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On the road to Rio with Olympic and Paralympic sailing coach Ian Barker

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Ian Barker

  • Four-year Olympic cycle subdivided into four one-year training cycles.
  • Important to schedule in rest periods to avoid burnout.
  • Fastidious preparation allows you to keep one step ahead of the opposition.
  • In sailing, each campaign cycle may require a different area of priority – psychological, equipment or technical.
  • By targeting weaknesses in every basic area, you can expect to see an improvement year on year. 

Former Olympic silver medallist and World Championship gold medallist Ian Barker is a difficult man to pin down, for the simple reason his feet hardly ever touch the ground. 

As one of the country’s leading sailing coaches, Ian is forever jetting off to exotic locations in far-flung corners of the world. 

When he is not in the air, he is invariably on the water, working with the Irish 49er Olympic team or as coach to Great Britain Paralympian Helena Lucas – who won gold at The London 2012 Paralympic Games in the 2.4mR class. 

You might say his life is plane sailing! 

But is hemisphere-hopping like a modern-day Phileas Fogg really as glamorous as it appears? 

When I catch up with Ian, he is back in Blighty for an all-too-short stay after returning from another stint ‘down south’ in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Melbourne, Australia for the 49er World Championships and Para World Championships respectively. 

There will just be time to unpack his suitcase and do the laundry before returning to the departures lounge to catch another long-haul flight to Brazil later this month. 

His family may be used to his nomadic lifestyle, as he has been a globetrotter since the year dot, but that doesn’t make it any easier on them. 

‘It is a logistical challenge and difficult, balancing work and family life, especially now the Olympic and Paralympic Games are less than a year away,’ says Ian, who quickly adds: ‘But, yeah, it’s a pretty good job! They are long days for sure, but when your office is the harbour in Rio next to Sugarloaf Mountain, I’ve no complaints. 

‘I consider myself very lucky to be doing what I do.’

Olympic diary 

For Ian, the countdown to the Rio Olympic Games began on 13 August 2012 – that is, the day after the closing ceremony of the London Games. 

That is normal practice for a high-performance coach of an Olympic team, for whom time management and long-term coaching plans are paramount. 

The technical term for structuring coaching plans into shorter training cycles is ‘periodisation’, and every sport, and probably every coach within each sport, will have their own ideas on how to divide the training time up into manageable blocks. 

‘It’s probably more useful to think of it in one-year cycles as opposed to a four-year cycle,’ says Ian when I ask him what his approach is. 

‘For this Olympic Games, being in Brazil, there are a lot more southern hemisphere-based events, and a lot of those fall into our down time of winter. 

‘Within this yearly cycle, it is important to fit in rest periods during the course of the season so the athletes start every training segment fresh. 

‘If you’re not careful and fail to plan your rest periods in, you can suffer burnout.’ 

Ian is juggling two coaching campaigns, which are being conducted in altogether different ways. 

He will lead the Team Ireland 49er pair of Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern in Rio, hoping to build on a disappointing regatta in London 2012. 

Previously, Barker was coach to Ireland’s Tom Fitzpatrick and Frazer Brown in Athens 2004 and to Team GB’s Steve Morrison and Ben Rhodes in 2008 – who he also coached to 49er World Championship gold and silver in 2007 and 2008 respectively. 

‘The Irish 49er team were a young team who got to London in good shape but then didn’t perform too well at the Games themselves – as often happens with people at their first Olympic Games,’ he says. 

‘But the experience will set them up nicely for Rio so the focus for them has been to put in some good seasons and keep improving year on year, and also to get good experience of Rio. It’s very important in sailing to get used to the conditions of each venue.’ 

Rio’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain rises 1299 feet above the harbour at Guanabara Bay on a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean, and it has been a regular base for Ian and the Irish team. 

‘We’ve been down there quite a lot, getting used to the wind,’ he adds. ‘Obviously, there are a lot of mountains in the area, like Sugarloaf, that get in the way of the wind. We’ve identified various race areas, familiarising ourselves with each one to get used to what the wind does. It’s also got a very complex tidal pattern, which we’ve been trying to get our heads round as well. 

‘So hopefully, by the time they get to the Games, they will have improved their performance generally and have a good perception of the conditions in Rio itself that will help them in the Olympic regatta.’ 

Ian Barker 2

SILVER BULLETS: Ian, left, with 49er partner Simon Hiscocks at the Sydney 2000 medals ceremony

Gunning for the double 

Ian’s other mission is to win back-to-back Olympic 2.4mR class golds with Lucas, whom he coaches on a private basis. 

‘I hadn’t coached her for too long before London, and we had a bit of a battle with the equipment,’ he says. 

‘It mostly boils down to equipment in that boat, and that has been our main focus leading up to Rio. 

‘I did a bit of work on the equipment before London, which led to a speed improvement, but I had lots of ideas after that for how to improve the equipment for 2016.’ 

Relying on mast manufacturers, sails suppliers and marine rigging companies can be a frustratingly lengthy process. 

