My Thoughts on Australian Swimming

AUS swimming logo

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear that I’m writing this because of my love for Australian swimming.  Ever since I swam in Canada in the 70s, I’ve been impressed with the brash way that such a small population base could take on the US swimming  juggernaut, and often win. In a strange way, I see Australian swimming as a super-charged version of Canadian swimming – small but unafraid to take on the giants. With this in mind, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the situation.

Lately, it seems that Australia is losing its edge. I don’t see as many medallists and finalists as I used to.  This feeling seems to be echoed in many articles that have been appearing lately trying to explain the problem.  But relying on my memory is never a good thing, and I like looking at data.  So I analyzed the Golds, Medals and Finalists over the last 8 World Championships.

NOTE: I focused on World Championships since they’re held every 2 years, while Olympics are only every 4 years. The extra data gives us a better look at trends.  I also ignored relays, as the bar is lowered substantially for relay medals when compared to individual medals. I mainly want to look at how Australian swimmers are doing on the world stage.

Of the 3 measures, I consider the Finalists data to be the most important, as the larger number of incidents gives greater confidence in the results. There are just too few Gold data points to have a statistically important result.

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Notice the general downward trend in all 3 measures for both men and women once we get past 2005. The trend is much more noticeable with the Australian men, which makes it very similar to the problem in Canadian men’s swimming right now.  But the women as well show a general  drop since the 2005 and 2007 world championships.

Based on this, whatever is happening to Australian swimming has actually been happening for much longer than I thought.  Although the trend itself may not have been that noticeable in the earlier years.

OK, so now we have some context for this issue.  It doesn’t seem to be a new problem, but in fact an ongoing one that isn’t getting any better.  Based on this, it makes sense to discount many of the possible reasons that have been put forward: coaches going abroad; toxic culture; not taking it seriously; order of relays; etc. None of these look like major reasons that would cause a problem over the last decade.

It’s my personal opinion that the chances are we’re dealing with systemic problems here. And systemic problems tend to come from overarching philosophies.

I’ll dive into two philosophies that may be important. Keep in mind that I have no direct knowledge of specific Australian issues. These are just potential areas for study.

 

The Tradeoff for International Success

The first issue here is well known but rarely discussed.  The success or failure of National Sports Organizations is solely based on medals at major international games. It doesn’t matter how you get there, you just have to get there. The problem is that very few will ever compete for their country.  For the rest of the athletes, success must be measured in other terms.  For them, perhaps success should be measure in terms of fun, or teaching life lessons that will survive beyond their participation in their sport. However, Nationals Sports Organizations rarely emphasize these areas.

This “success at all costs” mentality often seems to lead organizations to want to control athlete development from their early years, and sometimes this can be at the detriment of fun.  Some concepts, such as early identification of potential, can be useful and don’t hinder the interaction of other athletes with their sport. But other concepts can be almost self destructive. Swimming Canada, for instance, has eliminated all Short Course competitions run by national or provincial bodies. In a country where the overwhelming majority of swimmers exclusively train short course, this creates a barrier to enjoyment for the vast majority. It’s almost impossible to find SC meets in Ontario between April and June.

As a Canadian, I certainly don’t adequately know the issues with Swimming Australia, but there’s one issue that bother me.

Swimming Australia’s Long term development in Swimming document refers to the Ten-Year Rule, and indicates that

“Indeed, scientific research has identified that it takes at least 10 years, or 10,000 hours for talented athletes to achieve sporting excellence. For athlete and coach, this translates into slightly more than three hours of training or competition daily for 10 years. There are no short cuts!”

First of all, as I’ve written about before (here) this Rule just isn’t true. The 10,000 hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, and is now acknowledged as a significantly incorrect extrapolation of work by Anders Ericsson involving a handful of violists. The key point is that Swimming Australia has seized upon this flawed work to support the concept that they must control training: that hard work must start at an early age. There are no short cuts!

Or, put another way, in order for a few swimmers to reach greatness, Swimming Australia is recommending that all swimmers must train an extraordinary amount starting at a young age. I can’t imagine a more effective way of getting young swimmers to leave the sport. (I originally talked on this view by Swimming Australia here)

I’d also like to point out that the May, 2013 Ethical Framework for Australian Swimming (here) has many great overarching concepts about responsibility, seriousness, roles and responsibilities. But not once does it mention fun, or the value of life lessons.

Much of this urge to control comes from the misunderstanding that international success has to come at the expense of allowing swimmers to have fun. That fun is the opposite of athlete development. And it also vastly underestimates the value of fun in developing a thriving national program.

A solid base of athletes having fun in their sport will attract other athletes to the sport. And by fun, I don’t just mean the fun of swimming fast. I mean the pure fun of childhood – of laughing with your friends and looking forward to the next chance you’ll get together with them. You never know when the next future star will start swimming simply because of friends having fun.

