In my time standing around a swimming pool I have been lucky enough to learn at the feet of four stunningly good coaches – Duncan Laing, Mark Schubert, Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard. All four coached an Olympic champion in either swimming or track and field. That fact alone meant they were good at their trade. But, why, I wondered. Was there something common to all four? Was there a characteristic that made them different? Did they coach in a way that was different from club coaches? Was there something that made these guys better than the rest?

It certainly wasn’t their personality or education. Both Mark Scubert and Arch Jelley are university educated. Arthur Lydiard and Duncan Laing ended their formal education at high school. So, education did not explain what I was looking for.

Their personalities were also different. There was a common care, a genuine warmth, for the athletes they coached. Authoritarian is not a word you would associate with these master coaches. They led their charges to the top of the world. But they did it with compassion.

Apart from that they were very different. Arthur was direct to a fault. Someone once told me Arthur was the only person who said hello like it was an order. But the same man always had a room available in his house for us to stay. If he was overseas, he would leave his house keys with the neighbors so we could stay for the weekend.

Duncan was similar, gruff, direct and warm. I remember when Jane was selected for her second New Zealand team, we arrived at Auckland Airport. Duncan’s first words were, “Hello blondie, how are you today?” Now, you need to understand, no one gets away with calling Jane terms like “blondie”. I was expecting an explosion. Instead, Jane smiled and said, “Very good. Thank you, Mr. Laing”. I guess it’s a thing called charisma.

Arch is quieter than the other three – more academic. And what an amazing life. He started in the Royal Navy during WW2 as a navigator on an escort submarine taking war supplies to the Russians. That would be a lifetime of adventure for most of us. Arch went on to lead New Zealand’s top teacher education school and coach some of the world’s best runners. I certainly owe him my career in coaching.

Mark is direct and tough beyond belief. I guess that is, in part, where the 10 Olympic Champions came from. But behind the granite is a warmth and care for the underdog. I rang him from Saudi Arabia to ask if he could help two girls who were mad on swimming but were not allowed to swim in their home country. In less than a week Mark had them a home to stay, they were in Huntington Beach and training in Mark’s programme. In Mark’s world everybody deserves a chance.

And so, if it is not education or personality, what does make these men different? And then one day I found the answer – simplicity. One look at a Laing, or a Schubert, or a Jelley, or a Lydiard programme and you know exactly the purpose – aerobic, anaerobic or speed – always separate, always obvious. The quality of simplicity stands out. The best in the world were telling me if it was time to do anaerobic training, then do that and go home. Simplicity drives some coaches and many parents crazy. For some reason the belief is that unless the programme is too difficult to understand it can’t be any good. But the purpose of training is to swim faster – not to impress parents.

In 2011 an assistant coach working for me went to a Swimming New Zealand training camp. She was surprised at the difference between the “aerobic” training used in our programme and the “aerobic” training demonstrated at the camp. Here is what had been written on the white board.


4×150 – 50 free and 50 fist closed and 50 free or back – sc take 1 less every 150

2×100 – kick NB on 4 positions

2×150 – back 6 underwater kicks off the walls, good streamlines and breakouts

2×100 – kick NB on 4 positions

2×150 – Pull Buoy, 100 moderate and 50 breathe 5 hard

8×25 – fins, odd underwater 15 fast, even dead start flags to flags sprint

Aerobic: Heart Rate 50 beats below maximum

1×200 – on 3.00 then 4×50 # 1 drill main stroke

2×200 – on 2.55 then 4×50 “King Fish” tumble main stroke

3×200 – on 2.50 then 4×50 free jump outs

4×200 – on 2.45 then 4×50 sprint middle 20 meters as a “King Fish” tumble

Dives and skills

I could see the reason for her confusion. I began my coaching career in a sport where aerobic conditioning meant spending three hours running at a firm pace through the Waitakere Ranges, or along forest trails in Boulder, Colorado or down a dusty road in Kenya’s Rift Valley. What did this fruit salad mix have to do with that sort of international aerobic conditioning? The answer, of course, is not a damn thing!

In fact, it is full of expressions common to tough anaerobic training programmes. For example:

  1. Breathe every five strokes hard.
  2. 8×25 underwater 15 meters fast.
  3. Dead start, flags to flags sprint.
  4. 4×50 jump outs.
  5. Sprint middle 20 meters as a “King Fish” tumble.

The sad aspect of a program like this is that for years Sport New Zealand and Swimming New Zealand taught this nonsense to young coaches. It will take time to clear New Zealand of the problems caused by centralised training. If you want an aerobic session run around the Waitakeres or swim a main set of 8000m straight.

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