The international profile that Australian Swimming currently enjoys rivals the heady days of the late 1950’s. Certainly the sporting environment of today is a far cry from the “amateur” system that existed during the 50’s, yet Australian Swimming has been able to adapt to the current public and political demand for sporting excellence and produce a viable program. Although my comments are not an official statement from the national sporting body, or the Australian Swimming Coaches Association, they reflect an “insider’s” observations. I have been very fortunate to be closely involved with the Australian Swimming program over the past several years as a sports scientist, administrator, coach and swimming enthusiast.
From the outset I would like to acknowledge publicly that I believe it is the vision, commitment, determination, drive, experience and just plain hard work of National Head Coach Don Talbot and National Youth Coach Bill Sweetenham that has led Australia to its current position in World Swimming. Both men have driven the national swimming program towards the 2000 Olympics with an uncompromising dedication to succeed and to develop swimmers capable of performing at their best in the toughest possible arena.
Program funding has been important. Coach education vital. Sports science useful. Administrative backup is essential. However these elements would not have been nearly as effective without the leadership, inspiration and direction of Don and Bill.
Sporting administrations were, and in most cases still are, notoriously slow to accept change. This is a bizarre contradiction when you think about it. One major aim of any sporting administration is to have their elite level athletes succeed at the highest level. To succeed, athletes and coaches must look for every possible edge and advantage along the way and be prepared to be judged by their performances. Administrators also rely on athlete performances as the basis of funding and job security. Yet administrators are rarely appointed and judged under results based protocols. Something to think about!
In late 1993, when Australia won the right to host the 2000 Olympics, the sports funding agency of the Federal Government (the Australian Sports Commission) was keen to see that high performance sport was supported by high performance administration. It might be suggested that prior to this time the majority of Australian Olympic sports administrations still heartily embraced the Victorian principle of Amateurism. The Olympic Sports were advised by the Federal government that funding for the 2000 Olympics would be steadily increased over the years leading up to the Games, PROVIDING the sports were performing well in key international competitions.
For example, Australian Swimming’s funding was reviewed (and increased) following the 1995 Pan Pacs and the 1998 World Championships and Commonwealth Games. Team performances at those meets indicated a general improvement in standards and were felt to be key indicators of 2000 Olympic preparation.
The Australian Government’s program for the funding of special programs targeting the Olympics was called the “Olympic Athlete Program”, or OAP. Included in the government’s criteria for funding was the opportunity to employ qualified personnel with the necessary skills to provide professional guidance in key areas. One such area was the coordination of support structures for the national team. Many sports employed High Performance Managers to assist in the areas of planning, competition scheduling and elite athlete development. Some sports also employed Sports Science Coordinators to develop that area in their sport. I was fortunate enough to secure the position as the first Sports Science Coordinator employed by any of our Olympic sports. As an employee of Australian Swimming Incorporated I was able to work closely with the other professionals (coaches, sport scientists and administrators) as part of a “performance team”.
The catch phrase for the programs was “COACH DRIVEN ATHLETE FOCUSSED – ADMINISTRATIVELY SUPPORTED”. No doubt the cockles of your hearts are suitably warmed by this phrase. It was a bold move considering the natural conservative nature of governments and sports administrations, but one might argue a logical one. After all, coaches are the real agents of change “at the coal face” and athletes are the most important part of the performance equation. In terms of the administration of the sports science program it worked a little like this.
- The Sports Science Coordinator would liaise with the National Head Coach, National Youth Coach, National Coaching Director, and Coaches of the High Performance Centre programs (i.e. elite coaching programs where national team swimmers trained) and ask them what they needed from ‘sports science’ to best assist them with preparing their athletes. Again, this was a big breakthrough in thinking as coach input and influence had been limited on matters that were perceived to be administrative or scientific research issues.
- Based on the needs of the coaches and the direction of the National Coach, the Sports Science Coordinator would prepare a detailed plan and budget for submission to the federal government sports funding source – the Olympic Athlete Program. Sports science initiatives to be funded in this way included:
Athlete Testing (primarily physiological and biomechanical) to link up with the “laboratory standards program” initiated by the National Sports Research Centre.
Athlete Monitoring (blood screening and immune system status) that was tailor-made to the needs of the sport.
Biomechanical Performance Analysis at major swim meets (Bruce Mason’s “Competition Analysis Program”)
Musculo-Skeletal Screening of athletes (carried out through a network of sports physiotherapists recruited by swimming).
Sports Medicine Services (e.g. unified approach to treatment of injuries and illness).
Athlete and Coach Education programs (i.e. a “how to” approach of linking the athletes and coaches to the services).
