CHASING THOSE 5 RINGS
In 2004, after spending 15 years following the black line, chasing an Olympic Dream, it was time to hang up the goggles and cap. I had been lucky to represent my country a number of times and felt as though I had gone as far as I could as an athlete – however it was extremely difficult to walk away from the pursuit of those 5 rings.
y mentor and coach at the time offered me an assistant coaching role, which perfectly complimented my busy university timetable. I was lucky to assist the Head Coach in developing a number of great athletes, who would go on to represent Australia at the highest level (including the Olympics).
I had never planned on being a coach, however, the feeling I got when seeing my junior athletes achieve a personal best, knowing that you had guided them to that moment, had me hooked. It also dawned on me that maybe MY own personal pursuit of the Olympic Dream wasn’t over – maybe I can coach my way to those 5 rings?
In 2008, I was appointed as Director of Swimming at Brisbane Grammar School, a prestigious boys school in central Brisbane. As there was no swimming club, I was simply charged with the delivery of aquatic exercise prescription to 80 or so Year 8-12 students for the duration of the “GPS school swimming season”.
After a successful GPS School Swimming season, I needed to quickly think of a way to entice the boys to continue swimming – as most boys at this time, historically, would take up another extra-curricular activity, e.g. cricket, volleyball or football. I approached McDonalds, requested 500 Big Mac vouchers, and promised the students one free burger if they turned up to training each week. The initiative brought the boys through the door, however it was now about creating a positive and competitive environment, whereby the students would no longer need the extra incentive to bring them back.
I had never planned on being a coach, however, the feeling I got when seeing my junior athletes achieve a personal best, knowing that you had guided them to that moment, had me hooked.
After settling in at Brisbane Grammar and implementing a number of favourable initiatives, I submitted a proposal to the school, giving voice to my interest in establishing a swimming club, which was successful and now known as BGS Swimming. To grow the club in the first instance, I approached the local state schools, citing the world-class facilities Brisbane Grammar School has to offer, including an indoor 50m and 25m pool as well as a gymnastics hall and fully equipped strength and conditioning gym. We also opened the doors to siblings and parents of students who were keen to train. The program gathered momentum as the number of swimmers increased, which resulted in significant growth from 2011-2014.
I was really fortunate in that I effectively managed to identify a couple of good swimmers from those peripheral schools. One was Minna Atherton, who recently finished third in the backstroke at the 2016 Hancock Prospecting Australian Championships, narrowly missing out on Australian team selection for the Rio Olympics by 0.2 seconds. At only 15 years of age, she is also the current World Junior Record Holder in the 100m and 200m Backstroke and clearly has a good future ahead of her.
As the number of swimmers increased and the calibre of athlete continued to improve, it was obvious that the “one man show” was becoming inefficient. I started to develop great relationships with a variety of professionals in the local area. These professionals helped form what is now known as the “BGS Swimming Health Professional Network”, which include a sports physician, biomechanist, physiologist, nutritionist; several strength and conditioning coaches; several physiotherapists and a yoga instructor; all of whom provide athletic development support to the swimmers and fundamentally to the BGS Swimming program as a whole.
In 2010, we had 4 athletes compete at the National Age Championships, and by 2014 this had grown to 15 competitors. The club program continued to progress markedly and by 2015, with a couple of extra coaches on board, we sent 22 athletes to the National Age Championships.
In May 2015, Emily Seebohm, an extremely successful backstroke swimmer and two-time Olympian, asked if I would coach her, as her previous coach, Matt Brown, was relocating to Victoria. I was, and remain, incredibly humbled to have been asked to take responsibility of such an amazing athlete.
With elite athletes like Emily Seebohm, scenarios both unexpected and challenging presented themselves. I was already somewhat busy, but when you add Emily Seebohm to the mix, I instantaneously jumped from approximately 17 points of contact to 30 stakeholders, some of whom are actually groups of stakeholders! All of these stakeholders impose management at various levels of the process, resulting in additional emails, extra phone calls, and more dialogue focusing specifically on the pathway to the Olympic Games and the success of Emily. Emily is an extremely successful athlete so it is essential to be able to maintain her focus, discipline and energy. To do this, both Emily and myself need these people who construct the support around her, to maintain her rigorous training, other obligations and continued success.
In addition to the stakeholders, we have her Mum and Dad, who are fantastic and unreservedly supportive of what we are doing within the program. You then have to add the boyfriend, the manager and external media – which can often be unpredictable. We also have SAL Media, who are more protective and predictable but necessitate management. Obviously, we also add the many sponsors that want Emily’s time, my time, pool time, and club time to promote their brand. I have correspondingly been exposed to the professionals who regulate and expedite the budget for major event preparation (e.g. Olympic Games) and trips to competitions. Preparing the budgets takes time and research.
I have been extremely fortunate to have great mentors and support within Swimming Australia, including Jacco Verhaeren (National Team Head Coach), Wayne Lomas (High Performance Manager) and John Bertrand (SAL President).
The most challenging aspect for me has been maintaining the responsibilities of my role as Director of Swimming at Brisbane Grammar School, coupled with everything related to running the BGS Swimming Club, whilst also taking on all of the aforementioned layers of coaching several world-class athletes.
All of this is positive, but it can be very daunting when you haven’t dealt with it before. I have needed to rapidly improve my communication skills, and develop new and efficient ways to utilise the support people around me. Swimming Australia have been fantastic in making me feel welcome, coupled with acknowledging my program by providing the immense number of support structures associated with coaching at a high performance level, but it is a complex process to know how to utilise and manage the pathways. Sometimes, as coaches, ego can obstruct the holistic vision but I have learnt quickly that you have to let that go a little and allow the professionals around you to maximise the potential of the athlete and their performance.
Elite coaching is about productive compartmentalising and making the most of the moment!
The 2016 Australian Olympic Trials concluded in April, with Australia sending a strong team of 34 athletes and 10 coaches. The Australian Swimming Team has capped 121 coaches with the honour of representing Australia at the highest level.
On Saturday 7 May, 2016, I was announced as Australian Team coach number 122, heading to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games – I finally got those 5 rings.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!