Q&A With SNC High Performance Director, John Atkinson

September, 23, 2014

With another international swimming season in the books, Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson recently attended the Canadian Swimming Congress, where he had a chance to share his vision with coaches from across the country. Atkinson also took some time for an in-depth interview as we turn the page to a new season of swimming. After a successful summer that saw Canada win 11 medals at Commonwealth Games, seven at Pan Pacific Championships and an astounding 67 at Para Pan Pacs, Atkinson answered a few questions about his first full season and what lies ahead for Canadian swimming. 

PART ONE 

Q: Your title is “High Performance Director” – how do you and Swimming Canada define High Performance? 

A: Our definition of “High Performance” is clear: “Top 8 world ranking with continual progression towards, and the achievement of, Olympic podium performances.” That said, we recognize that the pursuit of High Performance is a continuum. We have three tiers of criteria: Olympic medals, followed by medals at the long-course FINA World Championships, followed by swimming in a final at either of those major meets.

We also look at identifying High Performance potential through a variety of tools. This includes achieving Top 16 performances at those major meets, or Top 8s at World Junior Championships or Junior Pan Pacific Championships. It also includes achieving published “On Track” times that show significant evidence of continued development.

Q: What needs to happen to support the development of High Performance?

A: Short-course racing September through December whilst in full training, then long-course racing from January through to the Trials. We have our Trials set for early April the next two years, and long-course racing opportunities should be used in preparation for Trials. We want swimmers to resist the temptation to rest and shave for earlier meets such as Easterns, Westerns, and CIS Championships. Doing this can compromise training and in turn results at Trials and in the summer. We want to see two tapers per year: Trials and summer, potentially racing multiple times on one taper, for example multiple championships in the summer.

We want Canadian swimmers to adopt a philosophy of preparing to be world-class, focusing on international standards at the major meets.

Q: How are selection policies developed and what is in store in 2015?

A: Swimming Canada’s High Performance department prepares policies, which are then reviewed by the selection committee before publication. We are implementing standards geared towards selecting swimmers with an increased likelihood of progressing beyond heats at major international competitions. In 2014 we also included some age weighted standards for the Pan Pacific Championships, which will not be included in the policies for 2015 Pan Am Games, World Championships, FISU Games and World Junior Championships.

By setting higher standards, athletes can maximize the number of swims they are shaved and tapered for at appropriate competitions. Past Canadian teams have had some athletes train for weeks and travel to a major competition only to swim one heat. In my opinion it does no one any good to swim only once in a rested and tapered state. We want athletes swimming multiple swims to consolidate the times they are capable of doing, not just doing it once in the heats and that’s it for several months. If athletes are not demonstrating the potential to do this internationally, it’s better for their development to swim multiple swims at meets such as the Canadian Swimming Championships.

Q: Some other countries simply send their fastest swimmer or swimmers in each event? Why isn’t selection criteria always as simple as “first to the wall”?

We can’t compare ourselves to countries like the USA, Australia, or even Japan and Britain. Those countries have advantages in financial resources, population base or volume of registered competitive swimmers – sometimes all three. We need to find solutions that work for Canada and look at nations such as Denmark, Hungary, Spain, South Africa and the Netherlands. That may mean larger teams at relevant competitions but a more focused approach at others, for example. What we have been doing over the past few years has not made us systematically better, so we must explore other avenues. It’s about changing the trend through strategic investment in High Performance swimming.

Q: How are Swimming Canada’s “On Track” times being used?

A: The On Track times model is based on real swimmer progressions and real data from performances at World Junior Championships and Junior Pan Pacs, progressing towards senior international qualifying standards. We developed a Gold Medal, Podium, and Finalists track, and then looked at progression rates within Canadian age group swimming. Whatever method we use, there will always be a line that selects some and not others. Ultimately the standard of progressing beyond heats will ensure we are selecting the right team.

As a “smaller fish” in the big pond of swimming, Swimming Canada has to be strategic in how we invest our limited budget. We don’t have advantages such as a huge population or an unlimited budget, and we are one of many sports in Canada. It’s an ongoing process to find an edge for Canada and we believe On Track times enhance our ability to identify the right swimmers to invest in. We are committed to High Performance and working towards that by identifying swimmers with the highest probability to achieve that goal.

Q: But not every swimmer follows the same progress curve. Is it realistic to predict a swimmer’s potential years from now based on their current times?

There may be occasional exceptions, but the vast majority of successful international medallists have demonstrated a steady rate of improvement over several years. For example, the median age of male Olympic medallists from London in 2012 was 24, meaning half the medallists were older, half younger. But it would be misleading to simply say that’s a “peak” age we should be focusing on. Of the 15 “older” medallists, the median age for winning their first world championships medal is actually 21. Only two won their first medal at worlds over the age of 24, and only one won an Olympic medal before winning one at worlds. Generally swimmers winning medals at those ages are continuing a proven history of winning medals in their early 20s or younger, not “peaking” out of nowhere. If some athletes have not demonstrated any improvement over several years, we have to be strategic about choosing to invest in potential for High Performance.