SWIMNEWS ONLINE: June 1997 Magazine Articles

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Neil Harvey

Over the past eight years, swimming in Canada has been involved in a review of its overall performance. One view shows we have slipped a bit compared to our significant competitors. Another shows that we may not have lived up to some predictions and expectations. Whole provinces are wrestling with the issue of production at the higher levels. Yet many clubs feel they are operating at full steam, showing consistent success. Something must be up. This ongoing review has been an attempt to identify not only the problem, but some workable solutions. Both these tasks are still unfinished.

The first area addressed was the high performance gap between finals and the podium. The national centre model was introduced as the first answer to this problem. The real results of this solution are still three years away. The club model is the second area thought to need an overhaul. Among other things, clubs need to continue producing high performers to fill the national team, but perhaps more of them, and at a higher level. The club, as an operating entity, needs to be working effectively at all levels, to be consistent over the long term required to produce this level of swimmer. This article compares the various club models in use today, looking for key factors that produce consistent, long-term success.

Swim clubs fit into a larger model. It is difficult to examine a club model isolated from the community around it and the various levels of competition it will face, including the international arena. Progress must be measured at each level of development. The ongoing process of keeping up with the competition, combined with the sometimes insidious process of self examination, may cause us to assume something must be wrong if we are not up where we want to be. This kind of thinking could follow from the shellacking we suffered at Australian hands at the last Commonwealth Games, for example. Yet Canada regularly fields extremely competitive teams at the world junior level. There are many examples of Canadian clubs producing successfully at almost every level, yet many feel there are major problems associated with the current club model. They have found it difficult to put a finger on the exact nature of the problem, but the feeling is that some fundamental changes may be needed.

What Is a Swim Club?

When asked to describe a swim club, we might start with the swimmers, coaches, and some performance history. These facts lie at the surface. Most of them are in the club trophy case. Stating the club goals, and describing the club and management structure would give additional depth to the picture. If asked to define a successful club, would this be enough information? If not, we might try defining success, adding a bit more history and identifying key people in the club. Something would still be missing. Something must define the core value of a club. There must be such a thing. Those clubs that are consistent performers over the long term must also have a few things in common.

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The traditional club, which is very prevalent in North America, basically operates in the following way. A regular training schedule is rented at the community pool by a non-profit organization called the City Aquatic Club. A board of directors, loosely held together by a constitution, hires coaches to run the club, much like a corporation hires a CEO. The constitution often appears as the club manual, including all areas of operations, duties, fees, and responsibilities. The board has the responsibility to collect dues, keep financial records, organize fundraising, operate meets, and generally ensure the club operates according to governing sport policies. The technical side of the organization will depend on the coaching staff, access to pool time, size of club, funding available, and the club vision. Within this basic model, there are many ways to get past the starting blocks and more than a few obstacles to trip over on the way there.

Clubs of this type usually have little real equity in the community, the first sign of an imbalance in the model. As the major tenant of most pools, clubs anchor the annual budget but share little in the asset. Many community pools depend on swim club revenue like swim clubs depend on bingo. Fundraising becomes the number-one activity for the board. Keeping the budget in the black consumes and often divides clubs. This activity becomes an unstable treadmill no business plan would ever include.

Imagine setting out on a 20-year plan for a club, given $50,000 per year in pool costs, not including additional revenue pumped into the facility from concession and Pro Shop sales. At the end of that time would you expect to have nothing but history to show for your $1,000,000 plus investment? A club could have made a substantial down payment on a pool of its own in that time. There are several examples of this model in Canada. The current economic model of many clubs guarantees they will always be at the mercy of facility costs and the vagaries of fundraising. There must be a way to restore an equity balance to the traditional model.

