How can we support children to develop into elite athletes? In episode 19 we chat to Performance and Coaching Scientist, Katie Richards. We discuss the explosion in success of British Gymnastics, the issues facing young elite performers and how a supportive coaching framework can enable talented children to develop.
Katie Richards is a Chartered Scientist, BASES Sport & Exercise Scientist, Senior Lecturer Sport Psychology at St Mary’s University and is completing her PhD in the skill acquisition strategies utilised by high-performance coaches, and their psychological impacts.
She has worked in a range of sports including gymnastics, mixed martial arts, pistol shooting, synchronised swimming, golf & Paralympic sitting volleyball. She is most active within the discipline of women’s artistic gymnastics and was National Squad Coach in Aerobic Gymnastics 2007-2010. Currently she concentrates the majority of her time towards developing young performers (5-10 years) towards the elite performance pathway.
Visit Katie’s website here.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 01.7.17 – Ep 19. Katie Richards – performance scientist on enabling children to develop as elite athletes.
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to A Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
TP: Today I’m talking with senior lecturer in sports psychology at St. Mary’s University, Katie Richards. Katie’s an ex-international gymnast who went on to become national squad coach. She continues to work with athletes across many different sports on their performance. This is what she’ll refer to in the interview when she talks about being a practitioner. What I particularly find interesting when talking to Katie is her insight into how coaching and how a supportive framework can enable young athletes to develop as performers. I first asked her though to talk about her continued involvement with gymnastics.
KR: I work mainly within the discipline of women’s artistic gymnastics, as a coach, a coach mentor, tutor. I sit currently on the the technical committee as one of the coach education reps and I also work for a local gymnastics club as their coach development officer. So I’m still involved quite quite a lot, yes, in gymnastics.
TP: As a former gymnast, what’s your opinion on the explosion and success in gymnastics and the the growing participation rates?
KR: It’s so exciting and it’s so great, you know it’s a really great time to be part of British gymnastics and you now how successful it has been. It’s gonna be down to a number of things. So, first of all, we have much more support now for gymnast and that support ranges from facilities, you know the amount of funding for facilities. We’ve also got the fact that we have been training and supporting our coaches more and putting more into that, so that the coaches are better equipped in terms of knowledge. They have the ability to actually access sport science and have contributed coming in with different expertise to support the coach in their process. And I think we, we now just see gymnastics in society for the difficult sport that it is and we give it the respect that it actually requires now. Whereas, before when it maybe wasn’t geting as much publicity, it it maybe just kind of wasn’t, wasn’t seen or thought about in the same way. So I definitely think we’ve got this combination of funding, coach education. We’ve got the fact that now gymnasts are making careers from gymnastics. So they’re they’re moving into this almost professional status of gymnastics. But they’re then going out and we’re retaining them, we’ve got people now like [unclear] set up their own gymnastics programme for children and for low level participation. So we’re retaining them in a way that they are becoming public figures. We see them on celebrity shows, so it, it it’s got more of a career path within it now and really it’s down to how creative they want to be within it. So I think the support from all angles and the structure of British gymnastics has really helped that, but it’s been a long journey; the development of the competitive programme to give structure to gymnasts and coaches has really now shown that we’ve been developing these gymnasts from the age of six or seven, now we’re seeing them at 19, 20; over the last kind of 13 years they’ve spent developing in our structure and it just really shows that making changes at the lower level, the younger level will eventually make the change at the senior level…it’s a very long winded answer.
TP: Sounds like it’s been a very deliberate process that gymnastics has has gone through. How do you grow an Amy Tinkler or Max Whitlock?
