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All about the environment

How do you create ideal conditions for high performance training?

Scotland has an enviable range of performance sport facilities across the country. This network has been further enhanced with the recent completion of Oriam in the east and Inverclyde in the west due to open in the coming months. But the construction of the facility is only the start.

Without the right people working in harmony, with the right performance areas and equipment available at the right times, athletes and coaches will find it more difficult to achieve their goals. The environment that is created within the building is critical.

So what is a high performance environment?

The sportscotland institute of sport is holding a series of networking days with facility managers from around Scotland a view to creating a set of guiding principles on the subject.

The first networking day included a fascinating Q&A session with Euan Burton MBE, the former world and European judo medallist and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth champion who is now working as JudoScotland national high performance coach, and David Murdoch, the Olympic curling silver medallist and two-time world champion.

Here we recreate the conversation…

If you had the perfect high performance environment, what would your ideal training day look like?

David Murdoch: Curling has never had its own facility but that’s about to change with the opening of a new dedicated facility at The Peak in Stirling. This is going to be our academy and it's going to provide the perfect environment.

David Murdoch and Euan BurtonFor us, it’s very important to have the right ice conditions. It’s also important to have video analysis and to get everyone under the same roof, so that we can have our strength and conditioning coach, for example, working with us on a dedicated sheet matching competition standards.

It’s exciting times ahead for the curling programme –  we have always shared facilities with the public around the country so I’m looking forward to having our own dedicated facility. 

Euan Burton: As a coach, my ideal training day would start the night before, so that athletes turn up to training refreshed and recovered, having had a good night’s sleep. Some good nutrition in the morning is probably the most essential thing. We tell our athletes all the time that what they do on the mat or in the gym is essential, but it’s the environment and how they deal with off-mat pressures that make the difference between them being Scottish level and world level.

If we are talking about raising the bar really high, I would like to see our athletes having breakfast together, with the coaching staff, because it’s an opportunity to discuss what might happen in the session, particularly if you are working with a large group. That opportunity to spend a little time with the other coaches and the athletes before the session is really good for setting up expectations for what is about to happen.

Then there would be an opportunity to recover and refuel quickly after the session, which is essential. As we are looking at younger and younger athletes we are looking at helping them deal with their lives outside of judo, because if you are like me and you push it quite far, it can be 10 or even 20 years of your life that you are doing sport. At some stage you will be too old to deliver on the mat, and having something else is very important.

It’s also about getting everyone together so there is a cross-pollination of ideas, where people can talk about how a session went or how the week is going to go, how the season is going to go – and it’s not on the end of a phone or an email. Those sorts of things are essential.

What was your first high performance environment, and how much did it meet your needs?

DM: My home town of Lockerbie in the south of Scotland has its own facility, which for a town of just 5,000 or 6,000 people is incredible. It was across the road from the high school so that pulled a lot of juniors into the club, which was a big bonus.

David MurdochFor me, the thing that probably got me aspiring to reach the top level was the fact that it was already happening in our club. Some of our older juniors including my brother had gone on and won World Juniors. That led me to want to do that type of thing. Curling was changing at the time. The Olympics had just begun to open it up to a bigger audience and we started to see a little bit of it on TV.

There was also some good coaching down there. The West of Scotland institute provided us with a weightlifting facility in Dumfries which took our sport to a new level. Curling was definitely changing rapidly thanks to the introduction of high-performance expertise. But to move one step forward, we needed to be more engaged with the facilities.

We needed to have more access to strength and conditioning and more access to coaching, which led to me looking at getting a move to Stirling. I realised I had gone as far as I could go in that environment, and I knew there was an even better one in Stirling, created by the sportscotland institute of sport.

We managed to win the world title in 2006, but between then and Vancouver in 2010 we could see that a lot of countries were starting to become full-time athletes and we asked ourselves what we could do to get an edge. In Stirling we got more involved in S&C, in psychology, in exercise physiology, and that led to us having a lot of success between 2006 and 2010.

My move to Stirling meant our team could be together every day.

We were in training and on the road every single day, and it allowed us to focus on all the things we could do as a team to get 1 per cent better.

With the new performance centre at The Peak we can advance that further, perhaps even replicating the exact conditions of an Olympics or World Championship. We’ll also have better video analysis on the ice, so we’re excited to plan for the next four years now.

At the moment, access can be a challenge because we are sharing ice not only with the public but also with other sports. The business needs to meet its overheads, and we have to juggle our times because some of us have to work. 

