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Clinic Where No Punches Will Be Pulled

Jun 3, 2010  - Craig Lord

I had some questions ready for Randy Reese but one of the key men behind the success of Longhorn Aquatics at the near-end of a long and stellar coaching career tore up the script within moments of me getting on the phone. He set the agenda (you could almost hear him say 'we start the set in 10sec' and I was the kid who knew that's what would happen, no arguments). Reese had something to say. A clear and firm call to arms, if you like, the launch of what one of the world's leading men on the deck calls a "new beginning".

Reese reasons that, shiny suits gone but the artificial boost still screaming on the clock, hard and smart work - of which learning about pain (which is not a dirty word in his vocabulary, simply a statement of fact if you want to be the best you can be) and how to cope with it and harness it is part and parcel - is as relevant today, if not all the more relevant, as it ever was and ought to outlive new-age messages that speak of an easier way.

"With the suits gone, I think we won't see improvements on the clock for a long time," says Reese. Not a disaster but an opportunity. To take the chance offered by the prevailing wind of a sport that placed high value in the purity of athletic performance and the toil, boil, braun and brain that goes into it, genuine knowledge and deeper understanding need to be shared, appreciated and applied far and wide.

Underpinning his stance is a feeling that some tried-and-tested methods have, of late, been losing out to messages described as "modern" and even "cool" when it comes to getting swimmers on international podiums. Reese rejects those messages. He has a lack of faith in what he clearly sees as a Johnny-come-lately approach, one that suggests swimmers can get away with doing less, dropping double daily sessions, a weddedness to singles and shorts, a rejection of any need to go the distance and live through times of hardship; he has a lack of faith in coaches who, he indicates, seek out the blindingly obvious talent and make that their almost singular focus without ever having developed a swimmer; he has a lack of faith too in clinics that he accuses of promising knowledge but delivering ignorance. 

Ever feel that way? Ever sat in a coaches clinic, thought yourself to have been mildly entertained but then emerged scratching your head and wondering what it was that you actually learned from the guru of this world-class swimmer or that world-class swimmer and how that might possibly apply to you and your group?

Well, if the answer is yes - you're not alone. And the problem can even make itself felt at the very sharp end of the clinic circuit. Last September, at the ASCA World Clinic, an event, I hasten to add, that boasted many a speaker who did much to feed knowledge through coaching ranks, I recall chatting to a leading European head coach and his assistant, a man of not a little success in the water himself in days gone by. 

They had just emerged from an hour or so of listening to a leading US coach. I spare them all any blushes but suffice it to say that the verdict of the visitors, who had ticked that particular session as one of their main reasons for having made the trip, was: we've wasted our time and money. Perhaps they were right. I certainly understood how they felt, having sat in on the same session. Of course, it is possible that we missed the point. But we were clearly not alone.

I relayed that experience to Reese. His irritation tangible, he said: "It's protectionist and that's stupid ...". He spoke of coaches who have "livelihoods to protect" and of organisations that have "unfortunately done a poor job of clinics they run", adding: "I get more out of going to a bar than going to a clinic."

The work and approach that went into producing great champions and programmes of the past is not passe, argues Reese, a man who counts the likes of Tracy Caulkins, Martin Lopez-Zubero, Craig Beardsley, Dara Torres and Duncan Armstrong among those who have passed through his programme. On that list, the presence of talent is undeniable. But that is not what got those swimmers to where they got to, says Reese. Mongrel spirit counts? "Yes," says Reese. 

And what he seeks is argument, debate, a bruising bout of brains, a forum in which coaches are put on the spot, challenged until they stand or fall. The stage is set for a clinic with a difference, one at which speakers will not get away with putting up a few sessions and saying 'this is how I made a superstar of X and you can do the same, have a nice day now'. 

At the Clearwater Beach Coaches Clinic, to be staged in Florida August 26-28, confrontation will demand explanation. No-one gets to wriggle off the hook, the aim to ensure that everyone returns home with new tools and weapons for their work in pursuit of swimming excellence.

The roster of speakers reads like a little Who's Who of the swimming world. Altogether, the coaches have been awarded nine ASCA Coach of Year awards and have had swimmers set over 70 World Records (more details on the clinic website):

  • Chris Davis
  • Dick Jochums
  • Eddie Reese
  • John Ivy
  • Dave Gibson
  • Lea Maurer
  • Paul Bergen
  • Randy Reese

What a list...