KR: Well, I definitely think it has to start young. Gymnastics is an early specialisation sport and although it’s very important that they have skills in different areas, like rowing and catching etc. ultimately there there needs to be a lot of specialisation quite early. I think can we grow them I think is is…Everybody has their own story; I mean you mentioned Amy Tinkler and Max Whitlock they both got very different stories so I wouldn’t say that there is one, one recipe or one method to do it but you’ve got the fact that they do need that support structure in terms of things like location of the gym club that they are training at in relation to where they live, so that, so that gymnastics can fit into their life. Making choices they have to make choices and sometimes those choices are going to be made by maybe parents and coaches quite early on about how much time they spend training, working with the schools to negotiate how they can continue with their studies and study effectively, but maybe not have to be there for as long as the school day is and whether there are alternatives for how they do that and making sure that the coaching structure is there. So it has to be collaboration, it’s not just one person behind any fantastic gymnast, like the ones you’ve just mentioned there. It’s it’s a team really, and I think just probably not losing sight of the fact that that is a little person to start with. They are a human and they are a person and they need to be part of the process and we need to keep perspective that we’re developing a person there as well as just trying to create a gymnast. If you listen to Amy Tinkler and Max Whitlock in their interviews, you know, they are very well-rounded human beings and that’s all credit to the team that’s been behind them but they haven’t lost sight of the fact that you’re working with a person and so it just maintains perspective. There’s gonna be times where the perspective is on their gymnastics and the emphasis is on their performance, but there’ll also be times where the the emphasis is on them as a person and developing them. So I think it’s about having a support team, having the logistics all set out and and maintaining perspective I think.
TP: You talked about some of the practical issues that are probably different with young elite athletes. Are young people a different breed or are the issues being dealt with standard at any age?
KR: I mean yes. They have very different constraints on them, we all have constraints and barriers but people under the age of 18 have very different ones. One of those things is choice. Up until kind of 16, 17, 18 they don’t get the option of always making choices. They are obliged and constrained to do certain things such as schooling, and such as exams and qualifications. You know they’re living with parents, there will be rules in the house about particular things, so they don’t get a lot of autonomy in the choices and decisions sometimes, which can be frustrating. We we know that we look at society, you know young people are becoming more aware of the fact that they want to start making decisions about their life and I feel that is happening earlier and that could be because we are encouraging that in school and society for children to take more responsibility for themselves and the choices that they make. But there are still constrains to be children and we are still responsible for them so I think we…it would be naïve to suggest that they are not any different to us and we have to remember that they are children still and there is a lot of development that still has to happen from a physical and cognitive and and social perspective and sometimes when we are specialising people such as in gymnastics, we can often forget, I don’t want to use the word neglect because that could suggest that it’s it’s a conscious decision but we might forget that we need to be developing them socially as well. Whereas maybe when you’re working with adults that socialisation has probably already occurred. So there are certain things that we just need to pay more attention to and I think that’s where I mentioned about perspective; that ok, we are trying to create a champion or a high level performer here. We also need to be aware of their other needs as a human being as well.
TP: How …how do parents fit into this whole thing?
KR: Parents are such a valuable tool. Depending on who you speak to and sometimes they can come across as being potentially a barrier in a gymnast’s performance. But actually if you embrace parents and you embrace them in the process and you engage them and you you communicate with them and explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what your long term vision is for their child because that’s the thing; in the end parents just want the best for their children and they don’t intentionally want to cause stress a lot of the time it’s unintentional. In my experience, a lot of the time it’s just misunderstood, so they will be branded a pushy parent when actually they just, they just want to know what’s going on because that parent is trying to manage maybe not only that one child, maybe they have more than one children, more than one child, and they’re trying to manage their children and they are overseeing everything [unclear] school, they’re overseeing gymnastics, they’re overseeing other activities as well, sometimes they can come across as pushy. And don’t get me wrong, there are parents out there who unfortunately, are maybe making sport too serious and trying to push their children in ways that aren’t helpful but in my experience when you engage parents in the process you explain the long term vision, you, you talk to them about how important they are that you’re really kind of specific in the areas that they should be supporting the child, the gymnast in I think that usually works very well with them. Parents need to be giving emotional support. They need to be giving you know that kind of tangible support , in terms of get them to training, or or get somebody to get them to training. Make sure they’ve got the right equipment and unconditional regard, so regardless of how they do, they need to be there for them. Gymnast don’t, after a long 3, 4 hour training session, they don’t want to then have to de-brief in the car for the next 20 minutes about what they did on each piece of apparatus and how they did and how they did in comparison to somebody else. They want to talk about other things or they just want to you know have a short conversation: “how was gym?” “yeah, it was alright today.” “Oh great”, you know “what what what was good about it?” “Oh, you now, I just got through my programme and I seemed to be making progress.” “That’s fantastic to hear. Well done. What do you want for dinner?” as opposed to this long drawn-out conversation and I know why parents do it, a lot of the times…because of the way gymnast set up for training, parents can’t watch because there aren’t viewing galleries, that’s not what they are built for, they are built for gymnastic training, so parents can sometimes grasping in the dark and so they’re grasping for communication and they do that through the gymnast. But we’ve got to remember that the gymnast is a child so they actually may not be able to communicate all the messages across which is why it’s just so important that coaches can set up some way of giving regular feedback. It doesn’t have to be formal, but some kind of regular feedback for parents.
