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Business, Olympic Edition The Olympics are not a Utopia

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By: Michael Bohl •  4 years ago •  

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WITH AN OLYMPIC GAMES, THERE ARE MANY DISTRACTIONS. I WASN’T REALLY PREPARED FOR THESE WHEN I WENT TO MY FIRST OLYMPICS IN BARCELONA, AT 29 YEARS OF AGE. I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. IT’S AN ENORMOUS EVENT. IN THE VILLAGE, THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF ATHLETES FROM ALL DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES OF SPORT, ALL DIFFERENT SHAPES AND SIZES. IT’S AMAZING TO SEE THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE THAT ARE THERE.

POTENTIAL DISTRACTIONS

The food hall is open 24 hours a day, which can be a distraction for people who like to eat a lot, which can then also be detrimental to their performance. There are a lot of activities going on all across the day, such as flag-raising ceremonies, bowling alleys, games rooms, pool tables, so young people who are on their first team want to be part of everything as they’re so excited. All these things can zap their focus and take the energy away from them. What we have to try to do, as coaches, is let them go for the first few days. Usually we arrive at the Olympic Village the week before, so the first two days we let them roam around, and then start to focus after that.

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We are very lucky in Australia with our championship and state events where the warm up pool is very structured with specific pace lanes and so on. When you go to an Olympic Games or a World Championships, the warm up pool and lanes are not policed well, so when you try to do pace work, you might have to weave around 5 or 6 people! Swimmers who have been very spoilt in Australia with their own lane, really struggle to come to terms with other people getting in their road and can struggle with the choppy water. What we now tend to do in summer, is have a warm up with 15 people and only two lanes once a week or every two weeks. These very crowded conditions are what they’ll experience in a World Championships. You need to keep your athletes calm and expecting this when they come in, otherwise it can be a distraction.

The general noise is just incredible. You find that quite a lot of people don’t perform at their best at an Olympics. Many go for the trip and the experience of the Olympic Village, and don’t take it seriously. They are the ones making noise until 1 or 2am. This time, we’re very aware of when the finals will be swum, at 10pm through to 12am. By the time some of these people have swum, they won’t be in bed until the early hours of the morning. It can be a big distraction when the swimmers aren’t used to it. Our state and national finals are usually around 7pm, so staying up the extra hours can be difficult to cope with, unless you’re used to working through these strategies with your athletes.

The swimmers must be very well-versed to handle any situation that crops up. You always try to prepare for the best, but it’s always the worst things that happen. Maddie Wilson, who won a silver medal at the World Championships last year, ran into the swimmer in front of her while warming up and split the webbing of her finger open just 45-50 minutes prior to her race. I had to keep her calm on the spot. Things can and do go wrong!

IT’S NOT A UTOPIA

The Olympics is not Utopia. My expectation on my first was that we would be moving into the Sheraton Hotel with comfy beds and soft fluffy pillows, but as we now know, there are actually usually 6 people to an apartment, so it can get very cramped. In the food halls, you have to line up for food for sometimes 10-15 minutes, and you have to put your dishes away at the end of every meal. There is also a lot of extra walking – from your apartment, to the food hall, to the bus stop to get to the pool. Our swimmers are used to parking their car at the pool and walking the odd 50m inside. So the kids end up walking an extra 3-4km each day which you need to prepare for.

DEALING WITH THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION

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As coaches, we are trying to prepare our swimmers to handle all the expectations that will be heaped on the team. Swimming is Australia’s No.1 Olympic sport, and there are media expectations and media requirements for all the athletes, so the kids need to be focused on process rather than the medals. You have to shield them from too much results-related pressure.

The AOC has expectations. They’re funding Swimming Australia’s athletes and coaches quite significantly, and there are high expectations on the team to deliver good results at Rio. Swimming Australia have laid out a great plan for us, and we, as coaches, are responsible for delivering this plan. Families also put in a lot of effort and monetary investment into the swimmers, so of course the swimmers do not want to let their families down when they’re competing. These are all factors that are very hard to control. As a coach, I’m trying to make the swimmers aware of this and at the end of every season, we have a group meeting with all the swimmers and then meet with each individually.

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Media expectations for each swimmer will be different, so I’m able to talk through specifically with each of them. As coaches, we have our own expectations, and then of course there’s the expectations the swimmers place on themselves as well. As a coach, you need to understand the individuality of the swimmers in your program to get the best results and ensure they cope.

CREATING THE RACE PROGRAM

In coaching and planning for the lead up, what I try to do is break my season up into 3 parts. I come up with a training plan for each part and a racing plan that leads up to a big competition such as the Short Course Championships, State Championships or National Championships. Swimmers can train well, but you can’t undersell how important racing fitness is. If we go back 4 years, that was one of the mistakes we made for London. We only had one competition in the winter at which the London swimmers could compete, which had an outbreak of whooping cough. Hindsight is a great thing, but perhaps we should have moved the event to Melbourne or Sydney, or cancelled it entirely. Unfortunately, it meant that the swimmers were underdone in terms of racing fitness coming in to the Olympics.

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When you go to the Olympic Games, you can have your kids really conditioned, but in the end they’re racing against others from all over the world who perhaps they haven’t raced before, which can put them off their race. By going to more races, against different people, it benefits and prepares the swimmers. I expect that at the first pre-meet for Rio, they will be a bit rusty. They will get to a pretty good level prior, and then fine tune their performance with race practice. All the kids are individuals, and we try to get them to perform in-season best times in the first meet, and then perhaps under that at the next. We are taking our kids to the Santa Clara meet prior to Rio, which is to get them travelling eastwards early. They will have to come to terms with the jet lag and get over it, and we may have to do sleep strategy work with some athletes who are used to getting up very early. It also has the obvious benefits of competition.

The way I approach every swimmer that I coach, is that I’m trying to take them from September to the following September to a better place. Not simply marking time, not repeating performances, but showing an improvement. We want to advance their strength and flexibility, their consistency and how hard they work from one session to the next. They should have a great attitude and be enthusiastic. Bad moods affect training and the atmosphere of the whole team. We don’t always make overall improvements, but it’s what we aim for.

Bill Sweetenham and Laurie Lawrence were my old swim coaches and had a huge influence on both my swimming and coaching. Both taught me many lessons, which I feel has stood me in really good stead over the last 28 years of coaching. If you weren’t tough, you didn’t survive in their programs! When I was swimming with Bill, one of the best things he taught me was that everyday there will be people out there who will try to put you off your game. Bill used to say to us, “You need to have the mindset that no one out there is good enough to put you off.” It’s the mindset that successful athletes have coming into an Olympic Games, and a good life lesson at that.

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