Before we can get to the solution, athletes & parents of athletes need to be aware what the solution is not, namely, that becoming members of Swim Ontario affiliated age group swim clubs is not the ideal pathway to international level competition as swimmers. At one point in time perhaps it was, but based on the recent Canadian Olympic Trials for Rio and based on the rate athletes are dropping out of swimming before they hit their peak growth period not to mention their prime physiological and psychological performance periods, membership in Swim Ontario affiliated swim teams is resulting in the premature retirement of Canadian athletes.
The fallacy sold to both athletes & parents of aspiring Olympians by Swim Ontario affiliated swim teams is that starting to compete early, routinely and intensely is the appropriate manner to develop athletes to their potential; however, this in direct opposition to Swimming Natation Canada’s own Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model:
Swim Ontario affiliated age group swim clubs are progressing athletes as young as 8 – 10 who should be still learning how to swim all five strokes (the underwater dolphin kick / UDK is the 5th stroke) efficiently, with a degree of excellence and elegance, learning how to train consistently by developing proper technique, posture and form.
Instead athletes and parents of athletes are sold that swift progress to swim meets is mandatory. Why? Swim meets are a financial jackpot for swim teams, that is why. First, athletes must pay annual swim meet dues, then on top, they pay per meet dues, and in some cases additional coaching fees in order to cover the cost of the coach being on deck. Second, parents are tapped either as volunteers or if they fail to volunteer then they have to pay for not volunteering. These fees can range from $100-200 for athletes at the novice level to over $1,000 per season in fees for parents of athletes at senior levels of competition.
If appropriate physiological and psychological age training was the goal of Canadian children then the focus should be training and teaching athletes to become experts at training, with competing added on once athletes have developed sufficient skills and have demonstrated to be able to executed those skills consistently and on demand in training.
Research paper after research paper has been performed reviewing the ages of athletes at international levels of competition and the consistency in ages reveals that peak competition years match those in the SNC LTAD model, not the period of ages 9-13 which Swim Ontario affiliated swim clubs promote.
The byproduct of this rapid progression to competition is that athletes burn out, blow up, end up injured or so disillusioned with training and racing that they drop out. In my personal experience, the number of tweens and teens who have come to hate the sport of swimming and have not even come close to their peak physiological & psychological years of performance (i.e. 18-28 years of age) marks the failure of swim coaching in Canada, the failure in leadership by SNC & Swim Ontario.
Why would Swim Ontario affiliated age group swim clubs operate in such a manner? Because every year there is a new crop of eager athletes, every year there is a new crop of adults, and with coaches too lazy to actually coach, the easy way out is to train kids hard – not smart as in developing technique, skills, and capacity – driving kids harder and harder, ramping them up race after race until they are exhausted, spent, worn out, done with swimming, often with sport altogether.
Kids are raced like greyhounds in Florida… til they cannot race anymore.
Instead of coaches taking ownership that they are the problem, athletes quit sport believing that they weren’t good enough to become a National Team member or good enough to compete for a position on the National Team because the line of thinking is that the coach must know what they are doing… so it must be me.
To Canadian athletes and parents of athletes… its not you, coaches are the problem.
There are always exceptions. Penny Oleksiak was 16 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, US Olympian Janet Evans was 17 years old when she was setting World Records and winning Olympic gold in the early 90s, and the youngest was Kyoko Iwasaki, a Japanese swimmer who qualified at the age of 13 and turned 14 during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where she won a gold medal in the 200 Breastroke (BR). But the majority of athletes by a large measure peak in their late late teens and in their twenties.
I believe that there is a far more important and valuable lesson to be taken from exceptions, namely the exceptional athlete that we have all come to know: Michael Phelps. Instead of shooting for a short spiked career, proper training, proper mindset, proper goals, proper coaching can lead to an athletic career that doesn’t span simply one Olympic games, Phelps or perhaps more so his coach Bob Bowman demonstrated that a properly trained athlete can have a career that lasts decades. Michael Phelps was 31 years old in Rio. He competed at not 1 Olympic Games, he competed at 5 Olympics: Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London and Rio.
In the past, Canadian swimmers and their parents may have felt that there were no other options, signing up with a Swim Ontario affiliated swim club was mandatory. In the next post, I will detail why that is no longer the case. There are options so that athletes train right, to end up with an athletic career that is as long as they want it to be, not a career that is cut short due to improper coaching and improper coaching philosophies.
Swimming Canada and Swim Ontario could learn from…
Norway: the country with the most Olympic medals (39) @2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, a record for any single nation at the Winter Olympics. In an article in TIME Magazine, Tore Ovrebo – Director of Elite Sport, Norway – says “in Norway, organized youth sports teams cannot keep score until they are 13. We want to leave the kids alone, says Ovrebo. We want them to play. We want them to develop, and be focused on social skills. They learn a lot from sports. They learn a lot from playing. They learn a lot from not being anxious. They learn a lot from not being counted. They learn a lot from not being judged. And they feel better. And they tend to stay on for longer.” CLICK HERE to link to the full article.
Norway (update 2018-05): Norway Goes 1-2-3 in Bermuda ITU Triathlon… Norwegian men take the entire podium. If Norwegian training concepts are being shared by the winter sports with the summer sports, the world may have to keep a look out for Norwegian athletes in all sports. CLICK HERE to link to the full article.
Rugby: the sport which tried to predict and identify future stars as early as 11 and 13 years of age. Ross Tucker, chief scientist for World Rugby, presented at the Science and Triathlon Conference which was held in Edmonton (Dec 2017) citing examples of “11- and 13-year old rugby tournaments that were horrible predictors of eventual success as almost none of the early developers continued on to elite careers.” Tucker’s message: “Don’t even think about identifying elite athletes until they’re 15 or 16.” Triathlon Magazine Canada, Vol.13, Issue.2, March&April2018 pg.7, 68