Britain Tries the Scientific Approach to Identifying Future World-Beaters -- December 5, 2004
By Craig Lord
LONDON, December 1. THIS morning a bus will pull up outside Loughborough University to drop off a group of the most talented 13 to 16-year-old girls to be fished out of British waters. They will spend the next two days being measured and monitored to find out how their bodies have responded to a pioneering month of altitude training in Mexico and a weekend of racing at the US Open in Texas at their senior international debut.
In eight years’ time, at least one of them, groomed for the moment by the most knowledgeable coaches and sports scientists, may shed tears as the Union Flag is hoisted in her honour on the highest pole at, votes willing, a London Olympic Games. It is, minus the little blue pills, much as East Germany planned it for its own success 30 years ago.
Mention of a medals factory long since shamed is far less likely to rattle Bill Sweetenham, the Great Britain performance director who ran the Mexico camp, than the suggestion of fairytale endings. “It is the last thing on our minds,” he said. “They are talented young people who need nurturing and guiding, but there are no guarantees on a long and complex journey from 12 to a mature athlete of twentysomething.”
Systematic plotting of that journey is a cornerstone of the director’s Smart Track programme, a talent-spotting strategy designed to deliver lasting success. As Sweetenham put it: “Somewhere in Britain there is an Ian Thorpe who may not even know he can swim. We have to find him — and then look after him.”
To that end, the first comprehensive East German-style assessment of young swimmers in Britain is well under way. Of 1,200 swimmers selected earlier in the year, 160 11 to 14-year-olds (plus bemused parents, being consulted to assess their offsprings’ likely growth, and coaches) and 60 15 to 16-year-olds were screened and scrutinised at Loughborough in October. About 100 who showed the most suitable anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, feel for water and ability to learn were deemed “special”. More selections are planned for 2005. “We intend to keep shaking the tree,” Sweetenham said, to find “the right raw materials” such as those in the Mexico squad.
Among them was Elizabeth Simmonds, who ranks among the world’s top 30 as the fastest 13-year-old in the 200 metres backstroke. Her talent was spotted long before the Loughborough exercise but she returns to the talent pool at the university every Friday for assessment.
“She’s a great talent and she’s being well looked after,” Sweetenham said, “but she’s young and it would be unwise to start making predictions.” Graham Bassi, her coach at Lincoln, describes her as “self-sufficient, very organised, disciplined and highly intelligent”, which Sweetenham sees as “essential ingredients to a healthy personal development that all great athletes need”.
They also need great parents. The information pack handed out at Loughborough emphasises their role as “mum and dad, not hobby coach”. “Does a child have a 150-mile round trip to training everyday? A recipe for early retirement for swimmer and knackered parents,” Sweetenham said. “And is the small-club coach the right man for the job? If so, how can we help? We have to identify strengths and skills early on, hone them over long periods of time in a partnership with educated coaches and educated parents in the best possible training environment.”
To identify aquatic thoroughbreds, four coaches, including Sweetenham and Don Talbot, the former head of Australian Swimming, assessed swimmers without knowing their names or where they came from. “It was numbers only, no bias,” Chelsea Warr, the talent identification officer brought in by Sweetenham from his native Australia, said. “If a child is independently selected for certain qualities by all four assessors, we know there must be something special there.”
With a nod to the success of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, Sweetenham said: “They are given an old wooden racket, told to bounce a ball to a certain height until told to stop, then Nick retreats to his office with binoculars and watches to see who keeps going, who doesn’t give in, who shows tenacity, persistence, determination, effort. That’s attitude. Talent is one thing, but it’s important not to overlook exceptions.
“There is no reason why Britain cannot make the top three swimming nations in the world by 2012 if it follows the right path. Spotting the best raw materials to work with early on is a critical factor.”
TYPICAL SCHOOLDAY FOR SIMMONDS
4.30am: gets up.
4.45am: has light breakfast.
5.00am: mother, Helen, drives her to pool.
5.45am: training for two hours.
8am: home for breakfast.
8:45am: leaves for school.
4pm: returns from school.
4.30pm: training for up to two hours.
7:00pm: home for dinner and homework.