Archive for April, 2018

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

 In the table below I have listed the countries I have coached in and the length of time spent in each place.

Country Number of Years
England and Scotland 7
New Zealand 19
US Virgin Islands 2
United States – Florida 5
Saudi Arabia 1

With the exception of the United States I have coached national champions, national open record holders and national representatives in each place. In the United States I coached three master’s national champions, a master’s world record holder and three open national finalists.

During the course of these travels it would be unusual not to notice differences in the administration of sport. Was there something about the administration of swimming in the United States and Saudi Arabia that contributed to the gulf that exists between the performances of swimmers from the two countries? How does New Zealand compare with England and Scotland? In the United Kingdom, with the guidance of Arch Jelley, I was helping coach track athletics. However the change in sport does not distract from the validity of comparing their administration, especially as, at the time I was there, UK athletics was in the golden era of Ovett, Coe, Cram and Capes.

Of special significance, are there qualities that favour good performance? Are there aspects of administration that contribute to coaching international winning athletes? Does the administration of swimming in the United States contribute to their competitive success? Does the role of the national administration in Saudi Arabia contribute to the failure of their swimmers? Or is the administration just a necessary bureaucratic side-show?

I think the answer is clear. There are features of the administration of sport that contribute to competitive success. There are common features present in the administration of successful national programs. There are also common features present in unsuccessful national programs. The winners have things in common and so do the losers. But what are they?

With this question in mind I thought there might be merit in discussing my experience of the administration of sport in each country; a look at the good, the bad and the ugly.

England and Scotland

In the seven years I was involved in British Athletics the sport’s administration was dominated by one colossal personality, Dame Marea Hartman. They say the most effective form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. I think that’s true but only on the condition that the dictator is benevolent and gifted. Marea Hartman had both those qualities.

When Alison first began to run well and looked like she might become good enough to compete internationally I wrote to Hartman asking whether she thought Alison should seek selection for New Zealand or the United Kingdom. She was eligible for both. The reply was polite and firm. For a runner of Alison’s speed New Zealand would be an easier and better option. So that is what Alison did.

Two years later Alison’s running had improved and on the 24 January 1981 Alison won the UK indoor 1500 meters championships in a time of 4:16.70. Thirty seven years later that run still ranks as the 35th fastest UK indoor 1500. I can remember it like it was yesterday, the sight of Marea Hartman sprinting across the infield to where Alison was recovering. She had remembered that Alison was eligible to run for the UK. There was an international meet in three weeks. Did Alison want to run? Alison said yes and three weeks later Alison represented the UK in a dual meet against East Germany.

Our subsequent dealings with British Athletics reflected the personality of its boss. Straightforward and decisive, whether the news was good or bad it was delivered politely and professionally. There was an amazing absence of politics or favouritism or personal bias. There was absolutely never any suggestion of decisions being made that took into account any benefit to Marea Hartman. In fact I discovered recently that, in all the years she ran British Athletics, she never paid herself a penny in remuneration.

That fact alone says it all really. She turned British athletics into a huge money making venture. She introduced professional payments to British athletes. And she took nothing. Every administration pays lip service to the expression, “the athlete comes first”. Most don’t mean it. High paid administration fat-cats pay themselves a fortune. Marea Hartman not only meant it, she lived it. Her administration reflected her life – honest, straight and generous.

US Virgin Islands

The US Virgin Island’s administration is very small. The country only has two clubs. That resulted in some unique arrangements. Federation Board membership was divided equally between the two clubs and the Board Chairman was rotated annually between the two clubs. Their meetings suffered from conflict between the clubs. It is not a good scene when members of a national federation are constantly trying to turn the federation into a vehicle to benefit their club. That was certainly a problem in the two years I was on the island.

You would think that a federation as small as the US Virgin Islands would suffer from the problem of not enough money. But that was never the case. There always seemed to be enough resources to pay for air fares, uniforms and hotels. There was none of the user-pays rip-offs that go on in some administrations.

Was there any feature of the US Virgin Island’s regime that stood out as superior; something others could well copy? I liked the way both club coaches were permanently represented at federation meetings. It may have been possible there because of their size. However I felt the US Virgin Island meetings benefitted by having the input of two working coaches. Product input was direct and detailed.

