In yesterday’s article I wrote about the major changes that are taking place in British Swimming, focusing on the moving of the ‘age as of’ date to the 31st December. This means that while clubs are free to do whatever they want for smaller Level 3 and Level 4 meets, for all competitions at county level and above (Level 1 and Level 2), swimmers will now compete according to their birth year.
In addition I also talked about how the ‘pathway’ of British Swimming is changing. Instead of 9 year olds competing at Counties as previously happened, most swimmers will have to be 11 (though it may be possible for some exceptional 10 year olds to qualify). To swim in the British Nationals you will now have to make a 14 year old qualifying standard (previously 12 year olds could go to Nationals) while the introduction of separate home nations competitions (England, Scotland, Wales) gives further opportunities for elite level swimmers to compete at the highest level from 13 onwards.
By slowing things down, clearly British Swimming is hoping to give coaches more time to focus on technique rather than training swimmers simply for competing. Another effect is that by the time swimmers are competing at the highest levels there will hopefully be a more level playing field with some of the late developers having caught up with those who have matured earlier.
But there are more changes to discuss in this article, in particular the re-introduction of a short course (25m) season with a Short Course Winter Nationals in December followed by County competitions which now take place in January rather than March. From the end of January onwards, higher level competitions will switch largely to long course (50m) though there will still be plenty of Level 3 and 4 short course meets.
Like the age as of date, this isn’t a new development. British Swimming used to have two seasons and other countries do too including the US where typically age group swimmers compete in smaller 25 yard pools from September to April and longer indoor and outdoor 50m pools from April through to July (most teams take a break for August).
Again, the aim of this is it seems to get swimmers focusing on technique, in particular starts and turns which are obviously more frequent in short course pools. I think this makes sense especially given the importance of turning and streamlining underwater efficiently in order to gain speed. However, it will inevitably mean that time in a 50m pool will be limited, especially for younger swimmers, and there will be ferocious competition to take place in Long Course meets during the Nationals qualifying window from March to May for the older age group swimmers.
As I have argued elsewhere, there simply aren’t enough 50m pools in the UK – though in the South East, the situation has at least improved a little with the London Aquatic Centre (Olympic pool) and two new-ish 50m pools in Basildon, Herts and Luton, Beds (the latter having been used for Tom Daley’s Splash! series). Elsewhere it’s not such great news with Coventry’s ageing 50m pool due to be replaced with a 25m pool, leaving the Midlands without a single long course facility.
For anyone who has read British Swimming’s Long Term Athlete Development Programme (http://www.swimming.org/assets/uploads/library/NOV13_Addition_SuccessisLongTerm-_Final__With_BAGCAT_Rules_2010_2.pdf), one of the key tenets of the sport is that children should be training and competing ‘aerobically’ which effectively means endurance training: “Training and competition for young swimmers should therefore have an endurance base,” states the document.
As a result, sprints including 50s and 100s have often been considered by many coaches as not suitable events for younger (pre-pubescent) children. 100s in particular have been restricted in many competitions because they are even more anaerobic than 50m races which often led to a slightly odd situation where 100m races were off limits for boys under 11 but allowed for girls. In my son’s club it meant that 11 year old boys couldn’t reach the necessary qualifying standard with 100m times and had to focus on 200m races instead.
At the same time, most coaches, swimmers and (some) parents recognise that 50m events for younger children are largely determined by size, rather than technique and are primarily about who has matured earliest. You could be training 8 times a week, but if the kid on the block next to you is nearly a foot taller than you, chances you are you will struggle against him over 50m even if he swims only once or twice a week.
Consequently, I had half expected the new British Swimming Pathway to restrict younger kids swimming in 50m and possibly 100m races completely. But if anything the opposite is true. County competitions will still have 50s and 100s while the British Nationals will see the possibility of 13 year olds taking part in sprint events at the highest level (though I think in reality they will have to have matured very early in order to make the necessary 14 year old entry standard).
Why is this? Is it because suddenly we have seen success among our sprinters at senior level, particularly with Ben Proud in the 50m Freestyle and 50m Butterfly events as well as with a rejuvenated Fran Halsall. Possibly. But I think there is another, slightly less palatable answer, and that is around money.
The reality is that some of the changes around delaying county competitions from 9 to (effectively) 11 has hit County ASAs very hard. The last thing they wanted was to lose more income through restricting the number of races that 11 year old and above kids can take part in. Sprints are particularly popular with meet organisers because they are quicker and can therefore make more money per event. On the other hand, events like the 400IM and the 800/1500 Free take a long time to complete and are therefore not profitable (unless they decided to charge more money for the longer events which is a possibility). As a result the only restricted events in the entire British Swimming Pathway are for 11 year olds who will not be allowed to compete in both the 400IM and the 800/1500 Freestyle at County level.
And while County ASAs will no doubt argue this is about restricting younger kids from swimming in very difficult and challenging events (particularly the 400IM) – which is true in part – I can’t help but feel that it’s also about deriving as much income from kids competing in shorter, less aerobic events as possible.
Even in a noble sport like swimming where there is little money to be made even at the very highest level in the UK, it seems that money does sometimes talk!
I said in my earlier article here that many of these changes were being rushed through – that the consultative process was really a bit of a sham and the highest levels in British Swimming had already decided to introduce the changes whatever the level of protest. I think this is largely true, but not necessarily a bad thing (having sat on school governing bodies you can spend months in committees without actually making any decisions. I would imagine it’s much the same in British Swimming).
However, clearly many people in the sport have been resistant to the changes especially within individual County ASAs. As a result, for 2015 at least, not all counties are following the new guidelines and are sticking to the same structure as 2014 and holding their County championships in March with children as young as 9 and with previous ‘age as of’ dates. Whether this is pure belligerence or because they were unable to make the venue changes in time I’m not sure, but inevitably it will mean that next year will see some inconsistency.
However, by 2016 all the changes will finally have come into place and hopefully we will start to see some performance improvements in British Swimming that have been witnessed in other British sports. If we don’t then no doubt there will be more soul-searching in British Swimming and more changes for me to write about! Who knows, maybe they’ll even decide to change everything back again.