Top” did exist, reference number 360.30 in the library’s Local History section.

Would you believe it? The original text that changed the way the track world works; the book that should be compulsory reading for every track and swimming coach; the most relevant and modern reference work on the effects of aerobic conditioning, relegated to the Local History section. They’ve done it because the book discusses running tracks in and around Waitakere City. The old tracks are local and some of them are now history so according to Waitakere City’s librarians, that make the book Local History. But really, relegating Arthur to Local History is like filing the Bible alongside Stephen King in the Fiction section. Arthur Lydiard would be as mad as hell. The Mayor of Waitakere City is Bob Harvey. He’s a good guy and was Arthur’s friend. He probably doesn’t know the damage being wrecked in his local libraries. I hope he reads this story and restores Lydiard’s book to the Sports section, where it clearly belongs.

It is surprising how quickly New Zealand sports commentators have relegated Lydiard to local history as well. Many feel more comfortable with bogus theories peddled as training science. There’s a lot more profit for them in an oxygen tent and VO2 cycle machine somewhere in Auckland than there is in running around the Waitakeres. The reality is that New Zealand achieved its best results when Lydiard and then Jelley had good runners pounding New Zealand’s roads. There have been two golden eras in New Zealand track running; the decade of Snell, Halberg and Magee supervised by Lydiard and the other of Walker, Quax and Dixon supervised by Jelley. The coaches responsible for those eras are absolutely relevant today.

It got me wondering whether New Zealand swimming has ever had a golden era. What is the content of New Zealand swimming’s local history. You may find the following table interesting. Since 1908, when Olympic swimming events were first held in a pool rather than the sea, the table groups New Zealand’s results into periods of five Games.

It looks like New Zealand has had a golden era. Through the 80s and 90s Hurring, Moss, Kingsman, Langrell, Simcic, Clark and Loader were responsible for fourteen final swims and five Olympic medals. The figures may be slightly overstated by New Zealand’s good showing in the boycott hit Los Angeles Games. The results however are also hurt in this period by New Zealand’s absence from the Moscow Games when Hurring could well have won the 200 backstroke and would probably have made the final in the 100 backstroke as well. Certainly New Zealand is going to have to go some in London and Buenos Aires to match the performance of the best we’ve done so far. Before he leaves office and Auckland becomes a Super City, Mayor Harvey could help that cause by promoting Lydiard’s book to the Sport’s section of the city’s libraries.

Interval Training

Monday, April 19th, 2010

By David

I have just finished reading “Peter Snell, From Olympian to Scientist”. It is written by Snell and Auckland journalist, Garth Gilmore. It is a good and informative book. Garth co-authored my first book on swimming, “Swim to the Top”. From this experience I know how well and accurately he transferred my ideas into a final manuscript. That skill must have been severely tested when he wrote the Snell book. It contains a lot of scientific information on the work done by Snell at his human performance laboratory in Dallas, Texas.

There may be one or two readers who do not know of Sir Peter Snell. He was a New Zealand 800 and 1500 meter runner, coached by Arthur Lydiard. He won the 800 meters in the Rome Olympic Games and the 800 and 1500 meters in Tokyo. He held World Records over 800 and 1000 meters and a mile. After retiring from track and field he went to the United States and completed a Doctorate Degree in human physiology. Interestingly his PhD was awarded by Washington State University in 1982; the same University Jane swam for and graduated from in 2006. Since graduating Snell has been based at the University of Texas and has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading research physiologists.

The final chapter of Snell’s book is especially informative. In it he discusses the work he has done to test the scientific validity of Lydiard’s training methods. He says, “I am frequently asked: “Now that you understand the science of running, what part of the Lydiard system would you change?” The fascinating part of finding out exactly what was happening to me during my training and racing all those years ago is that, typically my answer is that I would not change anything.”

I am not surprised that Snell’s research has confirmed the validity of Lydiard’s distance conditioning or the hill work or the ten weeks of racing and limited interval training. As Snell says, Lydiard may not have had a PhD but he did test his methods with close to academic scrutiny. But I was pleasantly surprised at one of Snell’s findings. He makes a clear distinction between short and long rest interval training. This is what he says.