Saudi Arabia

The worst administration was Saudi Arabia. What, even worse than New Zealand I hear Swimwatch readers ask? I know it is hard to believe, but yes worse than New Zealand. It was really bad. The Saudi federation had plenty of money and the best facilities money could buy. And it was all wasted; misused and squandered because of three fatal problems.

First the organization was devoid of any real product knowledge. The CEO was a New Zealander whose understanding of swimming was extremely limited. But in the Saudi world he was the partially sighted leading the completely blind. Decisions were taken about the management of their learn-to-swim program and about overseas competition that were expensive and doomed to fail. It seemed that the more it cost, the more it was wanted. There was a real “cargo-cult” culture. They wanted to buy what the Americans had for Saudi swimmers who couldn’t qualify for a Florida tadpole carnival.

Second there was an inescapable impression that the sport was being run for the benefit of Saudi administrators. The New Zealand CEO was clearly there to finance his personal pension plan. The way he spoke about Saudi swimmers demonstrated clearly that they ranked well down on his list of priorities. When I arrived in Jeddah the President was a royal prince. Like most of the royal family he viewed the population as being vehicles to enhance his position and status. Officials at Saudi swim meets are all paid a handsome daily allowance. The standard of swimming was terrible but was only what they deserved.

And third the administrators refused to live by the rule of law. Common decency was unknown. For example rules were introduced to select swimmers but when too few qualified the rules were ignored. Trials were expected to be held under carefully controlled conditions but close to an international event a swim timed on the coach’s mobile phone was just fine. Swimmers and coaches were promised payments that were never made or were made months late.

There are some who believe that all that’s needed to produce champion swimmers is four concrete walls and some water. A year in Saudi Arabia will quickly change that view. The administration environment does make a difference. In spite of their fantastic facilities and piles of money Saudi Swimming will never produce champion swimmers while their environment is corrupt, ignorant and inept.

United States – Florida

From the worst swimming nation in the world to the best. Working in USA Swimming was a pleasure. The Americans know how to run a sport. They do all the bureaucratic things well; things like swimmer and coach registrations, meet entries, the publication of results, informing and involving members and arranging and paying elite athletes are all done easily, efficiently and as a normal course of events.

But the quality that made USA Swimming for me was the management care exercised by Mark Schubert. He was the National Coach during the years I was in Florida. I was fortunate enough to coach two national standard swimmers, Rhi Jeffrey and Joe Skuba. The attention Mark paid to what I was doing was extraordinary.

There were two sides to his involvement. First was a quality of care. How could he help? Was there anything I needed? Were the swimmers progressing as we wanted? Second Mark was prepared to interrogate and demand answers when he thought things were not being done properly. His “please-explains” were vital to keeping me and my swimmers on the straight and narrow. We would have contact by phone each month and a full meeting twice a year at the summer and winter national championships.

I loved the attention. Here was a knowledgeable resource I could consult for advice. Here was a powerful and expert coach whose contribution could make me a better coach and my swimmers better swimmers. And here was a tough disciplinarian who if we screwed up would chew us up without mercy. Without question my coaching in the USA was easier and better because of Mark Schubert. I miss his input deeply.

It is easy to see why the Americans are so good. The administrators care about the swimmers and their coaches. Do you want to see care? Just visit the swimmer’s or the coaches’ lounges at any USA National Championships; free food, live TV, comfortable couches and chairs and tea and coffee. If Saudi Arabia get the swimmers they deserve, so do the Americans. I was never a great fan of living in the United States and would hate it with their current President. But their swimming administration is first class; something I miss desperately. Mark Schubert – thank you for your help.

New Zealand

New Zealand is a problem. Its administration is better than Saudi Arabia but can’t hold a candle to the United States. I’ve been coaching in New Zealand for 19 years. I’ve been lucky enough to coach some pretty good swimmers. Never once have I been approached by anyone from Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) offering help. In 19 years in the United States I would have had 228 telephone calls and 38 meetings with Head Coach Mark Schubert. Says it all really.

A previous Swimwatch post included the following description of the New Zealand problem.