Sports Scientist Networking and Education programs (e.g. establishing working groups of dieticians, sport psychologists, physiotherapists, and physiologists).
Testing and Measurement equipment.
- Once funding was approved and the various programs put in place, we tried to monitor their effectiveness.
The effectiveness of each program was measured by the ability of the service providers to deliver the required service at a competitive price, at a professional standard, and within a relatively short timeframe. For example, most physiological testing of swimmers would be carried out at their home pool. The sports science professional would be required to travel to the pool, conduct the tests in consultation with the coach, analyze the results and return to the coach all results within a 24 hour period. Remuneration for services was determined by the Australian Sports Commission and negotiated with the individual service providers. In most cases the network of State Institutes/Academies of Sport acted as the primary service provider. Where possible, sports science personnel most actively involved became part of the national team sports science support team.
The issue of accountability for the sports sciences is a difficult one to quantify. On one hand, our sports science professionals have input into the development of the athletes and enjoy the benefits and recognition of being part of a successful team effort. On the other hand, unlike the swimmers and coaches, sports science personnel are not accountable for results or performances. Something else to think about!
The challenge faced by our swimming administration was to provide overall direction and support yet allow coaches the freedom to largely determine the details of their own program and give them the opportunity to coach. The politics of any sporting association are complex. However, the sporting politics of swimming are no greater than those in football, baseball, basketball, rowing or for that matter the politics of any results driven corporation. Among the political hurdles to be overcome in the Australian swimming environment were:
- Administrators’ perceptions that coaches did not understand issues of funding, planning, budgeting – the “Big Picture” argument.
- Coaches perceptions that administrators did not understand performance issues.
- Athletes perceptions that administrators did not understand their needs.
- Sports scientists’ reluctance to share information and work within a team environment.
- Coaches reluctance to share information and work toward the National Program goals.
Again, Don Talbot and Bill Sweetenhwn must be given -the credit for shaping the administrators, sports scientists, coaches and athletes perspective into a coordinated and unified national effort. Successful people always seem to find a way to use the political system to their advantage.
I am frequently asked about the Australian Swimming “system” in the belief that the recent success of our National Team is part of a performance development system in the same sense of the Eastern European sports systems of the 70’s and 80’s: that the Australian model might have wider international application in terms of the key concepts rather than the system that it exists within.
My observation is that there is no “Australian System” – at least in the Eastern European sense. Australian Swimming has benefited from increased government funding since 1994 and many of the programs put in place will have lasting benefit to the sport. Ultimately, success of individual swimmers has always been, and will continue to be, the result of motivated, committed, and talented individuals working together. Whilst the money makes the job easier, the real strength of any program is the willingness of individuals to push the barriers of excellence to achieve what is possible (or impossible!). This belief will be rigorously tested once government funding of Australian sport is reviewed and in all likelihood reduced after the Olympics. Government priorities, administrators, and “systems” will inevitably change, but the human spirit remains constant
Sports Science Perspective
Sports science is an integral part of our basic understanding of the training adaptation response as well as the fine-tuning of elite athletes. However, it offers no magical or universal resolution to all performance related problems.
Over the past ten years a plethora of products and services have been widely advertised as a scientifically based “fix-all” solution to swimming performance issues. I can report with some confidence, that there ain’t no such thing!! There are no short cuts nor few one-dimensional answers. All that can be hoped for is that the coordinated efforts of a committed coach and athlete partnership will prevail. Naturally, the support of an innovative and creative administration, services of applied-science specialists, and supportive lifestyle environment will increase the likelihood of our success. A famous US Football Coach is supposed to have said, “There is no “I” in team”. I disagree. It’s the commitment of the “I” as ‘individuals to work towards a common goal that makes the overall team successful.
The Australian challenge was to pull together the various sports science disciplines and have them share knowledge and work co-operatively towards success. This was not an easy task, it did not happen overnight, and will demand continued attention to remain effective. As with any profession, sports scientists in the various professional disciplines have perspectives often difficult for the others to understand. In addition the politics of sports science, like the politics of sports administration, pose their own set of problems.
