Britain hopes to spread the successes scored in Olympic sport to a neighbouring realm that is at once both far wealthier yet far less successful when it comes to the cutting edge of global competition: football.
Gareth Southgate, newly appointed England Manager to an England football team that has stuggled to keep leaders in tune with its struggle on the field, is part of a group of elite coaches from a number of sports brought together by UK Sport for three years with a view to exchanging experience and expertise from different realms.
One of those on the elite team with Southgate is Mel Marshall, mentor at City of Derby, to Adam Peaty, the Olympic and World 100m breaststroke champion and world-record holder.
On a day when Southgate tells The Times that he intends to spread the knowledge and tips he picks up from the cross-sport thinktank to other England coaches and clubs so that a winning culture can ripple to the roots, Marshall explains the concept:
“We’re part of a UK Sport elite coach programme group in which we have residential sessions together across the three years of the course. We don’t talk specifics of our sport. The talk is around general culture, direction, performance pathways. We learn from each other and all have something different to bring to the table.”
- Here’s an example of where cross-sport thinking leads to undoing the knots that some sports get themselves tied up in: Off-pitch behaviour and its impact on performance and pressure.
The UK Sport exercise has its roots in exchanges between British Swimming, rugby, cycling and other sports that dates back to the 1990s. When Bill Sweetenham arrived in Britain as performance director to swimming in 2000, his priority was to “mentor the mentors”. A part of that education of coaches was to pass on tips from other sporting realms.
Big appointments in swimming in the past week have been accompanied by much mention from leading coaches of the high value placed in learning from other realms and building teams of experts for a program – and then actually heeding what they say and acting accordingly.
The theme has been mentioned in the past week by both Jon Rudd, moving from Plymouth Leander to head the Ireland national team in February, and James Gibson, a world champion during Sweetenham’s time at the helm and since the end of his racing career a young coach on a steep curve of success that has led him to become the first head Coach to the International Energy Standard swim club.
Marshall, tipped for a top job at Loughborough University’s excellence centre in the near future, also speaks highly of what can be gained by brain-storming issues related to world-class performance programs across many sports.
On Southgate, she tells me: “England are in safe hands with Gareth. He is excellent. Sometimes you have an instant connection with a person. He’s one of them. He’s a wholesome, decent bloke. He wants the very best for his country, his team. He’s exceptionally smart about the game and he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best out of his players.
“He is constantly searching for the scenarios and situations that produce excellence. No use looking in a book for some of this stuff because by the time its published the world has moved on. The development of performance sport is fast moving. The trick is to ask what next and be at the crest of the wave. What makes someone their best, what kinds of things are available to make that happen. Gareth is someone who goes after that.
She adds: “People across all sports are facing the same thing: they’re in search of the best they can possibly be. Footballers make a lot more money but that makes no difference to many of the challenges and pressures of performance sport.
“Do those players want to play for their country and win? Of course they do — the difference is there are 90,000 people in the stands watching who know just about nothing of your life but have a massive opinion about every move you make. It doesn’t matter what your bank balance is, the pressure is there. You might say even more so if you’re highly paid.”
Pressure lives on the fine line between powerful performance enhancer and self-destruct button. After setting the world record over 100m breaststroke at Olympic trials and making himself clear favourite to claim gold at Rio 2016, Peaty said:
“To a certain extent, people use it [pressure] as an excuse for doing badly. It’s something I have never really understood. I have never really felt pressure. Me and Mel say ‘today’s a good day, we are either going to have a good one or a bad one’. It’s all about getting the best out of me and the team.”
He even goes as far as saying pressure “doesn’t exist”, adding: “As you say it’s an artificial thing that’s a cloud that some people choose to carry and some choose to shove away. I choose to shove away as it doesn’t exist. I know that the people who care about me are happy whether I can last or first. Obviously I want to come first.”
Asked about the target on his back going into Rio, he said: “It works better for me. In 2014, I quite liked chasing people, but I’ve come across them now, obviously the world records over my shoulder you have no choice really, so you have to adapt and survive. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel that kind of pressure, it’s all about what the best performance I can get out of myself. And how we do it is up to Mel and the support staff. I just enjoy racing and giving the crowd something to look at.”
It showed in Rio when he produced the most dominant and outstanding swim, his 57.12sec world record over 100m breaststroke topping the points score of all swims, Katie Ledecky, the woman swimmer of the year, closest Peaty’s margin of pioneering progress at a Games that celebrated the swansong of the male swimmer of the year, Ledecky’s USA teammate Michael Phelps.