TP: You’ve worked not just in gymnastics; you’ve worked across a number of other sports as well. Are elite athletes a different breed to the general population?
KR: Yes, definitely [laughter].
TP: How so?
KR: And again, everybody’s opinion is going to differ but I think there are so many different skills that are developed, so many areas of a person that are developed and [unclear] with elite athletes at quite a young age. To become an elite…and I now obviously we have the demographics that start training later in life and transition into elite later but for the majority of elite athletes they’re starting to train when they are a child and they’re being exposed to situations, events and decisions that a lot of adults don’t get exposed to maybe at all in their life or if not, not much later in life. So making decisions and making making difficult decisions and having to make choices and and some people might call them sacrifices but missing an event because you’ve got to train. That that is a kind of decision that for most children growing up they’ll have commitments but it won’t be as as strong a commitment as maybe committing to becoming an elite athlete so they they may not have the same issue of having to say “Do you know what, I can’t go to that party on Friday night because I’ve got to go training on Friday or Saturday morning”. So they’re having to make decisions and understand about decisions and decision-making quite early on in their career. They might also experience some level of what we might call trauma, so you now they experience injury that that set them back or take them out of training or competition for a number of weeks sometimes months. That we might actually describe that as as as trauma in sports and they’re having to then deal with feeling of maybe being able to progress which could be quite frustrating. They might feel that they’re not as connected to their training group and their relationships might suffer and and then then just everything that comes with being an elite athlete the the the fact that you’ve committed to something, it’s your goal but with that means that you are going to have to commit, you are going to have to make sacrifices, you are going to have to push yourself. This isn’t something that you’re obliged to do maybe like your school exams. This is something that you’ve chosen. But from that comes lots of opportunity, great times and personal success and achievement so I think it develops the person much earlier and I think again if they’re supported properly they learn to deal with setbacks much better. They become more confident. They might be better at leading, making decisions, taking a step back when they need to. You know, when the coach is like “Actually, I’m the coach, so we’re gonna do this and this” and being able to accept that. You know there are just so many different things that sports does and I know that as a practitioner. I often talk to coaches and parents and athletes about the fact that this decision you’re having to make or this amount of stress if you like that that you’re deal with right now…there are some people that will go through their life that will never have to experience this. Children that have just finished their GCSEs, and you’ve got…while those GCSEs are going on I know that there are people out there training for European and world championships whilst still trying to do their GCSEs, whilst still trying to get exceptional results in them and that’s a real challenge because there has to be that high level of motivation, that determination, that discipline; the emotional control that is required and then making sure that they’re making the right choices for their body to kind of heal it properly and recover properly. So I think it really does develops the person much more.
TP: I just want to take a moment to ask you about yourself. Your own practice, your own coaching. What stresses you out most? What pulls your motivation down and how do you cope with that?
KR: So I guess I can reflect as a coach and practitioner. What gets my motivation down is when…it’s not that when someone isn’t making progress because ultimately they will progress at the pace that they’re meant to progress at. But it’s often quite when you see someone that is quite frustrated because they’re not progressing. You start to ask yourself, have I done everything that I possibly can here? Have I ticked all the boxes? Is there something that I’m missing? Is there something that I’m not doing? So, when you’re working in a role such as mine coaching, as a practitioner as a consultant, when somebody is unhappy with their progress, you really kind of take that on and you start to think “is it me? “is it something that I’m doing?” “Could I be doing more for you?” And there will be people that will say you can’t take that all on your burden and of course you can’t, you must be rational but because the role is in itself a helping role you..one of the great things about the role is it’s fantastic to see people develop and that’s not necessarily developing their performance but develop as a person. When you’re faced with somebody who’s unhappy, I think that’s the thing that maybe gets me down but I wouldn’t say it gets my motivation down, it just gets me down and makes me kind of question, you know, if I’m doing everything that I can. In terms of my motivation, it’s when I’ve got too much going on [laughter]. When when you take on too much. Which is, which is…
TP: Do you do that regularly?
