1971 WORLD CLINIC, SWIMMING IN MEXICO, Ron Johnson


Published


We have a peculiar organization in Mexico City and in Mexico in general. I’d like to talk to you about our organization, very little about our training, a little bit more about what we use as motivational devices which might be more interesting to you, and finish up with some personal impressions about where we are in swimming today in America and in the world in general and possibly some of the things we could do in a look toward the future.

The reason I’m not going to spend too much time· on our training program is because it- has been taken from other people. We do things that are very similar to what most of you are doing. My workouts have been taken from Doc Counsilman’s books, Forbes Carlisle, Don Talbot, Harry Gallagher and Don Gambril. We have about 1300 swimmers in all of Mexico. That’s counting 7 and 8 year olds, so we have a very small base to work from.

Among that group, only a few are senior swimmers and about the only people in the country who are training hard at the senior level are the people at our Olympic center. We have a very, very large complex with a beautiful facility, a 50 meter indoor
pool and a water polo pool that’s 23 meters by 30 meters. We have access to that pool too. But only about JO boys and about 25 girls in the entire nation are training hard at the senior level. This makes for a synthetic show of a fairly good national team at international meets. But speaking truthfully it’s probably killed off a great mass of national promotion which, of course, you need for long term success. I hope that within four years we will be able to eliminate our national team as it presently operates in one central location.

I don’t think it’s good for the nation’s swimming. We’re just not growing as far as our participation goes. We draw from various clubs and about five clubs are doing a job, approximately, like a high level country club job in the
United States.

We do not have vitally interested coaches in Mexico except for one young man who probably is doing a state-side type job. A lot of you have seen him with me-his name is Nelson Vargas. He has a fantastic program with the Social Security team with a team of about 600 youngsters, he has about 23 assistants and you’ve never seen anything more organized in your life. Nelson works with me as assistant coach so he’s working part of his day in his club part of his day in the Olympic center so we have his interest and his enthusiasm behind the program and we’re in business together.

To improve the situation and to stimulate the clubs, we’re asking all the kids to go back to their club on Friday each week and train with their club. I’m also asking those five coaches that send us swimmers from different teams in the federal district of Mexico City proper to come in and take a rotation and work with just one coach from one club on Monday, another coach from another club on Tuesday, and another coach on Wednesday so they’re constantly keeping contact with the better kids. There are about twelve to fourteen people from outside Mexico City on the national team. We will pick a certain club to go to on Friday and throw our kids into that team’s workout. We hope to give them a little talk, improve the quality of their workout, and give them some demonstrations and help in that manner.

I’d like to make just a couple of suggestions for a coach that would be interested in taking a national team. I think the first suggestion to any coach who would be interested in taking a foreign job would be to learn the language because it’s absolutely essential to communicate with your kids. We’ve had about 15 American coaches come down to our Olympic
training center and almost all of them have been a total failure because they have not or they would not or they could not learn the language. The next most important thing is to get yourself one or two very dependable assistant coaches or do something like I’ve tried to do, with the rotation among the coaches that are doing the job in the area. Next, I thing that you’ve got to establish very good ties with your newspaper people in the city. I have four or five very good friends among the nine daily newspapers in Mexico City.
We have a tremendous population to pull from so I don’t know why we can’t get swimming going in Mexico today. We’ve got 22 pools but nobody’s interested in using their pools except for recreation swimming. Twenty two 50-meter pools, I believe ranks second in the world in the number of 50- meter pools for 9 million people.

As I was saying, establish good ties with the newspapers. I have, among my drinking buddies, about four or five newspaper men who come over to my house frequently. They come into the pool about once or twice a week and ask for information. Among them is one man who works for the daily ESTO in Mexico City and I see him every single day of the week. He comes into the pool or he calls me on the phone or I call him on the phone. This man is probably the world’s greatest reporter on swimming.

He gives us a full page spread at least once or twice a week. We have incredible coverage in the paper and we’re able to keep our people in swimming as a result of making the sport interesting to the public. Once you establish very good ties with your newspaper people and they are writing a lot, the next suggestion I’d make to a foreign coach is don’t read the newspapers. I followed that advice very closely in 1968–I didn’t open a newspaper to avoid developing an ulcer.

