It has now been just over a year since John Atkinson was hired as Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director, at the time he had a simple goal, improving the performance and direction of the program.
The first major international competition after his appointment was the World Championships in Barcelona. At that meet the Canadians won four medals made 11 finals, 10 in Olympic events. They improved on their Olympic performance, two medals and seven finals, but were a bit off of their results from the 2011 World Championships, four medals and 13 finals.
But significant changes focusing on the long term development of the country’s performance does not usually produce immediate results. One of Atkinson’s main focuses over the last year has to put a system in place where Swimming Canada is doing a better job of developing talented young athletes.
Once athletes are identified on a matrix that Swimming Canada has developed to measure whether swimmers are the path to international success or not, Atkinson and National Junior Coach Ken McKinnon meet with the parents, athletes and coaches. They discuss where the swimmer is at the currently, what their exact improvement rate has been and what it needs to be to reach the finals and the podium in international competition.
“We have had 16 of these meetings so far,” Atkinson told SwimSwam. “I think the important thing is that Swimming Canada recognizes who is on track in the junior ranks and nurture them rather than letting them go on their own.”
“We identify who they are in the critical points in their development; 16,17 and 18. Address where we think they need to improve in their performances, in their lifestyle, in their nutrition, etc…”
“This conversation is so we just don’t leave it to chance.”
When asked who are some of the athletes that he was excited to watch at the upcoming trials Atkinson said there were many, but a few of the specific names he mentioned were Emily Overholt, Sydney Pickrem, Evan White, Luck Reilly and Teddy Kalp, all athletes whose performances and improvement rate are on track for bright futures.
These athletes are on a path to ‘high performance’ something that Atkinson has been working on have a clear definition of, “Those terms are used quite liberally,” said Atkinson.
“‘High performance’ from a Swimming Canada perspective is someone who is top eight in the world and striving to be on the podium.”
“Being the best in Canada is an achievement, however we are about ‘high performance’. You pursue being the best in the world by striving for excellence through your daily life.”
He feels that the clarity around the definition and what the organization is striving for has been embraced by the swimming community, “In meetings I have had everyone understands where we are heading and as a nation what we are trying to achieve.”
“Sport Canada’s and Swimming Canada’s investment has to be driven by ‘high performance’.”
The clarity in his message and the systems that he is putting in place has been something that some of the country’s top coaches have appreciated and feel will make swimming in Canada a lot stronger, “John’s strength is that he is good at systems and is organizationally sound,” Tom Johnson, Head Coach of the National Swim Centre in Vancouver told SwimSwam.
“There is a standardization of the approach that is coming down the pipeline in respect to the operation of the centres and the structure of things such as the staging of teams. Things are being made more clear.”
National Team Head Coach Randy Bennett also agrees that Atkinson has been great at communicating and asking for input, “I have been part of more discussions, about moving the country in a direction that reflects what the rest of the world has done, at this point than any other time in my career.”
Earlier in his tenure Atkinson told SwimSwam that he wanted to address how coaches were using in season competitions and making sure that there was a unified focus, “I think there are a number of coaches that are taking this on board,” said Atkinson.
“They have been racing mid cycle competitions where they are not rested and not shaved and the trials are their first peak meet of the year.”
This is something that Johnson has seen and feels could be a very positive move, “Definitely a position has been taken in the prioritization of competitions and focus,” said Johnson.
“There were a lot of people doing their own thing, getting ready for juniors or Easterns and Westerns. There has been some clarity brought to bare that yes you can get ready for those types of things, but you have to be ready when it matters most.”
Bennett feels the same way, but points out that the domestic competition schedule needs to be addressed, “It is really hard to evaluate an April trials if people don’t prepare for an April trials,” said Bennett.
“The fact that the country does not have a lot of long course competitions and the short course season ends at the end of February is an issue.”
“I have had to go away in January and February to find long course racing, but I am in a fortunate situation where I have the money and where with all to do that.”
“If we are trying to change that culture you probably have to take a 15 year old and get them used to it before you can worry about making a team.”
There is no question since Atkinson has taken over as High Performance Director he has made changes, it will take time and patience to see what results those changes will create.