Notes From: Supporting Champions 2018

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Notes From: Supporting Champions 2018

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This Notes From article is brought to you by Will Abbott (@WillAbbott__). Will is the Head Academy Strength and Conditioning Coach at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. He is also undertaking his PhD in the use of GPS and accelerometery within elite football. You can find his Researchgate page here.


Supporting Champions was started by Performance Scientist, Dr Steve Ingham. Dr Ingham has twenty years of experience supporting champions, across the British Olympic Association and later at the English Institute of Sport. He recently authored the book “How to Support a Champion” (you can read the first chapter for free through the link!). You can find out more about Supporting Champions, the book and the conference on their website here. The inaugural Supporting Champions conference took place on 20th and 21st March 2018 at the Emirates Stadium in London.


Steve Ingham – Science of Optimising Performance (@ingham_steve)

Steve opened the 2018 Supporting Champions conference with a presentation about optimising performance. This was after he reminded us why we spent all those hours making paper airplanes whilst we were kids!


Steve began by demonstrating how to break down a winning performance, in this example, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s 2:08 in the 800m. He logically broke the components of performance into further sub-components, and then highlighted potential interventions to improve these sub-components. This was termed the ‘what’. Steve then spoke about the ‘how’, and highlighted the importance of trust and rapport in coach-athlete relationships.


The focus was then switched to us as practitioners. Steve cited research demonstrating how happy and sad cues had positive and negatives effects upon athletes’ respective performances in time to exhaustion tests. This emphasised that we as support staff can have a significant effect upon our athletes with our behaviour and attitude. Steve also touched on the effect of decision-making fatigue as we progress through the day, something we need to be aware of whilst working with athletes.


Tony Strudwick – Creating Winning Moments (@StrudwickTony)

Tony was next up and delivered a great presentation on ‘creating winning moments’. I’ve heard Tony present on a few occasions now, and appreciate the way he is able to take a step back and speak about performance in a holistic sense, not over-playing the role of sport science. Tony commented that the key to long-term success in sport is the summation of ‘winning moments’ on a daily basis.


One comment that stuck with me from Tony’s presentation, especially considering the ever-evolving nature of elite sport, was the following: “It’s not the strongest, nor the most intelligent that survive, but those most responsive to change.” I thought this was applicable to coaches, athletes, and support staff.


Tony spoke extensively about the culture at Manchester United. Winning and losing behaviours were identified amongst staff and players, with disregard for rules mostly dealt with by players within the dressing room. The ability to be resilient, and deal with criticism or disappointment, was pinpointed as vital during the club’s successful years.


When focussing upon the success of the academy at Manchester United, Tony praised the environment that bred the academy graduates more than the individual players themselves. He suggested that graduates had benefitted from highly qualified and knowledgeable coaches, first team players who were ‘hands-on’ as role models, a culture of discipline and work ethic, and a focus upon long term individual development.


Tony finished the presentation speaking about the new generation of tech-savvy, impatient athletes. These athletes crave instant feedback, and in order to be successful, the modern sport science practitioner needs to adapt to communicate and engage with them.


Peter Vint – Know Your Numbers, Harness Your Insights (@PeterVint)

Peter’s presentation focused upon the use of and data within elite sport. Peter described his early experiences of the player audit process at United States Olympic Committee. The majority of statements were opinions, with little quantitative data to back them up. Whoever shouted the loudest, or had the best stories won the argument! I’ve certainly had experience of these scenarios, and I imagine a number of practitioners can relate to Peter’s comment.


Peter went on to describe how times have since changed, and that there have been a number of tactical decisions within US sport as a result of . For example, the recruitment of designated ‘3 point shooters’ in basketball. Also the tactical change from punting on a 4th down to going for a touchdown in football. Such have real impact on team performance. However they aren’t commonly used due to resources, staff, time commitment, and finances. Additionally, there are circumstances whereby have been overlooked due to a coach’s own confidence in themselves.


Peter finished the presentation with the statement that by themselves are not the answer, and that there needs to be a combination of and coaches ‘gut’.


