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01 Sep 2021 73

A Champion’s Mindset: Pressure, Podiums and Pinnacle Performance at the Paralympics

UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson spoke to Hollie Arnold and her coach Dave Turner on their arrival at the Paralympics Village in Tokyo before Hollie began the defence of her F46 javelin title. Read our Question & Answer that features advice, insight and a big dose of humour as we discover more about the mindset of a Paralympian and a high-performance coach.

Every elite athlete knows that pushing past your comfort zone is critical to success.

Hollie Arnold has a deeper connection than most to embracing discomfort. When the World, European, Commonwealth and Paralympic champion added ‘reality TV star’ to her eclectic CV – becoming the first disabled person to appear on last year’s hugely popular ITV show 'I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!' – she was about as far out of her comfort zone as one can get.

And while she has no regrets about appearing – “I held my head high in there, I wanted to show people that it doesn’t matter about your disability, it’s what you do with it and it’s how you live your life” – if truth be told she prefers being a competitor than a contestant.

The reality is, Hollie made her Paralympic debut in Beijing aged 14 and has gone on to win four successive world titles and is the reigning Paralympic champion.

She has worked with her coach Dave Turner – England Athletics’ Talent Lead for javelin – since 2017, shortly before he was appointed Head Throws Coach at Loughborough University. Dave, it should be said, is still very much a celebrity in UK Coaching circles, having worked here for 10 years as Coaching Children Lead before going full-time at Loughborough in January last year.

 

You have been at World Championships and other major competitions, but this is your first Paralympic Games I believe. Does the Paralympics carry extra pressure for a coach because of the media interest and national expectation level? How do you cope with that? Much is written about how athletes cope with pressure, so I’m interested in how you prepare yourself for coping under pressure?

Dave: Absolutely it does, this is the big one for me and winning out in Tokyo would also complete the “Big Four” medal set of World, European, Commonwealth and Paralympic titles for me. Hollie already completed her set in 2018 so I’m playing catch-up! In terms of media attention, I see that as a bonus for athletics, javelin and para-sport in the UK.

A few years ago, I felt like my whole coaching career hinged on winning or losing at major championships, but I’m a lot more experienced now so I’m no longer putting that kind of pressure on myself.

It probably wasn’t fair to myself to do that. The truth is it isn’t on me to perform out there, thankfully for all concerned! Despite wanting this one more than any other title, I somehow feel the most relaxed I ever have. I think I’m getting older and finally getting wiser.

In many ways the most challenging part of the task at major championships, that isn’t much talked about, is to get things right in the holding camp as you wait (and wait and wait) to compete.

You can’t train too hard a couple of weeks out from the final as you need to be fresh and “the cake is already baked”. Being able to spend time sensibly, without exerting too much energy or eating too much or too little food is always a challenge. You have to try to keep to your usual routine as much as possible. Our sprints coach Joe McDonnell always says you can’t win a championship in the holding camp, but you can sure lose it. It has more expletives when he says it though!

The truth is my job is to stay calm under pressure and try to not show too much emotion during the competition. It may look like I’m not having fun, but behind the façade I’m usually having the time of my life as it is an honour to be in this position. To me this is the only way I’ll ever be representing my country, unless we need another nul points at Eurovision. In which case, I’m your man.

The same question to Hollie, about strategies you find useful to cope with the pressure of a Paralympics – having been there before. How is it different to other major events?

Hollie: This will be my fourth Paralympic Games and each one is unique, however with all the Covid restrictions this brings new meaning to that term.

You have to see pressure and the butterflies as a performance enhancer and trust in all the work that you have done previously. That way you know you will perform on the day.

The Paralympics is the pinnacle in terms of my sporting career, so that does add an extra dimension and make this the one we want to win the most.

How important have coaches been in your progression from playground to podium? What influences have they had on you as both a person and a performer?

Hollie: When I began athletics, I wasn’t given the time to master the basics and fundamentals of athletics and indeed sport. That has meant that with my present coach, I have had to go back to master some of these skills. Sometimes you do have to go backwards to go forwards. Being in Loughborough means that I’m now surrounded by lots of great coaches, so when we need help, we’re always able to find that.

