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Success snowballs for British bobsleigh after radical coaching rethink

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GB Bobsleigh

PUSH OFF! Great Britain's four-man bob in action at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

  • British bobsleigh coaches now use data to define their long-term strategy.
  • A major repair job was deemed necessary to get the minor time gain needed to win a medal.
  • A new scouting system was implemented where athletes were assessed and given a raw score based on their physical abilities.
  • British team have climbed from 38th in the world rankings to fifth.

‘Truly amazing scenes here, unbelievable, history has been made. Great Britain have taken silver at the World Cup and, judging by their reaction, they have also split the atom, solved the debt crisis and married Angelina Jolie.’

The Eurosport presenter’s hilarious hyperbole captured the jubilation of a nation when Great Britain’s four-man bobsleigh team won silver in the 2013 World Cup at Lake Placid.

There is a time and a place for excessive enthusiasm in a commentary box, and this was it. The last time Britain had finished on the podium was in 1997.

It was right up there with the words of Norwegian football commentator Borge Lillelien, who famously bellowed out after his country’s 2-1 victory over England in a World Cup qualifying match in Oslo in 1981: 'Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all! Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating!’

Following on from their Lake Placid success (where they were 00:00:07 seconds off gold), Team GB went on to clinch another silver at the European Championships and then finish an agonising 00:00:11sec outside the medals in fifth at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

So what led up to this sea change in the fortunes of the national team, who had been bob, bob, bobbin’ along among the world’s also-rans for decades?

Out with the old, in with the new

Gary Anderson is the Performance Director at British Bobsleigh and attributes the sudden transformation to a radical shake-up in strategy, and specifically the decision to embrace performance data analysis.

When he took over the reins in 2010, Britain were ranked 38th in the world. Now, here we are five years on with the men’s four-man bob ranked the fifth best team on the planet.

Their meteoric rise was not without its headaches, with Gary admitting that he thought about resigning every day in his first year in the job.

Little wonder when you discover how ruthless he had to be in the early days of the new programme.

One of his first jobs was to get rid of all the athletes on the team who were judged not good enough to win a medal. Ironically, in a high performance sport ruled by small margins, big repairs were deemed necessary.

He explains: ‘We found out what we need to win. I sat down with my coaches and my support team and we went through the whole medal market, looking at track data, statistics of other nations, what they did, what the trends were, what the critical factors were, so that if we implemented some of the ideas, what the performance outcome would be.

‘00:00:11sec was the difference between winning a medal and missing out at Sochi, over four miles of racing at an average speed of 85kmph and a top speed of 132kmph.

‘We worked out a system to get into the medals, and the tagline of the team for Sochi 2014 was: “The best people technically, tactically, physically and mentally we can be.”’

Continuing the tagline theme, that meant room for the best, but not the rest, as Gary and his team set to work on compiling, analysing and interpreting the myriad performance data that was available to them.

Data that showed him, for instance, that only the fastest starters medalled and that, in order for GB to be able to deliver a medal in 2018, they would have to be in the top three starters.

Talent scouting system

Their strategy was shaped by the repercussions that followed the tragic death of Georgian luge rider Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training accident at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF), to guard against another fatal incident, smoothed out the edges of the more razor-sharp corners to make tracks slower and safer.

‘We thought, if the acceleration at the start is that important, and given that tracks are becoming easier, couldn’t we teach one of our pushers to become a driver?’ says Gary.

‘Forget the fancy graphs and algorithms, if you can make the athlete better, your job’s done.’

So they devised a talent scouting system where athletes are given a value equating to their physical abilities after meeting certain performance criteria and are only recruited if they hit that value.

Full speed ahead

It wasn’t just Britain that looked at recruiting sprinters; other nations followed a similar path. It became a prerequisite that pilots had to be equal in athletic ability to those pushing the bob.

The performance team began looking at data from 2010 onwards, when the tracks were made safer. Age of athletes, start rank and medal history statistics were some of the areas they analysed.

‘With regard to start rank, the lowest start rank to win a medal in a major championships is seventh so, basically, if you start outside the top seven you aren’t going to win an Olympic medal,’ says Gary.

They discovered that the average age of a medallist in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games will likely be 29 or 30 for men and 27 or 28 for women.

Armed with those findings, two years ago, the GB bobsleigh hierarchy began recruiting 20 to 29-year-old males and 20 to 26-year-old women.

A recruitment model was constructed in collaboration with physiologists and coaches.

The following test parameters were set: body mass; a 30-metre timed sprint; 30m flying sprint; 60m sprint; repeated bound jump; roll bob sprints (bobsleighs on wheels that can be used on a track); and push track times (using the start track at the University of Bath, where it is possible to simulate what happens at the start of a run).

‘All those tests correlated to a points score, a bit like the multi-points scoring system you have in decathlon or heptathlon,’ says Gary.

Factored in to their evaluations were the results from other nations that used a similar test framework, along with some inferred data.

Coaches were now equipped with individual points scores and the knowledge that their athletes had to be hitting 950 points by 2018 to be in with a shout of the gold medal, and a minimum of 923 to medal.

In Sochi, GB athletes averaged 903 points on their way to fifth. The Russians, who won the two-man and four-man disciplines, averaged 943 and 941 points respectively.

The search begins

GB coaches were informed by analysts that their male team members should weigh 92–93kg and the females 72kg. The men should also be capable of running 10.40sec over 100 metres.

‘How many men in the country are there who weigh that and can run that time? Coaches were told to find out where they live and knock on their door,’ says Gary.

One person to get a visit was former Olympic sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis.

Lewis-Francis famously anchored the GB team to 4x100m relay gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, alongside Marlon Devonish, Darren Campbell and Jason Gardener. His best individual achievement was a silver medal in the 100m at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona.

‘He weighs in at 96kg and can still run 10.40sec for 100m with a strong wind behind him,’ jokes Gary.

Lewis-Francis, who is still only 33, is motivated by a personal mission to become first GB athlete to medal at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

The road to gold

Using data to define strategy is a model that has worked in bobsleigh. Whether it can deliver the ultimate prize on the world’s biggest stage, only time will tell.

I ask Gary if the team’s entire programme could be derailed by the fact Britain has no access to an ice track.

They rely on other nations lending them their facilities, and this has suddenly become an issue.

‘When we were ranked 38th, I could go to any track in the world and get ice time. Now we’re ranked fifth, I get obstacles placed in the way so we have to find ingenious ways of doing that.’

Their persuasive powers generally win the day, and athletes and coaches are constantly on the move, living out of a suitcase, throughout the autumn and winter.

‘We’ll arrive at a track the day it opens and leave the day it closes,’ says Gary. ‘They open usually mid-October and close at the end of March, and my guys have already gone out there so, yes, we are always on the road.’

The long and lonely road to glory, they hope.

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Comments (1)

Fascinating... An example perhaps of where data definitely leads the way and is right to do so. I'm sure behind this data led approach there is still world class coaching to enable those high scores at the start of races.
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