By Amber Doyle
Most of us recently watched the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. I, for one, had the TV on all day at work and all night at home. It was a great couple of weeks if you love sports like I do. Personally, I have trained athletes who have competed at the Olympics and were fortunate enough to win medals in the process but because of the age and level of the athletes we work with at Sport Manitoba Performance, the opportunity to prepare an athlete or a group of athletes over a 4 year period is pretty rare. So, I asked a couple of my friends who work with National Teams and individual athletes to prepare for the Olympics what goes into preparing athletes over a quadrennial (4 year training period) and now I get to share that with you.
Scott Willgress works in the Strength & Conditioning and Sport Physiology departments for Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic in Halifax. He has his master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified Exercise Physiologist. Scott worked with the bronze medal-winning Canadian Women’s Team for softball along with the Women’s Canoe Kayak sprint team and Women’s Artistic Gymnastics team. All of them had great showings in Tokyo.
I asked Scott a handful of questions related to preparing for an Olympic Games.
How do you start the process of preparing athletes for the Olympic Games?
The process starts with a meeting with coaches and identified IST (Integrated Support Team) members. Through this we can debrief the coach’s experience with the program and athletes, the previous performances, and get an idea of the coach’s opinion on what the key performance indicators (KPIs) for each areas (strength, physiology, nutrition, mental performance, performance analysis, etc.) are for the sport. From there, we can look at existing literature on the sport to see how the science lines up with the practical, expert opinion of the coach.
From a strength and physiology perspective, we would then have a look at the physical testing battery. Is there one in existence? Do the tests line up with the opinion of the coach and the scientific literature in existence on the sport? What information do we have on reliability and validity? Does anything need tweaking? After this point, we would conduct the physical test battery on the athletes in the group, and come up with a plan from there. Similar intake processes would occur in the other discipline areas as well. The YTP (Yearly Training Plan) would be built based on the testing/intakes, ideally containing areas of input from all IST members and, of course, the coach. As part of the YTP, we would have a monitoring process built in. This would allow us to track the ups and downs of the athletes through training cycles and make adjustments if needed. Having wellness, sleep, nutrition and physical performance markers built into the monitoring process is ideal.
How does your quadrennial plan change or adjust from year to year as you get closer to the games and major competitions? How do Injuries affect your plan?
In general, four years out from a competition would contain the most volume overall. Depending on the situation, we might be trying to build muscle mass or strength initially. During this first year (or two) of the quad there might be some trial and error. In the team setting, I might start out with a strength program where every member of the team is on the same program. Through the monitoring process, I hope to identify athletes who respond better to volume versus intensity, or heavy strength versus loaded power, for example. These findings can then be confirmed in year two and subsequently used to further individualize specific preparation phases moving closer to competition.
Injuries can obviously play a huge factor. For me as the strength coach, early in the rehab process, I would be letting the medical staff lead the way. Constant communication around what they can and can’t do, return to play timelines and communication with the athlete is important. In a perfect situation, there would be objective markers from the previously uninjured individual to use in the RTP roadmap.
How was your Olympic experience? What were the highlights for you?
The Olympic experience was great. It was exciting to be a part of Team Canada, exploring the village, getting to see the athletes living out a lifelong dream. COVID put a bit of a damper on things of course. I would have loved to be able to explore Japan and Tokyo more. With COVID precautions, we were limited to the village, the bus, and the venue. A definite highlight for me was watching Danielle Lawrie strike out the final batter for the last out of the bronze medal game. All the players have really amazing stories in terms of their journey to the Olympics, and Danielle is no different. As a mother of two who competed in the 2008 Olympics (finishing 4th), I thought it was fitting for her to be in the circle to finish the job of getting an Olympic medal.
What have you learned from your Olympic preparation experiences? What have you changed?
I think a huge part of preparing athletes for a major games is the psychological aspect. I had a lot of things (testing, training blocks, etc.) that didn’t go as planned. COVID played a role in derailing some of the plans, but the mental state of the athletes sometimes did as well. Being in-tuned with how the athletes were feeling, communicating with the mental performance coach, the athletic therapist, and coaching staff was key. If we had to alter a scheduled testing session to save some athletes’ mental health three months out of the games, it seemed like the right thing to do. Communication with athletes was important leading into and during periods of heavy training. They need to know when and why they can expect to go into a “pit” physically and mentally, reassured that it’s part of the plan, and when they can expect to get out of it.
How did COVID-19 affect the training you were able to do with your athletes? Did you take any positives away from it?
COVID-19 affected many aspects of training. I work with three sports that are generally decentralized in nature. Training camps were often cancelled or delayed. The camps we did attend resulted in quarantining upon arrival home. Athletes spread out across North America were experiencing different levels of restrictions, which made planning very difficult. In general, I think this made me more adaptable as a strength coach. I had to become less married to specific plans or programs and realize that there are multiple ways to achieve the goals of the athletes.
As you can see there is a lot that goes into preparing for the Olympics, and I hope that this conversation shows the amount of time, effort, and dedication that goes into the Olympic experience for athletes, coaches, and support staff. There are always roadblocks along the way and that is a true measure of an athlete – being able to work through those challenges and come out on the other side an Olympian. Please understand that even qualifying for the Olympics is an amazing accomplishment in and of itself but getting to the podium is remarkable. Scott is an outstanding strength and conditioning coach and helped his athletes achieve some great results in Tokyo. Special thanks to Scott Willgress for his insight into the process. It was great to get the inside scoop on how Olympic athletes prepare for the world stage.