Swimwatch has highlighted two issues at the core of SNZ’s problems. First is the catastrophic decision to persist with the SNZ centralized training program. And second is the lack of transparency and anti-democratic features of the 2011 constitution. SNZ has a secretive management style that has sidelined the importance of the regions and disenfranchised the members. Minutes are no longer published, too many Board members are unelected, newsletters have been discontinued, Board members lie about future communication and the website management is inept. Quite simply the organization’s structure and management are on the wrong side of history.

New Zealand certainly pays lip service to the concept of the athlete coming first. But the reality is a hundred miles from that. When Lauren Boyle was a world record holder and a world champion her pay was less than 30% of what the fat cat running SNZ pays himself. There is not much of the Marea Hartman in these guys. In fact their behaviour is close to the Saudi example. Without question the prevailing mind-set is that swimmers need to perform to make the administration look good. And as a result SNZ rules have more in common with a badly run borstal than an adult professional sport.

The influence of the centralized elite training program has undermined the position of New Zealand coaches. Five of the last seven National Coaches have been foreigners. For years Jan Cameron told New Zealand that the job of local coaches was to send their most talented swimmers to the SNZ program. Domestic coaches were treated like second class serfs to the North Shore owner.

I was horrified at the SNZ decision to select a dozen relay swimmers to go to the Commonwealth Games. Only two swimmers qualified for individual events. The obvious comparison with the lawlessness of Saudi Arabia was too stark for comfort. If the rules don’t suit, just ignore them, is no way to run a sport.

New Zealand administrators scoured the world looking for Head Coaches that would lead them to the Promised Land. Ironically all they could come up with was David Lyles and an American age group coach. All that looking however ignored the fact that New Zealand’s problem was right under their noses, right around their own Board table. It isn’t the swimmers or the coaches or the pools. Like Saudi Arabia it is the administration. American swimming is great because of its administration. New Zealand swimming is weak for the same reason. Administrations make a difference. Just look in our own backyard.

Paralympic Review

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

 Some events occur in sport that starkly illustrate the difference between being a well-managed enterprise and an administration circus. I read about one of these this morning. In a welcome response to Australian lobbying, an “extensive” review of the governance structure of the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) will be launched by the body in an attempt to strengthen its position as a “world leading sports organization”.

Here is a news item reported in the British publication “Inside the Games”.

A working group, led by IPC vice-president Duane Kale, will conduct the first review of its kind since 2004.

The panel includes officials from all regions, as well as athlete and sport representatives, and will be led by New Zealand-based sports lawyer Maria Clarke, who has worked extensively with the International Association of Athletics Federations. 

IPC President Andrew Parsons insisted the governance structure of the worldwide governing body was “not broken” but they felt the review was necessary owing to the growth of the Paralympic Movement.

“When I was elected IPC President, I committed to make the IPC an organization for all and to fully unlock the potential of the Paralympic Movement,” the Brazilian, elected as the replacement for Sir Philip Craven in September of last year, said.

“In order to achieve this it is vital the IPC has in place the best and most up-to-date sports governance structures so that it is well positioned for further development and growth in the years ahead.

“We are fortunate that we start this review from a position of strength.”

Parsons added: “The current IPC governance structures are far from broken, but since the last governance review in 2004 the IPC and Paralympic Movement have grown beyond all recognition. 

“With tremendous growth, comes greater responsibility, interest and scrutiny. Therefore, we must ensure that the IPC is an organization with best practice and robust governance at its core.”

New Zealand’s Kale added the review would “”go beyond matters of structures, integrity and ethical standards to include other good governance principles such as openness and accountability”.

“We have a responsibility to the IPC membership and all the Para athletes that we serve to strengthen the IPC’s position as a strong and highly respected world leading sports organisation,” he added.

“To conduct this review we have assembled a very strong working group I am particularly happy to have secured the support and services of Maria Clarke, as she boasts extensive experience in this area, having previously advised many other International Federations on governance and integrity reform.”

Why can’t Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) act with that degree of maturity and responsibility? Consider some of the points highlighted in the Australian report.

It is the first review of its kind since 2004.

