Cohesion has Canadian swim teams on track for success in Tokyo

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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.

The purpose of the exercise is to maintain a team atmosphere in a sport that is individual by its nature, by recognizing successes as a group and keeping squad morale high in the process.

  • Canadian Para Swim coach Wayne Lomas.
  • John Atkinson speaks into a microphone at a press conference

“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.”

Arhm Ahmad, Bronwen Holder, and Griffin Porter flip the script and take a look at any positives that may have come out of the extended break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.” 

  • Canadian swimmer Tess Routliffe
  • Tessa-Cieplucha

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.”

Mental challenges in finding connections during isolation

National team coaches and swimmers went 133 days without in-person contact at Swimming Canada facilities during the pandemic shutdown, a challenge that proved to be more mental than physical.

While many athletes continued to train regularly, they did so without the social interactions they’re accustomed to.

“As an elite swimmer you probably go to the swimming pool 10 times a week … so your coach may be the one person that you spend the most amount of time with,” said John Atkinson, the Canadian national swim team coach and high performance director. “Coaches then finding the way to communicate with different athletes in different ways was very important.”

Supporting swimmers through the isolation quickly emerged as a priority for Swimming Canada, which did not initially anticipate the social impact of not being able to train with friends and peers. 

“We had athletes not just missing the swimming and the competition and the training,” said Wayne Lomas, the Para Swimming national team coach and associate director of high performance. “We actually had people missing the social connection they got from being with their friends.” 

Among the efforts to combat the forced separation, swimmers had the opportunity to conduct internet sessions with Dr. Carla Edwards, a sports psychiatrist and high performance mental health advisor for Swimming Canada. 

Paralympian Tessa Cieplucha appreciated those calls, saying mental health “is definitely a topic that needs to be talked more about and it’s a topic that some people kind of overlook.”

Having those (internet) meetings specifically for overall well-being in and outside of the water was a great way to keep everyone connected again,” she added.

The calls quickly became one of the teams’ integral tools to maintain cohesion.

They started with general meetings, but as internet meeting exhaustion set in, team officials  became more creative by adding virtual training camps, check-ins to discuss training progress and small group coffee catch-ups.

Olympic gold medallist Mark Tewksbury joined one call to offer inspiration and tips on how he built his successful career.

“Trying to do more calls that are based around nothing about the technical nature of the sport,” said Atkinson. “But just about trying to deliver a fun session, trying to deliver something that’s a bit more inspirational and motivational.”

Still, the general meetings also served an important purpose.   

“It was great for [coaches] to have a continuous communication of where their plans were logistically because as an athlete, I wasn’t in control of anything,” said Cieplucha.

For swimmers like Cieplucha, the break from the pool left room to give the body a break and explore other hobbies.

Internet meetings helped team members to maintain connection while also getting a pause from swimming, but coaches were conscious about giving their swimmers space from the screen.  

“We didn’t overdo it because we knew that it would certainly start to take people,” said Lomas. “And we also had to accept that we were just one cog in their life circle.”

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Posted: Mar 14 2021 1:50 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Sports Swimming Tokyo Olympics Tokyo Paralympics