On his most recent trip out to the west coast to attend the Mel Zajac Jr. International SwimSwam caught up with John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director, to discuss his first few months on the job.
“It has been really good, obviously a lot of things to get to grips with,” said Atkinson. “We are looking at to how we can improve things moving forward and are currently doing a lot of different reviews.”
One of the main areas of examination has been the country’s two National Training Centres (Vancouver and Montreal) and three Swimming Academies (Victoria, Calgary and Toronto). When looking at the structure of these high performance environments Atkinson can see how the country’s size and diversity has impacted how these different programs operate, “In terms of the size of the country and how different partners are all involved, we may have five centres, but they are all structured differently for the uniqueness of the areas needs.”
“I think we have inherited a situation that is very, very well set up, but we have to five separate entities and Swimming Canada has to look at how we can maximize what they offer for all the athletes in Canada and how we can get the best result from them.”
“My job as High Performance Director is to remove road blocks, to remove issues so that coaches can focus on coaching athletes”
“I think we have to work with the coaches within the centres to provide support to them. My job as High Performance Director is to remove road blocks, to remove issues so that coaches can focus on coaching athletes and I think that my role will be to get involved in the management side of how they are set up, what they provide, how we can have some consistency across Canada with the centres that we have.”
Atkinson described his vision of an optimal training environment, “A national centre would be something like a one stop shop where you have the training space, the lanes, the right mix of long course and short course training, strength and conditioning facilities and you have the IST (Integraded Sports Teams) to support the athletes in their training goals and you have all of this in one area.”
“You are truly at a centre of excel where everything you do is geared towards performing at the highest level where the coach and athlete can work together to do what they need to do without any distractions.”
“That is what we try to create at a training camp when we go away with a team, but trying to create that in a daily training regime is something that I think we aspire to get to.”
After getting a chance to watch the country’s best swimmers compete at the World Championships Trials in April Atkinson feels that one area that Canadian swimmers will have to develop is there ability to perform their best swims in heats, because for many athletes they will need to be at their best in the preliminaries to get a shot at swimming in the semi-finals and finals.
“We have to look at the whole culture of our swimming competitions and how seriously athletes and coaches take each performance, even if they are in heavy training,” said Atkinson.
“It is about the effort, the application and the mental toughness that they put into that that is going to actually put them in a better situation when they get to the championships to perform in the heats swims.”
“I think there are things you can do in swim meets that put more emphasis on heats swimming, but it is the approach of the coach and the athlete.”
He feels that one thing athletes and coaches can do is develop specific routines that allow them to be at their best, “What time do I need to get up? Do I need to get up and have a walk in the morning before I have breakfast or have breakfast and than have a walk to get myself awake and in the right zone before arriving at the pool for the heats swims and than rehearsing that strategy while you are in other meets during the year so that you are doing things to prepare you for when you are getting to the major championships.”
“There are a lot of different ways. There is no one way that will provide a definite answer so it is doing lots of different things to get that point.”
“We have some really talented and world class coaches in Canada and what we have to do is provide the right environment for them to coach.”
Atkinson sees coaching as one of the strengths of Canadian swimming, “We have some really talented and world class coaches in Canada and what we have to do is provide the right environment for them to coach.”
“Perhaps in the future we look at developing a select group of younger coaches who we can give opportunities, exposure and experience to and than those younger coaches can work with our more established international coaches. We can develop the next band of coaches whilst we also develop our next band of athletes.”
And when it comes to that next band of athletes he is very optimistic about the future of Canadian swimming and how Swimming Canada can help ensure that the next generation swimmers can get what they need to develop into successful senior athletes, “I think we have a good base,” said Atkinson. “I think there are areas we need to look at. One of the things we are going to embark to do is look at junior themes. Coming up with maybe 6-10 themes for coaches of junior athletes, that we are going to get out to every coach and club program in Canada.”
“It might be technical skills, it might be under water fly kicking, it could be types of training that junior athletes need to do. Going hand and hand with that is looking at the age group athletes, the key things that they need to be doing in their workouts on a daily basis.”
“That would help them to build the base of our junior and age group programs.”
“When you look at the Canadian Age Groups and the results at the World Youths and the Pan Pac Juniors Canada has done quite well in recent years and I think that there are talented swimmers out there, we need to have an earlier involvement with their development. Not waiting until they are 18, if you are waiting until they are 18 you miss that window of opportunity of some events.”
“We have to be more refined with how we find our junior athletes, what we do with them and how we can do things smarter than we have before.”
“My experience tells me if you can find the right athletes and work with them, their parents and their coaches you have a better chance of them making the transition through to being a senior athlete. It is about identifying them working with them but also letting them know what the pathway is for them in Canada.”
“It is a matter of making sure that those who can rise to the top do.”
In the end he knows that his job as the High Performance Director is to ensure that Canadian athletes achieve success at the highest level and that is what he plans to do.
“From my perspective as a High Performance Director the depth is important however it is a matter of making sure that those who can rise to the top do and my focus will be on finding where they are whether that be a university program a club program or a centre and working with them and there coaches to get them to the top eight in the world level or the medal level or whatever it might be in the future.”