The last time a review of SNZ was undertaken was in 2011. The difference is the Moller Review of SNZ hasn’t worked. Previous Swimwatch posts have pointed to a dozen measures of performance that highlight the failure of Moller’s plan. It has been trialed for seven years. That’s long enough. And it has not worked. Either the plan is wrong or the people responsible for managing the plan are incompetent. In my view SNZ have both problems; a perfect storm.

The panel will be led by New Zealand-based sports lawyer Maria Clarke and IPC President, New Zealander, Andrew Parsons  

Two New Zealanders, one of whom, Maria Clarke, works ten minutes down the road from Antares Place. Clarke also has extensive knowledge of swimming matters. She helped Swimming Auckland sink the whole SNZ Project Vanguard initiative. She could well be an ideal person to take a look at what’s gone wrong in New Zealand swimming. I’m pretty sure Peter Miskimmin would hate the idea of Maria Clarke being involved. And, if true, that fact helps make her the ideal person.

The review would include principles such as openness and accountability.

Swimwatch has highlighted two issues at the core of SNZ’s problems. First is the catastrophic decision to persist with the SNZ centralized training program. And second is the lack of transparency and anti-democratic features of the 2011 constitution. SNZ has a secretive management style that has sidelined the importance of the regions and disenfranchised the members. Minutes are no longer published, too many Board members are unelected, newsletters have been discontinued, Board members lie about future communication and the website management is inept. Quite simply the organization’s structure and management are on the wrong side of history. It appears that the IPC have recognized the potential for the same issues in their organization and have decided to address the problem.

The governance structure was “not broken” but the review was necessary owing to the growth of the Paralympic Movement

Well, in this feature, the Paralympic Movement and SNZ are different. The disastrous performance numbers plus the rumor that SNZ employees were going around the Age Group Championships asking anyone and everyone for ideas on how to improve their performance suggests the organization is well and truly broken. Paralympics require a review to accommodate their growth. SNZ require the same thing to reverse their decay.

And so, well done International Paralympics. Hopefully your review will further strengthen your strong sport. Hopefully it will address the issues of classification fairness that have recently caused concern. Take comfort in the fact that men and women like Andrew Parsons, Duane Kale and Maria Clarke are involved. They appear to be providing the leadership necessary to bring about reform. And sleep well that at least you are not tossing and turning through the nightmare that is swimming in this part of the world.

Maybe There Is Good News

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

I met William Benson this morning. Like many others he is in Auckland at the Age Group Championships. He wandered over to where I was sitting timing a set of Eyad’s 20×100. Among a number of interesting things he had to say he made the point that he felt Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) was in the process of trying to change. For example, he said, he had been asked on several occasions during the week, what did Swimming New Zealand need to do to reverse a six year long decline? What could be done better?

That sounded like very good news to me. If it is true, if it is sincere and if it results in change then the consultation with coaches like William Benson is nothing but good. The view expressed in this blog for a decade has always been that SNZ with its flash Auckland pool and foreign coaches has never had all the answers; has never had even half the answers. But around New Zealand 246 William Bensons do have all the answers and more. SNZ simply needed the humility to understand that the Federation did not know as much about the sport as the coaches. Success depended on harnessing the coaching resource not on putting them in their place. Coaches are not mere suppliers of talent to David Lyles or Jerry Olszewski. Coaches from Invercargill to Whangarei are the solution.

If William Benson’s observation is right perhaps the penny has dropped, perhaps that truth has finally dawned on SNZ as well. We will see.

In the previous Swimwatch post I said this:

But of as much concern is what is Gary Francis doing? He was hired for the expressed purpose of bringing reform to SNZ. Instead it seems SNZ has corrupted Gary Francis. Months ago we were promised meetings to discuss his new job. In true SNZ style nothing has happened; no meetings, no newsletters and no change.

That opinion is valid. What has Francis done in the past two months? However I do see that he is programmed to speak at the New Zealand Swim Coaches and Teachers Association Conference next week. The Conference timetable tells me that the subject of the future role of SNZ in swimmer’s coaching will be discussed at the times shown in the table below.

