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A Quick and Free Review of the Australian Swimming Team

There is no doubt that the Australian swimming team performed poorly as compared with a number of previous Olympic campaigns. Those events we were expected to win, we either got painstakingly close, or our swimmers fell in a heap. Similarly, some of those swimmers that did not face a burden of expectation broke through to medal, at times in events you would’ve been excused to think we never had any hope in.

Our performances in the pool, which usually get us off to a strong start in the medal tally and up there with the best countries just didn’t happen. This has sparked a much publicised review by former Olympic champion swimmer Susie O’Neill and experienced swimming coach Bill Sweetenham.

The idea of a review of the sporting performance of our swimmers is not new. As Head Coach Leigh Nugent has pointed out, the swim team is always subject to a performance review after every major meet and well, the Olympics is up there with the major aquatic events that exist.

There should be absolutely no doubt that each individual swimmer and their respective coaches trained to exactly the same level they ordinarily would. This means intense and event targeted training for the whole time each swimmer remained with their local club’s before heading overseas for the pre-Olympics swimming camp and then London.

Tapering too would not have proved an issue and would have been closely supervised by the elite coaches travelling with the Australian swimming team in the weeks before London 2012. It is just too ridiculous a proposition to think that such high-level experts would have got the tapering of any of the athletes wrong.

Last night the ABC’s program 7.30 weighed into the debate with a report on the discord between the swimmers, their families and Swimming Australia. The story reviewed a shocking level of disdain for the athletes in one of our most successful sports at the Olympic level.

Daniel Kowalski, a former swimmer who now represents the Australian Swimmers’ Association said that just before the London Olympics commenced, while some Australian swimmers were in training together overseas, pay arrangements were changed. The pay scale was changed to a “high-performance model”.

In this model all of our swimmers were to be paid a small base rate with a significant performance bonus, if, and only if they received gold, silver or bronze from their respective events. The performance pay would net gold medal winners $35,000 and those who made the final but came in last $4000 for each event. But if you swam in a race and didn’t progress into the final, no dough.

Ordinarily, performance pay is a brilliant concept, providing that it doesn’t detract from a base wage. Much more importantly, bonuses for strong performances are an excellent idea providing you don’t do as Swimming Australia did and foist it upon athletes so near to a major competition, especially the highest of events.

Now, you might be wondering how this would impact on performance? The answer is quite simple. If you are worrying at the last minute before you’re expected to perform strongly in your chosen profession about how much money you might be taking home and it could affect how much money you have to pay bills, you’re not going to be thinking of your race so much.

There’s also another not so insignificant factor which may have impacted on our performances. That is the incredibly poor decision of the swimming team to not take a psychologist with them to the pre-games training camp and then into the Olympic village. There was nobody there that swimmers could trust, especially in light of Swimming Australia’s decision on pay, to air their concerns and emotions. This means there was nobody in London with the squad that would have been able to respond in a properly trained and professional manner to the worries that might distract the attention of athletes.

Another factor that cannot be discounted and which could have been more significant than any other factor in the sub-par performance of our swimming team is the performance of other countries. It’s not as if we didn’t contribute significant funds to our Olympians, we did. The strong performance of swimmers from other nations was probably unexpected. It should have been figured into the equation as a real possibility given the changing state of our swimming team, with past champions suffering from injury and others who were set to retire after London.

It’s clear that the cultural issues within the peak swimming body which undoubtedly flowed through to the swimming team were a major distraction for our swimmers. The significance of this was accelerated by the inability of members of the team to access professional psychological help while overseas.

There was certainly no problem with the workload of our athletes before the Olympics and the tapering while overseas clearly would not have been an issue either.

It is also undoubtedly a strong possibility that our swimmers were also outperformed in their events.

Clearly there are a number of things to work on before the next major international competition, the FINA World Championships in Barcelona next year, most within the control of the governing body for swimming in Australia. Some brutal honesty and soul searching is required during the upcoming review.

If You Build It He or She Won’t Automatically Come

There’s no denying we’ve not lived up to expectations as far as gold medals go at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So far we’ve won two golds, with another assured in the sailing and Sally Pearson looking very good to take top spot in the 100m hurdles tomorrow Australian time. Other teams and individuals are also chances in the remaining days of competition of winning gold for Australia. Our performance, which was looking like being about as bad as the 1988 Seoul Olympics is now on track to at least equal that, perhaps go a bit better.

Our swimming team which normally leads the charge hasn’t been as dominant in the first week of competition as they traditionally have been and that has led to us being behind the eight-ball. We could quite easily have been two or three medals up on our current tally of two gold medals had all gone to plan at the aquatic centre.

It is the performance of the Australian Olympic team, initiated by our swimmers in the pool that has sparked intense political debate from within the media, the sporting fraternity, government, interest groups and the broader community about different ways to ensure the lacklustre performance does not occur again in the future.

This has ranged from “stop funding our athletes” or “fund them on a performance basis” to “they’re doing well, just look at how many silvers and bronze they have received”. There have also been cries of “we need much more funding” from Olympic officials.

