SWIMNEWS ONLINE: February 1997 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

The next quadrennial promises to be a period fraught with difficult challenges and decisions for Canadian swimming.

The major meets during the next four years will entail long journeys, big time changes, major expenses, and careful preparation.

This year, the national team will travel to the Pan Pacific meet in Fukuoka, Japan. In 1998, there will be two more trips across the Pacific: to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and to the World Championships, in Perth, Australia. Expenses for these long trips will probably be two-and-a-half times more than the usual costs for travelling to the Commonwealth Games and Worlds.

Dave Johnson, "We have far too many coaches who train merely for the sake of training, without focusing on any particular goal."
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Canadian Head Coach, Dave Johnson, acknowledged that the international calendar would be very busy for the next four years. "The prospect of travelling to the Pacific Rim region in the next quadrennial is very much in front of us. The bottom line is the significant financial hit that we're going to take with each of those respective competitive opportunities. It's not like a flight within North America, which costs $550 to $750. We're talking about two-and-a-half times that airfare to the majority of those locations."

Selection Criteria

According to Dave Johnson, "We will need to take a careful look at achieving world-class selection criteria."

How will the huge expense of attending these major meets be covered? What would he do if funding dried up? Would big policy changes be needed?

"We've planned the last twelve months on the smallest financial contribution from Sport Canada in twelve years. We benchmarked the contribution from Sport Canada towards the budget at $800,000," Johnson said. "We will have to make smart decisions. But, from the motivational viewpoint, although we seek world-class performances, we'll still need to be careful not to make the criteria too tight."

Planning the National Program

Johnson explained, "For the first six months of this job, I thought a lot about the reasons for the large amount of dissension and disharmony in the program and why we were not performing well internationally. My conclusions were simple: If you want to improve performances, you need to describe exactly what you want to see happen.

"When I look up and down the list of events, I ask myself: `What do we have to do for the athletes who are in the program now? What do we need to do for the athletes who are on the threshold, and where are we going to get the next group of athletes to come in and support this cast?'"

Johnson said that he had rewritten a number of programs and initiatives so as to reward both coaches and swimmers for achieving international success.

"Because of limited finances, rather than copying the United States program, which sets a targeted amount of money for a gold medal as incentive, we have a points score. A world record is worth 10 points; a Commonwealth record is worth 5 points; a Canadian record is worth 3 points; and a personal best time receives 1 point. Depending on the level of the competition, we grade placings in the finals.

"At the end of the season, we analyze how many swimmers in the program scored points. If a total of 150 points is scored, and one person manages to score 50 of them, this person will win one third of the pot.

"In most years we've had $30,000 in the pot. In the Olympic year we had $50,000 in the pot for the swimmers. We provided the same opportunity for the coaches, except that we gave the coaches fifty cents on the dollar, because a coach can have two or three events, and two or three athletes competing in each one.

"The focus of this program wasn't really on the amount of money, but the coach putting a swimmer on an international team, and the swimmer being competitively tough and successful. This scheme has become a badge of honour."

Johnson mentioned another scheme, based on competitive success, called "The Enhanced Carding Program."

"There's a layered aspect to this program. If you're an `A' carded swimmer (which is being in the top six in the world, two per country, or placing in the top six at the Olympics or World Championships), or if you get a second, or third or fourth or fifth event that are of `A' calibre, or of `B' calibre (which is being in the international top twelve, based on two athletes per country), we'll give you, or augment your living allowance expenses, up to five cards."

Weak Areas

Johnson said that the program was developing in momentum, but there were "still huge holes in Canadian swimming that need to be addressed." He said that weak areas were being identified and addressed in an effort to improve them. "For example, I think that our freestyle program needs a lot of work."

It is also possible to spend too much time improving one's weaknesses, instead of enhancing one's strengths.

"I am well aware of that reality, and one of the things we've been guilty of in the past was to bring everybody back to the level of the lowest common denominator. We must be careful to safeguard what is going well. To this end, I've looked at what they've done in Australia, and initiated some programs over the last few months, based on stroke and event camps. We're going to provide various levels of support for the development of different parts of the program.