Andy Jones –Breaking 2: Lessons Learned From The Quest To Break The 2-Hour Marathon Barrier (@AndyBeetroot)

Andy delivered a fascinating presentation on Nike’s quest to break the two-hour marathon. Despite once being considered an impossible task, the trajectory of improvement in marathon performance is rapidly increasing, and Andy calculated the two-hour threshold could be broken. He was recruited on to Nike’s project to investigate whether this was attainable.


When discussing the project structure, Andy addressed the question of what a sub-two hour marathon would consist of. The hypothetical performance was broken down into its component parts, and was calculated as:


  • VO2MAX of 75-85 ml/kg/min.
  • Ability to sustain 75-85% VO2max for two-hour duration.
  • Running economy of 170-190ml/kg/km.

These components weren’t unheard of in isolation, but very rare to find in one individual.


One hundred of the best long-distance runners in the world were narrowed down to twenty, and then tested using both laboratory and field tests to calculate a predicted time for each. Three runners were identified as having the potential to break the threshold; Lelisa Desisa, Zersane Tadese and Eliud Kipchoge.


Andy and the team spent time with each athlete in their home countries, and shadowed their training camps. Andy admitted to having little input on their training programmes, but provided substantial education to the athletes surrounding nutrition, footwear, clothing, and a technique called drafting (running in a pack to reduce wind resistance).


On the 6th May 2017, in good running conditions, the athletes were put to the test. Unfortunately, none of the runners achieved the sub two-hour marathon, with Eliud Kipchoge narrowly missing out with a time of 02:00:25. All athletes recorded significant improvements on their previous personal bests, therefore demonstrating that we may not be too far away from breaking the sub two-hour marathon.


The documentary is available on National Geographic – Breaking2 and in full on YouTube here.


Chrissie Wellington – What It Takes To Become Four-Time World Ironman Champ (@chrissiesmiles)

Chrissie added the finishing touches to the first day by providing us with a multiple Ironman (not Ironwoman funnily enough!) World Champion’s view on what it takes to become a champion.


It was fascinating to hear Chrissie’s transition from a lawyer to a professional athlete after discovering her ‘why’. Interestingly, Chrissie admitted a large contributor to her success was her ability to overcome adversity and disappointment: a running theme throughout the Supporting Champions conference. Chrissie suggested we should never be too worried about wrapping children and young athletes in cotton wool to ensure they don’t face failure. She was adamant that the success she eventually achieved was the result of the early adversity, disappointment, and failures she experienced.


Greg Retter – Re-wiring Support Services In The World Of Performing Arts

Greg began the second day with a presentation about his role as the Clinical Director of Ballet Healthcare with The Royal Ballet. Initially I knew very little about the demands placed upon a ballet dancer, so it was an eye-opening presentation. The dancers typically work 10:30am-7pm on a non-show day, with that increasing to a 12-hour working day when there is a show in the evening. Up to five different choreographers work with the dancers throughout the day, resulting in five separate rehearsal sessions. This poses it’s own problem, with each choreographer demanding intensity and the dancers to be at their best. Initially, removing dancers from rehearsal was not an option. So much of the support took the form of recovery, nutrition, psychology, S&C, and medical interventions surrounding the rehearsal timetable.


Greg described the extensive support team at the Royal Ballet, but due to a heavy rehearsal schedule, time with the dancers is the limiting factor. The facilities at the organisation (Mason Healthcare Suite) are extensive, boasting a performance gym, force plate, wireless EMG and accelerometer technology. As is a similar theme with other sports, the initial integration of S&C within ballet was met with resistance. This was the result of factors including the fear of building muscle, DOMs, and opinions of some coaching staff. However, after careful integration, the benefits of S&C are now evident. There has been a substantial improvement in dancer availability. Previously as many as 36% of the squad were injured at any one time!


An area I found particularly interesting was the quantification of workload. Greg explained that each dancer’s role within the rehearsal was assessed on a 1-3 scale for the following criteria: jumps, lifts, difficulty, and duration. Additionally, the Royal Ballet have formed a relationship with St Mary’s University and are discussing the use of accelerometer devices as load monitoring tools during rehearsals.


