Great Britain met its target of six medals at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, which is not to say the journey was straightforward. “There are certain sports where winning medals is more controllable, where perhaps there are fewer nations competing,” says Steve Paulding, the Director of British Athletics’ National Performance Institute [NPI] in Loughborough.
By John Portch
He continues to explain: “In athletics, when you consider the number of countries competing – and the dominance of certain countries in certain events – you’re working in a very competitive environment. To succeed means we’ve got to cover every single base and put everything we can in place that we possibly can. This is particularly challenging in a non-centralised system.”
Paulding is speaking in May at an NPI media open day where British Athletics throws open the doors to the well-appointed facilities behind its World Class Programme [WCP]. Based at the University of Loughborough, the NPI provides a central hub for about 40 members of British Athletics’ senior management, coaching and support staff – “it’s very much the engine room,” says Paulding – as they work to support the 130 athletes on Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic programmes.
Some are based here in Loughborough, such as Olympic, world and European medallist Martyn Rooney, 2015 European Under-20 pole vault champion Adam Hague, and World Para Athletics Championship long jump gold medallist Stef Reid. Others are based elsewhere in Britain or even abroad; and British Athletics’ objective is the same all cases: “Our job is to work with them, influence them, add value, and make sure what they’re getting is the best it can be and to supplement that where possible. Every decision we make has an impact on cost or time.”
We are greeted in the reception area of the Seb Coe High Performance Athletics Centre [HiPAC] and it is clear from a glance at the adjacent indoor running track, the studied activity around the pole vault setup, not to mention the numerous athletes milling around in British Athletics attire, that this is a fully functioning hub. Throughout the tour, Paulding is occasionally approached by colleagues, whom he promises to catch up with later in the day. He is also warm and familiar with the students and athletes training in different sections of the facility. “I try to make this environment as positive as it can be for people to do their job, which is going out to win medals in Tokyo,” he says.
Paulding was appointed as Director of the NPI in 2016 by British Athletics’ Performance Director Neil Black. The Rio Games had finished and Black had identified the need to bring in a number of additional key staff to deliver the new Tokyo 2020 strategy. Another aspect of Paulding’s role is overseeing British Athletics’ relationship with the university and ensuring that the athletes’ external support services have the right environment to do their jobs. When the tour concludes, we repair to the onsite offices, passing swiftly through some medical rooms with the permission of the athletes presently receiving treatment, and delve into UK Sport and the NPI’s role in helping its athletes to win.
Supporting athletes far and near
British Athletics’ Tokyo medal strategy was signed off by its board as well as UK Sport, the governmental body tasked with developing elite level sport in Britain. Bridging geographical barriers and the athletes’ divergent needs, this requires nimbleness and dexterity at management level and, to that end, Paulding has two decades of experience working in high performance programmes. A former international track cyclist, he served as Head Coach of British Cycling at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and has worked both within Scottish National Sport and the Scottish Government in performance capacities. His last role prior to taking the reins at the NPI was as Performance Director of Scottish Golf. Of those experiences, he says: “It helps that I have run other facilities and been in a similar position to Neil in other sports, so I know what he has to focus on. I can take a lot of that noise away from him and answer any questions or solve many of the issues the coaches or athletes may have.”
The programme is not centralised but there are several core processes, which provide a useful framework for British athletes as they progress through a four-year Olympic and Paralympic cycle. Paulding says: “In the first year we’re working with some new athletes; some athletes will also have left the programme; we will have had changes in staff too. So there’s some embedding required to ensure we’re aligned and on strategy; that we’ve checked the balance of our strategy. We then start working to ensure we get the right networks of support around the athlete and making sure that any new relationships are built.”
The medal strategy is revisited on a quarterly basis by a leadership team from British Athletics that includes Neil Black in his role as Performance Director; Assistant Performance Director, Mike Cavendish; Head of Performance Support, Tommy Yule and, finally, Paulding, who also oversees the more regular reviews. “Those regular meetings could be around coaching and facilities and service provision,” says Paulding.
Inevitably, relationships differ from athlete to athlete and coach to coach: “We have different levels of relationship with athletes or their personal coaches so we ask ourselves how we can make sure their environment and programmes are optimal; how we can influence and support that is critical. So the meetings we have around those are highly individualised around the needs and circumstances of the individual athletes, their personal coaches and their specific event group. We have a tracking system, red, amber and green, for all our key objectives; we assess whether they’re on track for the timeline of the four-year cycle against those objectives and we review it ongoing.
“We’re now only two years away from the Olympics and Paralympics; we’re trying to identify who are our realistic medal chances for Tokyo and ask ourselves ‘what can we do to make a difference?’”
Accelerated learning and knowledge capture
The NPI says it is responsible for ‘accelerated learning, capturing knowledge and developing and disseminating insight that better informs “What It Takes To Win” medals at the Olympics and Paralympics.’ What does this entail for the athletes and coaches? “We are lucky to have some highly qualified people with networks not only in athletics but across different sports,” replies Paulding. “It’s very rare that coaches working at the front end have all the most up-to-date information, access to research papers or documentation, or some of the technical skills to measure some of the things that might be critical to performance. So the fact that we can build a really good picture of what it takes to win in every different event group then go to athletes and coaches and help them to marry up their measures is critical.
“We can accelerate personal coach’s learning; we can bring in ideas from other sports or from athletics around the world to make sure we’re at the front end of what we’re trying to do. It can be technical – sometimes it can be overly technical – but having all that basic information at our disposal and making sure we’re doing the right things and we’re helping people to learn; effectively educating and training personal coaches and athletes to be the best they can be.”