"In the past, we brought everybody together into big training camps, and didn't really achieve much. We had a lot of kids in the water training, but they didn't focus on the right things."

Developing Momentum

While it's comparatively easy to develop momentum in a program, it's a harder task to maintain it. This is probably the most difficult goal a leader, or a program director, has to meet.

"The biggest reality for Canadian swimming is to not take a deep breath, and say: `Ha! We're back where we were,' because we're not even close to what we're capable of achieving.

"We must carry out the reality check too. Out of 58 possible `A' final positions, Canada had 11 `A' final swims in the Olympics. So, before we become jubilant about those 11 finals, we must realize that there are 47 other opportunities for club programs, university programs, and national training centres to contribute to greater success for Canadian swimming."

Countries, such as Australia in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, achieved great results and developed a momentum, but it was based on the achievements of three or four great swimmers. When these star swimmers retired, Australia got a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. You can't put all your eggs in one basket; you need successive waves of athletes coming through.

Dave Johnson said that he is working with Ian Currie to develop a tracking system for high performance athletes. They have done a case study of athletes in the Canadian swimming system who achieved A or B carding status. They tracked these athletes back, to develop a continuum or a curve to see where they were when they were 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and so forth.

"Our objective is to detect athletes who will eventually reach A or B card status. Then we will decide what programs are needed to ensure a continuous flow of talented athletes.
"We intend to provide a series of initiatives for our national youth and junior youth programs. This contrasts with the single opportunity we used to give them, which was competing in an Eight Nations Meet, for which we spent $70,000, just to go to one competition."

Johnson said that there was now a more balanced program, which would be tailored to individual needs as well.

Short and Long Course Meets

In the past, there was criticism that meet schedules did not always meet the needs of the athletes' seasonal preparation. What is Dave Johnson doing to remedy this problem?

"In preparing for this next four-year cycle, I've looked at where the major competitions are, and where Canada is with reference to world level swimming, and I've tried to structure a program that is basically a better fit than in the past.

"The program works like this: from September through to December will be the formal short-course season. From December until March, part of the program will retain many of the traditional domestic meets, some in the short course, some in the long course, culminating in a Winter Championships that will be held in the long course.

"This year with the World Short Course Championships in April, we will have that competition over the 25 metres course. But in 1998, 1999, and 2000, as we prepare for the major events of that cycle (Commonwealth Games, World Championships, and the Olympics), the March competition will be held in the long course. The difference is that, instead of having four cycles, we will now look at three cycles per year.

"The dilemma used to be that our summer cycle, the fourth one (basically from the end of May to the early part of August), was too short to prepare for quality long course performances. I don't want to destroy our short course abilities, but let's face it, the real measure of how we come to be measured as a world swimming nation is whether or not we can swim in the long course pool.

"But, I don't want people to get the wrong impression. Short course is a valuable tool, and we're going to use the international short course opportunities to develop our team to its fullest.`

"Not Performance Oriented"

"The dilemma in Canadian swimming is that, other than the coaches of the top thirty-odd swimmers in our program, we have far too many coaches who train merely for the sake of training, without focussing on any particular goal.

"A good example is that the rest of the world is getting up and performing at a very high level in the December time frame, and, then again, at some point between the March-April time frame.

"Now that we have a `four-year-template' to work from, the respective provincial programs can now fall into line, and put their provincial championships, and their various other program needs into place, and fit them around a very strong and standardized domestic program."

What will Dave Johnson do with the Olympic athlete who won a gold, silver, or bronze medal? Will he give that swimmer a three-peak season the very next year, or re-start the long, slow build-up, with only one or two peaks in that first post-Olympic year?

"What we've tried to do is look at every individual case on its own merits, and plot a strategy that allows for the specific needs of individual swimmers. It's not just the swimming needs, but it's the holistic needs of the athlete. In some cases, an athlete who got to the Olympic podium gave up an awful lot of school time and career plans in the process.

