Swimming Canada’s new high performance director John Atkinson, just two days officially into his new role of leading Canada’s best and brightest athletes, is working hard but making few promises thus far.
In his first media presentation since he officially came on board Monday, Atkinson discussed his measures of success beyond just Olympic medals.
“Of course, medals are the end game,” Atkinson said. “But I tell my athletes focus on the smaller things, and the bigger things will take care of themselves.”
This was a recurring theme of Atkinson’s comments: a focus on improvement. He said that he will use this year’s upcoming World Championship Trials in Victoria as a benchmark to see where the athletes have improved since last year’s Olympic Trials. Then he would focus on how to get those athletes better between Trials and the World Championships.
“I really focus on improvement,” Atkinson repeated, which perhaps speaks to his front-line coaching mentality showing through.
Atkinson said that he is also looking at how to get the Canadian Junior World Championship team, whom he noted won 14 medals at the 2011 meet, to perform at the same level at senior World and Olympic Championships.
When asked if the Canadian college system, as compared to the American one that many Canadians have recently taken advantage of, was a big part of that plan, Atkinson said that it would be a matter of pulling, not pushing, athletes to stay home.
“I will never make an athlete do anything that will impede their training. I think it’s a matter of showing what we can do, the proof is in the pudding. I think we have great facilities, and if we can show that we’re getting the job done at our universities and at our training centers, the proof is in the pudding. If we have success and provide opportunities for athletes at home, then athletes will want to stay here.”
Atkinson’s first few weeks in office, both unofficially and officially beginning this week, have been spent on pool decks around Canada and gathering information.
“I have a background in coaching,” Atkinson said, “I think it’s important to go out and see our coaches in their natural environment at their pools and with their athletes…I have some ideas about what it takes to run a successful team and where we need to get, but right now I’m still gathering a lot of information about what we’re doing here.”
Atkinson is avoiding the trap of coming into a new role and making big promises. He would commit to a few items in terms of a plan going forward: one of which is an increased level of direct interaction with athletes.
“I believe that there is more than one way to achieve success in swimming, more than one way to train. There are 34 swimming events, d there’s more than one way to train for them. We’re going to work with our young athletes, their coaches, and their families to make sure we get athletes with the right coaches.”
The other was the idea of creating swimmers that were true athletes. He quoted the great British swimming coach Bill Sweetenham, with whom Atkinson worked for some time, in saying that he “doesn’t want fairweather swimmers.”
Atkinson elaborated with the idea that no matter what is going on outside of the pool, when athletes line up behind the block for that 50 meter race, it’s all the same for everybody. He feels that today’s athletes can perform under any given set of circumstances, and that’s the sort of mentality and physiology that he wanted to develop in Canada’s top swimmers: the ability to perform at any given time and in any given place.
Atkinson and his media director Nathan White concluded with the invitation to continue holding these periodic conversations with the media, and with initial returns showing Atkinson as an up-front, relaxed, and honest conversationalist, so expect continued insight into the changes at Swimming Canada headed toward Barcelona, Rio, and beyond.