The Team GB Games changers
Behind front-line British athletes going for gold are a team of driven coaches who will leave nothing to chance
Sunday 29 July 2012
Britain's cyclists do not do anything as prosaic as going to bed, perchance to dream. They go there to win, on personalised pillows and layered memory-foam mattresses covered by hypo-allergenic sheets. Lighting, and the quality of air flow, are strictly controlled as they sleep. The unique beds, the product of a partnership with sleep coach Nick Littlehales, were installed in the Olympic Village this month. They can be dismantled in 30 seconds and are stored in bags the size of a suitcase.
Welcome to Dave Brailsford's world, where the search for fractional advantage is a 24/7 business. His collection of sun-ripened road racers, post-punk BMX-ers, sinewy mountain bikers and the behemoths of the track will be big stars of 2012.
Brailsford, who masterminded Bradley Wiggins's Tour de France victory while preparing the Olympic team, is a different animal to the pallid bureaucrats who infest the higher echelons of British sport.
His official title, British Cycling's performance director, does him no justice. He is a coach who challenges convention, a scientist who understands the value of creative tension. He is a benevolent dictator whose favours are rationed and strategically applied. Above all, he is a winner.
The benchmark was set by a record eight gold medals in Beijing. In the course of transforming cycling to something approaching a national obsession, he has inspired a significant set of kindred spirits.
They share his restlessness, intelligence, imagination and commitment to culture change. One, Matt Parker, works for him. The others, David Faulkner, Simon Timson, Stephen Park and Charles van Commenee, work in hockey, cricket, sailing and athletics respectively. They are our Games changers.
The elite bed is a natural progression from the bomb, the bus, and cyclists in the buff. Riders stripping so their sweat can be collected, weighed, analysed and extrapolated into a potential time penalty is an everyday human element of innovation in action. As cycling's head of marginal gains, Matt Parker is one of the key figures in the Secret Squirrel club assembled by Dave Brailsford to share secrets and search for the edge across sport, science, industry, and the military.
Parker's life changed at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. He was an outstanding young sports scientist, who worked with me at the English Institute of Sport. Over several beers on the beachfront in Melbourne he confided Brailsford had offered him a coaching job. It was an initiative which broke the mould, but made perfect sense. Brailsford's vision involved a new generation of performance scientists, with intellectual rigour and enquiring minds, operating alongside, or as an alternative to, conventional coaches.
Parker has no background in cycling, yet he coached the men's endurance team pursuit squad, who set their third world record in 18 months in winning Olympic gold in Beijing. He coached Bradley Wiggins when he finished fourth in the 2009 Tour de France. Then Brailsford, with typical boldness, decided it was time for a change.
Parker now heads a team of 15, consisting of experts in biomechanics, nutrition, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, performance analysis, physiology and physiotherapy. They have delivered 28 major projects since January 2010.
The bomb, officially known as the Datarider, is a black-box recorder the size of a matchbox, positioned beneath the saddle. Developed in conjunction with McLaren, it is the sport's most sophisticated integrated performance measurement device.
The Performance Bus was pioneered on this year's Tour. It has only nine seats, which recline fully, so that recuperative massages can begin the instant competition ends. Its internal environment is regulated, dependent on the challenges of the day.
Riders are monitored by a laser- guided timing system based on technology designed to reduce friendly-fire casualties on the battlefield. Each has a personal code embedded into a reflective tag on one leg, which helps measure split times in track sprint performances down to one thousandth of a second.
Stephen Park, sailing's Olympic team manager, oversaw similar support from a programme designed to protect troops from chemical weapons as he sought to minimise the impact of his sport's insoluble problem, water.
An invisible polymer coating, approximately 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is applied to each sailor's kit and equipment. This repels water by forming it into beads which disperse without adding to the weight on the boat.
Park is close to Brailsford. He shares his obsessive attention to detail, his ideals and aspirations. It is unsurprising, then, that mountain bikers share sailing's technology. They have calculated an additional kilogram of water and mud on kit can cost up to 15 seconds.
Charles van Commenee enters Brailsford's orbit in the Performance Directors' Forum, a small self-help group for leading sports chaired by Park's boss, John Derbyshire.