As far as our type of workouts go, about three or four months before a big international competition, we divide into about three or four workout groups: sprinters, middle distance and distance. Before that time, almost everybody in the program is doing a distance type program or a modified distance type program. We try to get about 10 to 12 thousand meters a day in the following manner. We have about one hour to train in the morning. Almost everybody in Mexico City starts school about 7 o’clock so we have to be in the water very, very early indeed. About 5:15 most of my team is in the water. We attempt to get about 4,000 meters in the morning.

In the afternoon the majority of our early season work is very, very close interval type work, 100’s with 10 seconds, 200’s with 15 to JO second rests, 400’s with a half a minute and that sort of thing. We attempt to get in the afternoon sessions in two hours about 6 to 8 thousand meters. We work about two or three days, usually Tuesday and Saturday, hard during the week but almost every day the amount of meters we do is consistent.
Our morning organization is very loose. Our workouts are written on the board. The kids come in, take a look at the board and complain, go into the water and do the work out. It gives us a lot of time· to talk to the kids individually, make individual stroke corrections and, as I say, the workout is loose. Some kids come in at 5:15, some at 5:30 some at 5:35, some at 6:00 and they’ve got about an hour’s work to do and they do it on their own.

Our afternoon session, by contrast, is extremely well organized and we start precisely on the minute which is somewhat of an effort for Mexicans. We precede every workout by exercises. Generally the exercises are of flexibility nature and we do some extra genie work or pulley work where we use a simple pulley device with two ropes and a stick. The kids work against the resistance of each other or tubes.

Next I’d like to talk about some things we use to motivate our kids. I believe in the advantages of swimming. Some long boring types of work that I think promotes general capillary spread and cardio-vascular fitness, things like 8 X 800,
6 X 1500’s, 3 X 3000, we do not do very often, maybe once every ten days, even once a month. The kids hate them, just as much as they hate them in your programs, but we call this carnival

day. They come in, we have three different targets set up and they take a shot at the targets with one dart and if we’re going 3000’s, for instance, they have an opportunity to do 1000’s, 2000’s, or 3,000’s, depending on where they put the dart. The bull’s-eye for 1000’s is about 1 inch in diameter and they throw from about 20 feet away. The bullseye for the 2000’s is a little larger and the bull’s-eye for the 3,000’s is the biggest. They usually swim 3 X 3000’s, but it makes them happier anyway.

We have also tried to give them a chance to get out of a little of this, make them a little happier before they start. We use our hand paddles for what we call hand-paddle war. We have a gigantic box of about 200 hand paddles. We throw them right in on the middle line of the pool and line half the team up on either side in two equally aggressive groups. We blow a whistle and the group who has taken the majority of the hand paddles out to their side of the pool, no holds barred, wrestling, anything short of trying to do bodily damage to your opponent saves them from about 500 to 1000 meters of one of these horrible workouts.

We also use water polo on some days using the entire length of the 50 meter pool without taking our lane lines out, absolutely no rules, except not trying to do bodily harm to your opponents. The kids climb on the lane lines and it’s total mayhem. The only way you can Score a goal is by holding the ball 5 seconds against the wall. This lends a little spirit to these miserable, horrible workouts that I think are valuable sometimes. If things are really going bad in a workout, and kids are getting bored and meaner and meaner, I give them an opportunity to get out of part of the workout. Say we’re lacking about a half an hour and we’ve got one more series to do, I’ll have them send their representative of the team up against my representative. My representative is my assistant coach, a little square headed Indian guy who never misses with a 7 inch inside diameter tube any spot in the pool from 20 yards in. We take three pop shots at any spot on the deck of the pool, their representative against my representative and if they beat him, which is rare, we drop a certain percentage of our workout.