The below par efforts of our aquatic stars has also sparked a thorough review of the way we performed in the lead-up to and during the London Games and will be presided over by Bill Sweetenham and recent swimming critic and former superstar, Susie O’Neill.

But it is the entry into the debate of former New South Wales Premier, now Basketball Australia Chief Executive Officer, Kristina Keneally that is the latest in the argument over what needs to be done to improve our sporting prowess in the future.

The former politician turned sports administrator advocated in an interview on the ABC’s The World Today program for more participation in sport in primary school years for children.

This is certainly an enviable aim where teachers and parents should be both encouraging participation at an early age and also providing, where possible during a crammed school curriculum, for more sports-based educational opportunities. The benefits of this would be fitter and healthier children with the potential to develop their sporting abilities much further in the future.

But by far her most important overall point was that more sporting facilities need to be provided in Australia and that existing venues need to be brought up to a better standard. This is problematic. Indeed it is too simplistic an argument to say “if we build it, he (or she) will come.”

It is true that better sporting facilities, that is improving the ones that already exist, will mean that sporting clubs and venues better accommodate the needs of participants. We owe it to our kids to have better facilities for them to participate in but whose role that is, whether it be state or federal government or clubs or charities or a combination of some or all of the above is up for debate.

But it is not true or a given to say that improving sporting facilities will lead to increased participation by young people in the various sports that are played, particularly of a weekend on ovals, fields and courts and in pools around Australia.

It is even less the case that Kristina Keneally’s point about providing more facilities for sports will mean that people of a young, indeed all ages will want to participate in sport outside of school hours any more than they already do. New sporting facilities will only be filled if there is a demand for them and that partly goes back to schools and parents and the active encouragement they give their children as far as involvement in sport goes. Even then increased supply of sporting facilities would not necessarily lead to full venues.

It is only worth building extra facilities if it is a certainty that the increased numbers of sports fields will actually be utilised and not find themselves in a rundown state like some of the overused facilities.

What generally seems to work in regards to increased sporting participation is when there is an increased profile of particular sports and then with others that have been popular for some time like cricket, rugby league, rugby union, AFL and netball.

Encouragement of the young and impressionable is the key to greater sports participation and performance in the future, but that has to be balanced with parents and educators not placing unrealistic expectations on their children. What is certain is that new facilities will not automatically translate into new participants. If you build it, don’t automatically expect them to come.

It’s The Olympics, Who’s Really Putting the Pressure on Whom?

The London 2012 Olympic Games are now in full-swing. The early hiccups in the weeks prior to the games have been put behind them and the Brits are putting on a great show, albeit with crowds that have more holes than a sieve. Not all sports have started, with events like track and field and cycling yet to come where we’re in with a real shot at a number of medals, some of them quite possibly golden. The swimming, a traditional strength of Australia’s has begun though, with our athletes coming out with less of the prized gold than we’re used to and expectations dashed in some cases. We have though won silver in bronze in events we weren’t expected to with up and comer’s and dark horses stepping up when it counts.

Anyway, our performances and the reactions of varying degrees of the athletes making the massive efforts in competing at the Olympics has sparked a rather vigorous debate on social media and the opinion pages. Are we as Australian’s, are the media placing such high expectations on our athletes that they feel crushed under the pressure to deliver for a medal-hungry Australian public? Or are the athletes themselves the ones that are expecting too much of themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above?

So far Australia has won 1 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze. So six people have come very close and further two near winning a gold medal. Our one gold came courtesy of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay. Once again our female swimmers are the ones that are far performing their male counterparts in the pool as competition at the aquatic centre nears an end for another Olympiad.

This is the first Twitter Olympics really. Well not the first one since the social media platform has been around, but the first one where so many athletes have taken to using the medium to pass on their thoughts as the prepare to and while they compete during the London games. Twitter users have undoubtedly been putting some pressure on our athletes, sending messages to them like “go for gold” and “you can smash ’em”. So it would be easy for our athletes to get caught up in the hype and get nervous about their performances.

Although the Olympics is supposed to be about and was all about amateurs performing at their peak, these days the men and women competing are nearly all professionals competing in their chosen sport full-time. They should know or have access to tools which help them shut out the thoughts and comments of those sending messages to our Olympians, much of which is actually just hero worship, the idolising of people by the masses who’ve inspired them.

Many of these athletes have performed very well in the past to get them to the highest level of competition. A small number of them performing well enough in the lead-up to London 2012 to have that expectation of medalling, even winning put on them by all and sundry.

Are the media placing unrealistic expectations on our athletes? For the most part, no. The media have generally given athletes the “favourite” tag only if the individual athletes have performed over and above their peers in the lead-up to the event. That doesn’t excuse the over the top commentary which at times appears to shame our athletes who’ve in the eyes of the media “failed” by winning a medal of a different colour, or not at all when they’ve been expected to win a gold. Any medal, indeed just to be there is a massive effort in itself.

Could the athletes themselves be placing amazing levels of stress on themselves, such extreme expectations that they are exhausted by the stress of trying to live up to their own expectations? The answer here is likely yes. But the athletes placing such high expectations on themselves are generally those that have performed so well in the lead-in events, the heats and the semi-finals.

