Jan Cameron: Preparing Her 7 Man Swimming Squad for Rio Paralympic Selection
Interview by Danielle Cox & Benny Pike
1964 Tokyo Olympic silver medalist and multiple medalist at the 1966 Jamaican Commonwealth Games; Jan Cameron now heads the Paralympic Australian swimming squad preparing for Rio.
Her passionate and pragmatic approach to coaching has seen 3 of her 7-man squad compete in past Paralympic games, 6 of them were at this year’s 2016 World Championships. Determined for a full deployment this year at Rio Jan is aiming for all 7 squad members including Blake Cochrane, Michael Anderson, Rick Pendleton, Guy Harrison-Murray, Logan Powell, Jacob Templeton and Braedon Jason to qualify.
We caught up with Jan by the pool at the University of the Sunshine Coast sports facility while she ran through an afternoon session. Our conversation touched on her beginnings as a coach, tips on improving times in the pool and how she keeps things interesting for her athletes during training.
Your career has taken you all over the world, including Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand. Have you had the opportunity to meet with other coaches, and share training ideas throughout your travels?
Yes it has allowed me to grow I think, optimally. I started coaching at Port Kembla, a little town on the South Coast, New South Wales, where I was the head coach. I was also fortunate to work in Canada for eleven and a half years from age group level to performance level. I was then in the USA for two years in Nashville Tennessee and then back to Australia for the commencement of the AIS. I then spent twenty-three years in New Zealand building a club; North Shore, to number one status. I then became the national head coach for New Zealand and director of Swimming New Zealand.
The process to coaching often stems from participation in a particular sporting event, and then progresses into a passion for teaching your developed knowledge. In the early stages of your coaching career, did you have a mentor or coach that you were able to bounce ideas off? How did this impact the development of your coaching style?
During this time I was fortunate to get to know and learn from many coaches in the world. Don Talbot was my early mentor, but I was fortunate to interact with top level coaches in Canada, USA and Australia. My coaching took me all over the world, to a number of Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World Championships.
Coaching in Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand, was very different and each culture provided new challenges in coaching.
As athletes and coaches know, training programs differ for all athletes. Could you outline some examples of specific swimming training skills that are popular in your athletes swimming programs that encourage strength and endurance?
I think the first thing is, you have to coach what you have, rather than what you might want someone to be. In this particular squad here, there are four 400m swimmers – one of them is a natural 400m swimmer, and the other 3 have had to learn it, because in Paralympic swimming every event is not for every class. In order for them to get on the podium in Rio and Tokyo, they’ve had to learn to swim 400’s. So our program has a very strong endurance base to prepare them for 400ms, so that style, that process of coaching is there. I also have three older men, 31, 28 and 25, who have been hugely successful already, and they are sprinters, so I had to design a program for them, which is sprint driven. So, all the time, looking at the athletes you have, designing a program around their needs and skills – that’s part of coaching.
Turns can give you an incredible advantage if performed properly. What are your three tips for a fast and efficient turn?
I think the issue with turns is that many people, many swimmers do many laps, and many slow turns, so the idea is to do fast turns as often as possible, to simulate race turns. That’s important. Secondly – to film those turns and make sure the mechanics are right, so that you are not wasting time, and swimming in bad habits all the time, and three – time the turns, so that everybody knows that the turn has a component that has to be improved.
Lets talk freestyle. Head position is one of the most common mistakes in freestyle. What workouts do you use to correct the head position and technique of your athletes?
Another good question. We are constantly working on body line, which I prefer to use than head position, so body line is like a fish in the water, you need to have a still head and you need to have your body and head inline, so that you get the optimal distance through the water. We do a lot of drills associated with that, we practice it and we film regularly, so that they get good feedback on what they’re doing, and how they can improve. We also encourage them to look at the very best people in the world, on YouTube or on film, so that they then can see, compare line, body line/head line with their own.
