Sean Balmer On Virtual Meets, Leadership In Lockdown And Tokyo-Bound Luke Greenbank

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Luke Greenbank, Cockermouth SC: Photo Courtesy: Sean Balmer

Sean Balmer – former coach to world relay champion Luke Greenbank at Cockermouth Swimming Club – knows only too well the fragile state of swimming in Britain.

England has been in a national lockdown since early January although prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday outdoor pools and lidos plus open water venues will be allowed to open from 29 March in the first wave of easing restrictions after schools resume on 8 March.

Five weeks later, from 12 April, indoor pools can reopen for individual use or within household groups but over-18 club swimmers will have to wait until at least 17 May to train together once more.

However, much irreversible damage has been done.

Double Olympic silver medallist Duncan Scott posted on social media that Alloa Leisure Bowl – where he first began training under Steven Tigg – was to shut and asked people to sign a petition in an attempt to reverse the decision.

That was in response to James Guy highlighting that Halifax Pool would not reopen once lockdown restrictions had been lifted, the four-time world champion saying: “This is what’s happening to our future generation of athletes. Another pool closing. #KEEPPOOLSOPEN.”

The question of the legacy of covid and the lockdowns across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales looms large but there’s no doubt that many club swimmers have been lost to the sport.

There are multiple reasons why. Permanent pool closures will mean no access for many, there may be a loss of interest and motivation as well as the financial implications of covid for parents and caregivers to name but three.

England’s third national lockdown began in early January with indoor pools remaining closed until at least 12 April following Boris Johnson’s announcement of the roadmap out of restrictions in England.

Many clubs across the country have continued to work with their swimmers to incentivise and motivate them while also continuing the club community – among them Balmer at the club in the north-west of England.

Sean Balmer

Photo Courtesy: Sean Balmer

Balmer sent a light-hearted tweet during the first lockdown asking if people would be interested in a virtual meet and in his own words was “gobsmacked” at the response from around the world.

Clubs from as far afield as the United States, Slovenia, Italy, Ireland and Hong Kong all showed interest along with many in Britain.

The league was named the Youth Internet Swim League, the YISL, and once pools reopened after Lockdown 1 in England, meets started to happen.

Such was the league’s popularity that more clubs subscribed than there were lanes available although nature continued to take its course as Balmer told Swimming World:

“Hong Kong Stingrays had lockdown, the California clubs had fires so they couldn’t take part; Nu Wave Swimming in Louisiana had a typhoon go through and were shut out.

“Colorado had a high snow fall and if there’d have been pestilence and a plague of locusts we’d have had the lot.

“The important thing is we got in and competed. Nu Wave Swimming had to do short-course yards so we said just convert it.”

Among the competition was a performance that stood out to Balmer in the women’s 100 free.

“54.8! Then we looked at the name, Alyssa Marsh. That’s (Team Elite Aquatics head coach) Dave Marsh’s daughter.

“It got me thinking: hold on a second, we could find the next Michael Phelps here.

“So me and another coach and a web designer came up with the concept of VMeetSwim.”

VMeetSwim Offers Community, Rankings And Incentivisation

And so VMeetSwim – a platform for virtual competition at vmeetswim.com – was born with the strapline:

“Virtually race, Virtually anyone, Virtually anywhere. Linking the global swimming community virtually!”

Given pools are shut, all the competitions at present are land-based and geared towards swimmers including a 3k run, a 25k bike ride and a range of challenges including 50 burpees with streamline jump, 50 press ups with hand lift, 50 squat jumps into streamline and 50 straight-leg sit ups.

Ranking lists incentivise the swimmers, keeping them motivated and part of the club community.

vmeetswim

Photo Courtesy: VMeetSwim Twitter

Once pools are open in the UK, socially-distanced meets will recommence with clubs from around the world with a simple method of registration by the coach.

The competition can be created by the club and made private or open to all other clubs and events can be added at the discretion of the home club.

Timing will generally be manual by coaches or parents if they’re present and electronic timing will be used if available.

It’s not anticipated that officials will be used unless the club has got them with a fundamental emphasis on a trust-based system.

Balmer said:

“DQs are at the discretion of the home club based on trust: I don’t want to cheat, if one of my kids touches with one hand I’ll DQ them and everybody I know would do the same.

