The main emphasis in the Australian National Age Group Plan, sponsored by Tip Top, Australia's leading bakery, is on the education of both swimmers and coaches.
Bill Sweetenham, national youth coach of Australian Swimming, says, "There is a progression of five camps, and we want each swimmer to be exposed to each one of the five camps during their years in the program. Ideally, we want to identify promising swimmers; the females at 13, and the males at 14, and then take them through three years of progression."
"The overall concept of the Australian age group program is that, when swimmers finally make the national open senior team, they will have developed the competitive skills to cope at the top level, and they will be used to working with different coaches. They will be able to accept the camp environment, and know how to make the environment work in their favour."
The program identifies the best swimmers in each age group: 13, 14 and 15 for girls, and 14, 15, and 16 for boys. Then the progress of each swimmer is monitored until the swimmer reaches the senior ranks.
Each year, swimmers and their coaches meet at a seven day development camp. Data is collected at these camps on both the swimmers and their coaches to provide a career record of each swimmer's mental, physical, and technical development. The professional development of their respective coaches in this practical pool-deck setting is also noted.
When the swimmers finally reach the national senior open team, the coaches in charge have a useful, and carefully recorded history of the swimmers' progression through the ranks.
Sweetenham says, "We run a national level camp each year, and the best swimmers attend these camps. Three to five camps a year are conducted for the individual states, Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Northern Territories and Western Australia. The camps are of four to six days duration. We try to start each camp on a Sunday afternoon, and progress through to the following Saturday. Because we run these camps for 13 to 16 year olds, it is important that they don't interfere with their schooling, and so we confine these camps to school vacation time. Camps are conducted for a wide range of athletes."
A camp is held for the national age group team immediately following the national age group championships, wherever they are being held. The camps are held in all parts of the country. Sweetenham tries to visit each state and national camp, although it is not always possible for him to attend for the full period of time.
Sweetenham says, "We select a head coach for each camp, and we also appoint several assistant coaches. My job at these camps is to assist and advise the head coach."
The national team has about 50 to 60 swimmers, and the open team comprises 130 to 140 swimmers, all identified in their respective age groups. Young, and even not-so-young, developing coaches are invited to work at the camps, where they are exposed to a wide range of educational skills.
At the end of a camp, a competition may either be held at the camp venue, or the swimmers may travel to another venue for this purpose.
Sweetenham says, "Usually we stay at a school facility that has a pool. Sometimes, we stage the competition at the camp, for instance, on the last day, and we structure it so that the swimmers can put into practice the tapering skills learned during the camp."
"We may even go by bus to a venue 45 minutes to 90 minutes away. We travel to heats and finals, and thus provide experience of twice daily return bus travel. This, in its way, is also an educational experience."
The age group program for swimmers aged 13 to 16 is based on education, while the national youth program, which is for swimmers aged 16 to 18, focuses almost entirely on training.
Says Sweetenham, "The youth team emphasis is training-based, so that when the swimmers arrive in Don Talbot's national open team, they have been exposed to all the different things that can go wrong."
"They've learned how to cope with problems, they've learned self-management skills, they've learned all the skills that are essential to competing successfully in the Olympic Games. Assuming that most swimmers are only going to make one Olympics, hopefully two, they don't want to use the Olympics as a learning experience. They will need to have the skills to capitalize on the opportunity first time out."
Although the 13 to 16 groups do have workout sessions at camp, the basic philosophy is that, because the swimmers receive enough training in their home environment, the emphasis at the age group camps should be mainly on education. But, as mentioned above, the opposite applies at the youth camps.
The swimmers are expected to arrive at camp with an adequate background of training, and to this end there is a preliminary liaison with the swimmers' home coaches, as well as a short checklist for the swimmers to complete. Says Sweetenham: "There's no point in having swimmers at the camp who haven't accumulated an adequate background of work."
Sweetenham points out that the coaches who accompany their swimmers to camp also help to disseminate the knowledge they gain to their other swimmers not yet good enough to be invited to camp. In this way, the camp experience has a wider effect on all phases of national swimming development.
Sweetenham says, "We provide an open opportunity for any home coach to come to any of the camps and observe. Over the last twelve months we've had approximately 52 to 60 coaches come through the camp situation. It is important that the coach comes to these camps for younger swimmers, before they go on a national team."
Sweetenham meets once a week with Don Talbot, the Australian national head coach. In these discussions Talbot identifies any area with which he is having trouble at the national open level.