"We want to encourage the development of high-performance athletes, but we also want to have good citizens, and we want them to feel that the program can allow these elements to co-exist.

"For example, take Curtis Myden, who was immersed in swimming preparations last year. The strategy developed by Deryk (Snelling), and a couple of other people in his support group, was that academics would be his priority this year, and he's now following through on that plan. This is the strategy we would like to have for as many athletes as possible.

"For instance, last night I was watching TV, and I saw Curtis Myden on the Special Olympics presentation on TSN. Sport leaders, such as Curtis, have played a big part in the development of media awareness about our sport, and this has aided the growth of corporate sponsorship."

An "Eight-Year Plan"

Johnson said that someone had suggested he develop an eight-year plan into the 90s and beyond. However, he felt that long-term planning should be essentially quadrennial to quadrennial.

"Short-term planning is to the world championships at the mid-point of each quadrennial. I'm trying to gear our program in such a way that we always have a group of athletes who are in the identified pool (say the junior team, a group of athletes who are being groomed in international competition, and a group of athletes who are going for performances at the podium level in major world events)."

Johnson said each category needed to have a constant ebb and flow of people coming in the one side, and going out the other, and not falling back to the level below.


In developing a junior national team initiative, Johnson has introduced the idea of attaching a small group of junior swimmers to teams going to such meets as the Pan Pacifics. He said that the nature of the competition allowed him to swim as many people as he wanted in the preliminaries. "We brought three men and three women to Atlanta in 1995. Two of the women made the Olympic team, and one of them, Jessica Deglau, went on to make an Olympic final.

"It built some bridges. There was some mentoring of the younger swimmers by the senior swimmers. This built an internal dynamic, or pressure, and some of the younger swimmers were so enthused by this opportunity that they transferred some of this enthusiasm to some of the perhaps more jaded long-term members of our team!"

At one time, the Chinese used to encourage their top athletes to share their experience, knowledge, and skills with others. This practice was quaintly referred to as "each-one-teach-one." Every top athlete had to be a mentor to an up-and-coming athlete.

"We actually did this in these camps that have just gone by. We put the Olympic veterans in with some of the new youth and junior kids who were invited to their first national camps. We have also done this in many of our major build-ups into the Olympics. This `cross-pollination' is a very healthy dynamic."

The Coach-Swimmer Relationship

Because the coach-swimmer relationship is important to the swimmer's welfare, Johnson's policy is: If a coach puts an athlete on the team, then the coach should be part of the team, provided the coach commits to one-hundred-percent involvement.

In preparing for Atlanta, Johnson involved the swimmers' coaches throughout, from training camps to the Games. When Canadian swimmers, many of them at their first big meet, did better than expected at the Atlanta Olympics, a team coach said: "Dave Johnson turned the team around because he allowed us to control the destiny of our own athletes."

Johnson supports the coach-swimmer relationship from novice to international levels, and believes in the model of "from the cradle to the podium," "as far as we can possibly provide this opportunity."

He says the big motivation for any coach is to be able to develop an athlete to international class, because this has always been the test of a coach's theories, strategies, and acumen.

Coaching Development

Questioned on the topic of coach education and development, Johnson said that he considers the coach as "integral to the long term success of the Canadian program." He said it was important to give coaches the opportunities to be part of the program, and to understand the requirements of the sport at the highest levels. He wanted coaches to influence everyone interested in swimming, not only their own athletes.

What about the certification program? Sometimes it can be like obtaining a driver's licenceone may turn out to be a good driver or a bad driver.

"While certification isn't the only answer, we've had a tremendous number of coaches who were so resistant to this certification idea that they basically got left in the wake of where world swimming is today. I am talking about the types of information that coaches need to have if their athletes are to become truly competitive at the world level. We're talking about the performance analysis profiling that is being done, in this case by Dr Smith, who does all the measuring of the various components of the race."

Asked if this information was included in the certification program, Johnson said "No. It's included in the national team protocols that these coaches are becoming conversant with, because of the interaction and the model that we are building inside Canadian swimming.