One good example is the physical therapies area where traditional rivalries between professional groups are ensconced in the industry. Our challenge was to find the best practitioners regardless of their politics. In this effort a large group of physical therapy practitioners physiotherapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and others were brought together to address significant performance issues (i.e. the assessment, prevention and treatment of swimming injuries). These practitioners were selected not by their respective professional bodies but recommend by coaches already using their services. They represented a wide spectrum of professional qualifications, but a willingness to be open minded and a practical approach to working closely with coaches and athletes (yes, including attending early morning workouts!). They were also selected on their ability and preparedness to work cooperatively in a team environment. This included openly sharing information and providing feedback to coaches and swimmers. The feedback from athletes and coaches on major teams supports the effectiveness of this Team support staff approach. Over several years we developed a strong network of support staff (that our athletes and coaches felt comfortable working with) that could be drawn upon at any time. As a result, our current Olympic team can boast some of the finest practitioners in world sport, all of whom have proven international competition experience and can work together in a high pressure team environment.
To further illustrate how the cooperative process has been applied to our sport science support effort, I will use the development of our “National Testing Protocols” as another example. The OAP determined that all government funded athletes in preparation for the Sydney Olympics should be regularly tested to determine if they are training well and are in reasonable shape. As the physiological side of swimming performance had been well documented and testing of swimmers. was a well established practice, the plan was (ostensibly) simple enough:
- Develop a simple, effective, reliable, and valid set of swimming test protocols that could be easily administered by a national network of sports scientists and coaches. The size of Australia and the widespread distribution of national team members necessitated a home based testing approach. Tests were also carried out at National Team training camps and pre-international competition gatherings.
- Collate test results at a central point for analysis and interpretation. Then provide comprehensive information to the National coaching staff and feedback to the home coach. Results would be stored for each swimmer on a central database for tracking over time.
- Share (within the limits of confidentiality) test results among the National Head Coach and National Team sports science staff for their further analysis
- The National Head Coach and national team sports science staff would be able to recommend a course of action should it be necessary. For example, in a test of endurance if a swimmer’s performance should be less than expected, the National Head Coach would have a number of follow-up options. He might consult with the home coach by phone or in a personal visit to discuss training issues. He might question the sport science service provider to gain their input, or he might consult with other members of the sport science network to discuss various options.
The “system” was really set up to provide information about the wide range of training programs operating across the country and then identify a series of options for coaches (National and Home Coach) to follow. In this way the National Coach, having ultimate responsibility for National Team performance, is able to keep track of each swimmer and training program at all times.
The national testing program also had a secondary benefit. Traditionally Australian Team selection takes place at the end of our summer program (any time between March and May). Most international meets are scheduled on a northern hemisphere calendar, this leaves us with a 12-18 week preparation cycle between selection and major competition. This leaves our National Team vulnerable to ongoing fitness, illness, and injury issues during the long lead-up period. Therefore, our tests serve as a good way to ensure that selected swimmers attempt to maintain or improve upon their form.
One issue that has not yet been tested (legally) is the validity of excluding a swimmer from a team based upon test results alone (as opposed to competition performances). In theory test results could be used to substantiate decisions of our National Selectors (the National Coach being one of four on this panel). In practice this is yet to be used as the major criterion for a decision. Should US Swimming decide to go down this road I strongly recommend they first get quality legal advice.
Our leading swimming physiologists debated the test protocols themselves at great length, and even today there are some reservations concerning what we have adopted. However, they have faithfully endeavored to glean as much information as possible from the tests and objectively study the results. Deciding upon the ‘best’ test seems to be an ongoing obsession for some; the swimming physiologist’s Holy Grail. For example, one measure indicating aerobic performance is a 7 x 200 metres step-test on a 5 minute cycle. The arguments followed…..”why not swim 300’s, or 400’s …. why not 5 reps, or 8 …..why not on 4 minutes, or 7….. what target speed on each repeat, or pacing strategy …..do we monitor blood lactate — if so, when are they taken — immediate or 1-2-minutes post swim? This same process was repeated for each test we ultimately selected (i.e. speed, power, speed-endurance, etc.). After a long process of academic argument and counter argument, it was suggested that unless we could come up with a simple standard test protocol and agree on the details (at least in public) the entire sports science program was in jeopardy. Not surprisingly, agreement came quickly and the Australian Swimming National Test Protocols (recently published by Human Kinetics in “Physiological Tests for Elite Athletes”), were finalized.