Says Sweetenham: "In other words, if Don has a camp and he finds that certain things are not exactly as he wants them, he will talk to me, and I'll make sure to address these problems during the swimmers' developmental stages at the Tip Top Camps."
"So, if Don says that he is having trouble with any aspects of a swimmer's performance, adjustments are made to overcome them. The idea is that when he receives swimmers on the national open team, they will be far more advanced than we have had them in the past, not only in their education, but also in their training."
As the swimmers progress through the five different camps, they are presented with a range of goals. "At the first camp we do a number of measurements. We measure and record everything that is measurable, and an ongoing record is kept at successive camps. This is quite an exercise in logistics, but we have a camp package that covers all these points."
"At the first camp, the training is moderate, not too hard. The second camp is based on developing technique and skills. The third camp provides for specific testing, and this is usually based on early-to- mid-season performance. It is an endurance-based camp, and we certainly look at the basic energy systems, and use the national testing protocols."
"At this age we expose them to the same step tests that Don will use with the senior team. Attendance at the fourth camp number is only open to swimmers who have attended the first three camps. Similarly, the fifth camp is open only to swimmers who have attended all the previous four camps. It is basically a training camp where they work hard, but still use all the educational skills received in the first four camps. In this way, they will put together the accumulated experience of all the preceding camps."
"Camp number five is the only camp that has such a great emphasis on training. Of course, all the preceding camps do have a training component, and the swimmers train twice or three times a day at every camp, but the only camp where we will really put the emphasis on training is at the last camp."
Asked whether there were disciplinary problems when youngsters come together from a wide variety of backgrounds, Sweetenham said that there would be small problems, but the coaches are briefed on camp procedures on the day the camp starts.
"We have some skills for the coaches to use. We believe it important that the coach who is going to work at a camp should have the ability to gain the confidence of the swimmer within the first day or two of the camp, so that the swimmer feels comfortable about being at camp."
"Our goal is to build a total integrated athlete, and in this process, we want to build a total integrated coach as well. We have found the coaches are very supportive. Making allowance for fast-trackers and slow-trackers, the progression through our system is ideally based on identifying swimmers of 13, and then taking them through the age groups, 14 and 15 in the Tip Top program."
"Then we have a national Tri-series program of meets against New Zealand and Japan, then into a national youth program of 16 to 18, at which stage, hopefully, we will start to see an emerging team, that will eventually move into Don Talbot's senior national team. And when the swimmers reach the national open team, Don Talbot will have swimmers who have been exposed to every possible contingency that might arise. In other words, Don will have a fully experienced team of both swimmers and coaches."
Sweetenham said that although the camps had only been in existence for twelve months, they had already produced good results. "We are very happy with the way it has gone. The situation looks very good for the camps, and there has been very positive feedback from the coaches. Everything seems to be working very well."
"We conduct short camps so that we can keep them punchy, and with a lot of impact. We continually evaluate the progress of the camps. As well as the camps, I visit those coaches who have swimmers in the program. I spend 'one-on-one' time on the deck with the coach as well."
The camps are designed to eventually fit into the main body of senior swimming as the swimmers mature.
From 16 to 18 the emphasis will shift to training, but still using the educational skills the swimmers have developed during the preceding three years. They will form part of the emerging team that travels to Europe every year. By this time, they should be moving into the national senior team.
Sweetenham says that he is very happy at the way the age groupers are progressing. "We do comparisons all the time with last year's results. Basically, we look for about a 3% improvement over year for the age group kids, and if someone is not making that sort of progress, we follow them up to find out why, and how we can help."
Sweetenham says that he also tries to identify weaknesses in the system. For instance, if he finds that he doesn't have enough good backstroke swimmers, he will make it his job to convince coaches that they should run specialist backstroke programs, or camps, to improve the standard in that event.
Sweetenham said that the best tool for developing coaches in Australian swimming has been Don Talbot's national events camps, where the coaches attend and learn from each other.
"We're trying to extend this to the point where I will identify a pool of about twenty young coaches around the country and encourage them to have a mentor coach, in other words, someone whom, if they feel uncertain about any area, they can call upon to discuss the matter on a one-on-one basis. They can use the services of that experienced coach to help them through."
I told Bill Sweetenham that I had spoken to Dr Ralph Richards, Coaching and Development Co-ordinator for Australian Swimming, who had outlined in detail how he liaises with Sweetenham on coaching development within the Tip Top age group program. (Cecil Colwin's interview will Dr Ralph Richards will appear in our October issue. -Ed.)
