Bill Sweetenham Interview

Bill Sweetenham

Since he took over as British National Performance Director about 18 months ago, there is no doubt that Bill Sweetenham has made his mark on British swimming. We have already we have seen some quite radical changes, for example to the layout of the competitive season, and an upturn in international results. Pullbuoy was fortunate to be able to talk to Bill during the national orientation camp at Crystal Palace. Of particular interest was how Bill saw the swims at the recent Commonwealth trials.

Were you happy with the way everyone swam at the recent Commonwealth trials?

I’m never happy. I always want more, that’s part of the deal and we have to improve. We’re in a situation where we have to raise the bar, to lift the standards up. The danger is that you have to move the bar in correlation with what people can accept and move with you. If you move it too high and you leave people behind that’s no good. If you don’t move it far enough you don’t get the success.

You made quite a big deal before the trials about having to perform on the day. As it turned out many of the team were selected under the Priority 3 criterion. Was this disappointing?

It’s important to understand that as British National Performance Director, I have limited, if any, input into the England, Scotland and Wales set ups. I certainly try to, but I have limited input into what they do. I think it would have been impossible for England to host the Commonwealth Games and not fill the team with the full 41 competitors. I was disappointed that more people didn’t make it on the priority 1 and priority 2 criteria. I was disappointed that the selectors had to go to priority 3 to fill the ranks up. We certainly have to move a lot further forward than we are at the moment.

Is that the aim of camps like this, to move people forward?

I think that we’ve moved the bar this week quite considerably, we’ve tweaked the programme in terms of making some raises I want and expect. It’s very challenging for the coaches as well, because what I’m throwing at them are things that they’ve probably never done before.

We’ve evidently moved on since you first came to Britain, do you still see some way to go?

We’ve moved the situation on to one where we have to change our season. We can’t win on facilities or budget. The competition calendar is getting much better and now our coaching is the area we can improve. You can have the best facilities or the best budget and needn’t necessarily win. We have to take the weakness in British Swimming which is our winter period form September through December and make it our strength so we’re asking the coaches to have a completely different view and the athletes, of training through this period so it’s going to be very challenging for them. It’s quite a different concept than they’re used to. It isn’t a different concept worldwide, but different to what’s happened in Britain before.

Do you take quite an active role with individual coaches?

I think so. British swimming will be successful in 8 year’s time, depending on the amount of resources we put into coaches today. I challenge the coaches and ask them why and why not; tried this, tried that?

Many grass roots coaches feel distanced from what you are trying to achieve and the new initiatives being put in place. How are they supposed to find out about this?

That’s understandable. We have just recently put a new structure in place. Myself as NPD down to men’s and women’s coaches, that’s Ian Turner with the men and Chris Nesbit the women. Then down to 7 national event coaches who are the key coaches with the key swimmers in the country; below that John Atkinson who should convey an abbreviated or amended version of my philosophy to the masses, through his Southern and Northern coaching coordinators, Mick Hepwood and Fred Kirby, who have just been appointed. So there should now be, although its probably only happened in the last couple of months, a good line of communication back thorough the ranks. That should be occurring now. We’ve had Fred Kirby and Mick Hepwood on the road for the past month to 6 weeks trying to convey my philosophies out.

Bill (centre) passes his knowledge onto coaches Dave Calleja(l) and Sean Kelly(r)

But as always things are lost in translation along the way, so we continue to try and sell the programme. and we have a select group of coaches who we think are very talented, such that if all of our elite coaches were killed in a plane crash tomorrow we’d have a second tier that could step up, who would have as good or better skills than those at the top now. But to be successful, we have to take the coaching masses with us. There’s no question about that.

Going back to the world championships last year, the women’s 4×200 relay was quite controversial at the time, but what do you make of FINA’s subsequent decision to award the US gold medals?

You have to understand that the US have a lot of political clout with FINA. My stand on the situation has always been that Britain did it 100% right. I’ve never said that US should be disqualified or that Australia should be disqualified. What I’ve said is that we did it according to the rules, and the judiciary appeal committee made decisions on the evidence they had before them. On that day they chose to award the gold medal to Great Britain. I have no problem with that decision. So if they make decisions after that I have no commitment to them. But certainly our girls did one hell of a job and swam way beyond themselves.

Was it hard leaving Australia to come over here?

No, I needed the change. I felt like I had done everything I had to do in Australia. I’d been head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport for 8 years and I’d been national head coach for 3 Olympics. I’d moved to Hong Kong for 4 years because I needed a new stimulus and challenge. I’d gone back and was the national youth coach for 7 years and worked with swimmers on the Olympic team and had great success. I could have stayed there and pursued the national head coach’s job for Australian swimming. But I’d been and done that I needed some other stimulus and new challenges. It wasn’t hard. Whether it was Britain or somewhere else, I was going make a move simply because I felt I needed new challenges and stimulus in my coaching career. It wasn’t a hard decision to make.

Has British swimming been more of a challenge than you expected?

I certainly saw it as a challenge, but it’s probably more so than I expected. One of the most frustrating things I’ve found here, that I just cannot understand, is the lack of facilities, the cost of facilities and the complacency with facilities. For example, where we have facilities built with lottery money, who charge our athletes exorbitant prices to train in their pool at totally inappropriate hours. There’s no coordination at the top to provide affordable facilities. It just seems ludicrous to me for the lottery to give money to build facilities, and those facilities charge lottery funded programmes exorbitant fees to use them. For example, we have a national sports centre here at Crystal Palace which is unused 5 mornings a week. It doesn’t make sense.

Who’s the best swimmer you’ve coached?

Best or most talented. There’s two categories. I think the most enjoyable or rewarding was my experience early in my career with Stephen Holland. Mainly due to the fact that it was my first and it was so challenging and rewarding. But on talent, hell, I have had a lot of talented athletes. There’s just so many talented athletes I’ve worked with it would be difficult to name one. And if I name one, it would be being disrespectful to a lot of others.

If you had one piece of advice for an up and coming swimmer, what would it be?

Love the sport and learn the skill.

Even from our brief chat, there is no doubt that Bill has an immense knowledge of swimming. Quite clearly he also a definite idea of where British swimming needs to be and more importantly how he thinks we’re going to get there. As he noted that process is not going to be simple, and at the end of the day it will rely as much on the people around him as the man himself. Only time will tell whether the improvements being put in place now can bear fruit at the highest level.