Australia, still the only country where second tier swimmers can make the tabloids, continues to wallow in Rio disappointment. There are plenty of well-qualified voices conducting the autopsy. Bill Sweetenham, for one, certainly hasn’t held back (he never does).
Sweetenham, now untied to any specific country and in business for himself, makes a living off of such criticism. The coach whom Sweetenham singled out for praise, St Peters Western coach Michael Bohl, must still work within a system. He has to be more measured.
Both men agree on one thing: the mental preparation of Australian swimmers for the Rio games wasn’t good enough. Sweetenham states that “the psychologists…got it wrong, they gave bad advice”. Bohl gave credit to swimmers like Kyle Chalmers who won gold while recognizing that “you have people that overperform and people that underperform”.
My purpose is not to argue with two extremely accomplished swimming coaches. I’m sure they could talk at length about what needs to be done. Media coverage of Sweetenham has focused heavily on criticism, perhaps because it’s far more entertaining to hear someone “tell it like it is” than offer mundane solutions. Bohl, as a coach on the staff, is naturally in a defensive position.
Bohl can only point to America and the advantages they have in this regard. While it is helpful for Australia to recognize what America did well, it can also be dangerous. Because America is so dominant in swimming, one can extrapolate that everything they did was “right”. Australia did a lot of things really well, and if they set a new standard for mental preparation, they can be stronger than ever in 2020.
Consider for a moment what percentage of sport performance you believe is “mental”. In my career I’ve heard varying estimates of 50-90%. How much time do coaches spend on physically conditioning your average Olympic medalist? 25-30 hours? How much time do coaches spend specifically working on mentally conditioning? Far less than that.
You may object to that argument in the same way another great coach, Matt Kredich does. He states (I’m paraphrasing) that the mental and physical parts of the sport are impossible to separate. He is right.
To that I say, how many coaches are structuring their practices specifically around research based psychological interventions? The swim coaching world is rife with arguments about the proper physical conditioning, and dearly missing discussion about what works for mental preparation.
Likewise, coaches should identify and direct to treatment athletes with mental illness. It is very possible that some athletes in Australia’s that suffered from “nerves” have an anxiety disorder. There are professionals well educated in treatment who can help them.
My colleagues Jeff Grace and Emily Brunemann have done tremendous work on this website to discuss mental illness, and Australia can make huge progress by leading the world in helping their athletes to get treatment.
If Australia wants to thrive in 2020, they have to do more than emulate the success of the US. They must blaze a new trail, and their leadership can do so by engaging the single greatest “room for improvement” area in sport today.
Chris DeSantis is a personal swim coach and consultant. He has an advanced degree in research backed methods for mental preparation. Like his facebook page and email him at [email protected] to book a consultation.