Domestic Competition Structure decided – what does it mean for you? (part one)

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After months of speculation, the domestic competition structure for British Swimming was finally announced last Monday. You can see the main changes here in the Pathway document issued by British Swimming. 

Far from being a consultative process, as originally (and naively) suggested, it seems that most of the original proposals have been pushed through and there aren’t many changes from those which were first mentioned in the documentation that went out to clubs back in May. You can see my reports here and here.

Most of the changes I think are extremely positive, particularly around limiting the level of competition for younger kids in order to prevent potential ‘burn out’. This has already led to a change in emphasis at my son’s own club on technique rather than speed work which I think has to be a good thing.

But that’s not to say there aren’t changes that won’t have a negative impact, especially for those children born towards the end of the year. One of the main changes is that swimmers will now compete according to birth year as they do in most other parts of the world and which they did in Britain until it was changed a few years ago.

BIRTH YEAR

Previously, the ‘age as of’ date moved around from competition to competition which meant that children could find themselves the oldest in their age group or the youngest depending on the time of the year. The thinking behind this was to make swimmers compete against a different set of swimmers and to give them an opportunity to excel in competition at certain times of year (usually just before their birthday).

However, British Swimming concluded this system hasn’t resulted in improved performance so has gone back to the original set-up with swimmers competing according to birth year. Furthermore, because the Nationals Age Group and Youth Competitions were held at the end of July/beginning of August, the previous system tended to favour those swimmers born in late August and September, at least in elite clubs where swimmers were benchmarked according to their percentages off a NQT (National Qualifying Time). As a result younger swimmers with birthdays in June, July could often struggle to make NQTs, especially at a younger age where 11 months difference in age can have a massive impact on performance.

However, moving swimmers competing according to birth year obviously doesn’t address the underlying problem – that although kids mature at different rates, generally speaking those who are older within their age band tend to fare better. This has been proven in various studies, most recently by the influential author Malcolm Gladwell who studied Canadian hockey players for his book Outliers and found there was a disproportionate number who were born in January and February because the cut off date for making hockey teams as a junior is December 31st. See my article about this here: http://www.goggleblog.com/features/2683/domestic-competition-structure-changes-part-2-a-look-at-age-changes.html


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DELAYING COMPETITION 

So what can British Swimming do to provide a more level playing field between kids who mature at different rates, especially in a sport where size is a massive factor when it comes to performance?

Clearly delaying major competitions until children are older when biological development has largely evened itself out is one possibility. Another is restricting the ability to take part in the 50m sprint events where size is the biggest factor (I study this in more detail in the next part of the article). When it comes to delaying competition it was widely anticipated we would see a major change with children only being able to compete at smaller lower level (Level 3 and 4) meets until their teenage years.

However, if that was being considered it hasn’t turned out to be the case. There is now at least a clear pathway starting with County galas from the age of 11 (10 year olds can take part providing they have an 11 year old time) right through to British National Championships, which have moved back from 12 years to 14 years (13 year olds can go providing they make a 14 year old qualifying standard). In between this are Regional competitions which are open to 11 year olds providing they make a 12 year old standard and a new Home Nations Summer Meet (separate events for England, Scotland and Wales) which is open to 12 year olds providing they make the qualifying standard for the 13 year old category.

Rather than set National Qualifying Times, which can lead to major discrepancies in the number of competitors for different events, the qualifying standard for the British National Championships (July 28th to August 2nd) will be determined by the times of the top 24 swimmers according to British rankings. The next 24 swimmers in each age group will then be eligible to take part in the England, Scotland or Wales competition (this will probably be held the week after), ensuring more swimmers will effectively be competing at the highest level.

PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME

One of the criticisms of British Swimming in the past has been the inability to peak at the right time. Nowhere was this more evident than at the London 2012 Olympics when it was widely considered that many of the swimmers peaked too early after the national trials and as a result we only achieved three medals (two bronzes for Rebecca Adlington and a silver for Michael Jamieson).

Consequently, for the British Summer Championships and the Home Nations Summer Meets British Swimming is introducing a two month qualifying window when the times have to be achieved for consideration. For 2015, the qualifying window is expected to be slightly wider to allow people to get used to the new system – probably between middle of March and the end of May. You can fairly sure during this time that the Long Course Meets (swimmers will have to enter Long Course times) will be a complete sell out as swimmers rush to get times to make the cut.

CONCLUSION

Although controversial (especially changing the age as of date to December 31st) and undoubtedly rushed through, many of the changes that British Swimming has made to the domestic competition structure do make sense. In particular the need to have a clear pathway from County Championships right through to Home Nations summer meets and the British Summer Championships.

Delaying the age at which swimmers can compete at the highest level is a particularly sensible move. At present, those who succeed at the highest level up to about the age of 12/13 are often (not always) those who have matured earliest. They are not necessarily the best swimmers in their age group.

By reducing the number of higher level competitions for these age groups, there is more opportunity for coaches to focus on technique and keep later developers in the sport. What’s more by the time they are a ready to compete at the highest level, the introduction of a new Home Nations meet gives them more opportunities to progress.

You can read Part Two here. Here we look at the short course v long course seasons, the events younger swimmers can take part in, implementation of the new structure and what the changes means for the future of the Long Term Athlete Development Programme.