While Swimming Australia clearly has tremendous success despite a much smaller population base than other swimming giants, it still needs to work very hard to build make the swimming base bigger. And it won’t do that on the promise of future greatness. Kids have too many distractions these days to start a sport based on future greatness. They join to have fun. And they stay in the sport because they continue to have fun.

 

Inclusive vs Exclusive

OK, enough about the importance of fun and building a base.  Let’s talk about how Swimming Australia deals with its top swimmers. Not too long ago I wrote about National Championship philosophies for a group of swimming countries (see here).

Some countries, like the US, strive to have as many swimmers as possible in their championship meets. This inclusive approach results in a ripple effect throughout the country, where any club who has a swimmer in the championships is now emotionally connected with the championships.  Swimmers in those clubs see that its possible to get to that meet. Morale is built up through this connection.

However, other countries, including Australia and Canada, have tough qualifying times and this results in very low numbers of swimmers. Both countries averaged roughly 30-40 swimmers per event. The US averages roughly 120.

This last April saw two extraordinarily exclusive championships.  To illustrate how exclusive it was, Australia had six events with 20 or fewer entries (W 400 FR, W 800 FR, W 400 IM, M 1500 FR, M 200 IM, M 400 IM). That’s two heats in a 10-lane pool.  Canada had 4 such events.

I don’t think the national organizations fully realize the problems that can come with exclusive nationals:

  • the championships become irrelevant to many swimmers and clubs
  • less chance of early identification of promising swimmers
  • less high level experience for developing swimmers, which means fewer opportunities to deal with the pressure
  • more swimmers finish the season without that ‘reward’, which can lead to early departure from the sport

 

Summary

The problems with Australian swimming’s elite performance seem to be part of a decade-long decline in overall performance. To my mind, this indicates systemic problems, and most likely problems with philosophy.

From my distant perspective, there appear to two possible reasons for this decline.

  • International success is being pursued at the expense of providing the ideal circumstances for building a base. This specifically includes following philosophies of early attention to adequate training loads, and an apparent lack of emphasis on fun
  • National championships follow an exclusive philosophy, which can inhibit early identification of talent, provide less exposure to competition pressure, and possibly an early departure from the sport

And finally, just as with Canada, the problems seem to be affecting the men’s performances more than the women’s performances. For more on my analysis of Canadian Swimming, including the difference between performances by men and women, you can find my Swimming World article The Age Problem in Canadian Swimming here.

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2 comments

  1. I Disagree with your comments if you want to swim at international level. If you want to have fun go to a theme park. Success in my opinion is achieved by hard work, discipline,commitment and hunger,do you think that Phelps and Ledecky went to training for the fun of it or to train hard to achieve their goals. People like that increase participation wanting to be the next Phelps. As for qualifying times I think us as coaches have taken the easy option and concentrate on sprint and not distance swimming. By having easier qualifying times is training for the past and not the future we just need to train our swimmers to swim distance and build that winning culture back in all events.
    That’s my opinion and many properly disagree with me.

    1. Hi Ken, Thanks for your comments.

      When I talk about fun, I’m referring to the process of building a base and carrying them through the developing years Far past the FUNdamentals years indicated in LTAD. Long ago, when I coached developing swimmers, I considered a huge part of my job to be fostering an environment where the swimmers could develop an emotional connection with the sport. Once they had that connection, then true commitment and hard work could start. But grinding young ones solely for the purpose of finding that star who will become an international medallist destroys the base that a country needs.

      A famous study in the US found that something like 70% of young athletes quit their sport by 14. And the reason is typically that they no longer enjoyed it. I’ve personally seen young stars quit in their mid-teems simply because their early maturation was no longer an advantage. Gold medals became top 8 and then they quit out of frustration. Without some element of fun, you won’t keep many of them in the sport when things get rough. I’m not talking about high schoolers frolicking in the water instead of training. I’m talking about ensuring that they truly enjoy the sport as a complement to training hard.

      You mentioned Phelps and Ledecky. Let’s face it, the superstars are going to be superstars unless somehow the coach makes them hate the sport. Nothing stops them. They have all the mental qualities plus genetic advantages to be the best. And yes, they can attract kids to the sport. But it usually doesn’t take long for most of them to figure out that they aren’t Phelps or Ledecky. And when that realization hits, if they aren’t having some kind of fun, they quit.

      Qualifying times are an interesting issue. I still can’t help wondering how a highly exclusive championships can be considered a good thing. How will you identify that up and coming 14-year old if you only have 2 or 3 heats in your senior nationals? How do you expose your swimmers with potential to competition pressure, if you don’t let them compete at that level until they’ve started to realize their potential. And why would you want to remove that reward of making nationals for the almost great swimmers? What does it cost you? How does it hurt the sport or the championships?

      As you said, these are just my opinions, and I know that many disagree with me as well. But at least we’re discussing the issues.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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