I also have two dogs that I take to the workout almost every day. They’re two mongrels that I carry around with me almost all the time in my Volkswagen. These dogs are the mascots of the team. The kids think they’re lucky dogs. We have dog races on these horrible days when things get really miserable and boring. I found that the young dog can generally beat the older dog so we handicap it so it turns out to be just about even. The kids pick their dog, they pick the younger dog or the older dog and if they win they can drop maybe four or five hundred yards of the workout. As Don Gambril once said, “I think it’s much more important to have the spirit, the enthusiasm in the workout than to finish up a couple of extra hundred yards. Also, during the last two months of really hard work before an important competition, we select swimmers of the week, two swimmers among our men and two swimmers among our girls. I try and get a picture of the kids and we put them on the bulletin board. You know-the “heroes of the week”. The other kids put mustaches on them and everything else to really deface them, but the kids like to get up there anyway.

We give prizes out with that and my newspaper friends usually print it in their papers. They’re constantly searching for bits of information to print in the paper down there about swimming or any other sport. We’ve got three all-sports page newspapers that doesn’t print anything but sports which gives us a really good situation. We make a big production out of giving them a prize, like a record, or a, if we’re really hard up, an Indian tee shirt and if we’re even harder up we give them a USC tee shirt or something like that, but they work like hell for it.

We have all sorts of record boards. We have record boards for world records, our national records, our age group records and we have record boards even for our workout records. Record boards for our workout records are constantly changing and they are just a big piece of plastic painted with blackboard paint. You can go up there any time during the workout and change them immediately with a piece of chalk.
The kids work like the devil to get on that blackboard. We do not bring anybody into the Olympic training center until they’re thirteen years of age. They are selected from these other clubs and we have our record board set up for fifteen years and down, or sixteen years and over so we’ve only got to worry about two different age groups in our pool. We have things like 10 X 50 kick, best series of best 8 X 100 kicks, best straight 200 kick, best straight 400 kick-all these in swimming and pulling-plus best straight 3000, best straight 10 X 400, best 3 X 400. Your best series of 15 X 200, best series of 15 X 100 and best average of 3 X 1001 s on a 15 minute send-off. Those are some of the series we use on the workout board.

We have Matt Mann’s cards and Percy Cerrities’, the great coach of Herb Elliot, book translated into Spanish. We have Ken Douerty’s book, which is also a very inspiring book on track and field, translated into Spanish. Maxwell Malt’s book on psycho-cybernetics has been translated into Spanish. Norman Vincent Peale and several other sources are translated into Spanish. We try and take pertinent stuff and make signs out of them and put them around the wall. We also give our kids goal sheets. I usually make them out because I found out that usually the goals that the kids make up for themselves are pretty

unrealistic. I sit down and try and talk to the klds about the goals that I have made out, but we take it one step further. We have a main series of the things that we do during the course of a workout. During the course of our year, we have about· six or seven main series that we use most frequently for sprinters and another set of six or seven main series that we use most frequently for distance men and another one for the middle distance men. for instance, our main series for distance men is 15 X 1001 s with ten seconds rest, or 15 X 1001 s on the one minute and a half. or 22 X 100’s on the 2:30 or three minute send off, or 10 X 400’s on the 5:15 or 5:30. The girls would be at six minutes.

You’ve got to go through the records and make an estimate of what a kid needs to do on 15 X 100’s, 22 X 100’s, 10 X 400’s, or his time on a straight 3000 to arrive at a certain goal time in his 400 and 1500 meters at the end of the year. Kids believe in this, because it’s come out pretty accurate over the course of the years. They really believe in that and they faced it and most of them faced it on the inside of their locker because they are looking at those times every time they open up their locker to get dressed.

We are also constantly making a ranking of our top team. We attempt to make a ranking of our top 18 to 20 swimmers. Those are the people who are eligible for international competition.
International competition is coming to the United States or Canada. It’s a very thrilling experience for our kids to come to the United States because they can do a lot of shopping here. They can buy things here that they can’t buy in Mexico. Sometimes I think they come to the United States to shop, rather than to swim. Our rankings are ,made on the basis of the most recent Top 25 World rankings. The people who are, percentage wise, closest to the top 25 in the world event are eligible to go on our travel trios. I have just been guaranteed approximately 8 foreign trips before the Munich Games to get our teams ready for the Olympics so this will indeed by a very strong stimulus for motivating our kids to get into that top eighteen.