"I'm trying to make the learning experience much more hands on and much more practical. I believe that certification has missed the boat on a number of issues. But one of the things that happens when a coach becomes involved in this certification process is that they keep their minds active.

"It's like the coach who says to me: `I took strength training twenty years ago.' You know, and I know, that the information that's available to us in that particular area, for example, has changed dramatically in twenty years. So, because you took it twenty years ago, you're not really giving your athletes the kind of service that they need and deserve, if you're going to call yourself an international-level coach."

Johnson said that the same applied to technique, physiology, and psychology. "It's very important to have these component skills integrated into a preparation model that will allow for peak performance at the right time."

Johnson believes in a team approach to the preparation of the athlete. "I'm talking about a team of staff: coaches, paramedical, medical, and sport science staff. The key difference to our approach at previous Olympics is that the coach now understands, first of all, what the menu of services is, and, secondly, how to go about using it, and that it doesn't all come on to the table at the same point in time."

Decision Making and Communication

Most decision making rests with Johnson. He says "Canadians are great consensus builders, but sometimes this is to a fault." He listens to various viewpoints, makes a definitive decision, and says "This is where we're going, guys. You're going to have to follow along."

When asked if coaches would be encapsulated within a formal national program, or remain free to do their own thing, and succeed as a result of their individual efforts, Johnson replied, "I try to give every coach the chance to design one's own preparation strategy in the context of the big picture of preparing for major games. Obviously, we have pool sessions booked for certain times, but the design of the training program is up to the coach."

Johnson said the coaches were supportive, and were allowed to design the programs for their own swimmers. This approach produced the results seen in Atlanta. "I think it works," said Johnson.

When asked to comment on past Olympic team reports that contained comments such as "We didn't have a good perception of what we were going to encounter," Johnson said, "If you tell athletes and coaches what you are trying to achieve, and tell them early enough, there's time to obtain feedback and modify it. Then everybody can get onside and support the plan. This way, you'll have a better chance of success.

"I have a simple strategy: I always give the coaches the information first, so they are never blind-sided by swimmers saying: `You decided we were going to have a day off on Sunday afternoon. Now we suddenly find there is a test set scheduled for that afternoon.' The coach should know the schedule before the swimmer, and so I always try to set up this hierarchy of communication, and it works well."

Dave Johnson was asked about communication on the national level. Does everybody know about the plan? Coaches say they need the information to be able to support it. To what extent are coaches involved in decision making?

Johnson replied, "In an ideal world, one would like them to be fully vetted on all the issues, and to be able to come to a position in concert with the national philosophical direction.

"However, we know that we've been guilty of organizing ourselves to death, so much so that I accept the comment that not everybody knows what's going on. But I believe some of the onus and responsibility for finding out what's going on is part of becoming an international coach, and they need to take the responsibility to find out.

"The phone is there, and, equally, I need to take the responsibility to go around the country and deliver the program. I've done this quite a bit by going to coaching conferences, and so forth, once a year. We haven't had the opportunity to use the SWIMNEWS magazine vehicle as much as we possibly could."

Johnson said it was necessary to know the big picture in order to make clear, concise decisions. "I would like to think that I've done this. But I'm not perfect, and I've probably stumbled a few times."

The very nature of Johnson's job always entailed being open to criticism, whether he was doing the right thing or the wrong thing.

"I'm more than aware of that, having coached for long enough to know that, even when you're giving training programs to athletes, not everybody feels like doing the same set on a particular day."

Excessive Travel

There have been complaints that carded athletes were sometimes expected to travel to the other end of the country to compete in a meet, or else lose their funding. Wouldn't this affect these athletes' training programs, or what their coaches envisage to be part of their seasonal preparation?

"There's no question that Canada is a huge country, but we have provided a four-year-calendar plan that's primarily focussed on building towards international success.

"The point can be made that not everyone is an international swimmer. But what we're saying is that carded athletes need to understand that there is a responsibility to the community of swimming, and to our sponsorsgovernment agencies as well as the corporate sector."

