Coaching Personality: Kevin Thorburn

Thorburn Appointed Etobicoke Head Coach


Nick J. Thierry

Kevin Thorburn, 42, was appointed head coach of Etobicoke Swimming in April. He was coach of the Canadian Kodiac SC in Winnipeg until last January. Other club positions during the 1980s and 1990s were with Manta, Pacific Dolphins, Regina and Summer Club swimming 20 years ago in B.C.

He was on the coaching staff for the 1996 Olympic and 1998 Commonwealth Teams. Thorburn chose Etobicoke over an opportunity to be an assistant women's coach at the University of Alabama.

Thorburn found time recently to talk with SWIMNEWS and I asked him the elaborate on the following topics.

When did you start swimming?

In the fall of 1967 at the Killarney Swim Club in Vancouver when I was 11. My first coach was Stan Samuel, who defected from Czechoslovakia by swimming across the Danube from Bratislava into Austria. Armed guards trying to prevent his escape forgot to consider the current which had moved him quite a ways downstream and out of their range. Samuel was big on hypoxic training or breath holding.

What do you remember about Howard Firby?

My dad was the president of the club in the early 70s and he hired Howard Firby upon his return from Winnipeg. I still have recollections of his plasticine dolls to explain the subtleties of the various stroke techniques.

Tell me about summer club coaching?

I started coaching summer club in BC in 1976.

I learned a lot about coaching. I learned to do things quickly during a short season. You were always working against the clock in a sense. I learned about cycles of training. How much to train, when to rest, how to taper. I learned a lot about the psychology of athletes. The kids needed to learn to move ahead of a lot of swimmers in order to be where they needed to be at the end. If they hadn't done it along the way, before the championships, more than likely they wouldn't have the confidence to do it at the end.

We started having smaller cycles and faster swimming through the season. Trying to beat your opponents throughout the season so it wouldn't be such a novely at the end. My summer club went from 53rd to third for the three years I coached them.

At work with new group to shape to his vision
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

When did you start full-time coaching?

In 1984 I went to Regina to be John Campbell's assistant. Along the way I picked a university degree in psychology. I think all great coaches have been great psychologists. They have a natural aptitude in this area. It certainly has made me more sensitive to an individual's motivation.

During the eight years I was in Regina as the assistant head coach a lot of the things that went into our success were built around thinking nationally. There aren't a lot of swimmers in Saskatchewan and it wasn't enough to just be the best in your province.

We always ended the season with a trip to Far Westerns to give them the experience a 'dog-eat-dog' type of competition.

One of the benchmarks for the club would be the relative ranking in TAG. So much of the emphasis was national. We had to do the best we could with what we had as there was no university program in the province to keep older swimmers.

The goal was to do well in the age group ranks but not at the expense of what you might do later as a senior.

When did you become a head coach?

My first head coach appointment came with Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg after a year with PDSA in Vancouver.

I've been lucky to be often in the right place at the rigth time. In Winnipeg the first priority was to get the rigth amount of pool time. I didn't take no for an answer. I made sure I had all the time and equipment I wanted.

I refined what I had done in Regina. I put the emphasis on developing all the stroke skills. Most swimmers are better at all four strokes than its generally believed. I tried to make everybody as good as I could in everything first. Then decide what they would be best at later.

Who has influenced your coaching?

The great influence on my coaching knowledge after the ones already mentioned are Murray Drudge who took over from John Campbell in Regina, after being Paul Bergen's assistant for three years at Etobicoke. Bergen is a major influence too.

Thoughts on swimming. You race as an individual but you train with a team. My approach to team building is to motivate my swimmers in any which way I can. So if one is into swimming for the team I can use that, but I can focus in on the opposite if need be too.

I believe you use team building to develop individuals for the sake of the team.

A successful coach becomes somewhat reduntant. Swimmers need to be able to stand alone and think for themselves and react properly to what's going on around them. This ability to handle the most stressful of environments alone is the key to good coaching. Their teammates will not get them through that or will be with them in the "ready room."

Kevin in the Etobicoke Olympium where he now has all the pool time he needs
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Who are some of the swimmers you've coached?

I started coaching Riley Mants (1996 Olympic breaststroker) when she was 14. Kelly Stefanyshyn (1998 Commonwealth backstroke medallist) was 13 when she started. I think the club's head coach needs to work with the really talented swimmers when they are still in their formative years. It's difficult to do as the swimmers get older and better. But I believe its at age 12 to 14 that a lot of the girls "athletic personality" is formed. For boys its probably 14 to 16.

In Regina I was one of the coaches of Shauna Collins who as a 12-year-old stunned everyone with a 2:03 long course 200 free. That was in 1990. Her personal life was a mess and she eventually dropped out. She was a great talent. Two and a half year's ago, she was attempting a come-back and after one month of training she just missed national cuts. Her times are out of reach, but you never know when the next great talent will come along.

Inspirational races

One of the great inspirational races has to be Perkins' second 1500 win in Atlanta (after winning in Barcelona in 1992). He barely made the finals and looked so terrible qualifying. He didn't look so great in the final. But it was all heart. He is a champion. Of course much success is just plain luck.

More meets, longer meets.

If this continues with longer meets and count how many days a year you will be at competitions it will sonn become ridiculous. In the Toronto area I've already heard complaints that with so many meets the attendance at some is now decreasing. I'm not sure where this will lead eventually. Perhaps meets will become shorter as they won't be able to afford the pool time. You can't run longer meets with ever fewer swimmers.

But ultimately racing is important. That's what it is all about.

But you also have to prepare to race. I think there is not enough rest, but then with all the travel and competitions there is really not enough hard work. You no longer see big drops at Nationals from the finalists.

Turnover of athletes in the sport.

I believe at the bottom end the turnover is high. As they mature and move into a good club program this drops to around 15% yearly. This is not a bad thing. You want to retain the good athletes. We are in competition with a lot of other sports. The general affluence of the families allows them to try more than one sport. When I was a kid there would be little to choose from, football in the summer and swimming in the winter.

There has been a noticeable loss of interest by many clubs in the excellence end of the sport.Many of these clubs will have to become feeders to the bigger more committed programs. Some coaches seem to have lost the belief that they can be successful. They are possibly tired of hitting their head against the wall telling their club what they will need in pool time and equipment to produce that great athlete.

From the swim club's perspective if only a few kids will benefit from that kind of thinking they prefer 20 kids to be at a lower level. They seem to think there is an unfairness to concentrate on just a few. But its precisely the kid with the talent and desire to work hard that needs to be taken care of the most.Those who are willing to invest the most effort and time are the most important part of the whole club system. They need to be treated fairly, that is different.

Training Centres.

The whole premise behind the Training Centres is the implication that swim clubs don't have what it will take to produce a world class athlete.

I don't believe that.

There is place for Training Centres, but for the whole system to be healthy there is need for many clubs all striving to produce world record holders. That's what I see in Australia.

My experience leads me to believe that you don't need to have a huge amount of resources to produce great results, provided you have enough pool time and all the needed equipment.

I don't believe you need all the luxuries wich some call essentials.