Setting champions on the right path

by Jenni Banks, British Athletics Senior Institute Coach - Wheelchair Racing
Setting champions on the right pathAthletics coach Jenni Banks reveals how she got Hannah Cockroft on the right path to win the full set of World, Paralympic and European medals in the last three years:

There’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of coaches to provide the best possible guidance and environment to enable success. That’s what I have aimed to achieve for Hannah and I believe that we worked as a team to make it happen.

Optimal results are achieved when the athlete and the coach know and understand each other really well. They both need to bring their own particular knowledge, skills and experience to the relationship. You need to communicate well with each other and be completely open and honest to establish trust.

A healthy dose of patience, persistence and a willingness to work through any issues is also essential. The road to success is not a linear one. The high performance environment and culture demands a great deal. It means long hours and continuous strive for improvement founded on a love of the sport and a passion to help the athletes to succeed.

Coaching is different to other avenues in the sporting world. Through regular face-to-face contact with the athletes, a coach oversees most, if not all, the input into an athlete’s sporting career – this isn’t just your own input but also from performance nutritionists, performance psychologists, facility managers, equipment manufacturers, event organisers – the list goes on.

As a coach, you are also perhaps more aware of the athlete’s life both on and off the track. Both of these impact on each other and a careful balance is critical to maintain optimal performance. Hannah’s success in London meant increased demands on her time, particularly with the media and sponsors. Not everyone has understood the need for Hannah to factor in recovery time in order to maximise training gains and performance. Hannah has also wanted to experience true university life by leaving home and balancing studying with training and competing at one stage. This was a challenge at times.

I also enjoy the variety of roles I take on as a coach from the more practical ones like running training sessions to more managerial or administrative to develop training plans, organising logistics for training camps and competitions and the more creative aspects such as finding solutions to technical or other research problems.

Before coaching, I was an athlete and I also studied sport science and human movement. An injury when I was just starting to achieve international representation forced me to change direction and focus. I admit, I didn’t love coaching at first – it didn’t give me the same buzz or sense of achievement that being an athlete did. However, as I got more into it and I started to achieve some success with my athletes, I enjoyed it more. My goals shifted from trying to become the best in the world in my sport as an athlete to helping my athletes become the best in the world. I’ve now been coaching for thirty years and I have helped seven athletes become the best in the world in one or more of their events.

Before I started working with Hannah, her events in major Championships were the 100m and 200m short sprints but, for the T34 female athletes category in Rio, Hannah had the 100m, 400m and 800m. This changed everything as we worked on developing her physical, mental, technical and tactical capacity as well as her nutritional plan so that she could accommodate the demands of training and racing for the longer 400m and 800m events, as well as the 100m. Hannah raced extremely well in Rio to win three Golds from the three events but her win in the 800m was the icing on the cake for me as she led from start to finish. That requires a high level of physical conditioning and confidence, which is something we had been working on for four years.  Seeing athletes go from having the potential to succeed at major Championships to actually delivering that on the day through complete belief in themselves and trust in their programme will always be a highlight for me.

If anyone is thinking of being a coach, then they should go for it. They will need to develop their technical knowledge as well as soft skills and seek a range of learning, mentoring and coach development opportunities, like the Youth Sport Trust National Talent Camp. It’s important to network with other coaches and support staff and to never stop learning. Always look for how you can improve yourself and the support you provide to athletes and remember the responsibility that you have as a coach. While you may coach many athletes during their career, each athlete has only one career. Work together to make it the best possible career and, importantly, enjoy it together.

Jenni will be at the Youth Sport Trust National Talent Camp with Hannah Cockroft on 16 December to share their story of success. Find out more here.

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