For example, waiting for a new batch of masts to come in can take up to six months. 

‘The development of the sails through a third party was taking quite a long time too. So, because I used to be a sail manufacturer, I decided to make them myself in-house, which is helpful because then the competition can’t buy them! 

‘That’s been a big priority up until now, as well as that same process of getting used to the conditions in Rio.’ 

When Ian flies back out to Brazil after Christmas, it will be his third Rio reconnaissance trip with the 2.4m. 

Only a few other Para nations have visited the Olympic venue so far, giving Helena a valuable head start in terms of their preparations. 

In terms of coaching the athletes themselves, Ian says that, with sailing being such a diverse sport, his philosophy can vary depending on the campaign, the athlete or the class he is coaching. 

‘A coaching philosophy is aimed at getting the athletes to be the best they can be,’ he says. 

‘You could highlight fitness as a key area, or psychological methods, or you may need to focus more on the technical side and equipment, time on the water or boat-handling aspects. Starting is quite a big area too, which a lot of people struggle with, so it’s really about assessing what each athlete or campaign needs. 

‘In terms of devising a performance profiling system, you work on trying to strengthen the weaknesses in every basic area. By addressing those weaknesses and trying to smooth them out, you will expect to see an improvement year on year.’ 

Transition time 

With his wealth of experience as a world-beating sailor to delve into, you would be forgiven for thinking Ian’s pathway into coaching was seamless. 

He actually found embracing the shift in mentality from elite athlete to coach difficult. 

His biggest achievement as a sailor was winning an Olympic silver medal with 49er partner Simon Hiscocks at Sydney 2000, while, racing with Tim Hancock, he struck World Championship gold in 1993 in the 505 class. 

But, as he told the Royal Yacht Association (RYA) website at the time of his conversion:

It was difficult at first, making the transition from the mindset of selfish athlete to selfless coach, and the most I have learnt is about myself and how I deal with people. It’s a big shift because you want to make things happen, but you can’t do that by being imposing, you need to tease the answers out of the athletes themselves.’ 

This confession came in the months following his graduation from the UK Sport Elite Coach programme in 2008. He had been part of the second intake of high-performance athletes on the prestigious three-year course. Other esteemed graduates included Kate Howey and Chris Boardman, of judo and cycling fame. 

After honing his psychological techniques over time, Ian is now as experienced a coach as he was a sailor, and is as happy advising a newcomer as he is swapping ideas with four-time Olympic gold medallist and America’s Cup winner Ben Ainslie – admitting his approach is ‘pretty much the same’. 

‘Ben has things he wants to work on just like a beginner will. Whatever the athlete, it’s about identifying their biggest needs and addressing those. 

‘My experience in coaching allows me to assess very quickly what people need, and target those areas and make quite a big improvement in a short time. And that is quite satisfying.’ 

Welcome aboard 

Ian’s competitive and coaching careers may be synonymous with dinghies, but he is just as comfortable big boat sailing. 

The Extreme Sailing Series is a white knuckle experience, with the Extreme 40 catamarans reaching top speeds in the region of 74kmh, or 46mph. 

It was on the Extreme 40s that he spent some time coaching Ainslie last year. 

But for Ian, it doesn’t matter who he is discussing coaching methods with, the important thing is to seek out ideas and learn from as many people as possible. 

It is the reason he became a member of ConnectedCoaches, and he attributes this refreshing attitude to self-development as being a legacy of the Elite Coach programme. 

‘I remember going to see some wind tunnel testing with the cycling team with Chris Boardman,’ he says. 

‘Wind tunnels are something you can use in sailing quite a lot, designing sails with rigs, so there was some crossover there where we could share some information. 

‘I also went to an England Under-21 rugby union camp in Bath with Jim Mallinder (the current Northampton Saints director of rugby). It was interesting to see how they used performance analysis to give feedback to the players. There are performance analysts working with the Great Britain team so, again, it was worthwhile as a fact-finding mission. 

‘I am really interested to look at other sports to see how they do things. It’s why I joined ConnectedCoaches, which is a really great way of keeping tabs on what’s going on in different sports.’ 

I’m sure I speak for the rest of the ConnectedCoaches community in welcoming Ian aboard.

Ian’s top tips

  1. Always try to keep things simple, especially when it comes to giving the athlete information. You might have to have gone through a lot to research and test, but always try to simplify, and simplify delivery of the information.
  2. The 6 Ps always apply. Keep one step ahead of everyone with your preparation.
  3. Planning campaigns is a really important area to help athletes understand what they will have to do and when and how they will achieve it. Always work backwards from the ultimate goal when planning.
  4. Detailed performance programming between one and three times a year. This will allow you to see areas of improvement to target.
  5. Control your emotions when you are coaching in competition. You are their rock, avoid the highs and lows.
  6. Promote the mantra ‘Train like you race, race like you train.’
  7. Enjoy what you do, and make it enjoyable for them.

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Comments (1)

So much to enjoy and learn from in this article. Especially love the insight on transition from athlete to coach, and the desire to keep learning from other sports.
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