The traditional club comes across as a very demanding user group to the pool management. A built-in conflict exists between the goals and efforts of the club, and the goals of the facility managers. The recreation mandate is to service the community with a variety of programs, which can be difficult when one user group is seen to monopolize the prime time. The two groups often have trouble finding common solutions to overcome basic hurdles. How many clubs are fully integrated into the lesson program? Age group coaches, who tend to be excellent stroke technicians, could teach both swimmers and instructors quite a bit more than most instructor trainers. How many clubs have a member of the pool management on their boards, and members of their club on the city recreation board? This crossover could work wonders with aligning some goals and objectives of the two groups. Control, access, and cost of the facility is a fundamental issue in the traditional model.

At the core of the traditional club is the board of directors. When this board is experienced, having a deep understanding of the real nature of the sport, it will create and nurture a winning vision. In fact it is usually the club president who initially sells the vision to the board. Often a board cycles in too many rookies who have little understanding of the big picture. Clubs often have no choice, since the best volunteers become burned out just as they acquire this big picture. An inexperienced board is driven by the CEO (coach) leading to conflict and under-achievement as a way of life. The coach drags the board, often reluctantly, through his vision. The real nature of the sport is a swimmer's first perspective, followed by consistent action driven by the coach and aligned with the club vision.

The value a club places on its volunteers and the careful matching of people with the vision can have a huge effect in the long term. Larry Tapp, president of Etobicoke Swimming and Swimming Canada during the 1970s, feels the board is critical to achieve the highest levels of success, particularly in a large club. Enthusiastic volunteers will open corporate doors and contribute valuable expertise to the program. They will market the vision to the club and the community. The whole club will then find any way to make the right things happen.

Long-term Committment

Some clubs are blessed with a special person or persons who works tirelessly at the core, dispensing simple wisdom to all who come through the door. Often they have been involved in the sport for longer than they can remember, their children long gone from the nest and pool. These people provide a continuity to the history of the club and bring the experience of their years. This type of person is a very rare fish indeed. These special people stay involved because the environment fits their ideals, their need to contribute, and treats them as valuable members with something to offer. Their contribution to the ongoing success of a club is difficult to calculate but easy to see.

The head coach, in addition to helping create the vision, puts it to work. In doing so, the head coach treads the delicate line between changing the culture as needed and keeping the changes gradual enough to become fundamental. Great coaches adopt a personal and active attitude toward this role. The influence a coach has in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and establishing specific objectives determines the direction a club will take. The net result of this influence changes the way people think about what is possible. In a more functional role, the head coach puts together a cohesive, experienced staff who can compliment each other's strengths while accepting a part in the larger picture. With so many coaches trying to produce Olympians, this can be difficult.

A successful club will tend to show well at its provincial and national championships year after year. Consistent performance beyond that, up to the Olympic level, clearly points to a club having some depth of talent, excellent coaching, and enough resources to sustain development to that level. A deeper view for this success might look at consistency of performance across all levels, financial stability, coaching stability, club growth and board effectiveness. It is not my intent to delve into club records for the names of coaches and board members, financial statements, and TAG rankings. But to do so would perhaps reveal a very interesting relationship between performance success and the presence of some of these key and often hidden factors.

The Vision Factor

One of the pitfalls in looking at club models as they relate to relative success is this effect of hidden factors. There is something or someone within any successful club providing a consistent vision. Vision may be an overused word these days, but in this context, it means the conception of the dream or goal that inspires the creation of an environment drawing achievers together, creating opportunities to realize the goal. The vision must be clear and apply to objectives over any time frame, from now to long term, such as two quadrennials. It must also be actively endorsed by staff, swimmers, volunteers, and the board. The character of a successful club describes a shared sense of values long held by members and enforced by group norms. The resulting culture goes beyond the simple description of a model, and often succeeds despite the model. This culture spreads into the community and comes back in the form of continued support from businesses, high inscription rates for new swimmers, and a solid volunteer base from which to operate the club.

