John Atkinson Q&A: Reflections and the Future
High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson has now spent ten seasons at the helm of Canada’s national swimming teams. The country has enjoyed unprecedented success over the past decade, including two of its most successful Olympic Games of all time. Over the past year, Swimming Canada has been “back to business” in a way not seen since 2019, having competed internationally at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in June, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, in July, the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Hawaii during August and then the FINA World Junior Open Water Championships in Seychelles in September.
John was recently recognized with Sports Media Canada’s Sports Executive of the Year award for his leadership. We asked John to take some time to reflect on the continual changes that have led to a successful culture and improvement in national team performance since he started in March 2013.
When did you start to believe that Canada could compete consistently with the world’s best?
Back in 2013 on the national team we talked very much of improvement and what each athlete, supported by their coach, needed to address to improve. By 2014 we started to talk about improving AND progressing at major championships and games. In 2015 we talked about improving, progressing and converting to medals. This coincided with a great home Pan Am Games at the Toronto Pan Am Games Sports Centre (TPASC). That for me that was the moment that we saw the belief that Canadian swimmers could compete with the best and win medals. The Pan Am Games changed perceptions and the legacy of the Games in Toronto cannot be underestimated as TPASC became home to our High Performance Centre – Ontario. The Rio Olympic Games came in 2016 and the team returned with six medals. Swimming Canada was no longer under the radar. A different expectation from the national swimming team had become a reality.
It’s not the things that happen that define a team, but it’s how the team reacts when something happens that is most important.
How would you describe the culture Swimming Canada has developed on its national teams?
We talk on our national teams and programs about key words that we use in all that we do with our teams, athletes and staff: Focused, Professional, Calm, Adaptable and No Drama. We also added Resilience during the pandemic as this totally represented how our athletes and staff conducted themselves through the pandemic. We talk about these traits with our teams. I talk about teams travelling and “things happen.” It’s not the things that happen that define a team, but it’s how the team reacts when something happens that is most important. We will continue with this approach on all our teams.
Why don’t you talk about specific medal targets?
On the team we have never talked of winning medals and or medal targets. The athletes are professional, along with the team staff (managers, science/medicine staff and coaches). We still talk of improving and now working each athlete’s own individual path to be successful at the highest levels of our sport.
This performance improvement and culture has been driven from many different perspectives that all contribute to the performance of the team. This includes national programming opportunities with NextGen and National Development Team experience for athletes and their coaches, in the pool and open water, senior camps, centre programming and senior teams.
How have the High Performance Centres factored in and what are your future expectations for the centres?
The High Performance Centres have earned more than three quarters of our individual medals at Olympic Games and world championships since 2007. The centres provide a world-class daily training environment aimed at developing identified swimmers to their full potential, with a goal of reaching the international podium.
The centres in Vancouver and Ontario will continue to be hubs for performance and keys to our high performance strategy through to Paris 2024 and onto the Los Angeles 2028 Games. With new Performance Head Coaches in place in Ryan Mallette (https://www.swimming.ca/en/news/2022/07/22/ryan-mallette-named-performance-head-coach-of-hpc-ontario/) and Scott Talbot (https://www.swimming.ca/en/news/2022/08/19/talbot-brings-strong-pedigree-track-record-to-helm-of-hpc-vancouver/) we believe our centres are well placed for the future. We will see more links developing with coaches and their swimmers*, like has happened between this year’s trials and the world championships and Commonwealth Games.
How do you explain Canada’s success in relays?
The national relay strategy has been a targeted program with driven initiatives allowing athletes and coaches to gain exposure to the culture of the national team and how the relays operate. Over the years we’ve offered this exposure at the NextGen relay take off camps, youth relay tours, the National Development Team Program, focused senior programs/calls, High Performance Centres and the national senior team. There is alignment and every component part supports the importance of relays to the Swimming Canada program and teams. Then Head Coach Randy Bennett and I introduced the targeted approach to relays on the national senior team back in 2013. We started with two to three relay-focused training sessions on the staging camp for the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, and then every junior team started the same process. After I was visiting programs across Canada with National Development Coach Ken McKinnon, we discussed the concept of the NextGen Relay Takeoff Camps, the idea being an NFL Combine style camp for swimming, which continues to this day.
On Day 3 of the 2022 Commonwealth Games as we won our fourth medal in three days, a silver, our relay strategy came to mind. It took eight swimmers in heats and finals of the mixed freestyle relay team to take bronze, and seven men to take bronze in the men’s 4×100 free relay. Add in the women’s free relays and by the end of day 3 we had 14 swimmers who were Games medalists in relays! They came from seven different programs, produced by 10 different clubs. This shows it takes every program to lift the nation and that needs to continue to Paris and LA.
How important are those club and university programs in Canada?
We need club and university programs across every province to develop our future swimmers and contribute to our program at every level. We are now looking at ways to ensure all our swimmers continue to train and have appropriate competitions into late summer to maximize improvement of all our athletes across Canada, which is so important when looking at the path to the Olympic podium. Of course, the more on this journey the better and we keep working toward that. An important factor we still need to see get better is the improvement of swimmers from the spring to the summer and them making another jump forward in performance.
What about coach development? What is happening there?
We have offered High Performance coach development and team opportunities to more than 150 coaches since 2013. This has been through conferences, workshops, clinics, video calls, camps, teams and through the pandemic more calls on new platforms than ever before. Every coach involved can feel a sense of pride in the achievements of the national team as we head to Paris and LA. Many new coaches have gained experience. As we move toward 2024 and beyond it is a time to hold to our values, hold to the systems, target new ways and support coaches to excel in developing all athletes.
You’ve talked a lot about working with everyone to have an individual path to be their best for the Olympic Games. What does that mean to you?
Our athletes in 2022 made some bold decisions and we worked to support them. Some competed at the FINA World Championships and not at the Commonwealth Games, others did this in reverse and again with support. I talked to the High Performance Centre – Ontario in May about every swimmer being on their path and that was fine and good. As we get closer to the Olympics these paths will meet and form a focused approach into the Games. We will be heading to the 2023 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in the summer of 2023, and then the Doha FINA World Championships in February 2024, with a purpose and plan. To be honest it is a jigsaw puzzle for sure, but we will find a way to keep focused on what matters, and be adaptable, with no drama.
We are always looking to develop the plans and programs and we are looking now at 2025 to 2028. We will have a national program for Canada and a framework that all can work within and develop all the parts that make the strategy for the future. I see that as exciting for all to see that they can be part of this incredible journey. We are looking at dates for the 2025 to 2028 quad. We have already started consultation with our carded coaches and provincial technical leads and will be consulting with our Swimming Canada athlete council on this specific issue. From this we will continue to strengthen a system for Canada. More will be following on this in due course.
Any final thoughts?
I would like to thank Own the Podium, Sport Canada and Canadian Olympic Committee for their fantastic support, which has enabled our program to grow and flourish. Our partners, along with the investment from Swimming Canada, have made the difference.
There has been a lot of change over the past year, but really change has been ongoing since 2013, and we will move forward again to 2024 and 2028. Change can be hard but where there’s no change there is no growth. We don’t want to fall back, so more is coming. The train is moving again and all can get on board. I for one see that as an exciting journey to take.
*Swimmers interested in getting more information about a High Performance Centre are encouraged to fill out this form: https://forms.swimming.ca/machform/view.php?id=35819