Otto Sonnleitner, Chairman of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association, has been a leading coach for more than 25 years. Formerly of Melbourne, he now coaches in the country town of Rockhampton in tropical Queensland.
The Australian Swimming Coaches Association has grown from humble beginnings to a membership of 2500 since it was founded in 1971 during the national championships in Hobart, Tasmania.
Sonnleitner recalls how about 20 coaches from around Australia formed the nucleus of what was to become a powerful and influential group that has made an imprint on Australian swimming. The founding group believed that much needed to be done if Australia was again to become a top nation in swimming. The group that met that day not only wanted their voices heard in official circles, but felt that coaches also should have a voice in the national governing body of swimming.
Asked his opinion on national training centres, Sonnleitner said he thought that, initially, the Australian Institute of Sport "probably wasn't a bad thing for us because it exposed a lot of swimmers to various types of tests; the psychological and the physiological applications, all those sorts of things."
"But as we've grown, I really believe that there is not too large a percentage of people in this world who like to be institutionalized. In fact, I think it's a very small percentage. And, if we've got 100,000 swimmers in this country, well only a very, very small percentage of those 100,000 would ever want to be institutionalized."
"A lot of people have gone to these institutions and failed. They failed not because they're not good swimmers, or because they didn't progress, or because they did the wrong things. They just weren't suited to being institutionalized. I think there is a place for it, but I think the numbers should be restricted to people whom it suits."
On the other hand, Sonnleitner spoke highly of the Australian National Sports Information Centre, which supplies information to coaches right around Australia. "I like it because I don't have a great deal of time to read every article that's published on swimming. But by having the abstract of a particular article, I can decide whether or not I want to read it in depth. That's a great resource to have."
Enlarging on this topic, Sonnleitner says that national sports centres would function best as resource centres. "If we're going to employ coaches with great talent, then maybe they should also be involved in observing other programs at certain times of the year, because I believe when you are institutionalized, you are apt to lose sense of what's happening in the real world."
"For example, the coaches at the AIS have an eight-lane 50-metre indoor pool, and a six-lane, 25-metre pool. They have biomechanical support systems available. They have physiologists running around taking blood, taking heart rates, doing all sorts of different things. They have psychologists on tap; they've got the medical people on tap. They don't have to put lane ropes in, or hang a backstroke flag across the pool, or do any of those things. Everything is ready for them when they come to train."
"So they live in an ideal, and probably a very false world, if you like. And I believe they need to get out into the real world, and to do the sorts of things that other coaches do. For example, we start at 4:45 a.m., and quite often, the kids and I have to put the lane ropes in, the flags have got to go up, and we have to do all these little peripheral things ourselves to create the training session, and I believe that's part of it."
Sonnleitner said that $800,000 a year is spent on swimmers at the Australian Institute of Sport. "It's spent on their accomodation, food, and travel. That's an attraction in itself. Now, if you look at it in terms of dollar value, comparatively speaking, you're not getting a great deal of value out of it."
"I believe that the coaches there--Jim Fowlie, Mark Regan, Barry Prime, Gennadi Touretski--are good coaches who will attract swimmers to them. They are held accountable. Their contracts are renewed every two years, based on the results they produce."
"The criterion of their results can only be judged by the hierarchy of the Australian Sports Commission. But we would hope that the criterion of results is: who have you produced over the last two years, or over the last four years, and are they still progressing? The only way to assess whether a coach is doing his job or not is whether the swimmers are either progressing, or whether, if they go into a situation where they've been a really high standard world-record holder, they're at least holding that sort of form. If they're deteriorating, obviously the coach is not doing the job."
Sonnleitner believes that the Australian Institute of Sport "has a place, but I don't think it should be playing the part that it's playing right now. I think that more of what they're spending should be spent on resources to coaches right around the country."
"After all, if we just concentrate on our elite, within a short period (four years probably, maximum) we're not going to have anybody to concentrate on. There aren't going to be any elite swimmers. If we don't go out and develop young coaches, emerging coaches, coaches who are starting out and doing a job, then we're not going to get swimmers. We have to develop the people at the base of the pyramid. That's what the sport is all about."
Asked what motivation is provided for the young up-and-coming coach, when as soon as a coach develops a good swimmer, the swimmer is lost to a centralized training group, Sonnleitner said, "That can be heartbreaking, obviously. It can kill the sport. It can kill the coach."
"I believe that there should be some form of ethical communication between the Australian Institute of Sport and the person coaching the swimmer. They should not go directly to the swimmer. They should approach the coach first. Also, sometimes the swimmer is too young; 15 or 16 years of age is too young to be institutionalized. I believe the swimmer should be 17 or 18 years of age."
"In NCAA swimming, the American coaches will tell you that freshmen lag behind every single year. The freshmen have problems coming from a home environment, where they've been looked after to the nth degree by mum and dad, and where mum cooks all the meals. All of a sudden, they're put into this institutional environment where they have to live by themselves, or live with someone else, and they have to look after everything, including their laundry, their food, their travel, and most of these young kids can't handle that. This imposes an additional stress on the young kids which curbs their rate of improvement."
(This interview took place at the 1996 Australian Swimming Coaches Association's Annual Conference, held in Coollangatta, Queensland.)