When inevitably occurring problems within any club are factored against this type of vision, they will quickly diminish in importance, be rendered irrelevant, or solved quickly without a fundamental change of course. Real and lasting changes take place gradually over time, always measured against the vision. The hidden factors, the behind-the-scenes strength allow a good model to survive. The reef does not insist on standing higher than the sea. In time of typhoon, the waves wash over the reef. And it survives. Change in a club can be like the typhoon, causing turmoil and problems at the surface, while the club survives intact beneath the waves.

Change goes against the grain in many organizations. Clubs with long traditions and deeply imbedded cultures, both good and bad, tend to be conservative, wanting to hedge the risks of going for it with the stability and comfort of the old culture. One of the Rockefellers once said about the conservatism of organizations that an organization is a system, with a logic of its own, stacked in favour of the tried and proven way of doing things, and against the taking of risks and striking out in new directions. Swim clubs with high achievement as a long-term goal will tend to take risks.

A club that is conservative and inert will tend towards a management-based structure and will want to hire coaches who are managers rather than leaders. They will also attract similar-minded board members. A lack of club vision will allow a well-spoken but misdirected board member to effectively undermine any structure the board member takes a dislike to. In order to take planned, long-term risks with a reasonable chance at success, a clear, written vision, understood by all, is essential.

Other Club Models

There are several alternative club models that merit a comparison against the traditional model. A university team operates within a university pool that carries little or no rent, and the coaches may be part-time or full-time employees of the school. The issue of financial stability is rarely a short-term problem. This type of club will tend to have a narrow senior focus with few development-aged swimmers. They rely completely on clubs for athletes. It is becoming more prevalent to see a university team affiliated with a club to provide a full top-to-bottom system, and to ensure a steady supply of swimmers. During the 1980s, this model was the main development pool for senior swimmers in Canada. It did help to be well funded, since this model does not have the traditional club's requirement to raise enough money for a high performance program.

More recently, there has been a collapse of serious high performance programs in Canadian universities. Lack of funding in the form of substantial scholarships for athletes, budget cutbacks in university programs, and very competitive entrance requirements have combined to negate the effect Canadian universities could have as finishing schools for the high-performance stream. The resources available at many Canadian universities are excellent. A 50-metre pool combined with a physical education department could, given a reworking of the model, produce some excellent high performance clubs. The potential still remains for this model to return as an important part of the overall model for swimming in Canada.

Integrated Community Programs

There are a few clubs that operate as part of community recreation departments, offering competitive swimming as a program much like swimming lessons. This type of club is run entirely by the director of the facility. George Gate, director of the Pointe Claire city aquatics program, has been in this chair since the early 1970s. He feels that competitive aquatics should be fully integrated into program options presented to every person coming in the door. This is a major change from many communities that treat the renting club as a competing business, having no place in the communities' aquatic continuum. Integration also promotes the idea that competitive aquatics are as much a community service as lessons and lifesaving programs.

Mr. Gate admitted to one downside of this model--the difficulty in keeping coaches who are in demand by clubs better able to pay a higher salary. The lesson programs actually subsidize the upper levels of the club, leaving little room for escalating salaries. A distinct feature of the Pointe Claire club is the allowance for more than one senior group in the club. Coaches compete amongst themselves within the club, and swimmers are free to work with the coach who best suits them. Thus the club retains more of the senior squad usually lost through attrition. This feature has been tried successfully in few other clubs. There may be some merit in exploring it further. If the coach could be given a stake in this model, the motivation to continue might overcome the problem of salary.

The streamlined reporting structures of the university and community models mean the coach has fewer people to convince on a regular basis. Not everyone works effectively under this arrangement, though most coaches dream of it. In the traditional model, the coach must work very effectively with the board of directors. Lobbying for funding initiatives or arguing policy is standard work. The coach must be well prepared for meetings and having done this homework, be prepared to defend whatever it is he wants. In the alternative model, the work of managing the club by the coach is made easier, but not necessarily better. That would depend entirely on the skills of the coach and the manager. An experienced board can be of far greater help towards a vision than no board at all.

