Opinion: Covid-19 has taught us much more than we expected about coaching athletes for the Olympic Games

By Drew Harrison and Hayley Harrison, University of Limerick

Preparing an athlete for the 400m hurdles at an Olympic Games is a challenging undertaking for coaches and athletes at the best of times. But the Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant challenge for athletes and coaches which has required imagination and adaptability to cope with restrictions and a constantly changing situation.

Normally, the preparation for an Olympics involves ambitious but achievable goal setting, detailed and careful planning and effective delivery of a comprehensive training plan that spans all aspects of the athlete's needs. Training for the 400m hurdles involves a varied programme of track running to develop acceleration and maximum speed, hurdling technique training, general and speed endurance, acceleration and maximum speed running and specific conditioning for all relevant types of strength. Translation of this strength to speed is achieved through plyometric (jumping) training, technical running drills, and resisted sprinting.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Thomas Barr talks about the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics

The training is supported by regular performance monitoring using touchdown times to determine the time taken between hurdles and stride patterns in training and in competition. In addition, the event requires consistent technical practise to develop and retain the high-level technical skills required to perform at the highest level and mental resilience to deliver consistent world-class performances under pressure. The training is carefully structured over months and years to ensure the athlete is optimally prepared to deliver an on-demand competition performance when it matters most.

The latter stages of competition preparation were advancing well for Thomas Barr after a period of training in the warmth of Tenerife, but everything changed in mid-March 2020 because of Covid-19. The Olympic Games was postponed for 12 months and this required an unexpected reset of the plan. For many athletes, this was perceived negatively, especially as lockdown prevented access to important facilities, disrupted the comprehensive plans and, for many, allowed only the most basic forms of training.

The first few months of lockdown were similar for everyone, and athletes just did what they could to keep fit while staying close to home. As restrictions eased, we found that some elements of the established programme such as indoor training and warm weather training camps during winter were impossible or impracticable.

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From RTÉ Sport, David Gillick talks to Thomas Barr after his 400m hurdles heat in the 2019 World Athletics Championships

While athletics is largely an individual sport, many athletes benefit from training in groups as this provides the camaraderie, support and motivation to complete arduous training, but the pandemic placed restrictions that limited group training. We had to think differently and, following a period of recalibration, we considered this postponement as an opportunity to devote more training time to some aspects of performance that would have longer-term benefits.

In preparing an Olympic athlete, we try to make the best out of every situation, even when the situation does not look good. When we considered the restrictions imposed on us in March 2020, we treated this similar to the break in training that we would normally take after the major championships and before commencement of winter training in late September/early October.

When the first lockdown ended in summer 2020, we reduced the number of athletes training together and trained on roads and in forest parks. When track access was eventually permitted by mid-summer, we used this as an extended period for technical training during warmer, brighter evenings.

From RTÉ One's Late Late Show, interview with Thomas Barr from 2016

For Thomas, this allowed us to work with him on reducing the number of strides he took to the first hurdle from 21 to 20. To achieve this, he also needed to improve his start technique, initial acceleration and swap his front foot in the blocks from left to right. This turned a problem into an opportunity and allowed him to make technical improvements that would reduce his time to the first hurdle.

Winter 2020 and spring 2021 didn’t provide much respite as facility access was restricted again due to lockdowns, yet national and international competitions in 2021 still looked probable if not certain. This caused problems for us as we were not able to fully plan the 2021 season including the Olympic Games, which normally required meticulous planning. Consequently, alternative plans were drawn up to cater for many scenarios involving travel and quarantining restrictions.

When travel for high performance athletes and international competitions became available, the management of testing protocols and quarantine requirements of each country became important aspects of planning. Races could not be considered as a series of discrete competitions over the season. Instead, they needed to be part of a cluster of races that complied with the strict travel, testing and quarantine restrictions operating in in those countries. Each cluster of competitions needed to target specific objectives such as achieving a specific time or executing a specific stride pattern.

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From Empathia Sport, interview with Drew Harrison

Covid-19 has taught us more than we expected about preparing athletes for an Olympic Games. We have become more aware of the need to be ready to respond decisively, appropriately and from a position of knowledge and to have alternative plans prepared. The experience showed that athletes don’t necessarily need the best facilities all year round to run fast when it matters, but final preparation needs to be highly specific and for that, you do need the basics available locally. For Thomas, this requires a track, a set of blocks, hurdles and suitable training partners.

Confidence comes through knowing the preparation has been right and it’s our job as coaches to make sure the preparation is right. Performance is in the hands of the athlete and this should be a demonstration of all the training coming together.

Prof Drew Harrison is a Professor in Sports Biomechanics and co-director of the Sport and Human Performance Research Centre at the University of Limerick. Hayley Harrison is a Coach Education Officer for Sport Ireland Coaching, with responsibilities for the Coach Developer and Trainer of Coach Developer national programmes and the High Performance Coach Support programme across all sports. Drew and Hayley have coached together in Ireland for over 25 years and their athletes have competed at all major athletics championships including World and European Championships and the Olympic Games. They are based in the University of Limerick.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