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Feature: How top-level sport continues to adapt through the pandemic

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When Dan Jervis arrived at the British Swimming selection trials for the Tokyo Olympics last month, he had spent much of the previous year reduced to swimming in a cold, dark lake near Resolven.

By the time he climbed out of the pool, he had left all his rivals trailing in his wake – comfortably winning the 1500m freestyle, over four seconds inside the Olympic consideration time.

Fellow Welsh swimmer Harriet Jones – another who had been out of the pool for months – even managed a personal best in the 100m butterfly as she, too, booked her spot for Tokyo.

Those are just two of the achievements that have got staff at the Sport Wales Institute reflecting on the lessons from a year of lockdown.

In many instances, the blueprints have been ripped up, the time-honoured certainties thrown out of the window.

It may have been forced upon them, but Welsh elite athletes are just coming to the end of the biggest human experiment of their sporting lives – and of the lives of the sports scientists employed to support them, for that matter.

What happens when you take away their competition, compel them to rest, and then restrict their access to training and therapies so that elite sports men and women are forced to imagine new ways of doing things?

The answer, it seems, are exciting new possibilities, based on the qualities of resilience, single-mindedness and a freed sense of imagination.

Who would have thought in those first strange weeks of lockdown that athletes running under streetlamps, lifting heavy shopping bags filled with books, or challenging each other to bike rides over Strava, would look back at this time as the making of them?

But they just might.

When the pandemic first struck, the Sport Wales institute team, comprising of; physiotherapists, performance advisors, analysts, nutritionists, psychologists and conditioning coaches had to move quickly.

They were handing out weights and training equipment like survivalist pockets of resistance in an Armageddon disaster movie.

Felicity Hares, Sport Wales Institute people and services lead, recalls: “In those first few weeks, we had strength and conditioning coaches dividing up weights to give to people to take home to wherever they might be based.

“I think we have most of it back now, but there are still a few bits and pieces scattered across the country.

“We had a very risk-mitigated approach where it was essential delivery only. We only had intervention if it couldn’t be done remotely.”

The athletes, then, were  supported remotely via virtual platforms..

Some found this liberating, especially as communication technologies like Zoom meant they were now able to save time on travel.

For others – who perhaps enjoyed pouring their hearts out and talking about their issues while a physio massaged their quad muscles for an hour or two – this new world left them feeling isolated.

“It was crisis management in the first instance,” says physiotherapist Dan Grimstead, clinical and delivery lead.

“We shut the institute down and then we had to attend to people’s expectations. There was an Olympic Games coming up and we no longer had an institute to deliver services.

“We had to do a lot of work to stabilise the situation. Then, we had to say we are going to deliver things in a different way.”

But what has emerged, though, across many sports, has been not a decline in fitness and conditioning levels, but often a marked improvement.

“One sports scientist has presented some work around female cyclists,” says Hares.

“Prior to the lockdown period they would never have thought that without access to gyms, or specialised coaching, or weights, that they could actually improve their lower body strength.

“But the testing has shown that there is so much they can do at home in their garage or their garden, so maybe the specialised environment is not as critical as we thought.

“It has led to a change in how some of the cyclists run their sessions. They don’t actually need to go to Cardiff all the time for specialist services. For instance, they can use the gym in Newport. There has been a shift in mindset.”

As well as swimmers using lakes or improving their core muscles on land, or cyclists working out in their garages, there have been hockey players and netballers working on their technical skills in their garden, or squash players upping their game on their mental strategies.

There have been practical forms of adaptability, such as the throwing cage Paralympic champion Aled Davies constructed in his back garden.

Others have felt the lift of a supportive local community, such as Paralympic table tennis champion Rob Davies, whose friends and neighbours in Brecon fixed up a table for him in his local village hall when he was denied his training trips to Cardiff.

Wales’ No.1 judoka Natalie Powell turned her living room into a makeshift gym and practice arena, complete with mats, while F44 discus thrower Harrison Walsh used a local footpath to throw into a nearby field.