Friday 27 April 2018

The Role of the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager 11.00 to 11.40am Gary Francis

Saturday 28 April 2018

Strategic Planning – Into the Future Together 10.30 to 11.10am Gary Francis

The Future role of the NTC 11.15 to 11.55am Matt Woofe

Sadly I will not be around on Friday or Saturday next week. I would love to hear SNZ’s plans for the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager and the National Training Centre. It is a subject for which I have a deep interest. The jargon and hyperbolic enthusiasm of “Strategic Planning – Into the Future Together” puts me off a bit. It is sad when any organisation feels that they need to sound pretentious in order to be important. In the conference slot immediately after Francis, Jana Wilkitzki is scheduled to discuss “Learning’s from the World Champs, Budapest”. What she means is “Lessons” from the World Champs. But, because “learning’s” sounds so supremely pompous it is enthusiastically embraced by lovers of obfuscation.  Oh Nevill, if you are going to insist on the word “Learning’s”, there is no apostrophe.

But what puts me off more than NZSCTA’s affected use of the English language is the fee they intend to charge. Coaches wanting to travel with Francis “into the future together” are going to have to pay $466.07 just to hear what that involves. For all three discussions that’s $3.88 a minute. And that’s daylight robbery.

If William Benson is right, and SNZ are in the process of putting right a decade of hurt, charging coaches $466.07 to hear about their plans is not a good way to start. They need coaches more than coaches need them. And finding another way to make a quick buck from coaches is no way to earn their support. It is as arrogant as ever. Whatever Francis plans, he requires the cooperation of coaches. Charging $466.07 is a really bad way to earn that cooperation.

In 2018 every coach in New Zealand should see the Francis presentation on their phone for free.

Just as bad of course is the fact that Nevill Sutton and the NZSCTA Board let SNZ get away with exploiting coaches as a money making piggy-bank. Remember the Sutton song and dance about Gary and Donna being fired. But nothing happened. Sutton came to Auckland and folded. For a decade New Zealand coaches have been treated appallingly by SNZ. The NZSCTA Board had a responsibility to protect the jobs and status of their members. They say their vision is “to improve professional standards through professional development and ethical practice.” They have not done that. They have not spoken truth to power. For a decade and for all the good it has done the NZSCTA might as well have not existed. And now when there is something coaches need to know, Sutton will let you in on the Francis secret as long as you pay him $466.07 first.

For coaches who live on the West Coast or in Invercargill or like me have other things on that day, how are we going to hear about the Francis plan – and how much is our attention going to cost.

Oh, and while all this was going on, Eyad’s 20×100 went well. He averaged 1:01.65.

Incompetent, Corrupt Or Both

Friday, April 20th, 2018

 Craig Lord’s SwimVortex website has played an important role in exposing incompetence and corruption in international swimming administration. His most recent editorial is a stunning example. I had no idea things were that bad. From the Lauren Boyle record fiasco, to drug cheating, to fake awards and international rule violations – FINA have practiced them all. The way the UAE went about ignoring Israel’s participation in UAE hosted World Cup events was disgraceful. There should have been serious consequences. But this is FINA. Money was more important.

Bad behaviour at Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) does not have the international consequences of the stuff FINA practice. However, in its own way it is just as incompetent, corrupt or both. For example SNZ played a central role in the Lauren Boyle lie. They signed a form that said all FINA minimum standards had been met when, quite clearly, they had not. That was a lie. They could have told the truth and added a note explaining that the swimmer received no advantage. Their dishonesty was compounded when Layton, the Chairman, used his Annual Report to rubbish SwimVortex and Swimwatch for holding him to account.

The problem with an example like that is it shows the dishonesty the organization will practice when there is money involved. SNZ were well aware that Boyle’s record would find favour with High Performance Sport New Zealand; favour that would probably be reflected in the size of the SNZ’s funding. What did a lie matter when there was money at stake? And that is straight out of the FINA text book.

Recent events on the Australian Gold Coast have further highlighted the consequences of SNZ’s incompetence, corruption or both. Several of these were discussed in a recent Swimwatch post

The post highlighted the following failures.

Between 2011 and 2018 there is not a single measure of the organization’s performance that improved. Everything got worse. Income, membership and results were all in decline.

The performance of the 2018 New Zealand non-para swim team at the Commonwealth Games was the equal worst result since the Games began 88 years ago in 1930.