Another stage in the process was at first surprising, but in retrospect very logical. One of our basic principles has always been to approach sport science from an interdisciplinary perspective. Dr Bruce Mason of our Australian Institute of Sport BIONMCHANICS team was asked what he thought of the physiological testing protocols. Bruce suggested that it might be a good idea to look at stroke dynamics (stroke count, stroke rate) during the test procedures, particularly at what was happening over the final 50 metres of each 200. He suggested that the relationship between physiological fatigue and a decrease in stroke efficiency might be worth investigating and tracking over time. On Bruce’s suggestion we integrated basic mechanical data into our test. What then of other science disciplines? Consultation with key members of our “Sport Sciences Advisory Group” (not a committee, because a committee structure is usually too slow to act) such as Dr Louise Burke and Clark Perry reflected a wider range of concerns and input was forthcoming from our sport science network. We were able to quickly incorporate a number of their ideas into a simple ‘background check’ questionnaire and add it to all of our pool test protocols. We were able to collect some very useful information on the swimmer’s diet, sleep-rest pattern, illness, injury, training cycle demands, and mood state during the week prior to the actual swimming test. The actual application of an integrated sport science approach was a key shift in direction we wanted to go with our national sports science program.
All of our field tests (however simple) are based upon some very high powered scientific principles. For example Clark Perry pointed out that if the tests were done under a pressure situation (i.e. impacting on funding or selection) we might get a performance bias. Clearly, measurement of an athlete’s mental state is important to the interpretation of results taken on a physical state test. Therefore, we use a short version of the Profile of Mood State, POMS, and the athlete’s rating of perceived exertion as key measurement inputs. Yet another perspective came from one of our leading Nutritionists, Dr Louise Burke. Louise has been instrumental in developing a network of professionals across Australia who can provide reliable advice to our coaches and swimmers. She questioned what background information was being collected regarding the athlete’s energy supply, state of fatigue, hydration and so on.
The integration of various sports science disciplines has resulted in the development of an extremely useful and easy to utilize coaching tool (i.e. the test protocol itself serves as a tool to assist the coach in his/her evaluation and planning) as well as a reliable sports science measurement instrument.
I have mentioned our Sports Science Advisory Group that I was fortunate to chair for three years. This open and frank forum allowed each sports science discipline to present information and discuss issues from their perspective. The OAP funding of this group allowed me to bring people together for regular meetings and fund spin-off projects, such as our dietitians and physiotherapists workshops conducted around the country. For our applied sports science approach to work effectively it was important that guidance and direction from senior and national team coaches were clearly articulated to our “ADVISORY” group. Sports scientists are useful, worthwhile advisers and valuable assets to a successful program, but they are not accountable for the results of the swimmers. A coach’s responsibility is to listen, evaluate, and interact with the sport scientist and learn how to implement the advice into a training program.
Another important goal was to decrease the perceived gap between current thinking in sports science and pool deck coaching. Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a ten-year time lag between scientific discovery and application to coaching. Regardless of the actual time period the principle is an interesting one. In an effort to bring coaches closer to science it was necessary to bring the scientists closer to the coaches. Coaches were encouraged to develop sports science / sports medicine networks around their home programs. The national sports science coordinator’s role in this was to:
- Identify the sports science / sports medicine professionals who were qualified, willing and able to Join the national program.
- Meet with these professionals and discuss how they could best service the home program and educate them on the national testing protocols specific to their area of expertise.
- Link the coach and his/her swimmers with the professionals.
- Link state based professionals with the national team support staff to ensure that the home-based support staff were using the same techniques and methods required at national team level.
- Review the relationships and program.
Australian Swimming’s National Coaching Director was also involved in “up-skilling” the sport science knowledge of both experienced and emerging coaches to the expectations of a National program. The important thing to take from this example is that sports science is only one tool in the coaching / athlete development process. Also, performance is a multi faceted thing that is not limited to physiology, psychology, skills, technique, attitude, nutrition etc etc in isolation rather it is a complex interaction of several factors. Relying on one aspect of performance alone is a dangerous thing and unlikely to produce consistent results. An understanding of interacting effects is particularly applicable when interpreting measures of gross physiological variables; V02 Max, Heart Rate and blood lactate. Used in isolation, they provide limited information in terms of overall performance development and enhancement. Used in conjunction with other variables and by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to performance they are quite valuable performance indicators.
A common complaint from coaches (reflecting past experience) was that sports scientists were only too willing to use swimmers as research subjects, but far less willing to report the research findings back to the coaches and athletes. We encouraged coaches to get involved, but on their own terms.
Is participation in a research project of direct benefit to their swimmers?
Is the research conducted in a responsible and ethical manner?
Will results be reported back to the coach and swimmers as a matter of priority and within a reasonable timeframe?
Will the researcher provide the coach with feedback that is easily understood and applied to his/her program?
Is the reporting of test results to individual swimmers done with full approval by the coach?
Ideally, intelligent and open-minded sports scientists will approach coaches for research ideas and attempt to support and scientifically validate the methods utilized by the coaches. More doors are likely to be opened to the research using a “how can I be of assistance” approach to coaches rather than one of “let me show you where you are doing it wrong”.