EB: Nobody walks off the couch and out the front door and into their own performance environment. My start in sport was in a club, and I was very fortunate to stumble into a club with a very dedicated, enthusiastic coach [Billy Cusack] who was making his mark in Scottish judo at the time.

Euan BurtonThe first time I felt I was in a real high performance environment was when I started training at 14 or 15 at George Kerr’s private health club on Hillside Street in Edinburgh. George was synonymous with judo and had a real passion for the sport and he was allowing a group of talented seniors and juniors to use his club free of charge.

It was not a perfect environment, because the dojo was quite small and at times there were 20 to 40 of us training. It wasn’t ideal, but I’m a great believer in nothing ever being completely negative and nothing being completely positive.

A dojo needs a vibrant atmosphere and you don’t get that in a very large space.

We were known as quite aggressive fighters, and that was probably because we were bashing each other off the walls.

We found a solution that worked for us, and that’s the key to a successful programme: finding solutions when things are not ideal.

What was your next move?

EB: George eventually sold the club, and we were a little bit in limbo but we did train for a while in a room in the back of the building, where the ceiling was not high enough. Again there was an atmosphere of “OK, this is not ideal but let’s make the best of it”.

We moved to an old church building in Lorne Street in Leith which had a lot of what you need to be a performance athlete. We had a mat area that was bigger than the one we had before, a group of really like-minded athletes who were all dedicated and looking in the same direction and we had high levels of coaching.

For a while it was OK, and helped some of us to win World Championship or European Championship medals. But eventually when you are travelling the globe, you see that other people have that too. Other people have world class athletes, and world class coaches … but they also have hot water. Or somewhere to do some weight training. Or somewhere to eat.

What did the move to the JudoScotland National Training Centre provide?

EB: The move to Ratho enabled us to achieve those 1 per cent gains that you need in order to move, say, from fifth in the world to first.

I think the greatest benefit of our training facility is that we have the coach, the athlete, the physical preparation coach, the physio and the staff of the governing body all in one place. So when we go in and have conversations about what is best for the athletes, it’s not over phone or email.

Having all of those things on site, and being able to get a shower and refuel after a session, gives you some of those 1 per centers that are essential if you are striving to be the best.

We were originally on the bottom floor. It was better than before and, as athletes, it was a good solution for us. But when you spend hours and hours of the day somewhere with no natural light, you start to crave a bit of light – so we ended up a little higher up the building.

We now have an environment that was the same as what we had in the basement, but we have some natural light to train under. The only person who doesn’t particularly like that is Sam Ingram, our visually impaired Paralympic medallist, because too much light is not great for Sam and he’s not allowed to wear his sunglasses on the judo mat. But, again, we found a solution for that: specialist contact lenses that he can wear.

The other thing we are trying to add to the environment is accommodation. Ratho is a great facility but transport links are not great and some of our younger athletes either don’t drive or don’t have a car. So that’s the next step.

Can you recall any examples of best practice you have seen around the world?

DM: We were recently training in Korea and wanted to see what it would be like in 2018 if we compete at the Olympics. We weren’t sure what we would be going to as Korea isn’t renowned for curling and their rink had just recently been built. I have to say we were really impressed with what they had.

They specialised in terrific ice conditions and were putting heat into the rink which mimics what it’s like in a competition arena. We’d like to do that here but because of the cost it doesn’t happen. Overall I think the biggest thing I saw was the respect the athletes had for the facility.

There wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere.

This was their brand new facility and they had obviously decided they were going to respect it and that impressed me because it works both ways. The staff expect the athletes to keep the place clean and vice versa. In our sport, dirt matters, so everyone was helping get the facility ready for the next users and it worked perfectly. It made me wonder why we don’t have those processes in place that allow both sides to respect their environment.

We were in Japan just before Christmas, and they have built a state-of-the-art facility where the Olympics were in Nagano. Their rink was set up almost exactly like a World Championship or Olympic arena with seating, an overhead camera and walkways.

As we walked in to go to our changing room we were asked to leave our footwear behind, and were given a set of slippers.

They didn’t want any sort of dirt going into their perfect environment, and that level of respect is mind-blowing for me, and something I would love to repeat here.

EB: That type of respect is something I have seen a lot in Japan, particularly in the Olympic training centre that we have often visited in Tokyo. It’s not just the facility that is treated with respect but the athletes too. In judo we have a lot of world champions and Olympic champions and we are always trying to respect them by not respecting them too much, if that makes sense.