In announcing the AON NZ sponsorship Swimming New Zealand reported that “The announcement comes following the growth of participating swimmers entering both championships every year.” That was not true. Between 2011 and 2017 the number of entries in the Open Championships dropped by 230 from 997 to 767.

Swimming New Zealand’s single biggest failure is its policy of centralized elite training. Introducing the program was bad enough but the decisions, over ten years, to persevere was inexcusable. In the face of mounting evidence that the program was failing Swimming New Zealand marched on. The damage was terminal.

The selection of three of the Commonwealth Games’ support staff raises concerns about the fitness of Swimming New Zealand to govern.

Only two swimmers met the SNZ qualifying standards. But SNZ, desperate not to send a team of only two, picked an additional ten relay swimmers and entered them in about 30 individual events. In my opinion that is called fiddling the rules.

SNZ booked a camp on the Gold Coast but failed to take into account their last minute army of relay swimmers. The Gold Coast facility was not big enough. The New Zealand pre-Games bonding experience was divided in two.

Bizarre programing of events such as the National Open Championships and a high altitude camp before the 2017 World Championships would have affected the team’s performance.

SNZ has a problem. Poor management is costing the sport financially. The sport is bleeding members and its elite performance at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games has been terrible. But the real problem is those in power, those individuals responsible for the mess, are not held to account.

There can be no arguing with the facts. No one can make an 8% decline in competitive swimmers look good. A 25% drop in total membership is not a success. A 28% drop in government funding is directly related to poor performance and a 15% cut in total funding is hurting the sport. These are not the disgruntled complaints of a “trouble-making” website. These are the facts. They have a cause and they cause harm

But what they don’t have is consequences for those who caused the hurt. They get away with it; home scot free. Why is no one holding Cotterill and Johns to account? Why do those responsible for oversight ignore their duty? What is Keith Bone from Hawkes Bay thinking of? Why does Mark Berge seem to ignore the problem? Is Bronwyn Radford more interested in political status than doing her job? Is Willem Coetzee too interested in his son’s swimming to upset his bosses? By association these delegates are as guilty as the SNZ principals. The time for them to stand-up and take responsibility for addressing the sport’s sorry state of affairs is long overdue.

But of as much concern is what is Gary Francis doing? He was hired for the expressed purpose of bringing reform to SNZ. Instead it seems SNZ has corrupted Gary Francis. Months ago we were promised meetings to discuss his new job. In true SNZ style nothing has happened; no meetings, no newsletters and no change. But instead of reform, instead of Gary Francis bringing about change, my bet is SNZ will attach themselves like a limpet to their new golden boy, Lewis Clareburt. Like Boyle he will be seen as their source of future funding and excuse to avoid reform – just like FINA.

The Games Big Boys & Girls Play

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

 It has been an interesting week at the National Training Centre. The Age Group Championships are in full swing. Everything is stunningly normal. Hundreds of teenagers are busy warming up and cooling down. Nervous coaches pace around the pool with an intensity way beyond anything you’d see at the Olympic Games. Tired parents are beginning show signs of wanting this drama to end. The flight home can’t come soon enough. And all of it reported by self-important experts on Facebook with a passion normally reserved for international conflicts.

I had an enjoyable chat today with two well-known and experienced coaches. We discussed the gap between events in Auckland and the preparation required to be successful in open international swimming. We agreed that success in an age group event is very different from open international swimming. Many swimmers, parents, commentators and even coaches believe that a winning age group swimmer will graduate into a successful senior swimmer by simply doing a bit more of the same thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Success in open international swimming is very different from age group swimming. They might as well be different sports; chalk and cheese. The American sprinter, Carl Lewis, said, “There is no correlation between success as a junior athlete and success as an elite senior competitor.” I agree with that. The intensity, training, pressure, professionalism of senior competition has almost nothing in common with events in Auckland this week.

Let’s consider something as simple as the amount of training as an example. Set out in the table below is a typical season for a senior female swimmer. In this season the swimmer won a national championship, was placed in an international championship and broke a national open record. The table shows the distance and competitions swum each week.

