Group dynamics in a sport that relies on individual effort key to winning
Everybody on the Canadian national swim team wants to take a trip through the Tunnel of Love.
It’s a celebratory practice in which teammates line up in two rows and link arms above their heads for those to have recently raced or had a strong performance to charge through.
“What I try to create on a team is an environment where everybody can do what they need to do, but feel supported by everybody else,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director and national team coach.
“And that’s how we try to get the team spirit going in an individual sport. Acknowledge that it’s individual, but actually also show that (within the team environment) they can do what they need to do as individuals to get their performance.”
Wayne Lomas, the national Paralympic swim team coach, shares that ethos while using a slightly different ritual.
After each day of competition, swimmers who have won a medal or set a personal best are invited to write their achievement on a whiteboard while surrounded by their teammates.
“My own personal mantra is that gold medals are luck,” said Lomas. “Now, luck comes about because a number of factors come together. But if you swim the fastest time you have ever swum on the day that matters, you’ve done everything.
“You cannot do anything more than the fastest you have ever swum on the day that matters – I don’t care if you come last, because I will celebrate. That’s the approach we take.”
Such team-building efforts, paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are crucial in ensuring that a competitive environment at Team Canada does become a toxic one.
Lomas, who is also Swimming Canada’s associate director of high performance, prides himself on guaranteeing that respect and courtesy are central to his team’s culture. Instilling those two characteristics allows athletes to focus on their love for swimming without unnecessary drama.
“Cut it all back, [swimming is] a couple of eight-year-olds, five-year-olds, seven-year-olds, whatever, who just want to get to the other end quicker than the person next to them, to keep it simple,” he said.
“I think it is healthy to have that high level of competition.”
The veteran swim coach emphasizes that camps are vital because there is value in training with other athletes and allowing them to compete against each other.
Lomas was reminded of precisely that during a recent run along the Ottawa Canal.
“I ran with this guy, a brand new person I’ve never met before … we were smashing it with our pace for the four kilometres we ran together,” he said. “I looked at my splits afterwards, and I was running so much better than I’d been running all year because I’ve been running by myself.”
The former high performance manager for the Australian swim team says the Canadian program is lucky to not have much tension among its high-performance athletes, but the tensions can rise when swimmers are classified into different competitive brackets.
“We’re very careful about that,” said Lomas. “Respect and courtesy. We respect the process, we respect the independent arbitration of classification, and we respect the individuals.
“And I very quickly jump on any hints of overly competitive behaviour that’s spilling out of the pool deck into some harassing, bullying, anti-social behaviour. And that’s why our team values respect and courtesy.”
Paralympian Tess Routliffe is aware of how important team culture is, and what it does for her mentally as part of the team.
“It’s not a team sport where, if I am slacking, it doesn’t necessarily affect the person next me, but within my team, if I were to see somebody slacking or just not themselves, it gives us the opportunity to go check on them,” Routliffe said.
The 22-year-old adds that even in an individual sport, she’s always happy to see her teammates succeed.
“When you both succeed at something and you both reach your goal, it’s a really nice feeling to say you did that together.”