A final caution to coaches – be wary of purely academic approaches, product salespeople, equipment manufacturers, supplement sellers and even other coaches using absolute terms like THE ONLY THING, YOU MUST DO/ HAVE, YOU WILL NEVER etc., etc. It has been my experience that people pushing one method, one technique, one skill, one piece of equipment, or one idea are often blinded from seeing the real possibilities of a multi disciplinary approach to performance. To paraphrase an old friend, “People who use absolutes are Never right.”
John Carew, coach of Kieren Perkins, was giving a lecture to a coaching group. He said, “Every Wednesday morning, Kieren does this training set” and wrote it on the white board. Every person in the room dutifully wrote the set down. He then paused and asked the group, “Who Just wrote down that set?” Every hand in the room went up. He asked, “Who in this room has an elite male distance swimmer with a training background of twelve years?” All hands went down. John then followed by explaining that Kieren’s training set would be a poor use of training time unless the proper background conditions applied. Regardless of this knowledge it was very likely that the majority of coaches attending the Carew lecture would be prescribing Kieren’s training sets to their age group swimmers in the coming weeks!
Forbes Carlile has been attributed with saying, “sport is an anecdotal industry”. The challenge for coaches is to sift through the anecdote and hyperbole and try to apply logic, commonsense, and instinct to the development of their athletes. Ask yourself this hypothetical question: If Ian Thorpe’s nutritionist was in the next room doing a lecture called “salami -the magical ingredient in Ian Thorpe’s training diet” and at the same time there was a lecture being presented in another room called “sensible training for long-term development of age-group swimmers” which lecture would you attend? How many of you would order a salami sandwich for lunch tomorrow?
When Australian Swimming set about implementing the plan to achieve success in 2000 a major problem was to separate the anecdote and rumors that permeated our coaching folklore from the evidence supporting methods of performance improvement. However, it must be said that much of what coaches do is based on experience and instinct; the X-factor, feel, or art of coaching and this is not necessarily a bad way to go. The aim of the national program was to fast track the development of athletes and coaches through the strategic implementation of a range of initiatives. There is a saying which goes “Experience is something you get only after you need it.” The challenge is of course to gain the necessary experience before actually need it.
Lessons learned from our successful, as well as those who were not so successful, athletes competing in the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics supported the claim that swimming fast is not a one-dimensional goal. It’s the added complications of change in diet, climate, travel stress, media pressures etc that make swimming well at major international competitions such a difficult proposition. The likelihood that a high percentage of swimmers selected to compete in Sydney 2000 would be first time Olympians necessitated a program to fast track their experience and coping skills.
Information from athletes, coaches, support staff, and administration after each international meet (i.e. de-briefs) provided some clues to the complex issue of performing well under pressure. The conventional wisdom that “you need to compete at an Olympics before you can win one” is not an efficient use of time and resources; it’s an attitude that’s counter-productive and often a wastes an opportunity. As the majority of Olympians only swim at one Games it’s also a disservice to many potential champions. A coordinated, systematic approach to athlete education was implemented with the National Team program and the National Youth program. The direction of our thinking was shaped by the evolution of the Australian Institute of Sport swimming program during the 1980’s. Bill Sweetenham had a major impact in this regard. The goal of athlete education, particularly ‘in the area of self management and self monitoring, was to have elite National Team swimmers fully equipped for the pressures and demands of international swimming from the moment they gain selection. As a result, our current National Team members are (in general) the best prepared, best educated, and better able to cope with international swimming pressures than teams from the past.
To cite one example, our sports nutrition program of athlete education is introduced to athletes at 13-15 years of age as part of Coach Sweetenham’s National T’ Top (Tip Top being a brand name of the program sponsor) and National Youth program. As with many of our learning objectives the material is introduced in stages over several camps.
* PHASE I includes basic education about good eating habits.
* PHASE 2 includes some practical work, such as a supermarket visit where athletes are shown how to select the right foods, read package labels, and understand nutritional information on packaging.
* PHASE 3 involves the parents of young swimmers to educate and guide them toward our nutritional objectives. Remember – KIDS DON’T DO THE SHOPPING AND KIDS DON’T COOK! Parents are the key part of an education program for young swimmers.
* PHASE 4 involves swimmers being able to prepare basic meals and knowing how to make intelligent take-away food choices. Cooking classes serve to reinforce our basic message.
The end result is that the vast majority of our senior team swimmers have the personal skills to make intelligent food choices in a training camp environment, look after themselves on a day-to-day basis when training at home, and incorporate good nutrition habits into their lifestyle. This educated self-sufficiency is an important aspect of performance for elite athletes and reinforces the message of responsibility for their own performance.
