SOMETHING TO LEARN FROM THE RUSSIANS
[This article was previously published as: Something to learn from the Russians. New South Wales Swimmer, 10(1), 7-11. Its content is still pertinent today and should be considered in matters confronting Carlile Organization coaches.]
At the recent Barcelona Olympic Games, swimmers from the CIS, formerly the USSR, won more gold medals than at any other time in their history of the sport. That achievement occurred against a backdrop of national turmoil, disruption of sporting support and experiences, and an uncertain future for athletes. The national climate of the unified countries was one that should have caused athletes to perform poorly at Barcelona. However, that did not occur in swimming. Some reasons for their outstanding achievements have direct application to Australian swimming.
Timur Absaliamov (1992) presented a description of the last two decades of swimming organization and development in the USSR at a Mexican coaching forum. He most recently was director of the Integrated Scientific Group for all sports, and formerly from 1975-80, in the same position for swimming. Some of the major points that were discussed and their relevance to Australian swimming are presented below.
Russian swimming went through two distinct stages of organization. From the early 1970s until the latter 1980s, the sport was very centralized. Swimmers lived and trained at central sites under assigned coaches. Achievers were plucked from the environment that nurtured their development and placed in a technically dedicated situation. The control of the total swimming program was divided between the chief coach and a scientist as deputy chief coach. The impact and involvement of science was substantial. The type of scientists in the support services were extensive and included pedagogues, anthropometrists, physiologists, biomechanicians, psychologists, doctors, and nutritionists. This is the first implication for Australian swimming.
The second important feature is that decisions concerning the program prescription for athletes were not the sole province of a single individual. It was a democratic process involving the advice of many individuals focused on improving each swimmer. That contrasts with the singular focus of improving a "program" or "team," something which, in time, decreases the emphasis on individual program prescription, one of the most pervading requirements for modern sporting success. That decision-making structure provokes the second implication for Australian swimming.
The centralized Russian situation required year-round attention from the "system." It provided luxurious training, competitive, and living circumstances. However, the situation eventually became so bent on controlling the athletes, that individuals were left with little self-determination. Competitively, Russian swimmers were improving. However, eventually the oppressive climate caused athletes to reject the centralized experience even though the system was producing results.
When nations want to improve sporting performances from a very mediocre level, to alter the existing organizational inertia it is often necessary to centralize a system to bring things under control and to set programs in motion. Quick and impressive successes can be achieved with such a marked reorientation of organization and services. That is what happened with Russian swimming. It also happened in Canada in the 1970s, and in Australia in the early 1980s with the opening of the Australian Institute of Sport. However, because centralized organization is initially successful and works as a stimulus or catalyst for improvements in the rest of the country, does not mean that it will always serve that function. In one sense, it can be said to be a form of shock treatment for a country's sport. In time, centralized control has to yield to some decentralization to accommodate individual needs that will be superimposed on the improved states generated by centralized programmatic thrusts.
A failure to decentralize to some extent will have suppressive effects on sports development. To a large extent that is what has happened in Canada. In the 1970s there was a big central thrust from the government that situated all the sport organizations in Ottawa. Canada improved dramatically over a short period of time. Since those governmental institutions still largely remain, and there has been a resistance to decentralize, Canadian sport in general has declined on the international scene. There are one or two sports that have excelled in Canada (e.g., rowing) but more which have declined markedly since the late 1970s and very early 1980s (e.g., swimming).
In the case of Australian swimming and sport, the centralization that was concretely depicted by the edifices of the AIS had a notable impact on national sporting performances. Don Talbot's original efforts as the first Director of the AIS prodded Australian sport to "wake-up" and quickly contributed to dramatic results at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1992. The Federal government had done things very much better than the states. However, the federal government still wants to hold the AIS in place, despite the fact that its products are not as good as they were nor are athletes as interested in buying into its scholarship scheme.
What does this digression have to do with Russian swimming? For the Russian athletes undergoing centralized training, a major motivation became going home, rather than winning international events. Fewer and fewer club coaches wanted to give their best effort to coaching athletes to only have them whisked off to be coached by the national team staff. There became an increasing resistance of talented athletes wanting to join the national team. These are symptoms that exist in Australian swimming with regard to participating in AIS programs.
There was another disturbing development in Russia that is analogous to what is happening in Australia. The national team staff came to view the "program" or "organization" as being more important than individual athletes. Swimmers were used solely as a means of promoting the "team." Absaliamov expressed this as follows:
". . . the "brigade" coaches ceased to value the individual swimmer, to look after him or her, and try to find the most suitable exercises and training methods. Something goes wrong with a swimmer kick him out of the team and get a new one to replace him. . . . the beautiful expensive machine, which had churned out victories and records, began to skid." (p. 5)
The head of the Russian program (Serguei Vaitsekhovsky) found it difficult to concede central control and his habitual method of coaching, and resigned as chief coach.
This situation has many parallels with Australian swimming. The current adversarial relationships between many coaches and the AIS, state sports academies and institutes and the AIS, and the grouping of the AIS swimming cadre into an "us" phenomenon indicate a similar set of circumstances. It could be asserted that the national team, and in particular the AIS, has lost sight of individual concerns in Australian swimming and focuses more on programs and institutions, the same things which lead to the downfall of centralized Russian swimming.
The Russians did not completely disband central services. They constructed a hybrid program that emphasized decentralized coaching and swimmer development with periodic centralized camps and scientific services. Their actions were almost identical to the proposals by Australian swimming coaches with regard to the funding of individual swimmers and the change in role of the AIS to being a service provider as opposed to being the forced center of Australian swimming.
The main features of Russian decentralization were as follows.
Those actions are very much akin to what has been proposed and is being discussed by Australian swimming coaches. Similar actions would be a great alteration in course for the "centralist" Australian Sports Commission and its showcase, the Australian Institute of Sport.
For the Russians, the change did not come easily. The national team did not excel in Madrid, Seoul, or Perth. But at the grass roots level "many clubs had got firmly on their feet, a new generation of coaches, who could work on their own and were confident of themselves and their charges, had grown" (p. 5). The situation was further complicated by declining state subsidies but not only did the decentralized system survive, outstanding results emerged at the 1991 European Championships and Barcelona.
Decentralization also facilitated more athletes being subsidized than was possible under the residential centralized system. If a coach was very successful, he/she could make decisions without interference and if necessary, could take the athlete(s) completely to the Olympic Games.
The similarities between the Russian events and what is starting to stir in Australia are remarkable. From a decentralist point-of-view, the proposed Australian actions are justified because of the analogy with Russian swimming history. The centralists will want to hold onto their course because of inertia and vested power. But what has to be decided is what is best for Australian swimmers, not swimming.
The basic tenet of coaching ethics is that a coach should act in the best interests of each swimmer. When a choice has to be made, the concerns for the individual are more important than those of an institution or organization. That is why Australian swimming has to concern itself with what is best for Australian swimmers, not its own interests.
The groundswell for change in Australian swimming is rising. Those in the coaching profession were not that overly impressed with what happened and was achieved by Australian swimmers at Barcelona. Perhaps the time for change has arrived. The Russian experience is a good model to consider, for after its changes were in place and despite horrendous social problems and negative forces, it produced its best swimming results of all time. It would be nice for Australia to produce similar accomplishments.
Absaliamov, T. (1992). Training in the former USSR. American Swimming, Oct-Nov, 4-11.
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