The innovation wasn’t entirely without bumps and bruises. Olympic silver medalist rower Vicky Thornley swapped her boat for a bike and ended up breaking her arm, but Sport Wales Institute performance advisor Dan Farmer believes the 12 months have been transformative.

Aled Sion Davies lifting weights in back yard
Aled Sion Davies lifting weights in back garden


“Athletes often find a way. Dan Jervis is a great example of doing what needs to be done having recently qualified for the Olympics,” he says.

“It shines a light on the way we have always done things and how can we do things differently in the future.”

Old school grunt and graft will always be required for any athlete wanting to reach the top, but Farmer believes what the enforcements the pandemic have done is underline that there is more than one way to get there. 

“There are certain demands in sport that are always there. You have to train, whether you are in the best gym in Wales or whether you’re filling up shopping bags in the back garden.

“Athletes, coaches and support staff had to adapt and think differently. The work gets done in one way or another. Virtual communication provided the platform for support and guidance when required. 

“Sometimes as coaches, it’s about taking a step backwards and seeing what the athlete can come up with themselves. Let’s see how creative they can be.

“Applications such as Strava were used to keep things competitive. These are things we can build on moving forward and not just fall back into the traditional ways we have always done things.”

But it has not just been in the training sphere where athletes have had to adapt. Their recovery from injury, their conditioning and their physical preparedness all had to be re-assessed when the help was no longer close at hand.

Grimstead – the Institute’s Delivery lead – believes the whole dynamic of how an athlete gains treatment has been reversed by the experience of the past 12 months.

Instead of being a passive recipient, the athlete of the future will make his or her own choices.

“What this has done is made us look really hard at how we deliver sports science and medicine practices,” he says.

“Many areas have been excellent and sustainable, but it’s made us look really hard at what we do and why we do it.

“We have realised there are other ways of doing things that are just as effective. For instance, with soft tissue therapists, the expectation from athletes is that you finish your training and you plonk yourself on the bed for a guy who gives hands-on treatment.

“Then, half an hour later, you leave.

“In the lockdown space, the soft tissue therapists have had more informed, in-depth conversations with athletes about what they actually need and what they can take responsibility for.

“That’s a much more empowering way of delivering services. In the process, athletes are learning more about their own requirements and needs.

“Traditionally, they were delivered ‘at me’. That’s happened right across the board. Athletes are much more cognisant now of how things are delivered. They have more options. They can say they prefer the service to be delivered in a certain particular way.”

As Welsh athletes prepare for the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, and other sports shake themselves from their enforced hibernation, the psychological aspects of the effects of the pandemic are starting to become evident.

Footballers and rugby players have recognised how much they value spectators and how fans can affect performance, while other athletes are making similar adjustments.

Some athletes have not had the benefit of a coaching voice at their shoulder, either, and may not have that in overseas competition for some time.

Hares says: “Athletes have had time to consider, ‘who am I and where am I going?’

“We had people with complete loss of motivation, loss of goals, and whereas the support for that used to be to sit next to them at the side of the track or the pool, now they were remote.

“It has challenged the staff and how they connect with the athletes.

“The athletes have had to show mental fortitude. They have been eating in their rooms on their own, there has been no communal dining indoors. 

“People have had to be on their own, entertain themselves. But for those hoping to go to the Olympics and Paralympics, that’s exactly what it’s going to be like in Japan. So, what they have experienced now will stand them in good stead.”

The conviction of those working alongside the elite Welsh athletes is that 2020 to 2021 may one day be looked upon not as a disaster for them, but perhaps even a blessing.

It was a time to rest jaded minds as well as bodies and re-set for the future.

“Every one of them will be a better athlete because of this last 12 months,” insists Grimstead.

“Their ability to adapt and be creative has been enhanced. There is so much about this which has been positive.”

Farmer agrees and even makes a bold prediction.

“In the world of high performance, we crave certainty and control. These last 12 months have forced us to be adaptable and flexible and that can only be a benefit when we enter the competition arena.

“Some athletes will have benefitted from not competing, not travelling around the world and not being under constant psychological stress.

“Maybe that is what we are going to see. Maybe, 2021 will be the best year a lot of these athletes have ever had.”

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