Connect with Us:  

Lambertz: Five Pillars For New Germany

Feb 20, 2013  - Craig Lord

Germany returned home from an Olympic Games with no swim medals for the first time in 80 years in 2012; head coach to Germany since January 1, Henning Lambertz, will build new programme on five pillars and "Kaizen"

Karin Bühler, of the Berliner Zeitung, shared a taxi with Henning Lambertz from the airport to the Europa Park pool in the German capital for a meeting with performance director Lutz Buschkow. She asked him how many chins he could do. He managed 14 in his last try. 

The question was pertinent: Lambertz is running tests on German swimmers designed to show him - and them - that they have some work to do if they want to compete in world waters once more. 

When Bühler notes that some German teamsters did not manage five chins, Lambertz points to the metaphor in his method: "I want to take a view of all things and assess what we've let slip and look at all the areas in which we have fallen behind the best in the world. We need to catch up. My first focus is athleticism." He was keen to point out that, whatever path is taken to improvement, doing the miles in the water is "our daily bread".

The scope of his "five-pillars" approach would extend to team attitudes and dynamics. If Germany has suffered team issues on several notable occasions down the past two decades, Lambertz may well look at events Down Under and conclude he has it easy. On the other hand, the Dolphins have been far more successful than Germany - and continue to be, with 10 medals at London 2012 despite all we hear from the Bluestone report and its backwash.

Lambertz will pick up where Dirk Lange left off in some regards. He intends to hold more boot camps at which specialists are brought together (and perhaps overseas rivals brought in to the mix) to work on specific areas aimed at improving their athleticism and unlocking potential that may have been left dormant through poor preparation. 

Lambertz will work at the camps with land coach Arthur Jankowski on "military drill" style work. "We want to say 'no, you have to 15 pull-ups', but make clear [to the swimmer] that such things are associated with swimming. Military drill is in at boot camp. Athletes may have to get up at 5am; they may have to move through snow in their suits - in prone position. The same through mud tracks. The work is designed to make them more athletic - while having fun."

He lists five pillars on which German's new programme will be based:

  • greater guidance on how to move from trials to the big event of the year [step up, not down]; 
  • introduction of a reward system instead of one in which athletes face penalties if they don't do X, Y and Z [positive not negative messages, aping the approach advocated by child development experts]; 
  • constant communication between control tower and the coaches piloting programmes throughout Germany, flow of updated, world-class information and direction critical to Germany's welfare in the water.
  • centralisation of federation centres and large clubs
  • the creation of two teams - an Elite Team (with the likes of Britta Steffen, Paul Biedermann, Markus Deibler etc) and a "perspective" team of about 20 athletes who need clear guidance to make the next step from prospect to world-class podium potential and delivery

Bühler asks what form reward will take. An athlete is more motivated if he understands why he is being asked to do something, says Lambertz. For deeper understanding, Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman make for classic study: process, process, process. While Bowman will not have explained every move every step of the way to his pupil, the idea of Phelps as a boy who just got in and did what he was asked falls well shy of the truth of a swimming brain shaped for success: he understood what he needed to understand, goal-setting and long-term process hallmarks of the greatest Olympian of all-time (in early teenage years Phelps often came within decimals of his own target times at local junior meets and understood the transfer of work to race from a very young age).

Lambertz lists some of the rewards/incentives that he has in mind: if a swimmer is asked to move from a small local club to a centre, incentive might be that he or she gets a wild card to the next short-course championship on the calendar; part of a rental for housing might be paid. Some of that approach would be tailored to requirements, through dialogue between federation and club coach and athlete.

Communication was vital, said Lambertz: "The national coaches of the past have all failed [in this regard]." Athletes and coaches were often left to feel isolated, while some asked themselves "Am I a masochist, because I still dare to do the job?", said Lambertz.

At 42, Lambertz most recently served as head coach at the Essen training centre and has a string of national teamsters and big-0time medal winners to his credit, including Thomas Rupprath, Antje Buschschulte, Sarah Poewe, Hendrik Feldwehr and Caroline Ruhnau. 

A DSV Commission is still to meet and consider Germany's London 2012 performances. Lambertz said that the federation woke up to its problems "long ago". Identifying problems and then finding the resources to resolve issues were two sides of a coin - and Germany did not have the money that others had, he suggested. Look at Britain, Australia and China and the public's financial investment in swimming is far greater than it is in Germany. However, a very different picture can be found at the top of the tree: look at the USA and the way incentive works there and the way they raise their own funds and you have a model that took 100 years to shape. The debate about how the US model, with its upsides and downsides, may fit elsewhere in the world will continues to rumble on down the years, as Americans move with the times, like water around rocks, and continue to notch up winning tallies on the biggest of occasions.

Talent catch is critically important to any performance programme with its eye on the Olympic podium. Lambertz harked back to one of the fine aspects of the tainted GDR system when he noted that the German school system is not sports friendly when it comes to elite performance and the demands of world-class preparation. "We need elite sports schools that are not just that in name but [true function]." He talks of asking authorities to allow school extensions (longer periods of time to cover the work done in one year by pupils not involved in sport, music or extra-curricular activities).

Whatever long-term plans Lambertz has, the next big meet is always on the horizon, Barcelona 2013 world titles looming in July and August this year. He is not looking at the medals count. Instead, he wants to focus on "Kaizen". 

"This is a Japanese term for change," he explains. "My biggest goal for this year is to improve communication. And we need to get fun back into the national team and not have them as whipped dogs sneaking into the pool."

Read Karin Bühler's article in German at the Berliner Zeitung.