Dr Richards advises Sweetenham in advance on the accreditation levels of coaches about to attend a camp, so that Sweetenham can provide assistance in any area of training, while the coach is there. Sweetenham says, "I will make sure that this happens, and I will encourage the coaches to pursue their education."
I told Sweetenham that I thought this a very good approach, and that I believe the apprenticeship type, or the coach-mentor type of training of up-and-coming coaches is probably better than the certification approach, which usually is primarily an academic approach, rather than a practical hands-on experience.
(Questioned on his experience of the formal certification programs, Sweetenham said he preferred not to comment.)
Sweetenham makes a point of identifying areas of concern for the coaches as a group. For example, one question that the coaches consistently asked was on ideal tapering methods. As a result, Sweetenham sat down and wrote an article on the topic both to provide information and the opportunity to use it.
"I thought that this would help a lot of coaches who felt that this was an area of concern or weakness. I do the same with other topics, and, if I don't have the time or don't feel adequate to write on the subject, I ask someone else to do it. For instance, one of the things that concerned me was the subject of the aerobic conditioning base and I didn't have the time, and so I asked Dr Richards, whom you've just mentioned, to put pen to paper."
Sweetenham said that he had also done an article in the previous month's Australian Swim Coach, (Journal of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association ) on an evaluation of age swimming in Australia. "In this article coaches could compare 1990, when we were five years out of Atlanta, and the end of 1996 when we were five years out of Sydney...so we can compare our age group results five years out of Atlanta, and five years out of Sydney. And we'll continue to do that every year."
I asked what has been the pattern of age group swimming development in Australia over the years, and was there a pronounced tendency for many age groupers not to reach the senior ranks, as happens in several countries, including Canada. Sweetenham replied that his job was to help swimmers to move successfully through to the senior ranks.
He said that his prime points of concern in achieving this aim were to make sure that swimmers limit themselves to 3% improvement a year. Not to do too much in one year, and then plateau the following year. Training under coaches who are skilled in the area of preventing plateaus, will leave room for the swimmer to improve in the following years. Says Sweetenham: "So we avoid the plateau that occurs when a swimmer stops growing. We avoid the plateauing effect that causes a swimmer to fall by the wayside." In other words, the aim was to achieve gradual progression.
Asked about avoiding parental pressures on the developing swimmer, Sweetenham says that he visits clubs to talk with coaches and parents. "If a coach feels that this is an area of concern, then I'll talk to the club parents on this topic as well. "
Rather than discussing such aspects as the danger of pressuring swimmers so that they become tense and disorganized, Sweetenham says that he takes a more positive tack by telling parents how they can do it well, rather than how they can do it wrongly.
Sweetenham agrees that tapering the age group swimmer is a great deal different from tapering the mature swimmer. "With my attitude to tapering, you have to know what's measurable. Then you measure it. You have to look at what's controllable. And, if its controllable, then you should control it."
"So if you do that, then you have the areas in which you can really make significant improvement. So, with senior athletes in most cases, these things become very easily identified, what is actually measurable and controllable. But, with age groupers, you have so many things going on that it is difficult to do this. With the swimmer who is less muscular, less developed, more aerobic based, of course, the taper can be much shorter. It's a resting, rather than a tapering philosophy. With age groupers it's just resting. With senior athletes it's tapering."
Because a coach is involved with the development of youngsters over several years, one should be aware of the other aspects of their lives. Asked to comment on this phase of development, Sweetenham said that "the whole thing is to be a whole athlete, an integrated total athlete where they have all the other things in their lives in balance."
"Swimming is one part of their lives, and it doesn't become catastrophic if that happens to be going bad, when there are several other aspects of their lives that are still going well. If they put all their eggs into swimming, and they happen to flounder for a while, then they will feel totally devastated. If they have other things in their lives, then they can say: well I've got six or seven other things, and swimming's only one of them."
Bill Sweetenham, Australia Medal, has been in his current position as Australian Swimming's National Youth Coach for the past two years.Prior to this appointment, Bill held the following positions:
During his career, Bill's credits include Olympic Gold Medallists, World Champions, World Record Holders, and Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Gold Medallists in various events. Two of his former swimmers, Michelle Pearson (Australian 200 freestyle national record) and Tracey Wickham (ex world 400 and 800) held the longest standing records in Australia. Prior to his national coaching appointments, Bill had great success as a club coach in both country and metropolitan areas of Australia.