Is Australian Swimming Falling Short of its True Potential?

I have just taken the delayed step into retirement at the age of sixty-nine, after being a full-time swimming teacher and coach for forty-eight years. My passion for the sport remains, however, and I still run clinics and I am also involved in advisory work.

The bonus of retirement is that it gives you time to look back and see how far swimming has moved forward. It also means that I can speak my mind and not worry about losing my job or water space. In my opinion, from a swimming teaching point of view, we have sadly regressed and in a major way. This also affects coaching as numbers coming through to club level are, on the whole, lower and of poorer quality. Competitive swimming has been built around a pyramid type system where we have a huge base with the cream at the top. I believe that the huge base has been eroded and we need to take action. To my knowledge South Australia, where I live, has only three clubs with a competitive membership of over one hundred! In other states it may not be as bad as this, but I know from conversations with other coaches that their states are also badly affected.

Humble beginnings and a brief introduction to standards

Before my memory lets me down I would like to take you back to my humble beginnings. I came from a very working class London background where both my parents worked to try and put food on the table for myself and my two brothers. The primary school that we attended was, to put it politely, very ordinary. We did however get taken to our local pool once a week for our school swimming lesson. In contrast to the quality of schooling, the  standard of swimming lessons we received were ahead of their time and importantly technique based. Students made excellent progress and most could swim in deep water before moving on to senior school. In order to attend that lesson we were required to take a twenty-five minute bus ride to and from the pool. Then there was the swimming lesson itself which was about forty-five minutes long. So all in all a good portion of a primary school morning was committed totally to a swimming lesson. During this era, students in public primary schools (similar to state schools here) nearly all received one lesson a week.

My first full-time swimming teaching position

I spent fifteen years teaching full-time swimming for the education department in the UK. I worked in a large town called Reading (which is part of Berkshire County) and at the pool where I worked we had thirty-five primary schools that attended our pool on a once-a-week basis. Our curriculum was technique based, with survival skills taught over the last five to ten minutes. When I say ‘taught’ I mean properly and comprehensively (these days in Australia how often do you see even a basic skill such as a head first surface dive broken down into a series of progressive practices, to develop a skilful efficient movement?).

Our philosophy was ‘if you want kids to survive, teach them to swim with good technique first, then add survival skills to deal with unusual situations’. The last year we did this program, back in the 1970’s, we only had five swimmers from all thirty-five schools from our primary leavers, who could not swim with good skills in deep water.

Changes in U.K. education funding

With government funding cuts, the full time swimming teachers in the county, of which there were only six, were all summoned to the PE advisor’s office. We all thought we were being summoned to be told we had lost our jobs. The budget had been cut by nearly 50%. We were told that our forty weeks a year public pool programs would be cut to twenty weeks and only operate in the winter. In the summer all six of us were to become advisors of swimming and service the schools in our area which had heated pools on site. The county was split into six areas, one for each of us. We were all given casual car allowances. Our brief was to run demonstration lessons for the school teachers and advise principals on the curriculum to be covered and assist in making sure that teachers were suitably swimming qualified. To my amazement, despite the cold climate of England there were plenty of schools with pools, so much so that I never did get to all of them in my area!

The standard school pool was 12 ½ metres by 12 ½ metres and only about 0.9 of a metre deep. The big advantage of these pools was that being on site meant that the time and cost that would have been wasted travelling to the public pool was saved. Now schools could benefit not only from the external winter program but also their own private lessons run during summer after school without leaving their respective school premises. There was also the opportunity to lease their pool out to other private lesson providers and run concentrated school holiday lessons.

The challenge of heating the water was genius in it’s simplicity; school buildings had central heating plants for the winter. In the summer, this plant was also used to heat the pool. A radiator pipe was simply fed from the plant room around the bottom of the pool. Add a pool cover and shallow pools like this were easily held at thirty degrees. For some schools this was quite profitable and it could fund various school activities that may or may not be related to swimming (like school music rooms for example). However, the big winner was swimming and the standards it produced.