JudoScotland dojo at RathoOn numerous occasions, I’ve seen two-time world champions sweeping the mat after a session, because they respect their environment. However, there is a little bit of conflict in me when you talk about the perfect environment.

All high-performance sport is competition, but in judo it is also a fight. If you make things too sanitised in a judo environment and there is too much put on a plate, especially when you are younger, it can lead to a bit of complacency or a culture where they have constantly got their hand out.

We want our guys to fight for what they get.

I’ve seen less sanitised environments that produce world and Olympic champions. Georgia is one of the strongest judo environments in the world and when you look at their weightlifting facilities, there might be rust hanging off the plates. But the one constant is that respect for their environment, that when you walk into the place where you are going to do your business, it is serious and it demands a level of respect.

How do you instil that level of respect in your athletes? Do you make them clean up?

EB: Yes, absolutely. We don’t want anyone to feel victimised by being asked to clean the mat too many times but some of the guys who don’t fill out their performance data or are sitting bottom of their compliance tables sweep the mat at the end of the sessions.

That kills two birds with one stone: the mat gets cleaned and we get the performance data we need so that we can do a better job as their coaches.

We have seen British Judo move their main performance centre several times. Why?

EB: There are a number of reasons, some political, some financial, but there have been a couple of iterations that maybe haven’t worked as well as British Judo would have liked.

British Judo had a centre in Dartford where the mat was sunk into the most beautiful oak you have ever seen. There were plasma screens for video analysis. However, the ceilings were far too high, and it didn’t matter if you had 100 judo players on the mat, the atmosphere wasn’t great.

If you go to the British Judo Centre of Excellence in Walsall, the ceiling is much lower. And the ceiling is lower because they are trying to raise the bar.

What is reasonable for an athlete to expect from facility staff, in terms of support?

EB: It’s more about clarity and communication. When you talk about a four-year performance plan, the athletes need to be clear about what they have to do and when they have to do it.

Facilities wise, it’s the same thing: if the athletes are not clear on simple things like opening times and they travel for an hour for a session and the doors are closed, that’s a breakdown in clarity and communication.

When athletes come into an environment, it’s important they know what is expected of them, too.

We have a lot of young men and women training in our centre and as they start getting a bit stronger, some of them like to walk about with their tops off. Our dojo and governing body offices are there and linked to an athletes’ lounge and kitchen area for the staff so I’ve had to say to a couple of the younger guys “Look, do our colleagues in the office really need to see you with your top off while they are making a cup of tea?”

They might want to see them with their tops off, but they shouldn’t be forced to. It sounds ridiculous, but unless that is explained to those guys, how will they know not to do it?

DM: Access is probably one of the key things for us. When are the doors open? Is there enough space for all of us?

David MurdochThe facility needs to be clear on what it is providing and the coaches need to make sure the facility staff know how many athletes are coming at any given time. Otherwise you end up with three people juggling one sheet of ice.

Also, the way in which we share a facility has to be carefully managed to make sure everybody is getting the conditions they need. It is a big challenge when you have to provide for the public as well as the athletes.

It’s about good communication. I think everyone would benefit if facilities managers were fed back information on whether they are providing what athletes need and that might help them realise what is offered in other places. Otherwise, how are they going to know? We all want the same thing, which is to achieve success.

EB: There are definitely ways that a shared facility can have mutual benefits. 

When Sally Conway came back from the Olympics with her bronze medal, and we had our first catch-up at Ratho, we didn’t get very much work done in about three hours because members of the public wanted to congratulate her.

There was one man in his eighties who trains in the gym and had obviously spoken to Sally before, who came over and got on his knees and was bowing down to Sally.

Part of that is that she one of the nicest people you could meet and would talk to anybody, but what it also says is that the medal is not just Sally’s, it’s everybody’s who is involved in Scottish judo and helps to motivate her and inspire her, and she said that to the man.

Just because we are saying that we are going to prioritise high performance at some times of the day or some times of the season, it doesn’t mean we are making things worse for everybody else. I think they can actually benefit.

Find out more

Duncan Rolley, elite training centre advisor at UK Sport, made a presentation at the HPE networking day about the key facility decisions that led to Team GB and ParalympicsGB winning a record medal haul at Rio 2016. Read more about what UK Sport do.

Interested in getting involved in judo or curling in Scotland? Click on our links to the respective Judo Scotland and British Curling websites. 

Mike Whittingham

Mike Whittingham, director of high performance at the sportscotland institute of sport

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