KR: Oh yes, yes definitely and most people that know me will be nodding and laughing now. I think it’s because it’s such a reactive role, especially as a as a practitioner. You could take on a client and then you could only hear from them once every couple of months and then suddenly they wanna speak to you every couple of weeks and then you’re trying to be quite reactive and balance your workload. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen, you know sports is an unpredictable beast. So I think it the… trying to stay on top of things and still be effective and that’s when I think my motivation decreases when I feel that I’m not being effective and I’ve got a lot going on but all it takes is a swift word with myself and a…a…a couple of hours or a day to write the list, get back on track with things and and and then you kind of get that…that…that energy again to get out and do what you do, but yeah it’s managing workload in a role such as a mine is a difficult one and I’m sure that there are lots of people out there that would agree.
TP: So everybody that I’m talking to I’m asking them to talk about what success or what performance is to them personally. How do you define success for yourself?
KR: [laughter] I mean I laugh because it’s one of my favourite topics to talk about with people, is what is success and from doing that it’s made me reflect a lot on what is success to me. It’s definitely changed Tammy over over the years. If you asked me when I was 19, 20, 21 what success was it would be winning hands down and I can remember how that was to win really drove me to train hard and put in a lot of effort and make difficult choices. You know I was at university and training and they gym I was training was an hour away and I used to do that 6 days a week whilst still doing my undergraduate degree. I…I did not go to a lot of the nights out etc. because I was training, but that was okay because I had a reason for it. I knew that if I wanted to win or come as close to winning as I could that I would have to…I would have to make those choices. I would have to put in effort. The fact that I then made those choices, if I didn’t train hard then I’d be really angry with myself because it would be like well what was the point then. Why are you going to make that choice, go, miss out on something and then not make it worthwhile and so it gave me motivation. It did make me quite hard on myself. You know it did, it did put a lot of pressure on things and when things weren’t going well it would make me frustrated but I had a fantastic coach who is now a very good friend of mine and she was….she was very interested in psychology and she was very level-headed and she kept perspective and she knew what I wanted to achieve and she wanted to achieve it for me as much as I did. But she was very good at keeping me grounded and and preparing me psychologically and giving me that emotional control and support that I needed.
TP: So that was you then, what about you now?
KR: So now, I’m completely different I think, in terms of now for me success is measured in such a different way in what I do now so if…if…if an athlete that I work with wins I can’t take that as a success for me because I…I appreciate that there are so many things that make that win ultimately the person, the gymnast themselves and it’s part of being a team. So I think success for me is about feeling effective in that if I feel that I’m doing what I can and I feel that my clients…I can see more elements of progression be that as a person or in their performance, I think that is success to me. And if people are happy, people interact with me and they feel better for that…in comparison to when they started that is success and I think that if anybody ever describes me as inspirational that to me is is success. I want to be somebody that…just like I’ve done there when I reminisced about my coachI want to leave an impact on people, a positive impact so that they can say “Do you know what? That person helped me or that person inspired me”, and and that to me is success.
TP: Just gonna end up with some quick fire questions.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
KR: A protein yoghurt.
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
KR: My [unclear]
TP: Sporting hero?
KR: Anthony Joshua.
KR: Because I like how humble he’s been and he comes from a place…he comes from humble beginnings and he’s remained humble throughout and that’s not to say that he’s worked harder than anyone else but I think he pays tribute to the fact that he’s had a team that got him there and and he feels part of the team and I think it’s that perspective and it’s that level of humility that he has and how humble he is is nice to see.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
KR: So I remember when I was about 24 somebody told me to not be so passionate.
KR: And I’m so pleased that I ignored them.
TP: Sounds like good advice to ignore them.
KR: Yeah [laughter].
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport.
KR: Ooh, spending time with family and friends. Definitely.
TP: And last one, best performance enhancer.
KR: Oooh, okay. So I’m gonna sound like a right geek now but being mindful. Being able to be in the moment is my best performance enhancer.
TP: Brilliant. Thank you very much Katie, it’s been fantastic talking to you.
KR: Thank you very much.[music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a question of performance.com
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