Tell us about your journey as a coach; where did it all begin and who inspired and influenced you?

Dave: When I initially began coaching all I really wanted to do was help kids locally back home in Blackpool, so they would be competent when they found a “proper coach” at University. Little did I know how quickly things would escalate.

There has never been one coach who has been the one main influence, instead I’ve been hugely fortunate to spend time with many fantastic coaches and I’ve tried to take little bits from each one. I can’t say I am the same coach for each athlete because quite simply I am not and that would not work. Some athletes need lots of information, some need very little; some want to be students of the event, some just want to know how to go further; some need reassurance, some need to be held back from training too hard. Every athlete is unique. 

They tell you to come up with your coaching values and philosophy when you begin coaching, but for me that is always evolving. What worked for society in the 70s or the 90s will not work for the youngsters of today. Society has changed.

One example is mobile phones. I can’t tell an athlete not to look at their phone all session when I am regularly using for technical analysis. I feel that would be hypocritical.  

Can you share a key moment that impacted on your coach development and learning, or a stand-out piece of advice that you will never forget? What are the foundations of your success as a coach?

Dave: Soon after taking over as Hollie’s coach we had a full team meeting and our physiotherapist, Gemma Jefferson, said to me: “Dave you do realise that this is Dave and Hollie’s team not just Hollie’s team?” For whatever reason, that had honestly never even occurred to me up to that point. From then on, I knew I had the support of a huge team around me, like I never had before. This was a real lightbulb moment for me and allowed me to draw on a breadth of experience.

It may sound cliché, but it takes a lot of people to make success happen at this level. Knowing people have your back is the most empowering feeling there is.

I still consider myself a novice as a coach, though if there is one thing I feel I maybe have a gift for it is the ability to build a team culture within the group. I put my heart and soul into coaching and wear my heart on my sleeve, except for during competition when such things are not helpful. Sometimes coaching can leave me mentally and emotionally drained as much as physically, but I want my passion for the event to be contagious.

Creating a team where freedom to try and fail is welcomed and embraced is key. Fear really is your biggest enemy in this sport.  

Is there a stand-out piece of advice you received from a coach that you hold dear and that has served you well?

Hollie: You have to have trust in the process. Both in sport and life and eventually everything will work out the way it should.

Is visualisation a technique you use? If so, how do you use this in javelin; what level of detail do you go to; where does it take you?

Dave: Visualisation is essential for javelin. Quite simply you cannot throw as many javelins in a year as you would like, certainly in the British climate. So, visualising your throw is a key tool to enhance practice and performance. Steve Backley dedicated a whole chapter to this topic in his book on mental preparation that I read all the way back in 1998 and I’ve valued it ever since. Successful javelin throwing requires an element of flow state and visualisation can certainly help you with developing your motor pattern.

Hollie: I visualise the event and performance whilst listening to music and this is very important to me. Javelin is also very rhythmical, when done well, so thinking of javelin like music can help.

How do you keep the challenge fresh and engaging bearing in mind your high level of success over many years?

Hollie: Learning new things, meeting new people (coaches and athletes) trying new things.  Javelin is a lot like golf: there is no perfect round, there is no perfect throw. Even after a world record, athletes will look at the videos and say “if I just did this…” The important thing we have learned is to enjoy the good days and success. Because large periods of the year, in the depths of winter, can be a real battle. Particularly in 2020 when the Government stopped all sport – something David still thinks will have terrible long-term repercussions for sport and the health of the nation.

Thankfully, Loughborough University, where we’re based, was able to get elite athletics back up and running within six weeks of the first lockdown. Their dedication to getting sport back operating should be applauded.  

Small achievable goals are what you need to help you get through and make a success of each day.

And finally... can you put into words what it feels like to win a Paralympic gold medal?

Hollie: It means everything…

This is what makes the personal, family and friend sacrifices all worth it.

The Role of the Coach on Competition Day

Dave Turner offers some advice to coaches on how to prepare yourselves and your athletes mentally for the big occasion.

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