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The Sheffield effect – it’s not just the water

It was the wrong sort of water, blared the headline in the Telegraph, echoing years of rail company excuses in explaining where it had all gone wrong for Britain in Barcelona. The source of this wisdom was an interview on Radio 5Live given by GB head coach Bill Furniss, in which he expressed a desire to move trials meets away from Ponds Forge into “slower pools” in an attempt to reinvigorate the selection process and improve the medal return at major meets.

Now this has a sound basis, whether you agree with the opinion of Furniss or not. Sheffield is a fast pool, for a variety of reasons, but those same reasons also make the London Olympic pool fast, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games pool fast and indeed the Barcelona World Championships pool fast. Namely they’re deep, wide, deck level and cold.

But that didn’t stop the Telegraph; after all blaming the water makes it a much better story, helped by some pseudo-science from Steve Parry in the same interview where he speculated about the water treatment and its effect on speed. Indeed once the water had been blamed the report failed to look at what the real issue actually is. And it isn’t the tank in Ponds Forge, its the whole environment.

For a long time Sheffield was the premier venue for holding national level meets. Despite the addition of a large number of new 50m pools from Plymouth to Sunderland, Swansea to Aberdeen, it remains the go to venue for British Swimming and it is this ubiquity that is at the heart of the problem.

It needs to be looked at like a football team’s stadium. Some teams are able to make their home ground into a “fortress” – they feel more confident playing there, and as a result they play better and win more than they do away, reinforcing their belief. The same can be said of Ponds Forge – all national youth and age group championships have been held there for as long as anyone can remember. Even when trials have been elsewhere, the secondary selection meet has generally returned to Yorkshire. That means that swimmers know it. They stay in the same hotel, they know where everything is, how long it takes to get from A to B and it makes them comfortable and relaxed. And that mental state in a fast pool leads, generally, to fast swimming.

Furniss is considering moving trials to another venue to eliminate the comfort factor with a view to getting swimmers in a mind-set to swim fast whatever the location. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, certainly it was tried previously in the Sweetenham administration with mixed results, although they tended to be multi stage selection procedures. It can only be one part of a larger plan, but it’s instructive to note that the US trial this year were held in the IUPIU Natatorium in Indianapolis which by modern standards would not be considered fast – it’s only 8 lanes, it’s not that deep at the ends and it’s not deck level.

Another approach, as outlined by Mark Foster in the clip above, is to make yourself comfortable where you are racing and to do as much as you can to feel relaxed wherever you are. That doesn’t mean that Furniss is wrong to move trials, after all no stone should be left un-turned, but it’s not the panacea and it does leaves the sport open to mockery from those who don’t really understand the issue. Who knows where we’ll be heading for trials next year, but don’t book yourself into the Sheffield Hilton just yet.