Current standards

I look at the schools in South Australia where I live and you would be lucky to find 5% of primary school leavers who could swim in deep water, (unless they had received lessons at private swim schools that were technique based, mainly ASCTA approved swim schools). I am sure that in a state like Queensland there is still a good base of swimmers coming through. Children there obviously have more exposure to swimming with the many backyard pools that exist and I would be surprised if most schools did not have their own pools. However, even in Queensland swimmers still need skill development by knowledgeable, swimming teachers. I am sure the problem with schools’ swimming is not confined just to South Australia, I remember when I first came to Australia giving a lift to the great Forbes Carlisle and he commented on the poor standard of swimming teaching in the schools in New South Wales.

How standards can affect your local club

My last UK swimming club was a country club called Bracknell Swimming Club. I was with this club eight years. When I started, we had three hundred recreational swimmers and three hours water time a week. When I left we had six hundred swimmers, four internationals (one 4th placed Olympian) and twenty-four hours water time a week. What hit me during this period was that once a month we would have an entry trial night for the club where it was normal to have seventy to eighty swimmers turning up to be assessed. The standard of schools’ swimming and private swim schools in the area meant that we were spoilt for choice, often turning away swimmers with good skills due to limited water space. Oh to have that choice now!

Saudi ‘National’ team standards

Due to the success of my UK program, I was lucky enough to be appointed as Saudi Arabian National Coach based in Jeddah on the Red Sea. This was a great experience and a real honour. Although challenging in many ways, the program and the coaching staff I worked with were an excellent team.

Also of note were the facilities which were state of the art but having almost no swimmers at the outset meant that I had to go back to grass roots and teach non-swimmers to swim and from there develop them up to ‘National’ standard. Amazingly, in three years some of those beginners actually swam for Arabia, all due to a technique based program. Of course standards were much lower in Saudi Arabia but I am trying to illustrate the importance of a technique based program.

Ideal teaching conditions

Following this, I worked for the Continental School in Jeddah (an English sponsored international school; I believe they have changed their school name now). At this school, we had over four hundred primary school aged children from sixty-eight different nationalities. In my last two years working there, all of these students could swim and the standard at the top level was unbelievable. In my last year, there were only five non-swimmers from our three hundred infants (4-6 year age group). Swimming in Jeddah was a bit like being in Queensland – a very warm climate and pools everywhere, therefore whenever possible the children almost lived in the water. The school facilities were good too with a 25 metre 8 lane pool plus a shallow teaching pool. To cap it off, all of the school’s students under the age of 15 had at least one technique based lesson a week.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our challenges. With sixty-eight nationalities we still had swimmers from countries where there was no culture of swimming, often parents had to be educated as to how important it was for a child to learn to swim. When it came to school reports, all students had a dedicated section related to swimming, where I had to advise parents as to their child’s progress and swimming grade. Progressing these students became a special challenge for our program. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to say we had much success. We had swimmers from countries like Uganda and Pakistan who even made our school swim team. Teaching these swimmers often required one on one teaching and this area alone, probably requires another article, as many swimming teachers face the ever increasing challenges of teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students in Australia too these days.

Australian teaching challenges

In 1988, I emigrated to Australia to coach a South Australian club, which included having the swim school rights for the pool. In 1991, our pool was taken over by a Leisure Management Group who took over our swim school rights (with no discussion) and chose to run a ‘Royal Life Saving’ based swim school program. Our club relied on being fed by this swim school. We decided that the program that was put in place would not deliver the pupil base for our club, which was essential for the club’s future development. After giving this some thought, two of us set up a small private swim school at a local physio pool (17 metres long). In two years, our private swim school grew to five hundred swimmers and of course we taught a technique based curriculum. In an average year, seventy to ninety swimmers graduated from this private swim school to our club and with good skills. Meanwhile, comparatively few swimmers came through from the Leisure Management Group’s program. I have always used that private swim school figure as a bench mark. When I left the club, it was the largest club in South Australia with two hundred and seventeen competitive swimmers.

When I left, I went to coach in New Zealand. By the time I returned to South Australia, just four years later, the club program I had left was down to eighty swimmers! The connection with the private learn to swim school had been lost and because of this there was almost no feed in at the base of the club.