“Another important issue is the question of recovery between hard intervals. Sessions of hard 200 or 400 meter runs may be very demanding if the athlete is allowed only a short recovery. There is no evidence that training with high levels of lactic acid has any beneficial effect that cannot be acquired from early season competition. The correct use of intervals is to maximize the amount of fast running up to race pace. This can be done only by taking enough time between the effort phase to allow the clearance of lactate and the recovery of muscle Ph. This points to the fact that the intensity and duration of interval training should be individualized to the athlete’s level of conditioning.”

I was particularly pleased with this revelation. From practical experience in coaching both swimming and track I had the impression that interval training done to a strictly controlled and short rest period was not getting the best results. In my early coaching I had tried short interval hard sets on Toni Jeffs, Nichola Chellingworth and Jane and wasn’t happy with the result. The swimmers were completely buggered by the end of the session but, I had the uneasy feeling, they weren’t any better at swimming. I felt I’d spent an hour and a half tearing them down rather than building them up. And yet every winter I saw University coaches at my pool in Florida set tough interval sets of 15×200 or 20×100. Then, with their watches and whistles at the ready, they sent their swimmers off with amazingly little rest; frequently less than I’d done with Jane and the others. There was no question their swimmers were getting tired. It’s just that the swimming wasn’t all that good. It seemed to me that the coach’s goal was to cause the maximum amount of discomfort rather than the maximum swimming benefit. But these were University coaches; perhaps I was wrong.

What I was doing was setting the same sessions of 15×200 or 20×100 but judging the rest according to the athlete’s ability to recover. I developed a feel for when the swimmer was ready to go again. In heart rate terms I waited until the swimmer had recovered to 110-115 beats per minute. I justified this by saying to the team, “You don’t win championships by the length of your rest, but how fast you swim.” A variable and longer recover resulted in swims that were swum with better technique and were closer to race pace. If that meant a bit of a wait between each swim, then that was just fine. I still felt a bit guilty because my swimmers weren’t dying at the end of the pool, but took heart that they seemed to be swimming faster.

This next paragraph will fall far short of the scientific method long applied by Peter Snell. But there is a look about a conditioned swimmer ready to race well. At his best Phelps is a classic example, so is Lochte, Hoff, Bernard and Pellegrini. There is also a look about a swimmer who is over trained; who has been subjected to too much or too harsh interval training. These swimmers are just as lean but it’s not a healthy, strong sort of lean. It is a weak lean. Toni Jeffs looked like I describe when I overdid her interval training before the Barcelona Olympic Games. I thought one or two good swimmers at the recent New Zealand Commonwealth Games trials looked over trained. If that’s true the problem may be too hard and too much interval training rather than not enough. That was true in my case at Barcelona and now Peter Snell has told me why. It’s it great what science can do?

Fiasco in Europe

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

By David

Hate is a strong word; not to be used lightly. It pretty much sums up the way I feel about travel stories. You know the ones? This is Uncle Bill holding up the Leaning Tower in Pisa or Aunt Mary trying to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh or Doris, who’s into genealogy, inspecting her great, great grandmother’s grave in a church yard just outside Dorking. After long overseas trips friends of my parents’ would often come to our place for an evening of slides showing us the places they’d been. I must have seen a thousand shots of clouds out the aeroplane window leaving Auckland or arriving in London. It beats me how they knew the difference. The clouds sure looked the same.

To the best of my knowledge, Jane is prepared to discuss just about any subject with her father. Politics – she’s slightly left of even me, religion – Jane’s school cured us both, gossip – great and often and hypocrisy – condemned above all else; very little is on her taboo list.

And so, throwing caution to the wind, I am now going to tell you a travel story that eleven years after it took place Jane still refuses to discuss.

I got the idea leaving the Clive Memorial Pool. That was my first mistake. No one has ever had a good idea leaving the Clive Pool. With some perspicacity Jane once described the pool as “If concrete could burn, it would smell like the Clive Pool. Imagine it for a second. Old, dirty concrete soaked in chlorine, on fire.” My idea was that instead of flying between the World Cup swim meets in Europe we should hire a camper van – in America they are called them recreation vehicles. The next day I visited Air New Zealand’s travel office in Hastings and booked the van. We would pick it up in downtown Amsterdam and drive to the first meet in Paris, then on to Gelsenkirchen in Germany, Imperia in Italy and back to Amsterdam to fly home.