“It isn’t sanctioned by governing bodies and it’s trust-based across the world so Swim England will never put in place a system to race Hong Kong Stingrays or Nu Wave in New Orleans, nor will Swim USA.”

The meet can be a combination of water and land-based competitions and include events like 400m timed kicks.

Balmer explains:

“As a coach I want to know who can do the fastest 400 fly kick; I want to know the fastest 400 breaststroke.

“Luke (Greenbank) did the 400 backstroke in 4:02 when he was 16. I reckon no-one can do that.”

So too is there a financial incentive for clubs and swimmers with the objective to return significant funds into the system.

For Balmer, it’s about thinking outside the box and something that can continue post-covid.

He added:

“It’s trying to create a community as well: say there’s a 15-year-old in America and they set a spectacular time and I’ve got a kid and they’re neck and neck. They can contact each other on Instagram, they can talk about it.

“We can build education into it.

“For instance, Luke is an exceptional kicker: if Luke had been there at the time (we are doing this) a fellow coach would be like ‘woah what are you doing?’ and then you post video on the website.

“Also, there’s an obligation on coaches to share. There are organic improvements by all: the kids get better and their rivals have to.”

Hemmings’ Leadership During Lockdown

He likened it to what he called “the (coach) Dave Hemmings approach of showing everybody what’s he doing.”

Hemmings, who is based at the National Centre Loughborough, numbers Abbie Wood, Molly Renshaw, Siobhan O’Connor and the Litchfield brothers, Max and Joe, among his charges.

He has been proactive during lockdown posting skills and technique video on social media while encouraging his swimmers to record messages of encouragement for non-elite athletes.

Balmer said:

“That’s leadership. We know they can get in the water, we know we can’t get into the water but we still aspire to be them.

“The whole group were incredibly humble, incredibly empathetic to the situation, incredibly grateful for what they had because they are training, it was just a nice touch.

“You’ll lose coaches out of this as well. I know from my own coaches, a lot of them have gone into their shells.

“When we’ve gone back, they’ve all appeared back, we’re flooded on poolside.

“But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is for people to come back, the more difficult it is for swimmers.

“Sam Greenbank, national champion in 2019, would have had the chance of going to European juniors 2020.

“That’s obviously not happened so the chance of going to European juniors 2021? It’s debatable whether it will take place.

“If he doesn’t have a chance of going to European juniors this year, the next person’s he’s got to beat is Luke.

“He does the same events as Luke (50-200 backstroke) and his junior years have gone so he’s now four, five seconds away from what he needs to be doing on a 100 – let alone forget the 200s because Luke is so far ahead.”

Cockermouth

Photo Courtesy: Sean Balmer

Balmer continued:

“The reason Luke isn’t winning world championships is because he’s never had any competition really. If he’d have had competition he would have been even better.

“When he won his first senior nationals I said to him and Chris his dad: Luke might be the best backstroker this country has ever had and will still never make anything. I said that’s the worry for me because he hasn’t got competition.

“So this is driving that competition, the behaviours, the things that you want to see kids doing; kids getting up and going out for a run because I’m only third on that grid and I know I can be top.

“Practising things you want them to practise.”

Joy As Greenbank Heads To Tokyo

Greenbank was one of four British swimmers pre-selected to Team GB for Tokyo along with Adam Peaty, James Wilby and Duncan Scott.

Balmer said he was “chuffed silly” when he heard the news, saying: “When he comes he just mixes in with everybody: he’s just a normal kid.

“Chats to the little uns, he just inspires them. He’s not a big guy either.”

luke-greenbank-200-back-final-2019-world-championships_1

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Greenbank won bronze in the 200 back at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju before leading off the British 4×100 medley relay that claimed the title with a thrilling anchor leg from Scott.

Not that it was clear from the outset that Greenbank would go on to be a world champion set for the Olympic stage.

“No, quite a long way from it. He was a good lad but what made the difference with Luke was he didn’t like getting beaten.

“I think he was second or even third at counties in the 100 back at 11.

“I got loads of coaches texting me (when Luke was selected) saying’ top job, coach’.

“I always talk massively highly of Luke on everything – he’s a huge gentleman, he’ do anything for anybody. He is just such a lovely person.”

 

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