Tomorrow (May 31st, 2014) sees the end of the consultation period for a raft of changes to the way that swimmers compete across Britain. We say consultation period but what’s clear from talking to coaches is that most of these proposed changes – outlined here – have already been decided upon and will come into effect later this year.
While on the face of it the changes are far reaching and dramatic, upon closer investigation it seems that many of the proposals aren’t new at all – they are simply a reversion to the way things used to be over a decade ago. Is this an admission from British Swimming that the current system, which has seen an overall decline in international performances in recent years, isn’t working and things were better back in the days of Sharron Davies, Duncan Goodhew etc? I think it is. However, you do have to be incredibly careful when you make comparisons between generations especially when you consider that the ‘golden age’ of British swimming partly coincided with the 1980 Moscow Olympics when the American team weren’t present.
What is clear is that swimming is a sport that children get into at quite a young age, compared with other sports because it is one that puts lets strain on growing bodies. As a result, there is a pressure – largely from the parents, it has to be said – for the children to compete at galas from a very young age. Currently the youngest they can compete is generally 9 years old but under the new proposals the age bands for competing at higher level galas (ie county, regional, national level) will be increased. Already it’s been decided that children will need to make 14 year old times to compete at national level. And it is likely that they will need to make at least 11 year old times for counties and 12 year old times for regionals.
Long term development
Is this a good thing? I think so. Currently, what tends to happen is that kids who are early developers tend to do much better than kids who are later developers because swimming – unlike, say, football – is a a sport where size really does matter. Given the same amount of training, it’s always likely that the bigger kid will do better than the smaller kid because they will generally take less strokes to get across the pool. As a result, the late developer kids don’t do well in galas, get de-motivated and leave the sport at an early age, while early developers make great progress at an early age but find themselves being caught up at a later stage (often by kids who started to swim later).
So at its heart these new proposals are an attempt to slow things down a bit to get the best swimmers coming through at a later age when it most matters. Certainly by moving Nationals to age 14 effectively you will see a more ‘level playing field’ by which time most of the late developers will have caught up with their peers. As Bill Sweetenham, GB National Performance Director said back in 2001: “British Age Group swimmers compete too often and train too little” (interesting this the reverse of the problem for our senior level swimmers who arguably don’t compete enough on the international stage, but train very hard).
So should we be discouraging kids from getting into the sport at all at age 7 or 8 if they can’t compete at the higher levels until 11 or older? No I don’t think so. What’s clear from talking to coaches and reading the Long Term Athlete Development Program (click the link here: http://www.swimming.org/assets/uploads/library/NOV13_Addition_SuccessisLongTerm-_Final__With_BAGCAT_Rules_2010_2.pdf) is that the best chance of success comes from taking kids at an early age and concentrating on a high level of aerobic training and developing stroke technique before puberty. The later the training is left the more difficult it is to make changes to a swimmer.
Clearly the very worst thing is for kids to compete purely in Sprints from an early age because – although these are generally what the parents want to see – they don’t develop the kids’ aerobic abilities (the 100m races are the most anaerobic). What’s more, they can destroy the technique the children need to be developing in training. As a parent I’ve lost count of the number of races I’ve watched where a 9 year old or 10 year old ‘bosses’ a 50m race with a truly terrible technique just because they are much bigger than the opposition. And while they may get away it at a younger age, once they reach 13 or 14 they are going to be found out by kids who have caught them up in terms of size and have better technique.
But of course if we are saying that kids need to compete less and train more then there is a potential problem. Motivation. The biggest challenge over the next few years for British Swimming and the clubs themselves is to create a pathway that keeps kids motivated and enthused to swim while not necessarily being able to compete at the highest level. Only if we can do this will the next generation of champions emerge through the ranks.
You can see the full raft of changes here: http://www.goggleblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/New-Competition-System-Consultation-Summary-Document.pdf. In my next article I will look at the other changes outlined in the document, including the moving of the age dates back to calendar year.