I convinced a very young Jane our journey of 2181 miles (3490 kilometers) would be the experience of a life time. We’d park beside Dutch canals, trundle through Monet’s Field of Poppies, climb through the peaks and cols of the Swiss Alps and cruise the bays and coves of the Italian Riviera.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite like that. We had no problem collecting the van and set off on the 310 mile (496 kilometer) trip to Paris. About 200 miles later we arrived in Lille and I took a wrong turn. All night I drove east wondering why the 100 miles to Paris was taking so long. The sign “Welcome to Luxembourg” didn’t seem right so I stopped to check. I had driven 343 miles in the wrong direction and was now 303 miles away from Paris. It took all that day to get to Paris. After 846 miles (1343 kilometers) and 24 hours in the van Jane was expected to swim the World Cup heats in just ten hours. I relented and booked her into one of the team hotels. She managed a personal best in the 50 butterfly. She always was a tough little bugger and on that occasion showed it in full measure.

The next meet was in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. We had time so decided to stop for a night in Loan, the picture perfect ancient French capital. Finally we were experiencing the joys of motoring through Europe. At about three in the morning I was woken by someone banging on the van door. Foolishly, and against Jane’s advice, I opened the door. In very broken English, a man in his early twenties explained that he and his girl friend had parked under trees not far from the van. Their car was stuck in the mud. Could we pull them out? I got out to inspect the problem and discovered that the car was deeply buried. There was no way we could do anything about it until the morning. I was also surprised by the partially clothed appearance of his girl friend. Perhaps, I said, we could call the local police to help. No, he didn’t want that. They would wait until the morning. I went back to van and slept until seven when four police cars came screaming by full of lights and sirens. Several policemen surrounded the car and advanced towards it with hands poised over their revolvers. I started the van and headed towards Germany. Jane was right – don’t open the door to strangers at 3.00 in the morning.

The Gelsenkirchen World Cup went well. Jane had a good meet and swam another personal best in the 100 IM, which was also a Wellington regional record at the time. Our only van problem was a punctured front tire. However I changed the tire without too much difficulty and set out on the 708 mile (1132 kilometers) leg to our next stop in Imperia, Italy. It was a warm Sunday. For 200 miles everything was fine until, just south of Frankfurt, near a small town called Weinheim, we blew another tire. A passing German motorist called a tow truck. We were taken to a garage and told we would need to wait until the morning to have both tires repaired. It was lunch time the next day before that was done and we set off again for Imperia – 500 miles away. That might not sound like much but this particular 500 miles is over the massive Col de St. Bernard that separates Switzerland and Italy and through a 40 mile series of narrow lanes and alleys that lead into Imperia. Finally, at 3.00 am, we pulled into the parking lot beside Imperia’s “Piscina Felice Cascione”. Jane’s first heat was just five hours away.

Two days later we hit the road again for the 815 mile (1304 kilometer) journey back to Amsterdam. We picked up an interesting English hitchhiker on the way who guided us into Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. A few hours later we deposited the van back in Amsterdam and sank gratefully into KLM seats for the 14 hour flight to Singapore. There are two morals to this story. If you are doing the World Cup circuit, it may be boring but go by air. And the second – if you ever have a good idea leaving the Clive Memorial Swimming Pool, do something else.

That was the same trip I had to chase a thief in Amsterdam Airport who snatched and ran off with a bag containing our passports and money. Fortunately I caught him and rescued our belongings. Back in New Zealand on the trip from the airport in Auckland to Napier, our car, the “Blue Beast” broke down and we arrived in Napier on the back of an AA recovery truck. My wife Alison seemed to think it was all very funny.

And Jane? Well she still won’t talk about it.

Track Training and Swimming

Monday, April 12th, 2010

After having lunch with Arch Jelley last week we have continued discussing trends in track training and how they might apply to the preparation of swimmers. I got an email last night that may be of interest. In it Arch lists four characteristics of the training he gave John Walker and suggests they may have relevance to training swimmers. In this article I will take each of his points separately and discuss their relevance to swimming.

1. “The relatively small amount of anaerobic training.”