I’d like to go on to another area which is some of my personal impressions about where we are in swimming today. We come to these clinics almost every year and we talk about the things we’ve done as far as weight training, interval training, and stroke technique. These things are very important but it seems to me that we haven 1 t talked about one area that possibly
is as important as all those other areas all together. That subject is swimming’s future and its impact on our profession. By the future, I mean the examination of swimming in a projected way. We should examine all those things we’re talking about in our annual clinics and a few more areas of interest, putting the emphasis on things that are likely to happen the next year, five years or even 10 years from now. I think any coach who is going to make a contribution to the sport, or make another dramatic breakthrough as we all hope to do, should have at least one control group every season to try new
ideas on while keeping the other people on things that you know, or think, will work from your past records for the comparison.

I think we should be trying different types of training cycles at all times every single season. A person who is content to only do things that are used by others and is afraid of having his team bomb out only will have mild success at the very best. I recently finished reading a book by the name of FUTURE SHOCK by an author by the name of Alvin Toffler. FUTURE SHOCK has probably affected my outlook on coaching more than any book I’ve read this year. It’s a book that tells what happens to people when they are overpowered by change, just what is happening to our society right now. It’s about the way in which one adapts or fails to adapt to the future. The book argues very forcefully that unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs, as well as society at large we’re doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown. Now the purpose of this book, I think, is to help us to come to terms with the future, make us more future conscious. I believe this applies very specifically to us and to swimming. I think we must learn to control this tremendous rate of change that has become so much a part of this sport in the last twelve years or we’re finished as successful coaches and possibly our sport will be relegated to a position that I don’t think any of us want it to be relegated to.

Something that I think would make a fantastic clinic is with the participation with a small group of top coaches, say six to ten, to go through a day or two of pure problem solving with no formal prepared program, maybe lending the emphasis on problems of the future and make a rehearsal of appropriate courses of action to a series of hypothetical problems. These problems could
be in the realm of workouts or in teaching problems, how to present a certain point to your kids right through human relation problems. Let’s sit some coaches up here and fire some questions at them about things that you really want to hear. Let those coaches tell you from their vast experience how they would handle that problem. We need, immediately, a group of creative thinkers to form a subcommittee, maybe in the AAU, or at least in the ASCA, called the future planning subcommittee and maybe at the world level that would plan for the future. We also need some ideas, desperately: on how to focus public interest in the sport. We all know that there probably isn’t a group of athletes in the world that are more dedicated and harder working than the swimmers. We also know that at the Olympic level there I s no sport including track and field that’s more ferociously competitive. But the public doesn’t have the slightest idea of what we’re all about. They don’t know the names of practically any of our champions, other than Mark Spitz and Debbie Meyer. They don’t have the slightest idea of who the champions are. The concept of the general public of swimming is that it’s some small time sport that’s just a step-up from some old ladies’ past-time and that’s the truth. We’re becoming more and more inbred. There isn’t really a great deal of enthusiasm even at our national championship. It’s incredible to me to see half-filled stands at our national championships with only enthusiasm among the coaches. We are so inbred it’s impossible. Our age group meets are about the most boring way of spending a day I can think of right off hand. What’s the matter? Can’t we solve this situation? There must be lots of ways.

One thing that we’re going to do in Mexico, maybe a very synthetic way of injecting interest in our competitions, is to hand out racing forms, like the racing forms at Aqueduct with the best times of those kids in every single event. The spectators are going to have a form to fill out to make their picks for the top three places for every event of the day.
They’ll keep a copy for themselves, they’ll hand a copy into one of our girls. Let’s say we get a thousand people for a meet; I think that girl can check three names on 1000 papers in about 10 to 15 minutes in between each event. We’re going to give out a prize to the winning person. I think that we’re going to get some interest, at least in that last heat to see who finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd. We’ll give them a radio or a tape recorder or something that is easily covered by the three peso entry that we ask our people to make. It seems to me that it is more important to have a little interest among the fans and among the swimmers than it is to make a couple of bucks for your team treasury.

I think that’s the saddest thing in swimming when people are chatting or talking with their friends, looking the other direction when a world record is being set in a national championship. It is incredible that we don’t have more interest among the public than we do. I don’t care what we have to do in Mexico to inject a little interest. If we had to play bingo at the meets or have group sings, we’ll do it and we’ll do some swimming along with it.