There are differing opinions on the use of equipment to aid swim training. Do you encourage your athletes to expand their technique through the use of aids and equipment, or do you plan for your athletes to work without them?
No, we use aids everyday. We use paddles, sparingly. I prefer smaller paddles and paddles for technique rather than strength. But paddles have a two-pronged effect, one is bigger paddles for strength and power, and the other is smaller paddles for technique improvement and patterning, and we tend to use that more than we do for power. We also use bands, tying up the legs so that they’ll get more arm strength, we use parachutes that we tow along to give them more strength and resistance in the water, we have power racks here which means we’re going against the pulley system, where they really have to push hard to get through. There are drag pants, which load again. They’re all to do with shorter versions of loading, overloading, as you might in running, carrying weights or wearing heavier gear, so that you’re constantly overloading but not so much that they wear and tear, rather that they feel good when they take them off.
Diet plays a large part in a swimmers training and performance regime. What daily timeline factors do you consider for your athletes eating patterns, (ie. eating an hour prior to a swim training session?).
The nutrition here is very good, we’ve got access to swimming Australia’s nutritionists, readily, the swimmers, the culture in the group is that they want to be at their best racing weight – not to have any drag. So we talk about eating before we come to the pool in the morning, so eating breakfast, to stimulate everything going, and then after training, eat again, and then a light lunch or lunch that’s suitable, because we train again in the afternoon and finally a good meal in the evening to replace all the food and energy that they’ve used during the day.
Swimming is often a solitary sport, requiring immense discipline and self-motivation. Is there a group tactic that you use to promote motivation for the whole squad? How do you support the mental health and wellbeing of your individually competing swimmers prior to an event?
Yes, good question. I don’t think it’s a lonely sport or a solitary sport at all. It’s very much a social sport swimming. I think people think that in the training distances that you do, you’ve got your head down, and I think people think oh how terrible and lonely, but it is very social. Swimmers do a lot of interval training, they’re always chatting, they’re always giving me lots of barbs and banter. We like that. We have a free flow of communication in the group and I think that’s really important.
As far as group motivation, I’m very fortunate; this group of Paras’ that I’m working with, they’re all eyes on the prize. They all want to go to Rio and Tokyo so motivation is not really an issue, rather them meeting their expectations and training towards those expectations.
Today we went rock climbing, on Sunday we’re going horse riding, and tomorrow we’re going to spin bike class. We try to do some things that are a little bit different and out there group bonding and group building, and for me it’s a group of young men that I have, 7 young men.
It’s important that they do physical things, and have a bit of fun. We played futsal yesterday; we played basketball the day before. I like them to do things together and they have a lot of fun.
What changes are made in your athletes physical training programs, in the last weeks as they approach a big event?
Yes, well with the senior men – and about three weeks out they begin to decline in volume, they tend to keep the same number of sessions but they decline in volume, and then they eventually decline in the number of sessions as well, and the volume goes from say 5k per session, down to 4k down to 3k. With the younger boys that are getting ready for 400ms, we tend to stay up a little longer, it’s more of a two week taper, two week coming in and they will continue the volume up a lot closer to the event.
There is high expectation for your swimmers, and yourself as a coach as we approach the Rio Paralympics games. How are you as a coach, and also your swimmers, preparing for this massive event, and can you tell us what you hope to see come from this event?
Well as I said, I’m very fortunate. I’ve already been chosen to go to Rio, well let’s say, proposed to go to Rio, that’s for the Paralympics committee to ‘Ok’, but my goal is: there are seven young men here and to have seven young men on the team.
That’s my goal. As a coach, each one of them has a goal themselves, and they all want to make the team, and each one has a time goal, and a process within that time goal that they know if they achieve, will get them on the team.
Last year we went and only one missed out on the world championships, the younger man, 16 still turning 17, he missed out, he’s all fired up, he wants to get on there as well. So, we’re working towards contributing to the wider Australian Paralympic Team, that’s our goal, and individually each one has their goal, and I’m just steering them and helping them.