James Morton – Winning On The Road: From People To Performance (@JamesyMorton)

James’s presentation focussed upon his role as Team Sky’s Head of Nutrition. He opened the presentation by suggesting an applied sport scientist’s role isn’t solely about theoretical knowledge, and that the ability to execute effectively is vital. James highlighted the importance of ignoring uncontrollables, and instead focusing upon three controllables that in his opinion are non-negotiable; attitude, behaviour, and communication.


It was fascinating to hear James’ insights on Sir Dave Brailsford and the marginal gains concept associated with Team Sky. When speaking about Sir Dave Brailsford, he stated leadership and direction is everything. Staff need a challenging and uncomfortable environment, but also one that is supportive. Most importantly, they need to be excited about coming to work every day. James commented that in his experience it is more effective to have a smaller team better aligned, than a large team not aligned.


When speaking about marginal gains, James suggested that perhaps the concept had been blown out of proportion, and that seeking marginal gains should be part of everyone’s day-to-day job. He made a point that mastering the basics can have a huge influence for some riders, especially those earlier in their careers. He followed this by saying the 1%ers are best saved for those more experienced riders who have already mastered the basics.


James finished the presentation by stating the biggest talent an athlete or practitioner can have is a good work ethic, and that the key to continual improvement is learning faster than your competitors. In a nutshell, he summed up the role of a sport scientist as the ability to:

  • ask the right questions.
  • answer those questions.
  • translate the answers in a simple way to coaches, or in the form of an intervention.


Conor O’Shea – Q&A Session With Conor

Conor was fresh from a Six Nations campaign with the Italian RFU. He described the differences in culture between the Italians and his previous roles in the UK, and the importance of this whilst putting a game plan into place.


It was interesting to hear Conor speak about how he deals with managing a team in transition. He doesn’t get caught up in losing rugby matches, and instead celebrates progress and focuses upon the controllables. Conor also spoke about how he analyses and identifies the pivotal moments in matches. He suggested that executing the game plan within these pivotal moments more than often results in success.


Conor commented on how he deals with different members of coaching and support staff. He made the point that most individuals working within sport aren’t doing so for the money. They work in sport because they are passionate about it, and want to be developed. He also spoke about ‘walking the square’ throughout the day, and building relationships within a team.


Lastly, Conor spoke about the differences between being a national team coach and the head coach of a club team. The major difference being the reduced contact time when working with the national team. He spoke of the contrast of going months without seeing the players, to an intense training camp during which there is no escape from the team!


Bryan English – Supporting Performance. Sometimes Peripheral. Sometimes Integral. Why The Difference?

Bryan spoke about the role of a doctor, or any member of support staff, in football. He described working in football as a lifestyle, with very little time spent ‘off duty’. He described his first transition into football from Olympics, and the differences in culture between the two. Generally, footballers were described as poorer athletes, with staff often wrapping them in cotton-wool, and worrying about completing extra training. Olympic athletes however, were typically driven towards doing more. Bryan also touched on the long-term effects associated with youth athletes now being removed from physically challenging childhoods.


Bryan’s advice for those working in sport was to be highly organised and structured, especially when it comes to time. Additionally, in order to work effectively as a team, all practitioners need to sing off the same hymn sheet, and relay the same messages.


Kate Richardson-Walsh – Winning Olympic Gold (@katewalsh11)

Kate gave a great presentation on her experiences as GB hockey captain, and Olympic gold medalist. It was fascinating to hear about the factors contributing towards success from an athlete’s perspective. Kate spoke of the ups and downs experienced during her decade long career, and the importance of bouncing back. A particular example was after finishing third in the London Olympics, the team finished 11th of 12 in the World Cup. They then bounced back and won gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.


Kate spoke about the extensive work conducted with psychologists, and how the team benefitted from these interventions. She spoke of one such session where each member described themselves on a good day, and a bad day, and the factors that led to both. The group also listed their perceived ‘super strengths’. This allowed for increased group cohesion, and developed the teams trust and belief in one another.


Kate also touched on the importance of group dynamics, and acknowledging that each athlete is an individual. These differences in personalities are always going to lead to ‘sparks’ and disagreements, however these are vital for promoting an open culture. Organising regular team meetings and discussion ensured the sparks didn’t escalate out of control.




If you are attending a Sports Performance event and would like to write a Notes From feature, please get in touch with Sports Discovery via TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn!


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