Similar athlete education programs are in place for other areas of personal responsibility, such as dealing effectively with the media and sponsors. This provides a great deal of ‘stress relief’ in areas that can negatively impacted on performance.
There is no doubt the increased level of government and corporate sector support has had an impact on the performance of Australian athletes. From a program perspective we justify funding with international results. Money has also allowed our best performed swimmers to extend their careers in sport. For coaches, money has been directed into two key programs. First, our High Performance Centre program supports coaches running successful training units (these may or may not be single club entities). Second, our Talented Coaches program rewards/assists coaches having a single National Team swimmer. Both programs are results based and funding is structured on the current performance of swimmers, world rankings, international point score and other specific performance criteria. These two programs provide eligible coaches with money to help support many performance focussed items, such as advanced professional development, assistant coaches, hire of additional facilities, technical equipment, competition travel, and fees for sports science support staff. The amount of money that would be allocated to each coach varies considerably dependent on the level and number of elite athletes in the program. However amounts of $5,000 to $35,000 Australian Dollars would not be uncommon performance grants. Program criteria are well advertised and promoted throughout the elite coaching fraternity (i.e. coaches know what they have to achieve to get assistance).
All swimming nations at some stage use training camps to prepare swimmers for specific competitions. One major focus of our camp program has been the development of coaches and sports science staff in addition to swimmer preparation. The intelligent use of a camp environment, particularly within the junior and youth camp programs, allows us to educate, experiment, and introduce new experiences to our coaches and staff. In this regard we try to look at the “training camp experience” as a series of lessons, we do not see them as isolated training experiences. For example, in the area of physical therapy we might plan the following progression into our camp program:
CAMP 1: Swimmers are taught how to stretch correctly by a sports physiotherapist.
- CAMP 2: Swimmers are expected to know how to stretch correctly but will be educated on self-massage techniques and self accupressure skills.
- CAMP 3: Swimmers are expected to have mastered past skills and are introduced to core stability exercises (Swiss Ball, Pilates exercises, etc.) to complement their acquired range of motion.
- ADVANCED CAMPS: Specific program may be introduced to target individual deficiencies.
In this way a “value added” approach to sports science and sports medicine allows athletes to build upon learned skills and progress to quite advanced levels of self sufficiency.
Another advantage of the national camps program is the open sharing of information between coaches of elite level swimmers. For example, the coach of an up-and-coming breaststroker would be invited (along with their athlete) to attend a National Breaststroke Camp (i.e. as part of the National Event Camps Program) along with coach Scott Volkers and Samantha Riley and coach Glen Berringen and Phil Rogers / Helen Denman. In many circumstances rival coaches are thrown together to openly discuss training techniques, athlete preparation, and philosophies. Less experienced coaches are exposed to a variety of ideas and methods; they begin to see that success comes from a variety of different programs. Potential elite coaches are challenged in the most demanding arena possible — working with athletes of superior ability. Whilst this requires a great deal of maturity on behalf of the coaches to make it work, it’s an outstanding way to “fast track” both swimmers and coaches and introduce them to National Program objectives.
Similarly sports scientists were encouraged to attend the national camp programs to share knowledge with each other and to educate the coaches. We also expose the human side of our sport scientists when they live and work together with the coaches.
The role of coach Talbot and coach Sweetenham are distinctly different, but complimentary. To summarize their positions:
- Neither Don Talbot nor Bill Sweetenham coach a squad on a day-today basis. This eliminates possible conflicts of interest; although the ethics and professionalism of both coaches are not in question. A full time day-to-day commitment to a squad would restrict their ability to devote I 00% of their time to the National effort.
- Neither coach lives in a major metropolitan area; although both are close to a major airport on Australia’s Gold Coast. Living outside the major capital cities is an advantage because it shields them from State based political influences. (The Gold Coast also offers an attractive life style.)
- Bill is an EDUCATOR (and an outstanding coach) and DON is a MANAGER (and also a great coach). This combination of Bill’s athlete development and education programs feeding into the national team program where Don’s brilliant managerial skills come into play is a key part of the success of the overall program.
- I believe both Don and Bill are successful for the same reasons. They both have:
A strong work ethic. Both coaches maintain a seven-day week, year round work schedule.
Coaching credibility at all levels.
A commitment to excellence.
Outstanding political skills. Bill and Don know how to achieve their desired objectives.
Outstanding communication and leadership skills.
An understanding of the Australian Sports system, particularly in terms of funding, administration, and coaching.
