Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson Looking to Shake Things Up

By Mike Thompson, Swimming World Canadian contributor

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, October 3. SINCE first taking over as the Director of High Performance at Swimming Canada on March 1 of this year, John Atkinson has been getting a handle on the athlete and coaching landscape of the nation. He’s also been busy at work shaking things up with the internal structure, and this season will likely witness even more change.

Canada has had its struggles in the pool of late, however, the nation actually had the highest Olympic medal increase in 2012 of all Canadian Sports (+2), and managed to equal the 2012 Olympic Medal haul at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, despite the notable absence of sprint star Brent Hayden.

While the future still looks bright for Canada, Atkinson still has his sights set on areas of weakness, and has plans to implement significant change. Recently, Atkinson released some new information to Canadian Swim Coaches with some key changes, with the intention of moving swimming in Canada forward.

“We have to move from our current mindset and into a new era of professionalism on all our teams. Also we need to recognize we are a team and that expectations are held for every athlete through the entire competition,” began Atkinson in an email to coaches in September.

While holding up the Team atmosphere of Canadian National Teams, Atkinson is very straightforward with the words “new era of professionalism,” which suggests that he wants to focus on Team Canada’s appearance, behavior and attitude as much as its performance.

A much-needed strategy of Atkinson is the focus on fast heat swims while unrested. A major problem for Swimming Canada has been the inconsistency of preliminary race performance.

Although this sounds like an obvious performance marker, it should be noted that many athletes that made the Canadian World Championship Team in 2013 were not shoo-ins to make second swims — in many cases, those athletes required best times in prelims to advance to the top 16.

Atkinson directs that improvement from the spring trials to major Championships will be monitored and expected, and a focus on improvement for all will take centre stage on all teams. Put simply, he expects fast heat swims at all competitions, with domestic meets being paramount, “Otherwise, we are preparing to fail in heats when it counts.”

All of the above points reflect Atkinson’s main goal of improvement. Atkinson goes further by implementing detailed reviews to track and evaluate the performance of National Team athletes.

“We are doing these reviews to ensure all athletes continue to improve,” stated Atkinson in an email. “Lack of improvement may result in an athlete being removed from carding, if measures are not implemented for this continual improvement to happen.”

Although this many be taken as a hard line by some, Atkinson is driving home a very competitive focus for the sport in Canada.

Amongst other new initiatives Atkinson is implementing is the Relay “Take Off Camps,” which is a relay development program aimed at 19 & under males and 17 & under females who specialize in 100m and 200m freestyle events. The goal of this program is to identify athletes who can move forward in these events and eventually contribute to Canadian relays down the road. This is an important aspect for the Canadian Team, who have proven significant depth in relay events at major meets.

At a Swim Ontario High Performance Meeting in Toronto two weeks ago, Iain McDonald and Ken McKinnon of Swimming Canada announced their new “On Track Time” tracking system for athletes. The tracking times are probability-based markers that Swimming Canada will use to more accurately identify if athletes are on track to become an international medalist at a major meet, with heavy emphasis placed on the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015).

McKinnon, Canada’s National Junior Coach, noted that the on track times are likely to be used for Team Selection as well, both Junior and Senior.

“The reliability of FINA points for Team selection is fairly low,” he told some of Canada’s best coaches.

Part of this initiative is to ensure that Canada brings its most competitive teams to international competition. McKinnon stated that there wasn’t much benefit in bringing an athlete to Junior World Championships if they had no chance of making a second swim, just because they had scored high on the FINA point charts. The hope is also for a more balanced and stronger selection process.

Historically, a FINA point chart selection favored distance freestylers as high scoring events. It is the hope that the tracking times would select the athletes closest to a top 8 or podium performance at the meet. The tracking times are part of Atkinson’s method to keep Canadians focused on performance at International Competition, rather than participation.

In a brief phone interview with Swimming World, Atkinson praised the assets that Canada already has.

“Canada has world-class coaches, athletes and facilities,” he said. He thinks that focus and diligence will have to be placed on what Canada already has in order to improve performance.

When asked for his thoughts on the Canadian club and University systems, Atkinson was honest.

“I didn’t actually get here until after the CIS season was over, and then my attention was on the high performance teams,” he said. “Having said that, the club system is doing a great job producing a strong future in world-class talent. The CIS will play a very important role in developing those club athletes further. It will take good planning in all three of these divisions to further Canadian Swimming.”

Mike Thompson, a Swimming World contributor from Canada, is the senior sprint coach at the vaunted Oakville Aquatic Club in Canada. He also hosts the Coach Mike Podcast, that includes interviews with some of the top Canadian talent.