Another feature of most alternative club models is the effect facility access has on the club budget. Since control of the facility is somewhat closer to the club and the model allows for subsidies, the annual pool costs are reduced. Some traditional clubs have an annual pool bill above $100,000, a significant liability. If this item can be reduced or eliminated, it will act like the ubiquitous broncho-puffer on asthmatic swimmers--the club will breath easier for it. Ease of access also improves the options for expansion and changes in schedules, which can be quite restrictive in a busy community pool. Club ownership of the pool takes this issue another step.

Clubs That Own Their Facilities

The club-owned facility has recently become quite popular in the United States and Australia. These operate much like the traditional model except the pools are owned outright. So far there are no examples of this type of club in Canada. Pierre Lafontaine, who has worked at large clubs both in Canada and the US, coaches at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta. He describes it as a parent-run club with over 600 members, owning a pair of 50-metre pools and renting a third. It runs programs for a wide range of aquatic options. Pierre feels the vision of the very experienced board at Dynamo has been responsible for much of the current success. He was hired because he fit the board's vision. Now the club supports his leadership in putting the vision to work. This club, the third largest in the Atlanta area, has plans to host the World Aquatic Championships sometime in 2002! The other local clubs have over 1000 members. These are shocking numbers when compared to Canadian clubs.

Drawbacks to developing this model in Canada have yet to be explored fully, but the list would start with the cost of building a pool in a cold climate, plus heating costs for up to eight months of the year. The operation would be hard pressed to turn a profit, if that was the aim of the business. Community pools often run deficits of over $1,000,000 a year. Australian and American clubs owning their own facilities generally operate in warmer climates, thus reducing this factor, although there are some very successful examples on the eastern seaboard of the US. Dynamo has purchased a $150,000 bubble to fit over the pool it rents, in exchange for control over programming. This is a big vision. Drawbacks aside and in comparison to this model, the traditional model in Canada could do with more than just an overhaul.

The plusses to operating a club with private pools are many. Total control over the facility is first. Top-to-bottom programming is then performed by club management. In effect the club places itself in direct competition with the local community pools by offering swimming lessons, rehabilitation programs, masters swimming, the regular competitive program, and a variety of other innovative programs. The club may also own the food concession and the Pro Shop, both of which, if properly managed can create large profits. These clubs operate as for-profit businesses. A club operating in this manner will use the profits from all programs to subsidize the more expensive top age group and senior squads. This relieves parents from being squeezed for more money year after year. It also focusses the fundraising on big activities. Gone are the car washes and chocolate bar sales, which are labour intensive activities that net a small percentage of the club fundraising budget. Facility ownership allows the club to spend more time on the business of competitive swimming.

Coach-owned clubs are the talk in the US today. Although there are examples going back to the 1970s, numbers are just recently increasing. Some Australian coaches have been operating this way for decades. Similar to the previous club model, owning the club allows the coach control over all aspects of the program. A real business sense is required along with excellent entrepreneurial instincts and skills. Coaches in this situation report control as one of the key benefits of this model. The removal of parents from the business and technical side of the club gives a greater freedom to change course on a dime or continue in the same direction as needed. Parents are treated professionally as in any service industry.

These coaches say parents are much happier when they are not responsible for operating the club. Getting help to run meets and fundraising may be more difficult initially, but this issue can be regulated by fee levels, and proper marketing of the program. (This is actually an ongoing problem in the best of clubs.) The coach is regarded more as a professional. The work is hard and long, the bank and other creditors will be down your throat at the drop of a hat, and profit cannot be the number one motive. This model carries the highest risk factor, especially if the expenses are quite high, as in the early years of a mortgage on the pool. The payback is complete freedom to chart the course of the club.

