Olympic Games – performance and pressure

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Ellie Spain

Ellie Spain

ALTIS Director of Education

Our post-Rio series of articles and interviews will blend experiences of the ALTIS athletes and coaches, with guest insights into themes relating to the Games.

Kicking off this series is an interview with esteemed Coach, and friend of ALTIS  – Mike Hurst.

Born in 1951, and raised in Sydney Australia, Mike is a Coach with over 35 years’ experience in Track & Field. After starting Coaching seriously in 1979 to help a young female sprinter who had “lost her way”, he succeeded in helping her to qualify to represent Australia in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Since then he has succesfully guided multiple athletes to five Olympic Games, across three decades. He has also attended six summer Olympic Games, seven Commonwealth Games and the first nine IAAF World Championships (1983-2003) as a working sportswriter specializing in athletics.

In a recent Tweet Mike alluded to the pressures of competing at the Games for the first time:

Whilst something we can all recognise as a reasonably obvious facet of such a unique event, Mike’s comment on the Games as a ‘psychic drain’ raised an interesting question many of us will have considered … How does the Games affect both the coach’s and athlete’s ability to do their job? What are the stressors? Should this affect the way we contextualise performances achieved in the Olympic Stadium when the review process begins?

We sat down with Coach Hurst to find out more.

Mike – thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s start with a little more on your background. Who have been your greatest influences, and mentors?

My influences have come from many walks of life; not just athletics. Over the years those who gave me the best advice include Mike Agostini, Kelvin Giles, Charlie Francis, and Dan Pfaff.

Mike Agostini (1954 Commonwealth Games 100 yards gold medalist) was my first employer. He helped me understand, as he used to say: “It’s not how hard you train, but rather how you train – hard”.

Kelvin Giles is a Brit who was the first athletics Head Coach at the Australian Institute of Sport (from 1981-1985). Kelvin opened my mind to new ways of thinking about speed-endurance “endurance at speed”, and especially about program theory and design.

From 1985 until his untimely death, Charlie Francis was always beyond generous with his time and knowledge, and was instructive and supportive of my efforts to pave my own path. From 2003 I wrote a lot of my thoughts about 400m development under the nom de plume of Kitkat on Charlie’s coaching website. That became the basis of an e-book (released by Charlie’s wife Ange Coon) which I hope may have contributed a small amount in sales to support their young son James.

In recent years I started paying a lot more attention to Dan Pfaff, who was kind enough to reply to my correspondence. Dan has helped me to expand my knowledge, and confirm my belief about the importance of sound mechanics, and helped crystalize my thoughts in many other areas of coaching, especially in the area of “prehab” and so-called “performance therapy”. I actually communicated with Dan post Atlanta 1996, and subsequently presented the case to some members of the board of Directors of Athletics Australia that Dan should be our next national coach; our high performance manager in the run up to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. In their wisdom the national federation ultimately signed up Dr Ekkart Arbeit, one of the key names on the old DDR’s state doping planning committee, and a STASI agent to boot: That all ended in tears, and many people lost their jobs. Including the president and the entire board of Athletics Australia, the Head of the AIS, and the President of the Australian Track & Field Coaches Association – who were all complicit in recommending Arbeit for the top job in Oz.

Mike Hurst Dan Pfaff
“Dan has helped me to expand my knowledge, and confirm my belief about the importance of sound mechanics.”

Could you tell us more about who you’ve coached, and your greatest success as a Coach?

I coached Aussie sprinters to qualify for five consecutive Olympic Games, from Moscow 1980 to Atlanta 1996. However both athletes I coached leading into Barcelona 1992 failed to actually make the team, due to injuries of their own making.

Athletes I coached included Debbie Wells (1980 and 1984 Olympic teams), Maree Holland and Darren Clark (both 400m finalists at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul), and Kylie Hanigan (4x100m finalist and 4x400m at 1996 Atlanta Olympics).

My greatest success has undoubtedly been resurrecting the career of both Maree Holland, and Darren Clark. We got them prepared in time to set Aussie national records of 50.24 sec and 44.38 sec, in reaching their respective 400m finals at the Seoul Olympics.

18 months later Darren won the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand in 44.60sec. It was his fourth 400m in exactly 28 hours under the traditionally brutal 400m schedule, which thankfully was subsequently abandoned – giving competitors a full day’s rest before the final. I had the privilege of Darren’s trust for seven years through to his retirement. While we worked together he also won bronze at the 1993 Toronto World Indoor Championships for 400m, while Maree was fourth at the 1989 Budapest World Indoors.

I stopped coaching for a few years, from the end of 1996 to the start of 2009. I made the decision because there was absolutely no encouragement, and certainly no financial support for track coaches – well, not for me anyway – and it seemed to me no one really cared. Then in 2009 I was approached by a former Waterpolo Olympian – Charles Turner, who had become Chief Executive of the NSW Institute of Sport (which only came into being post Atlanta 1996). He asked me to become involved in coaching and coach-mentoring within a project he called the 400m Fast Track Program. By the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games one of the squad I personally worked with won a 4x400m relay gold medal, and another made his debt for Australia in a lesser national 4x4oom relay team. Neither had run 400m, but at the end of their first year both had run in the low 46sec zone. Both were personally coached by Larry Spencer whom I mentored then, and continue to work alongside today.