The Dutchman has transformed the culture of athletics, but insists it is still an Olympic cycle behind proven programmes such as cycling and sailing. That's progress, given he inherited a dysfunctional sport in which athletes were split into cliques, and dismissive, even abusive, of support staff. With notable exceptions, such as jumps specialist Aston Moore, coaches tended to be sour, reclusive and resistant to authority. Introduced to an open plan office, they quickly imported home-made partitions so that they could continue to work in isolation.
Such selfishness outraged Van Commenee, but he learned the lessons of Bill Sweetenham's failure with swimming. The Australian was a turbulent figure, who would test his swimmers' resistance to adversity through such bizarre schemes as having their luggage deliberately stolen en route to training camps. I found him compelling, but his confrontational nature lost him respect and credibility. His example has encouraged Van Commenee to smooth the rougher edges of his character without weakening his stance against athletes, such as the triple jumper Phillips Idowu, who refuse to buy into a team mentality.
He admits he made a "huge mistake" with the "wimp thing", his shorthand for his withering description of heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, which prompted her to burst into tears instead of celebrating her bronze medal in Athens in 2004.
He remains straight-talking and intolerant of avoidable failure, but has adopted a more empathetic approach in the build-up to the London Games. He pointedly diverts credit to Kevin Tyler, who is educating athletes and coaches for 2016 and beyond.
By that time I fully expect Simon Timson to be running a major Olympic sport. As the ECB's head of science and medicine he is the unheralded influence behind England's rise to No 1 in world cricket. Originally a sports psychologist, Timson has studied basketball, baseball, and American football, where his link to the Baltimore Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh, led to an invitation to the NFL combine.
The experience of watching the best 400 college players undergo psychological, physical and personality tests underpins his development programme for emerging cricketers. In an Olympic context, Timson is significant because he turned bob skeleton from a rag-bag collection of adventurers to a cohesive, professionally run team which won 42 medals in six years from 2000.
David Faulkner, a gold medallist in 1988, has overseen a similar revolution in hockey. His inheritance, on becoming performance director in 2005, was a bankrupt governing body and a culture which enshrined "a lack of confidence, direction, trust and courtesy".
He hails the withdrawal of funding as "the best thing that could have happened to us". Around half the players in the London squads paid to play. In the process, they reset their values, recalibrated their careers.
There is a greater sense of responsibility and self-awareness, honed by such extra-curricular activity as a Royal Marines training camp and the staging of an improvised comedy show for support staff.
Faulkner has nurtured two young coaches of contrasting character, who have taken their respective teams from 11th in the world to fourth. Jason Lee, the men's coach, is informal and experimental. Danny Kerry, whose women play Japan today, has matured markedly since Beijing.
"I was incredibly tired," Kerry admits. "I ignored the importance of managing players as people."
Faulkner learned a lot from the team unity Brailsford engendered in Beijing, where hockey players shared an Olympic Village block with cyclists. He knows better than most that the Secret Squirrel club never sleeps. Let's just say that in the coming days you will see sudden similarities between Sir Chris Hoy and a Formula One racing car.
Head of Science & Medicine, ECB
A key figure in the development of English cricket, based at Loughborough Academy since 2006. Spent previous six years as performance director for British Skeleton.
Head of Marginal Gains, British Cycling
Recruited as a performance scientist from the English Institute of Sport in 2006. Coached successfully for four years before assuming a broader technical role.
Performance Director, British Cycling/General Manager, Team Sky
Welsh coach who acquired sports science degree and MBA after failing to establish himself as professional rider in France. Became cycling's performance director before Athens Olympics, and has run Team Sky since inception in 2010.
Manager, British Olympic sailing team
Joined RYA Olympic programme in 1997, and became Olympic manager four years later. Responsible for all aspects of 2012 sailing programme.
Performance Director, England/GB Hockey
Gold medallist in Seoul in 1988, he returned to hockey in a reorganised role in 2005 after selling a successful sports branding company.
Charles Van Commenee
Head Coach, UK Athletics
Coached Denise Lewis to Olympic gold in Sydney before becoming performance director of the Dutch Olympic Committee in 2004. Returned to UK Athletics in 2009.
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