This is important. Many swim teams are still into anaerobic training like there was no tomorrow. College – that’s what they call universities in the United States – programs are especially bad. The NCAA limits on training time and the short season leave your average college swim coach with no alternative but to pile on the anaerobic sets. In their effort to protect swimmers from training too much the NCAA are encouraging training practices that cause physiological harm. Every Christmas the pool I was at in Florida was crowded with college teams doing two weeks of anaerobic set after anaerobic set. Mind you, it seemed to be a bit self-regulating. While the coaches were calling for a supreme anaerobic sacrifice, the swimmers frequently applied their effort according to how they felt. But, anaerobic overload is not restricted to college programs. Many club programs are just as bad. Harder is better and really, really hard is best of all. No wonder swimming has such a horrible dropout rate. A few years of that sort of abuse is enough to finish anyone off. I am certain that the swimming nation that first adopts a national policy of emphasizing aerobic conditioning and cuts back on the current anaerobic overload will steal a march on the rest of the world. Nationally, no coach should be allowed to set more than twenty four sessions of all out anaerobic training in a twelve month period. It worked for Walker.

2. “The large amount of training just below his anaerobic threshold.”

On the surface of it, this seems to be stating the obvious; cut back on the anaerobic and fill the gap with more aerobic training. There is however more to it than that. Arch emphasizes the effort required; “just below his anaerobic threshold.” This seems to be important. Many of the critics of aerobic based training fail to appreciate how fast swimmers can train; swimming aerobically, at a heart rate below 160. The table below lists some aerobic sets done by female swimmers I have coached. As you can see they are not exactly slow and yet they are still in the range of aerobic training; or as Arch would describe it, “just below anaerobic threshold”. Many teams have swimmers who can swim faster than the times shown in this table. But can they swim them aerobically that fast? What Arch is saying is the ability to do this type of training aerobically was one of Walker’s strengths.

3. “The fact that his volume of training in his basic conditioning period was the same volume as when he was in his track phase. Thus in his basic conditioning phase he ran between 80 -90 miles weekly and when he went on the track he maintained the same mileage; probably the first runner to operate like this. As a result of this he was able to compete in many more races than his contemporaries. When racing he would run closer to 60 miles weekly but would not hesitate to step up his mileage if he felt he needed greater strength. When in poor shape he would run about 3m55s for the mile but in better shape he was always good for a sub 3m52s or its equivalent over 1500m.”

I’ve always wanted to do this but am yet to find a swimmer prepared to swim ten weeks of 100 kilometers through the aerobic phase, continue at 70 kilometers through the four weeks of anaerobic conditioning and still hold 60 kilometers or more through ten weeks of racing and speed work. The most my swimmers have managed in the speed work period is 35-40 kilometers and when they’ve been on the World Cup or Mare Nostrum circuit this has often dropped to 25 kilometers. I do think the distance swum during the racing period depends on the swimmer’s event. For 200 meters or above I agree with Arch. A larger volume of steady swimming during the ten weeks of racing will benefit the season’s main races in the latter few weeks. Sprinters, swimming the 50 or 100, appear to benefit from letting the distance drop into the 20s for this period. Arch is right though. What John did 25 years ago the Kenyans and Moroccans are doing today. They are forever going for steady runs as they tour Europe, racing two or three times a week. One day in swimming we will do the same thing.

4. The large number of races contested. In some instances this may have been detrimental to his career, but being a New Zealander he didn’t have a home base and was more or less forced to race excessively all over Europe in order to pay for his board and lodging.

In a separate email Arch tells me John Walker raced 57 times a year. He probably averaged 1500 meters per race which in twelve months converts to 85,500 meters of racing. And that’s a huge number. Only an aerobic based program would allow an athlete to race well that often. In swimming, I like the rule of thumb used by Popov’s coach Gennadi Touretski. He recommended 100 races a year. That might sound like a lot but when you include heats, finals and relays it’s surprising how quickly the number of races mounts up. At local championships in New Zealand and in the United States I’ve seen twelve year olds work through 25 races in a weekend. Four weekends like that and the year’s quota is done. A swimmer who does the World Cup circuit of seven meets and swims the heats and finals of three events at each meet will swim 42 races by the time he or she finishes the last meet in Berlin. The same program at Mare Nostrum and Paris and the swimmer has competed in 66 races. It doesn’t leave many races for the swimmer’s domestic championships or Grand Prix meets and the like. I suspect most swimmers in New Zealand, Britain and the United States swim well in excess of 100 races a year. Add that racing load to an overload of anaerobic training and no aerobic conditioning and there is little need to look any further to find the cause of swimmer dropout. It certainly highlights the distinction between the caring program suggested by Arch and the rip, shit and bust program followed by many.