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The x-factor: AIS and Swimming Australia coaching collaboration

Jacco Verhaeren
Swim coach Jacco Verhaeren.

11 May 2016


A core of 14 Australian swim coaches is undertaking AIS leadership development in the build up to the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, and national coach Jacco Verhaeren says it has become an “x-factor” in bringing the Australian Dolphins together as a team.

Verhaeren is leading from the front by participating in the AIS Podium Coach Program, alongside 13 coaches selected by Swimming Australia.

The AIS Podium Coach Program is an initiative of Australia’s high performance plan, Australia’s Winning Edge. It focuses on the professional development and pathways of national coaches and has helped develop the leadership capability of more than 100 coaches since its implementation in 2013.

The AIS, in partnership with the Melbourne Business School, has designed the bespoke program to support Swimming Australia in the build up to Rio.

The program involves both group and one-on-one executive coaching focused on individual leadership, but Verhaeren has been encouraged by the collaboration between the swimming coaches in team environments.

“The idea came from the AIS itself, but I’m glad we embraced it because I can see the value of it already,” Verhaeren said.

“First and foremost is the great work the coaches do with the individual athletes because their training, their commitment, their passion, makes great athletes. But it’s adding an extra x-factor really if you come together as a team, if you can work well together, if you respect each other, if you can challenge each other, that makes a team better.”

“We can’t compare ourselves to the rugby or cricket team … we want to be together as a group and we see the benefits of working together. But our environment is spread throughout Australia, every coach runs their own program with their own athletes and not necessarily working together on a day-to-day basis. So whenever we come together we really emphasise the use of a team.”

Verhaeren has had an extensive international coaching career, but said the AIS program was providing him and Australia’s swimming coaches with a unique opportunity for development.

“The AIS Podium Coach Program is really emphasising leadership and there’s not many opportunities for us as coaches to tap into leadership really,” Verhaeren said. “Most conversations we have are about calendars, planning, and technical things. But typically leadership is what you do on an everyday basis and if you can improve on that you become a better coach.

“I always believe you have to make time to develop yourself. What all these coaches realise now is that if they make that investment in themselves, they become better leaders, they become better coaches. That’s always useful, especially when you go into the Olympic environment.

“A world championships or an Olympics last for eight days, it’s pretty intense … there’s a lot of excitement there’s up and downs. Even if your team is going well you can have your disappointments at the same time. Even the same coach, one athlete can win, the other athlete can lose so you have to combine disappointment and excitement at the same time. How do you manage yourself in those environments? It’s a pretty interesting dynamic really and it all comes down to leadership, how you’re dealing with circumstances.”

Head of the AIS Performance Coaching and Leadership Centre, Darlene Harrison, said: “Swimming’s a really important sport for Australia, they’ve been on a significant journey of change and development and the AIS Podium Coach Program we felt would really support their aspirations for Rio.

“What we’re trying to do is add value. We already know we have great swimming coaches, so what we’re really trying to do is explore their potential and see if we can leverage even more.
“The coaches are sharing more … what we’re really seeing is a shift from an individual focus to much more of a collective agenda, which we think can only be good for Australian outcomes in Rio.”

Harrison said the AIS Performance Coaching and Leadership Centre had been a valuable initiative of Australia’s Winning Edge, providing increased support, pathways and professional development for performance coaches and leaders.

“Coaches that have completed the AIS Podium Coach program include Gary West (Track Cycling), Myriam Fox (Canoe Slalom), Greg McFadden (Water polo), Julia Battams (Para Equestrian), Chava Sobrino (Diving), Peggy Liddick (Gymnastics), Brad Dubberley (Wheelchair Rugby) and Lyall McCarthy (Rowing). Many of the graduates of the program will be coaching athletes in Rio.

“Athletes, coaches and leaders are thankful for the focus the AIS have given to coaching and leadership and the role that plays in delivering high performance.”

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