Coaching the British Paralympic Ski Team – the coach’s perspective

Written by Amanda Pirie, BASI Trainer and BASI National Education Team Member

Being a high-performance head coach within a UK Sport-funded programme is a dream scenario. It means that you have every imaginable resource and exceptional expertise to draw from. In the years building up to the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games 2018 I was therefore able to collaborate with world-leading support staff to help develop every aspect of my athletes’ physical and mental abilities, and I was able to ensure they had enough training time in venues around the globe to convert these into faster times on the slopes. In the end, these combined efforts helped lead to our team to win seven medals out of the 15 available in South Korea, which is a remarkable achievement for a single country in anyone’s books.

But the foundations for sporting success aren’t just laid on the slopes or with athletes’ event-specific training.  ‘Best prepared’ is the mantra of the British Paralympic Association (BPA), and I believe our team certainly was tops in this department when we hit the world’s biggest sporting stage. Making this happen is easier said than done, however, and the process behind it is rather amazing.

For instance, a year before the games the BPA set up South Korean culture lessons for the athletes and coaches, and its staff visited the venue on multiple occasions to truly understand the lay of the land. It also worked with our team over the preceding months to make detailed plans for every ‘what if’ scenario during the Paralympics – these covered everything from weather and transport issues to sickness, injury, equipment failure and even a member of an athlete’s family dying back in Great Britain. At the venue it ensured we had home comforts, as well as a performance hub in the GB House for our athletes to train and recover. It was as great to be working with such an experienced and professional team at the BPA, as it meant I could focus on the main task at hand – what was happening on the snow.

On the high performance front, planning for sport starts with the ultimate goal – in the case of Pyeongchang it was Paralympics GB returning home with seven medals. To make this a possibility, we looked at what it would take to get there and worked backwards to ensure the athletes were where they need to be to achieve it. In 2017 my visually impaired team won five medals at the world championships, so we were close to achieving the entire team’s goal on our own, but carrying this success over to the Paralympics would be easier said than done.

Menna Fitzpatrick with her guide

Imagine having five per cent vision and racing down a steep mountain at speeds up to 100 kilometres per hour, with just a guide cutting a faint trail some four metres ahead of you. I’ve raced professionally in the past, so I’m not afraid of speed on the slopes, but having tried goggles that mimic my athletes vision, I was even more in awe of what they were taking on.

The guide’s task is not easy either mind you – they not only have to take the perfect line, but they must do so while repeatedly glancing over their shoulder to ensure they are still in touch with their teammate. And all the while they are also having to communicate details of the terrain over Bluetooth headset.

There is so much going on, and it all needs to come together to achieve the perfect race. The risks are also incredible heightened, so there are never any guarantees.

With this in mind I created Mission Pyeongchang, a detailed plan that brought together all of our resources and support team outlining what we needed to do in the year before the Paralympics to achieve the best possible performances. The cornerstones of this were collaboration, resilience and rehearsal.

Collaboration underpins everything that happens in our team. Each athlete has a coach, guide, assistant coach, ski technician, physiotherapist, strength-and-conditioning coach, performance psychologist, nutritionist, home-based personal trainer, home-based physiotherapist, friends and family. As coach it is my job to coordinate this support community to ensure that all factors relating to each athlete – equipment, environment, physical, psychological, tactical and technical – work in harmony. When it does the optimal performance is possible.

For example, if I identified that an athlete was losing speed because they were not able to balance on their outside ski on their left turn, it’s not simply a matter of telling them to put more pressure on the outside ski. Why? Because it doesn’t solve the underlying cause of the problem. So before coming up with a development strategy I would ask:

  • the athlete if they could feel it and know why it was happening
  • the ski technician to have a look at the tuning of the skis
  • the physiotherapist and strength-and-conditioning coach to have a look for imbalances in the athlete’s strength and flexibility
  • the performance psychologist about imagery practice that could aid symmetry in the athlete’s turns
  • the guide and athlete to discuss communications used on those turns, as well as the optimal distance between them while they ski, and the fastest line through those gates
  • the athlete, guide, physiotherapist and assistant coach to have a look at the performance with me on a video replay to identify weaknesses in movement patterns

This collaborative approach means that everyone’s expertise can go into forming a development strategy to correct the root cause of the initial mistake. As this way of working was established well before the games, it meant that at the Paralympics every member of the support team already knew the role they needed to play to get the athletes to the start gate in a position to produce medal winning performances. An example of this was when Menna Fitzpatrick crashed in the downhill (her first race). Our performance psychologist, Kelley Fay, was able to help Menna to refocus. Her friends and family were there to take the pressure off. And our physiotherapist, Catherine Smaill, took charge of her physical recovery for the race the next day. Menna subsequently went on to win medals in all her following events, including a gold in the slalom.

Life will throw up setbacks and challenges to even the best laid plans. But champions overcome challenges and learn from them, which is why the second cornerstone was resilience. In training we helped athletes develop it with purposeful challenges. Athletes don’t enjoy this but to simulate something that might happen helps them to learn to deal with anything that is thrown their way. Some examples included packing the wrong equipment, giving athletes a last-minute programme change, delaying practice starts and skiing in every weather condition. I also had the visually impaired skiers practice without communications. So when Menna’s communication with her guide Jen Kehoe cut out in the Paralympic slalom due to a close brush with a gate, it did not disrupt their rhythm – and they went on to win the gold medal.

However, one thing we did not plan for was our ski technician injuring his shoulder ten days before our departure to South Korea. We were extremely lucky to have Kenny Morton (ex-technician to Alex Tilley and Charlie Guest) step in. We then used the ten-day holding camp as an opportunity for him to get to know the athletes, their skis and any specific tuning requirements they had. This enabled the athletes to get to know him and trust his work. Kenny then stepped up to the mark and spent up to 20 hours a day preparing world-class skis to win medals in every event.

With the enormity of the Paralympic stage it was important to reduce the pressure by making it just like every other race or training day. This is where rehearsal came in. The athletes already had their individual race day routines, but we extended this into training days. To effectively simulate Pyeongchang, I chose to train in resorts with similar terrain (rolling pistes) and slope conditions (man-made snow). I would set courses with different sets to emulate different setting styles that might come up. We would also have a training day programme that involved: course inspection, race start times, consistent support staff in the start, as well as the same people giving course reports on the radio. I even simulated the sounds the athletes would hear in the start with a speaker playing the starting countdown bleeps.

Other rehearsals were more mundane, such as getting our athletes used to the hour-long commute from the athletes’ village in Pyeongchang to the ski venue. As a preparation for this we chose accommodation further from venues in both training and competition, so we could have the athletes plan and practice their travel strategy, which considered entertainment, fuelling, hydration and recovery.

Everything that needed to come together to give the athletes the opportunity to give their best performances at the Paralympics did so, and the results speak for themselves. Seeing two of my athletes on the podium at the same time brought the first of many tears to my eyes. I am so proud of my team – not only the athletes but also their support community who all played their part in making it happen.

Downhill: Silver Millie Knight guided by Brett Wild

Super G: Silver Millie Knight Guided by Brett Wild, Bronze Menna Fitzpatrick guided by Jen Kehoe

Super Combined: Silver Menna Fitzpatrick guided by Jen Kehoe

Giant Slalom: Silver Menna Fitzpatrick guided by Jen Kehoe

Slalom: Gold Menna Fitzpatrick guided by Jen Kehoe, Bronze Millie Knight Guided by Brett Wild