By Amber Doyle
Most of us just finished watching the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. 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 as I do. 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 four years 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 (four-year training period), and now I get to share that with you.
This article will include my conversation with Rowing Canada’s Matthew Davey. You can also check out my earlier interview with Scott Willgress.
About Matthew Davey
Matthew Davey is the Lead Strength Coach for Rowing Canada and works out of the Canadian Sport Institute – Pacific. He has his Master’s degree in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified Exercise Physiologist. Matt works with the Men’s, Women’s and Para rowing program for Rowing Canada and again with some great results including a women’s eights gold medal.
How do you start the process of preparing athletes for the Olympic Games?
Rowing first identifies athletes either through past international performances (veterans) or through identification (2km ergometer test at local clubs and universities). From there they are classified into Junior, U23 and National Team designations. Then the National Team must compete at the National Rowing Championships. Each athlete must be within 2 per cent of the top finisher in their boat classification to receive carding and remain in the training centre. Once the team is selected in late October/early November, the IST and coaching staff put together a training plan (YTP). Rowing is unique in that there are many boat classifications and two different styles (sweep and scull) so you end up with many coaches and training plans. Major competitions are targeted in the May-July time period and we work backward from there in mostly a polarized system.
My job as the S&C coach is to get the teams as strong as I can from November to February, then transition through force-velocity profiling to get them at their best for the given boat they are chosen for (i.e., different for each boat size and gender) to perform come World Cups/World Championships and the Olympics.
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?
Year one and two are the same – build volume mostly and movement competencies. Come year three, it is paramount that we have the athletes in the best shape possible technically and physically to qualify for a spot in the Olympics. Year four is about fine-tuning those 1 per cent details and prioritizing the on-water aspect of the sport. This is the ideal. However, we do get athletes who come in maybe in year three from university and this is where my job is to get them up to speed as fast as I can. Prioritize what is needed and not what is flashy.
Injuries are a huge part of my job (return to play). In the cold winter months when volume is high we get a lot of rib stress fractures and low back pain. Along with my physio counterpart, we devised a system for return to play that we monitor quite closely. This includes lots of cross-training, EMS, BFR, breathwork as well as recovery modalities. The goal is to safely get the athlete back in the boat as soon as possible. This is paramount as the number one predictor of rowing success is continuous days of rowing.
How was your Olympic experience? What were the highlights for you?
My Olympic experience was interesting. From coach turnover to COVID-19 to winning an Olympic gold and bronze medal. While being a part of a team that sent the most rowers to an Olympics in over two decades. My highlights may shock some but it is not the success from the outward perspective, it was the day-to-day interactions with athletes. To have them achieve something more than they thought possible, whether in the gym or on water. A highlight for me was helping an athlete return from a catastrophic injury four and a half weeks before the Games and then becoming an Olympic champion.
What have you learned from your Olympic preparation experiences? What have you changed?
What I have learned is that it is a marathon and not a race. That proper planning is everything. Nothing will ever go as planned, but the planning allows you to pivot effectively. That communication is the next most crucial aspect of performance. Having everyone on the same page allows for the exchange of ideas and emotions, which are often overlooked. The art of communication is how we deliver the science.
What have I changed is a great question as I am still going through an autopsy right now of my programming. I have definitely learned to keep my programming straightforward and simple. I was told once by a mentor that S&C is not a form of entertainment, and in a cyclical aerobic/power sport like rowing, he was right. My athletes need to be strong (force) and stable without the beating this sport places on them. This means sticking to a program and riding it out with little to no variation, i.e. long mesocycles.
Lastly, what I have learned is to not get too attached to the outcome. In S&C we have a large responsibility but, in my opinion, a small impact at the elite level in terms of outcome. Riding the wave of emotions each competition or testing phase can be exhausting. The goal to keep in mind is where did the athlete start and where did they finish. The athlete, coach and IST are responsible for the outcome as there are too many intangibles to manage on your own.
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 was a blessing for our program, with coaching turnover and more that interfered with athlete well-being, another year allowed us as a program to reset and path a new direction. With that being said, we did take a two-month decentralized time away. I had to be inventive with my programming. Luckily, we were able to loan out our entire facility to athletes. They were given a barbell, plates, rack and a few bands and dumbbells if we could spare it. And, because they couldn’t access the lake we provided cross-training opportunities. The end result was the best physiological return seen in five years. This speaks to my earlier note that simplistic training is the key to success. I did not have much variety in the program due to limited resources, but we really hit on what matters and closed many strength gaps.
As you can see there is a lot that goes into preparing for the Olympics, and I hope this article shows you 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. This outstanding strength and conditioning coach helped their athletes achieve some great results in Tokyo. Special thanks to Matthew Davey for their insight into the process. It was great to get the inside scoop on how Olympic athletes prepare for the world stage.