A commitment to world’s best practice coaching, sports science, sport medicine, and innovative training practices.
An ability to work with people of all ages and levels of expertise.
A willingness to travel to home programs and work with swimmers and coaches in their own environment.
Coach Sweetenham’s Youth camps program also doubles as a coach development program and Bill carefully and cleverly blends experienced international level coaches with enthusiastic talented younger coaches to facilitate this education process. As part of their development process, young coaches are required to develop the training programs and sessions for the camp under the guidance of a senior coach. A standard camp practice is for coach Sweetenham to hold a staff meeting where he challenges a young coach to write his/her workout on a whiteboard and defend their rationale to a group of coaching peers. Our sports scientists also get involved in the process. This confronting environment is challenging to all coaches and an important part of the practical coach education process. Putting coaches under pressure to perform is handled with deft skill by Bill and it’s one of his methods of introducing talented young coaches to the pressure of international coaching.
ASCA’s motto of “a rising tide lifts all the boats” is particularly relevant here. Coach Sweetenham’s program ensures that young talented swimmers and coaches entering the senior program are educated and prepared to a much higher level than in previous years. The principle being that the higher the level of entry the higher the level of possible performance.
Another innovative part of the Youth Program is the simulation of youth team events with major senior events. This illustrates how the two National coaching roles fit together. During an Olympic, World Championships, Pan Pacific, or Commonwealth Games campaign, National Head Coach Don Talbot is responsible for the preparation and results of the national senior team. However, these major events also afford Bill’s program the opportunity to ‘simulate’ the experiences of the I national senior team. Bill often runs a simulation camp that closely follows the activities and events program of the senior team, during the actual competition. For example, during the Atlanta Olympics Bill ran a parallel camp for the Youth Team on the campus of the Australian Institute of Sport. Living routines, heats – finals competition, media interviews, drug tests, etc. were simulated as best a possible during the actual course of events. Swimmers were put under as much pressure as possible to perform. Past Olympic champions were invited into the camp to share experiences and talk with our future Olympians. The actual races in Atlanta were reviewed on a technical and tactical level and, hopefully, lessons were learned.
Bill tries to teach our young swimmers how to function effectively within a communal environment (i.e. such as an event village or hotel). This includes extending their earlier work on nutrition to the practical side of how to eat well (and correctly) in a dining-room, cafeteria style set-up. After selecting their meal, Sports Nutritionists would sit with the swimmers and challenge them on their food selections.
Another tactic used by Bill in his camps is to incorporate a competition at the beginning or end of the training camp. The focus being “Fast Heats Faster Finals” The aim is to prepare swimmers to swim fast in the morning then go faster during finals. Youth Team swimmers are required to swim heat times in the morning within I second of their PB time per 50, then to go faster at the evening swim session.
Swim Camps are big business in the USA and I’m sure most offer a wide range of activities that contribute to fitness and technical ability. However, the focus of our national camps are more directly targeted at fast tracking swimmer’s (and coach’s) toward the international team experience. Naturally, our camps also serve a purpose with regard to training and evaluation of swimmers. The program represents a planned, coordinated, and systematic approach to long-term performance.
Information dissemination is a crucial aspect of effective coach education in Australia. Our next generation of coaches will need to be more computer literate and possess a high level of information technology skills. The Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association has been very effective in this area of education and information dissemination. One of ASCTA’s innovative approaches to coach education has been a program of computer education and technology training. Our Annual Conference is equal to any swimming coaching forum in the world and the bimonthly magazine is arguably one of the best of its kind.
However, it’s the nature of the information disseminated that’s worth noting. There is a genuine spirit of information sharing, particularly among our leading national level coaches. Programs, philosophies, team structure and competition strategies are openly discussed at camps, clinics, conferences and through the ASCTA Journal. I feel this has helped our coaches along the path to successfully preparing our athletes.
Summary and Major Points
- Be reluctant to embrace one single factor in an effort to be successful.
- Beware of people using absolute terms like “only”, “always” “must” and “never”. There are no absolutes when you are looking for creative new ways to develop performance and do things that have not been done before. The best “salesperson” or best “politician” is not necessarily the best practitioner.
- Embrace the value of practical experience and bridge the gap between the potential offered by the scientist and the lessons offered by real life.
- Should the USA adopt aspects of the Australian Swimming program? It would probably be a mistake to copy them! Certainly try to learn from them – then do it better. There are cultural and other differences that necessitate the development of a best practice program that meets the unique demands of the USA.