Integrated National Championships

Johnson is not happy with university swimming in Canada. He says, "We have developed a program that is modelled on the American NCAA program. If you talk to the American university coaches, you'll hear they are dismayed at the direction their program has taken in terms of limited qualified time commitments by the athletes, the event selections, and many other factors."

Johnson said Canada has the opportunity to design its own program by "factoring university swimming into the country's delivery system of high performance sport.

"The universities have tremendous facilities, in the main. They have the infrastructure to support high-level performances, and, in fact, the highest performing programs in this country, historically in the last ten or fifteen years, have all been linked to university programs: the University of Calgary, the Pacific Dolphins at U.B.C., where I was, at Keyano with the University of Alberta, North York and the University of Toronto, the University of Laval, and so forth."

Johnson said there was a need for more integration of university swimming into the mainstream of SNC swimming. He added that, in certain areas of the country, university swimming is still an isolated section of the program. "They take the approach of `We're senior now. We don't need to compete in these lower levels of competition.'"

Johnson talked about the direction taken in Western Canada, where collegiate swimming is integrated directly into the mainstream of SNC senior programming, and said, "This is the direction we should take.

"What we need is an integrated national championships, and funds to be put aside for university programs that score in the national championships. We should support high-performance collegiate swimming by putting a university grant program in place, not as a `stand alone' but rather as a combined championship, with the senior national championships factored into the university program.

"For example, the big drawback in Canadian sport is that we have too many duplicated programs. It is expensive to move around this country. For example, Swimmer A wins a national club championship in week one, and in the very next week, goes to the universities' national championship to win the same event again.

"We should recognize those programs that can contribute and perform at the senior national level, and reward those university programs with high performance funding to pursue that track inside the university system.

"So the bottom line would be that the Canadian collegiate program would participate in the national club championships and be scored against the SNC senior programs. They would compete on the basis that a third place performance in the national championships would be third in the SNC nationals, but winner of the university championship.

"For the sake of discussion, and an even better example, the winner of the gold medal is the SNC and the university champion, and that's it. That will be the way we recognize it."
Johnson said that the merit of the scheme was that it would provide a greater depth that, in turn, would push competitors to better times.

Ducking for Cover

Johnson said, "Right now, the dilemma that I've faced repeatedly, in the last three years, is that I go to championship meetsprovincial or even regional championshipsexpecting to see the best kids standing up and competing against each other.

"In many cases, they're not even at the meet. Those who do attend don't even swim in their main events against each other. I think they're ducking for cover. You don't win, and you don't become a successful swimmer if you duck for cover."

Team Spirit and Discipline

Johnson said that he emphasized the team approach throughout the entire program. He said that his philosophy is: "Nobody is bigger than the team" (To which I added nobody is bigger than the sport).

"And that's one of the reasons that I've gone down this road around the discipline code inside our national team. Although we took a little bit of heat, and even (SWIMNEWS's) Karin Helmstaedt took some slaps at me for having some hard lines on this, I think, actually, the athletes appreciate knowing that there is this kind of care and concern for them, and that's really what it is, and that they can get on with the business of preparing.

"I'm not naive enough to think that certain things are not going to happen, but I think that there need to be some parameters around which you operate any team, particularly when you start to get some younger athletes in the team.

"An athlete at the '94 Commonwealth Games said, `Well, of course, I'm going to go out and party, and do this and do that, because that's what they do in the national team.'

"It was appalling to me that this mindset was considered the appropriate behaviour, and the role model was the national team. It absolutely had a lot to do with the influence that I've brought to the national program in terms of having athletes come back to national championships at the conclusion of the Olympic Games, and continue their corporate responsibilities, and show that they can still perform at the conclusion of an Olympic cycle after the big meet is over. Although there has been a lot of criticism about this, it's been a dynamic that's made our program stronger. Whenever a team is disciplined, they perform well.

"If there's no internal discipline, no individual performance will create a team dynamic that will have the whole program firing. I believe that `one swimmer does not a program make.' "

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