The 400m Fast Track Program is coming into its ninth year of operations and has helped develop many young 400m runners, including 400m hurdlers. Over the last year the two-time world open 400m hurdles Champion – Jana Pittman – has trained with the young squad and she has been a wonderful mentor to all of them. Unfortunately, she/we failed to overcome lower leg injuries which plagued her following the birth of her second child, and she scrapped plans to try for the Rio Olympic team.

A really fascinating background. Moving onto your recent Tweet, and the topic in hand, could you expand on this from both a Coach & Athlete perspective – how is the Olympics so different to other meets?

The Olympics, with a unique ratio of 10,000 accredited (mass circulation) media to “only” 15,000 sports competitors, has the obvious potential to create a pressure-cooker environment in both the Athletes’ Village, as well as the sporting venues.

Even for today’s “me first” and “selfie” generation who seem so comfortable revealing themselves on all manner of social media, this often new experience of performing before a grandstand full of print, radio and TV commentators can be overwhelming.

Even for today’s “me first” and “selfie” generation who seem so comfortable revealing themselves on all manner of social media, the often new experience of performing before a grandstand full of print, radio and TV commentators can be overwhelming.

The IAAF World Championships do not receive anything like that saturation media coverage even during the meet. It is also much less of a build-up than we see with the weeks and sometimes months, even years, of coverage leading into a summer Olympic Games.

What are the potential psychic drains and traps that you alluded to?

The change of living environment, the potential for distraction all around the Athlete’s Village and training venues are real risks. As is the psychic trap of the athlete running a race so many times in their mind that they are drained by the time they must compete. Then there is the potential distraction of “star gazing” at the superstars of athletics, and other sports. Further, the drain on emotional or psychic energy just by the realization of the fulfilment of a life-long dream of becoming an Olympian brings a real threat of burn out. For some, marching in the Opening Ceremony can be a psychic black-hole due to the crazed sense of energy the event can bring.

I spoke to Victor Saneyev (Saneev) who won the triple jump in Mexico 1968, Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. He said he felt ready to win again coming into Moscow 1980, and was sure he would until he was invited/instructed to run with the Olympic torch to the Moscow stadium. He said the emotion of it all left him with weak and shaking legs. He said he never recovered. We both marveled at the kind of emotional fortitude Cathy Freeman must have had in Sydney 2000 to become the first athlete in history (to my knowledge) to light the actual cauldron, and then have to justify the honor by going out at the same Olympics and win the gold medal. Pressure? What pressure?

What do you see when it all goes wrong? … Are there warning signs a Coach should look out for?

When the athlete and for that matter the coach and/or support staff are dragged too far out of their comfort zone, too far from their “normal” environment, too far away from their customary daily routine, then things can go wrong.

One of the first signs of a problem is when the athlete becomes withdrawn, ceases to readily and happily communicate, even shuts out the personal coach. When you see an extrovert turn introvert, or someone who is normally boisterous and loud become quiet and shy you know you likely have a problem.

Conversely some athletes go on an energy binge, charging around the village annoying everyone. That was typical of Darren Clark, who broke into Ben Johnson’s room in Seoul brandishing a fire extinguisher and left Ben knee deep in white foam. Too funny. So in Darren’s case, the closer to competition the more crazed and feral he became; but for him it was an energy release – the opening of a pressure valve – which was a good thing.

On the contrary, some athletes stay in bed much longer than normal, or they want to train at a different time of day to normal. You may see issues with their interactions with others, or out of character relationship problems with others on the team, including boyfriend/girlfriend.

So how best can a Coach prepare for this?

Timing and priming are everything.

Getting the athlete to expect the unexpected, to embrace change of culture, language, food are critical. I know some coaches think The Taper is a mythical thing, or merely a case of freshening up the athlete by increasing rest periods and avoiding lactic generating training, or that it is mostly just psychological: I think it’s every part of that, plus a careful knitting of all the threads of performance to an appropriate time-line. Get any part of it wrong and the ultimate performance can be jeopardized.

For any coach, keeping it simple (stupid) and keeping things as normal as possible are keys to controlling stress.

The coach who introduces a special routine, a special session, or special changes coming immediately into the Games just heightens the athlete’s sense of dis-ease, distress; a feeling that this meet is so different, too different, too big, so overwhelmingly important it has forced a change in routine. It can set up doubts in the mind of an athlete especially those who already feel the burden of expectations.

The coach who introduces a special routine, a special session, or special changes coming immediately into the Games just heightens the athlete’s sense of dis-ease.

And what about the athlete attending a Games or major Championships for the first time – what can they do to prepare?

The athlete needs to feel comfortable in order to feel relaxed. They need to come into the Games feeling confident. And confidence comes from performance, be it in competition or in training. A cluster of good performances builds confidence and a genuinely confident athlete is more likely to retain their normal proprioceptive awareness during a race when everything is on the line in front of a stadium of 80,000 screaming fans and a perceived media audience of many millions.

So in the years and months leading up to the Games, an athlete ideally should be exposed to digestible packages of high performance races such as a few Diamond League meets, followed perhaps by a brief training block and then by a few more races with Olympic quality fields.

The athlete must “know” they “belong” out there is such elite company. They must have earned the right to “own” their lane. And in being exposed regularly to elite athletes and elite meets they hopefully develop a sense of comfort, of well-being, of a “home” environment.

Mike – thank you so much for your time. Some really fascinating insights drawing on decades of experience.

Mike Hurst is on Twitter – give him a follow.

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