- In sports science, research is important, but practice is essential. I applaud all real research efforts being made to find the boundaries of human performance. However, continuing to fund research of gross physiological responses and adaptations to training and competition (e.g. heart rate, lactate, V02 max) is, I believe, of limited value. This work has been done to death and the amount of research available in this area is considerable. The future of applied sports science will likely be in the area of a multi-discipline approach to performance and a generalist based program. Consider the multi-faceted nature of swimming – technique, skills, diet, training mix, genetic potential, flexibility, illness, injury, motivation, training background, family influences, etc., etc., etc. Measuring heart rate alone and making wide ranging training decisions based on a single highly volatile parameter is ill conceived and not logical. Similarly the exclusive use of blood lactate as a prescriptive measure for training is fraught with danger. Try to determine what the essential factors are toward improving the athlete’s current state of preparation. To paraphrase John Leonard, “Who cares what their V02 Max is if they only come to training once a week”.
- Identify open minded, creative and innovative sports science and sports medicine staff who are willing and able to openly share information and to work cooperatively with the coach and swimmers. Be prepared to identify new “experts” (new graduates) and train them to meet your needs and standards.
- Identify a national network of effective sports science / sports medicine practitioners and then cultivate their interest in swimming. Further, develop a system where sport science / sports medicine practitioners are in some way accountable to the administration, coaches and athletes for their own performance.
- Demand that any sports scientist asking to use your swimmers for research subjects, clearly justifies the research in terms of how it will improve their performance. Obtain a guarantee that results and findings of any research will be made available to you and your team.
- Without doubt the biggest impact one can make on the development of a successful program is in the area of education. The lessons learned and programs developed at elite level are merely demonstrations of what is possible. The intelligent coach will learn from, copy, and then improve on the models being used by other successful coaches and swimmers.
- Few coaches have the luxury of working in an environment where world’s best practice sports science / sports medicine programs are freely available to them. Rather than criticize the good fortune of some, challenge yourself as coaches to do it better with less. strongly recommend that all coaches, regardless of the level of swimmer they coach or the size of their club adopt a positive professional approach in the provision of services for their team. Regardless of how little funding is available it’s possible to develop a network of sports science / sports medicine professionals around your club program with a little effort and a lot of public relations skills. I would go so far as to say that the successful professional swimming organizations in the future will adopt a “Do It Yourself’ approach to the provision of SS/SM services.
- If an athlete came to you and said, “I want to be the best” you would expect an uncompromising commitment and a determination to overcome adversity and limitations. Do you expect / demand the same of yourself?
- Money is not the only answer! Interestingly, two of Australia’s best funded programs with full time coaches, outstanding facilities, sports science / sports medicine support and access to ‘international competition travel produced only one swimmer each for the 2000 Olympic team. Other programs with limited financial support, facilities, sports science / sports medicine and travel also produced an Olympian. As always, committed, determined, dedicated, talented people will succeed regardless of obstacles and disadvantages. People who get things sometimes take advantage of the opportunity. 13.Be prepared to embrace change but not for change’s sake. Adopt an open minded approach to limitless possibilities but do not discount the importance of coaching “feel” and your own coaching instincts. The art of coaching is the driving force behind the successful use of the science of coaching.
- Use camps and clinics as part of an overall, coordinated system of performance improvement rather than as an obligatory, unimaginative, one-off part of every season.
- Look closely at the concept of ‘simulation’. There is no substitute for the unique stress, pressure, and demands of a major competition event. Always be mindful of preparing your athlete to take the next step in their career.
- Develop a system of information dissemination to coaches and attempt to bridge the gap between ‘state of the art’ research and accepted coaching practice.
The USA has a unique opportunity. . Learning from the mistakes of the past and the practice of others has never been easier. Publications, the large volume of information available on the Internet, observation and discussion have made coaching techniques and methods more accessible. “Secrets” of the stars are now available for every coach and swimmer to read, practice and improve upon. However, knowing it and doing it are world’s apart. For the committed, hard working, enthusiastic, open minded, creative and innovative coach, the opportunities to succeed have never been greater.
I would like to thank Don Talbot, Bill Sweetenham, Dr Ralph Richards, Dr David Pyne, Dr Louise Burke, Peter Blanch, Dr Warren McDonald, Dr Bruce Mason, Clark Perry, Coach Terry Gathercole, Coach Gennadi Touretski, Coach Mark Regan, Coach Bill Nelson, Coach Joe King, the Living Legend Forbes Carlile and Dr Henry Pollard for the opportunity to learn from the best.
I would also like to thank John Leonard and his team at ASCA for allowing me the opportunity and affording me this great honor of addressing this prestigious coaching forum.