"Everybody should be able to take something back," says Reese. "With the suits gone, I think we won't see improvements on the clock for a long time, and we need to get round that. I think there is a way round it: by sharing knowledge and working with [a wider community of people]. There are coaches out there who just look for someone with the talent to carry them, and that is the only swimmer they coach. I want to speak to coaches who want to work with more than just the super-talented. I want to see them work with a bunch of people and get them going. There are lots of kids who are not supertalents but who can make it. I want to see those kids having a much better shot. Ours' is a hard sport ... those kids should have a better chance to make it. 

"There are alot more of those kids out there. Most people never give 'em a chance to work up to their level. It swimming 15 to 20 years ago and more it used to be the guy that was the king of swimming was the hardest worker. Gary Hall (senior) should have done some more strength building ... he needed core strength. As a younger kid he did no strength building. I think there are many kids out there we need to work with at a younger age. I think people are afraid of working hard with young people. But that beginning can build a greater person and a much better athlete."

Some of those issues were raised in one of the highlights, for me at least, of the ASCA World Clinic last year, when a packed house listened spellbound to Reese's brother, Eddie, talk about developing youngsters. 

"I think a lot of that comes down to seeing that there's input in those kids, that all focus is not on the one or two," said Randy Reese. "The clinic (Clearwater) is going to be set up like no other clinic. They're be three coaches up at a time and each guy will be asked questions by another two coaches ... it'll be 'why, why, why?' ... until you get the info. They'll be put on the spot. It'll be about keeping after 'em. Why do you do that - and if it works, why don't you do it more often, and if it works, where's the result in more than one swimmer; what contributed to our success in distance swimming; why; what made you think like that; who did it work with; would you do it again; why would you change it?"

Reese explained: "Each guy goes for 30 minutes and last thing every night all coaches at the clinic get the microphone and you start asking what you want to know. You get eight questions to get to the answer, the final answer. I want people to leave this clinic and know that they've learned something from it."

I returned to the example of the European coaches as described above. "I want to see if we can get away from that," said Reese. "I want us to stay in the room and drink a few beers and keep going whatever the time is. If its another four hours, great. Let's sit there and talk about swimming. You always used to hear that kind of talk, like 'can you believe that they did that set', now you don't hear anyone say that, you never hear them talking about a set, about what it takes to be a great swimmer."

The coach rattled off a series of examples of coaches and programmes that have won acclaim in recent years but which he considered to be falling down on true potential when it came to getting the most and best out of swimmers.

"There are coaches ... who only do singles. Its easier to have a one three-hour practice and not have morning workout. You have to beat kids up to get them up in the morning. But the thing is you can do that in a way that has them looking forward to it. I have never been one to shy away from that. If I have a 10-year-old who enjoys 30 x 100 on 1:30 I may do it once and then do it again a couple or three weeks later. There are kids who like that - and its going to make 'em great.." Those kind of kids will show a coach the possibilities for not just "making a great person great" but "making an average person great and even better" than all the rest.

Reese summed up that message with these words: "I just think we need to get back to a lot of things we have done over many years that we have proven to have worked."

By the end of the Clearwater clinic, he believed, "all coaches going to this thing will stand up and applaud and appreciate what has been done. I think this is a chance to change swimming. I think it will change it back." He cited a coach who used to coach kids and "bust their ass" but now says no child under 14 should do more than one session a day. "He never used to be like that ... and now he's talking completely different but he produced nothing," said Reese in combative mood.

He cited two other examples of coaches acclaimed of late but who, to his mind, had let the supertalented down by working a swimmer to a level that meant they never got tired. That had resulted in a consistent ability to hit world-class times "at little meets throughout the season" but come the big moment had meant a lack of necessary bite and edge. One of those swimmers was now engaged in work that Reese has no faith in. "I want coaches to have the chance to make it with kids who work hard."

Reese once told a parent of a swimmer that was falling shy: “Your attitude is as bad as I think I have ever seen anyone’s. He just needs to bust his butt for three weeks, go through a lot of pain and once he gets through it he will feel the same paces that he thought were hard as easy; he just needs to be tougher.” That's swimming - and it is something for which Reese offers no apology. It is the nature of things - and among those things that contribute to swimming being a world-class sport.

Money was playing a significant part in the culture, nature and development of the sport, Reese noted. He cited swimmers who attracted vast amounts of money and others who earned $500,000 and stuff like that', and added: "They are talking about how much longer they are staying in swimming, how much can they get if they do. Their motivation is the dollar. We can do better."

The Clearwater Clinic intends to show the way. You can register now.