As the aforementioned meetings are highly individualised, so is a coach’s learning. “If we have a coach working with a high level performer, we will sit down with that coach and perform a gap analysis of the type of skills they have and the type of skills they want to develop further. Often it’s not so much technical skills around their event, it’s more about their ability to work and interact with a complex team of support service providers.” Support services could be medical, nutritional, sports science-based or anything concerned with high performance; during a cycle a personal coach will need to work with any number of individuals; and so Paulding and his colleagues ask: “Do they have the right level of communication skills? Emotional intelligence skills? Do they understand how to use the basic tools of the trade? Are they computer literate? We have some coaches who aren’t good with Excel, so if we sent them lots of spreadsheets they wouldn’t know what they were looking at. So we have to ask ourselves how we bring these people up to speed.”
Paulding suggests that the answers are different in every case. “We have in the region of 110 personal coaches. Some are ex-international athletes, some have come through education, some have come in as sports scientists who have moved into coaching,” he says. “We have some coaches in their late-20s and others who are in their 70s. That’s the reality and if we’re going to work with the coaches and help them we’ve got to decide what it is we need them to do. What is the limiting factor we need to address to help their athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games?”
As part of their approach, the British Athletics believes in personal mentoring or sending coaches to suitable training days. “It’s individual education; it’s sending people to spend time with experts in their field, in their event group, maybe a sprint coach, an endurance coach, or a throws coach. We want to give them exposure to competitions at European and world level so that when they go to the Olympic Games they’re not out of their depth.”
We are always looking for opportunities to learn and continually improve what we do cycle by cycle, major event by major event. Problems have occurred in past cycles: “an example would be a personal coach can come in and be damaging in a competition environment if they’re a rabbit in the headlights and haven’t had that right development that enables them to act or respond, not just with their individual athlete, but also other coaches and athletes in the team. A major Games is where the pressure can be unprecedented and ensuring we have prepared the coaches and support staff can be as important as the athletes themselves. They will be part of a bigger team. What they say and do may be right for their athlete but could be seriously damaging to the wider team.”
That said, the approach is not didactic. “That journey has to be taken in agreement with them,” explains Paulding. “We want them to understand that this is about them being a better coach; to help their athlete on the world stage.” It is a process that British Athletics is trying to start earlier and earlier, with both its athletes and coaches. “We’re starting to educate support coaches and athletes once we think they’re going to break through. We have a lot of athletes of school age with a lot of basic talent and we’ll ask how at that level do we try to make sure that both they and their coach start to get that early support and education that will help them achieve their potential and aspirations. Can we direct them to a good club? Can we direct them when it comes to university and one of their options has an excellent athletics support programme? Can we ensure that if they are a sprinter, for example, that they start to learn basic relay skills so that we don’t have to embed them later on if they start to break into one of our teams.
“We’ll try to give them a broad education, which is as much about areas such as nutrition or what preparation for a major competition looks like; what qualifications does your coach have and would they like some additional education? When they reach their first under-age European or World Championships both athlete and coach will understand the environment much better; they’ll operate and be more comfortable and there’s more chance they can springboard off into one of our Olympic or Paralympic programmes.”
The language of data
Athletics is not alone in witnessing a proliferation in technology and data. In elite sport, this uninhibited growth has, in most cases, prevented a lack of standardisation, which can cause problems for even the best-resourced programmes and is acknowledged by the tech organisations themselves.
“One of the things that’s led to this proliferation is that people keep looking for new tech,” observes Phil Wagner, CEO and Founder of Sparta Science, a human performance data company in the Silicon Valley. He tells the Leaders Performance Institute: “People often think that the secret is in the hardware whereas it’s really the decisions you make around the data. Organisations can be reluctant to share that data with their competitors but, if the medical profession operated like that, our life expectancy would still be around 32 years. You build norms in order to evolve the field. If sports organisations shared diagnostics, norms and standardisations – realising that’s not the real secret – that’s how they’d elevate the industry.
“The real secret and competitive advantage is how you choose to use that information to create practices that you need not share.”
In this regard, track & field is better placed than a number of sports to use its data adroitly; and British Athletics are using the numbers to ensure their athletes are training effectively and efficiently. Paulding says: “If you take the 100m sprint, we know what speed an athlete needs to make a final and medal; we know what an optimal stride length is; we know that if your legs are too long or short, you can never win the 100m. If we know how long your legs are and your stride length, your stride rate, acceleration time, reaction time etc. we can predict a likely 100m time. Also, then what needs to change/improve to be a potential medal winner. We need that level of data so that when the biomechanists collect and analyse the data and we can start to look at where people are and start to look at predictions of what’s possible.
“If that data is meaningful to performance then we’ve got to find the right language to communicate it. We have to ensure that the data is relevant to whatever it is we’re trying to improve or change with the athlete. Some coaches are steeped in science, some aren’t; it’s just making sure that whatever we do we have enough understanding of the athlete and their personal coach. All of our support teams, whether they are psychologists, biomechanists, physiologists, strength & conditioning coaches – all of them understand that and have enough of a relationship to communicate the right things in a suitable way. Then we as a team have understood what the priorities are for the athlete.”
All in all, Paulding can see the use of data in athletics continuing to grow. “There’s evidence to suggest that if we can gather as much as possible now, and focus on the things we can use, then in three or four years’ time we may have the people with the right skillsets to use it more effectively.”
As we wrap up the conversation we ask about funding and Paulding concedes that there may be difficult times ahead for all Olympic and Paralympic sports, although the NPI’s mission will not deviate: “We have to make sure we’re right at the top of our game so that we can maximise every pound and continue to demonstrate our ability to win medals.”