Week Distance Swum Training Type Competition Results
1 100 Aerobic
2 100 Aerobic
3 100 Aerobic
4 100 Aerobic
5 94 Aerobic
6 100 Aerobic
7 95 Aerobic
8 100 Aerobic
9 100 Aerobic
10 96 Aerobic
11 85 Anaerobic
12 80 Anaerobic
13 80 Anaerobic
14 80 Anaerobic
15 56 Anaerobic
16 40 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
17 36 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
18 20 Competition Provincial Championship – First place
19 24 Competition State Championship Australia – First place
20 20 Competition Local Interclub – First place
21 24 Competition National Championship – First place
22 20 Competition
23 30 Competition Regional Champs – First place, Open Record
24 31 Competition
25 28 Competition
26 20 Competition International Champs – Second place
Total 1659

That’s 1659 kilometres in 26 weeks or 3200 kilometres in a year. You will find that is pretty standard fare for a modern international swimmer on an aerobically based program. But certainly, I would think, much more than the training load swum by age group swimmers in Auckland.

In addition to their training, good senior swimmers spend time in the gym. In the season shown in the table, the swimmer lifted weights on 111 occasions. In 26 weeks that a little over an average of 4 gym sessions a week.

I guess there are two points to all this. First is the Carl Lewis point. The training and approach required to prepare an international athlete are very different and have little in common with age group swimming. The coaching skills required are very different. And second, age group success is of limited value in predicting senior international success.

There are dangers in the gulf that exists between age group and senior swimming. The most serious is the damage of too much praise. New Zealand is especially bad at this. Swimming New Zealand and Facebook write up the conquering feats of the young using a stunningly extensive vocabulary of superlatives. Swimmers “star” in “record breaking form”. And “Ciara Smith did a pretty handy 1:09.83 faster than anyone at NZ opens and think that time would have got her a semi-final at the Commonwealth Games.” It is extremely easy for that praise to become a burden. Commentators know not the damage they inflict.

It is for this reason that the Americans did away with national age group competition. The damage caused could not be justified. The Americans do have a junior under 18 championship but that’s it. Clearly that protects younger swimmers from the stress of national competition. I refused to let two very good age group swimmers I coached even attend the New Zealand age group meet. Both were age group record holders but, on Lydiard’s advice, I desperately wanted them to avoid the dangers of age group championship swimming. Both went on to represent New Zealand in senior international events and set open national records.

Facts appear to support the idea that Age Group Championships are a bad indicator of senior success. I prepared a list of the winners of every event in the 2007 and 2010 Championships. So there were two questions – how many of the junior national champions were still swimming in their late teens and early twenties and how many were swimming at the same championship winning level?

The answer is that the events at these two championships were won by 71 swimmers. Of the 71 swimmers, 58 (82%) were no longer swimming and 13 swimmers (18%) were still competing. Of those still competing 5 swimmers (7%) had won a senior national title. So the figures fully support the rule of thumb 80% drop-out rate. However, remember the swimmers studied were the winners; the national champions. And yet even in this group the drop-out rate was 82%. It could be even higher for less successful swimmers.

Dr John Mullen, editor of the “Swimming Science Research Review”, conducted a study similar to my New Zealand analysis. His findings are published on the website, “Swimming Science”. Mullen looked at swimmers at a much higher level than those in my New Zealand analysis. His study examined 87 swimmers who had competed in the 2008 Junior World Championships and evaluated their performance in the 2012 Olympic Games. Of the 87 swimmers, 66 swimmers (76%) did not participate in the Olympic Games. Of the 21 swimmers (24%) who did qualify to compete in the Games, no one won a medal and just 3 (4%) managed to qualify for a final.

The table below summarises and compares my New Zealand Championship study results with Dr Mullen’s Junior World Championship results.

Item NZ Study Olympic Study
Number % Number %
Number of swimmers in study 71 100 87 100
Number of drop-outs 58 82 66 76
Number in senior event 13 18 21 24
Number swimming successfully in senior event 5 7 3 4

The studies looked at very different levels of competition; one local and the other international. The findings however are remarkably similar. The data confirms that in both studies about three quarters of the swimmers retire from swimming after their success at a junior event. About one quarter make it through to the senior ranks and about 5% are successful. Drop-out, it seems, is a problem at all levels of junior swimming. The shift from the junior to the national swimming team is one of the most challenging milestones in a swimmer’s career.