(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the club)

Opinion Matters

The Packaged Deal

I enjoyed sport when I was at school and in the summer term always loved doing athletics (track and field to any American readers) - learning how to throw the javelin, put the shot and do the Straddle (Dick Fosbury had yet to reveal his Olympic winning technique at the time and we only had a sand-pit in any case). Well, I say I loved doing athletics but that is not strictly true for at some point that enjoyment disappeared rather abruptly. The Amateur Athletic Association, the sport's governing body, was trying to find ways to engage the interest of more youngsters in their sport, as well as raising money for their own coffers in pre-lottery funding days. What they came up with was the now discontinued Five Star Award Scheme.

In the days when child-centred education was not unfairly ridiculed, this new badge scheme placed an emphasis on indirect competition rather than direct competition between individuals, with children, irrespective of their ability and level of performance, being encouraged to try to beat their own best performances in a variety of individual events which when combined together resulted in an appropriate level of acknowledgement in the form of a Star Award. No-one came last (though some did get "better" stars than others), everyone received some recognition, and the AAA made some money. So what was the problem? Well, it was a package - literally. It arrived in a package with tables of performance levels equating to each event and charts allowing teachers to fill in everyone's name and record their performances at each lesson. Other posters for the notice-board explained and illustrated each event, how to do it, and most importantly how to measure it. I am led to believe it was prodigiously successful but I can safely say, that that wasn't the case at my school, nor, I suspect, in a great many others.

What happened was that overnight the teaching of athletics stopped and was replaced by the measurement of athletics instead. The appeal to the teacher was that they no longer had to prepare their lessons the same way as they used to - the package did everything for them. Instead of practicing a particular technique, receiving feedback and guidance and then trying our best to act upon it and improve our personal skill level, we spent most of our new lessons wandering around with tape measures and pencils and bits of paper. Yes, we completed a minimal number of attempts at a variety of events each lesson but the rest of the time was spent measuring what our classmates did. We may have argued about the accuracy of where the discus landed or exactly when someone crossed the line, but at the end of each lesson the charts were carefully filled in and returned to the notice-board with all our revised performances publicly displayed. And this routine became our new athletics lesson.

A few kids (mainly the ones who got a Five Star Award) liked it but the rest of us quickly lost interest and ceased to look forward to athletics after that. So what was the appeal, why did our teacher instigate what we perceived as such a misguided concept? My guess is that just like a holiday package the attraction was its convenience and the lack of the need to do any planning or preparation, the lack of having to make any effort. Plus of course that pat on the back from the Headmaster for managing to get so many boys to such a "high" standard (the truth of the matter is that even my grannie at the time could have got a Two Star Award). But the Head didn't know any better and for the PE teacher it was great. No more preparation, no more thought - like the package holiday, it was all done for you. Enjoy.

Packaged deals have this inherent characteristic appeal. The way to do the job has already been completed: you don't need to think too much (in fact, often it's better not to), you don't even need to know particularly much about the subject area - just accept whatever rationale is on offer, follow the instructions, and get on with it. Instant "success". What could be more straightforward? And that's exactly what Scottish swimming has done for the past umpteen years in the way it has mindlessly pursued Long Term Athlete Development - a package of extraordinary power and influence considering it was more or less plucked out of the air, without any scientific support then... or since, but with all the attractions of a package. A great many of us really like them: they offer instant, ready-made solutions, whether its the next fad diet or next exercise craze, and they're relatively simple to adopt. If the next packaged deal doesn't come along though there is the additional complication of people becoming entrenched in their beliefs. This is exactly what has happened as far as LTAD is concerned and it will now take some undeniable and continuous period of failure or a major new package to stand any chance of finally displacing it.

With the current success of Michael Andrews in the United States, however, that time might fast be approaching and the packaged deal that could be responsible for mortally wounding LTAD may be the bold approach that has given rise to this young swimming phenomenon, that of Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT). After decades of frustration in what are the several wildernesses of various belief-based sports including swimming, Professor Brent Rushall of San Diego State University finally realised the way forward: to present his evidence-based approach to swimming training* as a package. Et viola! It's finally catching on but my fear is that because it is a package, it will eventually be adopted by the mass of coaches in this country in the same blind way they adopted LTAD and what we will see is a renewed stifling of further refinements and developments in approaches to training. Professor Rushall has not helped in this respect with a number of ill-considered, closed statements suggesting that USRPT represents the basis for all race-pace training. Full stop. So to avoid this blind acceptance and the long-term consequences that that threatens, the few voices that exist outside the suffocating embrace of LTAD need to act now, to widen the discussion of USRPT at every opportunity - not to undermine its undeniable value as a scientifically informed approach to training but to prevent it becoming the only approach to training. Over the past 20 years we really have had enough of that already...

* Rushall, Brent S. (2014) Swimming Energy Training in the 21st Century: The Justification for Radical Changes. 2nd ed. Swimming Science Bulletin, 39, http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/energy39.pdf.


Johnstone Macpherson-Stewart