My return to Australia

On my return to Australia, I worked at setting up a swim school and competitive program at a private school twenty minutes away from my old club and was there for eleven years. When I handed over the management of the swim school, which again was based on all the technique programs I had developed over the years, it was turning over $1.2 million a year. I believe technique based swim schools not only deliver a better product but they also make more income.

Back to my Aussie roots

As if to come full circle I then returned to the club where I first started coaching in Australia. By this time, the club’s numbers were down to only seventeen swimmers from that high of two hundred and seventeen! The club was also in debt by well over $10,000! Sadly, the decline had continued during my absence. During that eleven years, very few swimmers came through to the club from the Leisure Management Groups swim school. So many things were wrong with the swim school program. The head of swim school did not support the club, we were not allowed to talk to the teachers, any approach towards a swimmer or a parent in the swim school resulted in me being summoned to the centre manager’s office to answer complaints from the swim school manager etc. Luckily, the swim school manager left and the new manager who took over was more approachable. Gradually, we started to rebuild the club again. Even so, the Leisure Management Group’s swim school had over two thousand students in the summer! Based on my bench mark figure we should, if the students had been taught properly, be receiving close to three hundred swimmers a year, instead of around thirty!!

The need for ASCTA to be proactive

I believe the base and the potential future of Australian swimming is under threat and even ASCTA, (an organisation that I greatly admire) who I believe, as an education organisation is the market leader, is not dealing with the difficult issues that need addressing.

Political involvement

I see the Labour opposition (by the time this goes to print, maybe the government) has pledged forty million dollars for schools’ swimming to ensure every child learns to swim. Read the small print – this is based on the schools’ programs teaching a ‘Royal Life Saving Society’ survival based program! A good idea wasted on using the wrong provider.

South Australian schools’ swimming

In South Australia, the education department’s advisors for the schools’ swimming program, have now been revising their curriculum based on a Royal Life Saving program and they have recently gone so far as to even remove freestyle and backstroke completely!! Even before this, owing to the fact that students had a mere one week’s swimming a year I think most prudent swimming educators considered the program a waste of time and money (consider how good would their maths be with only one week’s tuition a year)! But this decision is baffling to say the least. Since when has freestyle not been a survival stroke? It gives you the ability in a survival situation to economically swim a long distance. It also gives you the speed to quickly avoid a potential hazard. Did I say at the beginning of the article that swimming teaching is going backwards in Australia? This is taking swimming back to the curriculum my mother experienced in the UK in the 1920’s!

I have been in communication with Susan Close, the Minister for Education in South Australia and my communication has been passed down the line, as you would expect. The answer I am receiving is that they have consulted a team of experts and that this is what the schools want! Is it what the parents want? With the bulk of the child population living in close proximity to the sea or Murray River system, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I tried to find out if they have any figures that show their success rates and in particular what percentage of students at primary school leaving age could swim. I also asked if the team of experts included ASCTA. There was no response to either of these questions.

Teacher’s point of view

To be fair, my wife who was a teacher for many years did make the valid comment, that the curriculum in schools these days is undoubtedly over-crowded, to the extent that they are trying to include far too much and there just isn’t enough time to fit everything in, particularly where the basics are concerned. Principals may well be happy with only a week of swimming a year, but what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Royal Life problems

In my opinion, the Royal Life Saving Society is a well-meaning organisation and over the years I’ve found some branches that are excellent in teaching life saving. However, they are not, in my opinion, a swimming teaching organisation. Many Leisure Centre management operators, who appear to know little to nothing about swimming, are using Royal Life Saving programs on which to base their swim schools’ curriculum. Local managers are often enlightened, but are dictated to by head offices that are out of touch and insist on Royal Life Saving programs as opposed to those that are technique based.

Outstanding market leaders

Some clubs are very lucky and are fed by market leading private swim schools that have moved swimming teaching to another level. I have worked in the past for the market leaders in Queensland and Auckland. In Queensland, the swim schools’ manual was excellent and the standard of the teaching staff outstanding. If my memory serves me correctly, the managers and supervisors used to meet every three months to review the curriculum and see if the program that was being offered could be improved. New drills and changes in technique were discussed and if we were in agreement they were added to the program. Drills in the program were reviewed as to their effectiveness and if they were not delivering the quality required, then they were deleted from the program. As a result of this, clubs that were fed by these programs had excellent numbers of skilled students to work with. Even in South Australia, there are market leaders, clubs around these successful swim schools, are all keen to gain the benefit of signing up swimmers from these correctly taught swim schools. It seems a pity that competitive clubs can’t rely on the standards of all swim schools in their area.

