How to adopt a medal-winning mentality

It's no accident that Great Britain's rowing and cycling teams top the Olympic tables
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The Independent Online

Putting to one side the host's dubious human rights record and the potential drug scandal or three, the Olympics in Beijing this year should be the usual feast of sporting drama and achievement. The Great Britain team aren't exactly expected to gorge themselves at the head of the medal table mind you, more likely fighting it out for scraps halfway down.

That said, while British track and field athletes are invariably the focus of our frustrations at the lack of bacon being brought home, there are other sports where success has been much more forthcoming. Take, as two prime examples, rowing and cycling. Between them they contributed a quarter of Great Britain's total medal tally at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, while three of GB's nine gold medals in Athens four years ago came courtesy of the same pursuits.

The achievements have continued to rack up as Beijing draws closer. At the World Championships in Munich last year, the British rowing team won three golds, two silvers and six bronzes, marking their best ever world championship performance. Meanwhile, Britain's track cyclists racked up seven titles at the Track Cycling World Championships, which moved Emyr Roberts, performance consultant at UK Sport, to proclaim excitedly that "cycling is really setting the pace among the Olympic sports and shows just how well placed this programme is as we look ahead to Beijing".

Why are these particular sports doing so well? Sue Campbell, chair of UK Sport, has described cycling and rowing as perfect models of how sports should be run: streamlined performance programmes that produce results and talent on a regular basis. Interesting then to note that, in both cases, sport science is a crucial part of those successful programmes.

Dr Chris Shambrook (pictured below) completed a sport science degree and a PhD in psychology at the University of Brighton. He is now the sport psychologist for the GB rowing team, part of a line-up that includes an additional lead psychologist, two biomechanists, a dietician and a medical support team, which includes doctors and physios. It's a formidable team of experts, but Shambrook is keen to pass on his knowledge in a straightforward manner

"There's an underpinning philosophy to help inform someone how to develop their mental fitness, but it's also got to be delivered through an understanding of the specific psychological demands of the sport," he says. "I want to make sure it is very accessible and easily applicable to either training or competitive situations, so it's finding what works mentally for the athlete or the coaches, and then explaining that by the theory, as opposed to trying to foist a theory on them."

Shambrook works primarily with the female and lightweight squads, occasionally doing one-to-one work with members of the men's heavyweight squad (think Sir Steve Redgrave rather than Frank Bruno). In the build-up to the Olympics, it will be his role to keep the athletes focused and maintain a tried-and-tested routine. The imminence of the big competition doesn't mean methods suddenly change.

"It will be business as usual – we have annual world championships and there's a cycle during the course of the year," Shambrook explains. "The approach will be similar in terms of the level of contact and the nature of discussions, with the backdrop of the mental challenges that an Olympic Games brings.

"We will be making sure that there is a very clear understanding about the role of psychology in delivering performance when it matters and how to take the lessons learned from those competitive situations, so when it comes to the Olympic environment the athletes are going to have a very clear idea of how to get their minds right."

Psychology is just one aspect of sport science. It is broadly divided into four areas, with biomechanics, sociology and physiology making up the other elements. It is physiology that Dr Louis Passfield concentrates on in his role with British Cycling. He was a racing cyclist himself and began reading about sport science as part of efforts to improve his own performance; it intrigued him so much that he decided to study it at university, also in Brighton.

On graduating, his career took off when he worked with Peter King, then coach to legendary pursuit cyclist Chris Boardman. That set him up to work with British Cycling, where he now works part-time as well as being in charge of the academic sport department at the University of Kent. Endurance cyclists are the major part of his remit, and he believes that the conditions in China mean there are some hard lessons to be learned.

"The group that are likely to be most stressed in Beijing by heat and humidity are the mountain bike riders so, for them, preparing will be critical," he says. "Whereas, for the Chris Hoys [track sprinters], the fact that their event is quite short and they're on an indoor track means that the environment will have a minimal impact on their preparation."

Preparation is, of course, of paramount importance, but sport scientists will be on hand right up to the starting line. "There's a lot of performance analysis that you can gather that can subsequently influence the strategies and tactics that are employed during races, and also provide you with assessments of your likely rivals and competitors. There will be a range of different staff in Beijing, who will be there gathering that kind of information."

The reason sport science is so effective for our rowers and cyclists is that it was incorporated into the training of those athletes from an early stage. Passfield points to the fact that elite athletics has changed unrecognisably over the last 15 years, from an amateur vocation supported by coaches who were prepared to donate their time and effort to a very sleek and professional unit. That means that any would-be sport scientists need to be at the peak of their game too.

"You need to work hard at developing yourself, although it's not all about academic prowess by any means," says Passfield. "It's those who can apply their knowledge most effectively to help athletes that are going to be the most successful. The challenge with sport science is that it's one of these areas that is always evolving, so there's a requirement to keep on top of the latest findings and find out what can be fed into the sport."

Shambrook echoes the necessity of setting the pace. "It's a similar journey to the one the athletes have to take – there's an aspiration to get to the top and a lot of competition with people who would also like to get there. It's a case of great academic grounding – being passionate about your subject, so that you live, eat, sleep and breath it – and to fit that into the results-driven business of sport."

Chris Shambrook and Louis Passfield both have BASES High Performance Sport Accreditation; for further information, visit www.bases.org.uk

'The work is incredibly satisfying'

Peter Firth, 39, left school at 16 and worked in a warehouse before becoming interested in sport and fitness as a career. At 26 he did a degree in sport and exercise science at the University of Bedfordshire and now works as an exercise science advisor at Dr John Buckley's practice in Shrewsbury.

"The people I see have usually been referred by their GP because of cardiac problems like heart attacks or bypasses, or because they have replacement knees or even mental health problems.

The average age is 62, so we don't expect them to be Olympic athletes, but we do find that many of them have enjoyed sports like golf or bowls in the past and are very keen to take them up again. Others will get into the habit of walking every day or simply gardening on a regular basis.

Clients follow the programme for three months. It involves coming in two or three times a week and doing exercise on their own the rest of the time, and we assess the programme's success in a number of ways, including measuring the energy they expend on exercise bikes before and after the programme and by checking heart rate and blood pressure.

We find that people who are depressed can benefit just as much from regular exercise as heart bypass patients – the feeling of well-being after expending energy can make people feel calmer and give them a real sense of well-being.

I originally wanted to work with athletes, but I find my work here incredibly satisfying and it's good to work alongside other health professionals such as nurses, doctors and physiotherapists.

Sports science is rather elite in many ways, whereas an understanding of the science of fitness can help all of us."

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