Developing coaches key in master plan

Strengthening the national swimming set-up in as many areas as possible is the aim of Australian Stephan Widmer, who is now six months into his role as national swimming head coach and performance director.
Strengthening the national swimming set-up in as many areas as possible is the aim of Australian Stephan Widmer, who is now six months into his role as national swimming head coach and performance director.LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO

Athletes, competitions, support staff, parents also part of Widmer's five-pronged strategy

Theoretical knowledge may be what Stephan Widmer was hired for, but it is insufficient for Singapore's swimmers to break onto the world stage.

Discussing his strategy for elevating standards here, the national swimming head coach and performance director used promising 14-year-old Zachary Tan, who set five Under-14 national records last year, to illustrate his point.

"He is someone who has to learn how to travel, how to go through time zones, how to adapt to different conditions as quickly as possible," Widmer told The Straits Times.

"So we sent him to some (Fina) World Cup events last August because the only way to gain this experience is to go through it. You can't read this stuff out of a book."

Competitions are one of the five areas Widmer identified as part of the master plan he is in the process of implementing, six months into the job. The other four are athletes, coaches, support staff and parents.

Said the 50-year-old: "It's knowhow and belief we have to create. We've got great facilities, the money for the performance side is good, the Government is so supportive, so we have to find a way to improve the people on the ground constantly, to give them the belief."

CREATING A NEW FOCUS

The main thing will be learning to individualise preparations more, so it's about looking at the history of the athlete. What their splits are, what world-class standards look like, what they can handle...

STEPHAN WIDMER, outlining part of his overall strategy for Singapore's swimmers.


HELPFUL DIALOGUE

There's normally a lot of focus on conditioning but, when a kid has a growth spurt in secondary school, he's essentially swimming in a different body every few months.

MARK CHAY, former national swimmer, on the coaches' discussions with Stephan Widmer and SSA technical director Sonya Porter on how to develop swimmers better.

Unlike his predecessors, Widmer's energies are primarily directed at coaching development, with National Training Centre head coach Gary Tan handling the bulk of the day-to-day national team coaching duties.

"The idea is to grow a larger group of better-educated local coaches within the next two to three years, and that's why I'm not working directly with the swimmers," explained the Swiss-born Australian.

He said that coaches would be sorted into four tiers, with the approach differing for each group.

In the top tier, the high-performance coaches who have produced SEA Games medallists or Asian Games finalists will receive the most individual attention and mentoring from Widmer and Singapore Swimming Association technical director Sonya Porter.

"The main thing will be learning to individualise preparations more, so it's about looking at the history of the athlete. What their splits are, what world-class standards look like, what they can handle and then designing sessions and sets that replicate race stresses and pace," said Widmer, who has coached Olympic champions Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones and Jessicah Schipper.

Widmer also plans to identify and fast-track a group of four to six younger coaches.

"What I'm looking for are specialists, specialists in sprinting but also specialists in coaching female swimmers," he said. "Obviously half the swimmers are females, but the higher percentage of coaches is male so we hope to have some talented female coaches join the game and teach us a few things."

The remaining two tiers comprise grassroots coaches at the learn-to-swim and developmental levels, who will be reached primarily through coaches' workshops. This group largely oversees swimmers from six to 12 years of age.

The skills imparted to them will also be different, focusing more on their roles as teachers instead of coaches, Widmer explained.

Former national swimmer and Olympian Mark Chay, who coaches at swimming academy X Lab, is pleased with the progress. He said: "What Stephan and Sonya have done is to create a lot of talk between them and the next generation of local coaches like Gary, Richard (Chng, AquaTech head coach) and Leonard (Tan, National Youth Sports Institute head coach).

"One of the things we've been talking about is how we can develop swimmers' balance and awareness in the water. There's normally a lot of focus on conditioning but, when a kid has a growth spurt in secondary school, he's essentially swimming in a different body every few months."

Widmer aims to organise 25 workshops this year and is looking to add more physiotherapists or sports science professionals with specialised swimming knowledge to the national set-up.

Educating swimmers' parents is important too, as coaches' time with athletes is limited, especially the younger swimmers.

Said Widmer: "We want to guide parents in specific areas like nutrition and sleep, and also keep them informed as to why certain changes happen at different stages of an athlete's development."

Reaching the world stage is only half the journey, he said, citing University of Texas coach Eddie Reese, who guided Joseph Schooling at the Rio Olympics, as a role model with both knowledge and self-belief.

Said Widmer: "Imagine you were Jo's coach then and there's the US team arriving... Would you feel comfortable, confident, that you can handle this no matter what's thrown at you? That's the level of people we have to create within this nation.

"I don't know how many coaches out there will produce a future Olympic medallist, but I hope we can guide them towards it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Developing coaches key in master plan'. Print Edition | Subscribe