Training Centres

The latest model to appear is the national centre. As described in a previous issue, these are partially funded by government money and operate as focussed high performance clubs rather than full scale clubs. The model relies on a steady supply of high performers from the club system. In this sense, they are very close to the university model. The Calgary centre, the first to be operating in Canada, is fully integrated into a multi-sport centre with representation from all interest groups in the city and the province. The biggest problem to date is a lack of funding to provide an affordable living situation for out-of-town athletes. It remains to be seen whether this model can become a viable economic entity, standing on its own without excessive financial input from Sport Canada. Additionally, since the centre currently does not have its own facility, there is a danger of compromise to the local club structure from competition for pool time.

In Australia, the Institute of Sport is the national centre for swimming. It is seen by many as a staff-heavy bureaucracy, with too few top athletes being produced for the relatively large input of money. That may be so, but the ripple effect of creating a very competitive domestic program may be its strongest legacy. Clubs from the other regions will try their hardest to beat the big-money institute. A steady stream of output from Institute sport scientists and highly paid coaches at least gives the rest of the country something to chew on, and they will work very hard to prove the big guys wrong. This is an environment that creates new faces to take the place of old ones, every year. Results from the recent World Short Course Championships show Australia to be moving strongly in the right direction.

In Canada, the centre model shows promise in its initial stages, although many club coaches are taking a cautious, pragmatic view of the future of these centres. The traditional club model could refocus on developing high performers up to the entry level required for the centres. A more effective use of limited club resources and experienced coaches might be the result. There is, however, a strong sense of pride for many coaches who believe they can develop a swimmer all the way to the Olympics, regardless of the obstacles. This pride, combined with numerous examples of small, resource-poor clubs doing just that, will act as a counterbalance to the move towards the national centre as the accepted high performance model for Canadian swimming.

Recent Developments Worth Watching

Other innovative ideas, such as club scholarships and well advertised swim camps, are starting to show up in Canadian clubs. Scholarships attract athletes from outside the normal catchment area, providing an avenue for developing larger, focussed, high-performance groups. Swim camps also serve to reach out to a wider audience. All age levels are attracted to good coaching and cutting-edge technologies, combined with higher concentrations of talent in the same pool. These are good signs that some club visions are moving beyond the traditional, local club model. These type of ideas can also help to reduce dependency on government money. Dependency in any form dulls the vision and reduces initiative. Marketing the sport to a wider range, such as disabled swimmers, masters swimmers, rehabilitation, and triathletes, could provide a more stable base from which to develop the high performers of tomorrow. These ideas take a great deal of organization and resources, so they must also fit the vision or the efforts will be short-lived.

Success at every level of a club needs to be realized. High-profile performers do not automatically confer grace on the rest of the model. A solid age group program requires excellent recruiting, experienced coaches, large groups of motivated swimmers, and happy parents! Successful fundraising requires a motivated board and valued volunteers who can get some more doors opened and the big plans moving. Developing a successful vision can often require outside professional help to decipher and align the goals and aspirations of the club as a whole. A club firing on all cylinders will move faster, and in a much straighter line towards the goal.

Some coaches will read this and think they have no hope of changing the minds of the cantankerous pool manager who won't give them the keys to the pool. They may be saddled with a club culture that is hopelessly conservative, or cannot move beyond the needs of star 12 year olds to include the bigger picture. Some boards will read this and shudder to think of coaches taking over the show. The long history of official-centred control of the sport, combined with the slowly developing professionalism of coaches may keep progress moving at a tadpole pace. Recent developments show that there are some signs of change in Canadian swim clubs. The typhoon of change will wreak havoc on a club not rooted with a well articulated vision, and a clear, flexible set of objectives to achieve it.

It takes a lot of work, a fair amount of risk and perhaps a great deal of faith to pursue a long term vision. The same applies when making changes to an existing club culture. All the people involved are critical to getting the job done. Giving both the club and coaches a real stake in their futures will apply more shoulders to the wheel, and will make that wheel run faster and more true to the vision.

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