All athletes too expect to do their best. Those competitors that have done well at national and international events in the years and months before the Olympics will always have immense hopes for their Olympic experience. They will inevitably expect that to continue when they come to the once in four year event that is the Olympic Games. Let’s face it, with the event being that rare and the effort needed just to be able to participate in such a high level of sport being above and beyond 99.9% of the population our athletes are bound to break down to some degree if they don’t live up to their high hopes.

Truth be told, no one group is putting expectations on our Olympians above and beyond any other group. Australian’s are generally putting some level of hopes on our athletes based on past performances and the media hype. Are the media wrong in saying “hey, they’ve performed very well, they’re a great chance of a gold medal”? No. Our participants themselves are also responsible for the strain that they put on themselves knowing full well what is required and what might happen in their events.

Therefore, it seems all parties are in some part to blame for the expectations put on our athletes including in large part the athletes themselves. Much of the expectation is based on very impressive past experiences. How we as viewers and the media respond to performances which don’t live up to expectations, well that’s a different story entirely.

Lessons in Reforming Education: Dealing With Disadvantage and Unintended Policy Consequences

Education is by far the most important part of our lives, particularly given the competitive world that we live in. So it immediately follows that a strong education system that gives every citizen equal opportunity to fully participate in and the opportunity to succeed is a prerequisite for a strong, healthy and prosperous society.

But alas equal opportunity in education and how the broader education system operates is something that needs much work in civilised society like Australia. Education in recent days and months has been firmly back in the spotlight, as it always should be with such an essential area of public policy development and transformation.

First it was the Gonski Review by eminent businessperson David Gonski which called for a significant  further injection of funds into the education system.

Then, earlier this week, Christopher Pyne the Shadow Education Minister in the federal opposition made somewhat of a foray into the education policy debate, outlining some key ideas that would go forward as Coalition policy in the area. Most notably this included performance pay for teachers, greater local autonomy for schools and the ability to move under-performing teachers out of the sector.

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that all politicians, regardless of political colour do at least try to attack the issue of education with sincerity and a commitment to bettering the learning experience of our young minds. Both sides of politics may come at this area of policy from different ideological directions but it is very hard to say that either side want poor outcomes for some and continued good outcomes for those who do not endure disadvantage.

Education policy is a very hard area and there are no easy solutions or proverbial silver bullets. But of course, all policies, no matter how sound, have unintended consequences. The key is looking for the best outcome for all as far as opportunity and support goes and then trusting in the individual students to do their best, though ultimately, many will prevail, but others will not.

First to the Gonski review of education. The major recommendation from this report was that the government inject a further $5 billion into the education system. It proposed assisting students of all types, from those who come from privilege, to those who experience major disadvantage which can have a major impact on educational outcomes.

In particular, the detailed recommendations called on the Gillard Government to commit to “loading” payments for schools to attract and support children that come from a life of disadvantage, including importantly, extra funding for schools to cater for students with a disability.

As yet the Prime Minister has not committed to a full implementation of the Gonski recommendations, but Julia Gillard has committed to funding all schools regardless of need and her government are working toward legislation to deal with education which will be released in the coming months.

It is essential for equality of opportunity that, at the very least the ALP Government commit to fully funding loading payments for students with a disability and those from other lower socioeconomic groups. This is one part of the policy puzzle that simply has to be implemented by the government and without delay.

On Monday, the Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne journeyed into the education debate with a focus on how to deal with the teaching profession, class sizes and giving local schools more autonomy.

The Opposition Education spokesperson focused his comments particularly on the teaching profession, advocating for performance pay and removing poorly performing teachers from the profession.

Performance pay for improved outcomes rather than for overall achievement would be the most appropriate way to reward strong teaching efforts from our education professionals. It is simply impractical to expect that all students, regardless of background and circumstance are automatically going to succeed and excel because they had access to strong teachers.

Similarly, removing teachers from the profession who are “under-performing” is also a problematic equation. For the same reason that performance pay should be based on improvements rather than broad excellence it is impossible to say in all cases that “bad teaching” is responsible for poor outcomes in educational experiences. At some point it comes down to the individual circumstances and at times want of the students.

On class sizes Mr Pyne asserted that smaller class sizes do not automatically lead to better results and this is somewhat true. Again, outcomes are still sometimes down to reasons beyond the control of individual teachers in the system. On the other hand, smaller class sizes do allow for greater teacher concentration on individual students and this is certainly a positive that must not be overlooked.

Greater school autonomy regarding staff and budget arrangements would be a big plus for schools around the country. We have to get away from the idea that bureaucrats and politicians in our capital cities know the best way of dealing with all staffing and budget requirements of all schools under their control. Many frankly wouldn’t have too much of a clue of the local and school specific issues facing every single school under their purview and a much higher usage of local knowledge and experience in the mix is essential.

The policy debate is now out there, our politicians now need to get on with the job of plugging the gaps in the education system, particularly around disadvantage. Our legislators must also be mindful of the ways in which they go about reforming the sector from whichever political standpoint they embark upon the policy process from.

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