But we’re going to have some fun and we’re going to have some•••we’re going to try to inject some interest. We need to think of ways to glamorize the sport of swimming. I think that we’ve got to look for new ways of re-organizing our competition to make it interesting and not just money makers for our boosters club and our budget. I’m speaking mostly of the AAU meets.
For example, what’s happened in this country, is that the Santa Clara meet is so much more interesting than our national championships each year that it’s ridiculous. The Santa Clara meet is a great meet. They have national television coverage, they have reporters swarming around the pool looking for local color. They invite foreign swimmers to come in which makes for more color, they have 5,000 to 6,000 people on that hill, the stands are full and they are knowledgeable people. By contrast we give our national championship to an area, generally that is very weak in swimming, with not much knowledge of how to organize a meet and with no knowledge of how to glamourize and promote the meet. Generally at Santa Clara, they have a movie star handing out the awards. Those things are important to the kids. We have to find ways of making our sport less inbred so we have reason for that spectator interest. Now I don’t think it is necessary that we have to have our stands empty for all of our big meets. I don’t think you could find a country that’s less knowledgeable about swimming or was less knowledgeable about swimming than Mexico in 1968.

But for the 19 sessions of swimming and diving, prelims and finals, we had 10,000 people in a 10,000 spectator stadium. It was jam-packed with people outside and most of those people were Mexicans. They were paying $10 for some of the tickets simply because they had been made to be knowledgeable. The spectacle was made spectacular and there was some glamour in the competition. We can do this in any of our big meets. We have to think more in terms of showmanship, if that is what it takes. It’s really ludicrous that we have announcers at our national championships that on occasion have not been able to pronounce the names of some of the finalists. We are so inbred that even former great swimmers who live in the same area that the national championships are being held in, don’t come out to see the meets. If they do come out to see the meets they don’t know what a good time in their favored event is any more and they don’t know the names of the top swimmers in their favorite event. Don’t you see, we need promotion very badly. I think a great clinic could be done by assembling and getting back to this future idea could be done by assembling a small group of top coaches and asking them to work together, even live together, long enough to hammer out among themselves, a set of well-defined values on which they believe that a truly great, overall sports program of the future might be based. Each member of the team, might then attempt to describe in non-fiction form, a section of an imaginary program built on these values. What would the team structure be like in the future? What would our competitive meet structure be like? How would we attack the publicity problem ? It economy? The use of future technology? Its rules? The spectator education? Its philosophies? Its values? Its psychological problems, etc. This would give us an excellent base of material from which to experiment with our world, local and national. programs with projected consequences and various courses of action.

Still dwelling on this future idea, there are futurist centers all over the world. There are futurist centers in London, Moscow, Washington, Caracas, even in the remote jungles of Brazil. Unlike convention planners, these guys are not just thinking about what’s going to happen fifteen, twenty-five and even fifty years from now. I think we ought to be doing the same.
Where do we want to be fifteen years from now in this sport? I don’t think we’ve got the slightest idea where we want to go-I don’t think we’ve got the slightest idea of what our goals are in this sport.. We just haven’t talked about it, not to my knowledge. What are some of the things that we’ll have to do to achieve our long term goals?

They’re not just going to happen magically. We are in big competition for talented young athletes among all the professionally oriented sports like baseball, football, and golf. Not only among the professionally oriented sports, we’re in big competition with sports like track and field, wrestling, and gymnastics. They’ve got some great programs too. We’d better think of some ways of promoting our sport and making it more attractive or we will, in a short time, be relegated to a small time recreational activity. That’s what most sports writers and newspaper men think of us right now.

In summary, I’d like to say we’d better start doing all the things that we need to do in order to cope with the future more effectively. We’d better start anticipating our problems before they happen instead of suffering along with them four or five years before we decide to do anything about them, The problem with swimming is not in the performance of our athletes. We have great performances in our athletes. There’s nobody that performs better than our athletes do. The problem in swimming is in regard to the public eye and a lack of planning with an eye toward the future.

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