Teacher and supervisor training

On the whole, standards are appalling and children’s lives are being put at risk. We need to raise standards. Austswim, the benchmark certificate for swimming teachers, is too easy to achieve. New teachers passing this certificate need to carry ‘P’ plates until they have received in-house training from the swim schools/education department where they are working and have been trained over a minimal period of time by qualified supervisors/managers. Swim schools and education department programs need supervisor/manager training too. Perhaps a new swim school/education department supervisor’s certificate needs to be put in place to enable them to mentor our “P” platers.

Royal Life damage

I believe Royal Life Saving should be really concerned at the potential damage they have allowed to develop and children they have put at risk by using their good name in a misguided market that looks upon them as the benchmark of swimming teaching. In my opinion, ASCTA is far and away the market leader in swimming teaching and should be recognised as such.

Challenges for swimming

  1. To develop a technique based ‘National Curriculum’ based on a series of progressive practices and teaching points. A program set up like this would educate the teachers while they were teaching the lessons.
  2. Also a standardised swimming certification system needs to be set up for the whole country. This would go a long way to raising standards. It would also highlight problem areas.
  3. Results to be reportable.
  4. I think government money should be set aside to tackle this issue.
  5. Get a representative group of industry leaders together to meet regularly and work out a plan to try to move Australia forward. Include the government of the day, ASCTA, Royal Life, Austswim, private swim school market leaders, education departments and the Leisure Management operators.
  6. All operators under law who teach swimming need to then be licensed – to show that they are teaching the ‘National Curriculum’. Failure to conform should mean that they should be closed down. (I am sure this would need government intervention to make it happen).
  7. While some states appear to have an excess of pools, others like South Australia have very few all year round facilities. All states have a good number of summer open air pools. We need to look to find a supplier of moderately priced buildings to cover some of these pools.

I have deliberately left out names of clubs and centre management groups. This article is not meant to antagonise this part of the industry, but is aimed at protecting the youth of tomorrow. Like Laurie Lawrence, I have a goal that all children need to be safe around the water and that national drowning statistic become a thing of the past. This dream can only be pursued if we all put the children first and give them the best possible start, educating them how to swim properly.


Australia is a great swimming nation with excellent coaches at the top level. At the moment, I would estimate that our base is about seventy thousand registered, competitive swimmers. Imagine if we could multiply that base by four! Clubs would be much larger and have the membership funds to employ teams of coaches to meet the swimmers’ needs. From that bigger base would come a greatly increased pool of talent at elite level.

Grumpy old man!

If you have managed to struggle through my epistle, I trust you have read into it my passion for the sport and the challenges it faces and not put it down as the ramblings of a grumpy old man. I am a great believer that if you criticise something you need to offer a better way of operating it. I have tried to do that and would be more than happy to discuss the future of our great sport and help in any way I can to move it to a new level.

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About 'The Coach'

After over 45 years working as a competitive swimming coach and swimming teacher, I've recently officially retired from my full time commitments. Having said that, it's doubtful that coaches ever fully retire. It's been more than a career, it's been a life long passion and as such I still enjoy presenting during coaching and teaching training programs. No doubt I'll still occasionally assist with coaching on the pool side from time to time too. Over the years I've worked in 4 countries. Firstly England where I earnt my National Coach’s Certificate and Advanced Swimming Teacher’s Certificate. I was then appointed as a National Coach in Saudi Arabia. After 8 interesting years in the Middle East I emigrated to Australia and worked for several years before an opportunity in New Zealand came up. 4 years later I returned to Australia where I worked until retirement. I have placed swimmers on the National teams and written swimming teaching curriculums in all of the countries I've worked and have gained much satisfaction along the way. Now that I have time to reflect on my career and journey I may finally have time to write some articles on swimming coaching and teaching.
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