Kim Daybell, who put his table tennis career on hold last March to join the NHS fight against COVID-19, has taken on a role as a mentor with the True Athlete Project (TAP), a non-profit organisation formed of world-class athletes, coaches, psychologists, mindfulness teachers and policy makers. The programme matches aspiring young athletes with experienced international athletes for a year-long learning experience supported by a holistic curriculum based on five themes – performance, identity and values, mindfulness, community responsibility and nature and connectedness.
“The aim of the programme is to support the person behind the young athlete,” said former tennis player Sam Parfitt, founder and CEO of TAP, “and prove that when the person flourishes, so does their sporting performance.”
Daybell, who is currently working in A&E at a North London hospital, was attracted to the ethos behind the programme and is keen to pass on his experience to a young athlete.
“They are very into mindfulness and wellbeing and that kind of wholesome, holistic approach to the athlete and I’ve been interested in that side for a while,” he said. “It is a refreshing way to view things and there is a big push at UK Sport now towards that attitude to athletes whereas I think if you go back a few years it was probably more clinical. I’ve been an athlete for a long time now – through three Paralympic cycles – and have that experience of balancing education and being a teenager and trying to make it work with everything else in general life. When I was starting out I wanted someone to talk to outside of my sport who had been through it all so I’m hoping that I can use that experience to help someone.
“It is part of your duty as an athlete to pass on that knowledge and experience to the next generation coming through and give them those tools to try and help them. I think it would be a shame when my table tennis career comes to an end to not pass that wealth of experience on to someone else and that is the main thing that I want to try and do.”
Daybell is mentoring 16-year-old fencer Adekunle Taiwo and is looking forward to working with an athlete from a different sport.
“It’s really interesting because you can get very wrapped up in your own sport and how you do things and it is interesting to see how other sports operate. I was assuming all the mentees would be pushing for the top of their sport but actually it is a wide range; Adekunle is just starting to do national events and has not competed abroad yet so it is completely different to the way we operate. It is good to get a different view on things from a wider perspective and just get to know somebody else.
“I will definitely learn from him as well. It is a good reminder of how far you’ve come and how naïve and young you were when you first started. I think it is nice to check in with that again and just remember and appreciate what you’ve been through and apply that to your own sport and your own life. TAP organise a lot of classes that try and develop the mentor as well and teach you those skills to be able to impart knowledge because that is not an easy thing to do, especially when you have spent your whole career being really focused on yourself.”
BPTT head coach Greg Baker, an honorary member of UK Sport’s coaching fellowship, became interested in TAP when he was asked to provide a reference for Daybell, and feels that the programme fits in well with the ethos of BPTT.
“I thought it was a really good way of offering external support to athletes that are on our programmes,” he said, “and to really digest and talk about performance in different ways. Sometimes our coaches don’t have all the answers and I don’t think any coach does, so any external support and mentoring support especially from ex-athletes is only a good thing. It fits with our values on what coaching is and how to get the best out of coaching.
“Kim has been able to juggle high performance sport with studying for a very high-level university degree and now work and his story will help other athletes that go through similar situations. He is also a very good listener which is important; as the mentor you have the chance to listen and ask some very good questions, give advice, share stories and Kim has got all of that so I think he is a great mentor and will improve in that role I’m sure.”
Wellbeing is now recognised as an important element of high-performance sport with a number of high-profile athletes having spoken openly about the pressure of achieving and maintaining results. That in turn has put the spotlight on coaching methods and the general care of athletes.
“Coaching has changed massively over the last 10 years,” acknowledged Baker. “I think coaching always depends on the context you are coaching in, so you want to adapt your style accordingly depending on the environment. But I do think from a performance point of view it has very much changed to understand the athlete as a person – understand their motives, their wants, their needs, what inspires them, what makes them tick. What that sometimes means as well is not just looking at the technical and tactical areas but very much about building relationships and getting the best out of people.
“Achieving the perfect balance between the performance and the person is the biggest challenge for the modern-day coach. Anyone involved in high performance sport wants to be the best they can be and wants to achieve targets and achieve performance but what we have to do is make sure we are doing that in different ways because how one person achieves performance doesn’t necessarily mean that another person will achieve in exactly the same way.
“People go on different journeys and therefore you have to really balance what support you give someone. If you’ve got a challenging environment and a supporting environment, then for me it is a win/win. If you’ve got one or the other, then it can be detrimental. If you’re too supportive and not challenging enough an athlete will stand still whereas if you are very challenging and less supportive then an athlete is going to be very tired or feel that they are being drilled in a military way. So a balance of the two is the key and it is definitely one of the modern challenges of performance coaching because we all want to win but there are different ways to get there. I think this sort of programme is illustrating that there isn’t one significant way of winning - there can be lots of different ways.”
Baker is keen to see how TAP expands in the future and on being told there was a place available on the programme for a mentee he suggested Jack Hunter-Spivey. The 25-year-old is hoping to compete in his second Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer and is now being mentored by former snooker world champion Ken Doherty.
“I know Jack engages well in these sorts of things,” said Baker, “and that is obviously a big win as if someone doesn’t see the benefit of it then it’s an issue.”
“I think for me it is about drawing on the experience of someone like Ken who has been in similar situations to me,” said Hunter-Spivey. “He’s obviously been more accomplished than I have and has been there and done that and can talk about things that not everyone else can relate to. I’ve got a good support network around me but if I speak to my girlfriend, she hasn’t got a clue about sport; if I speak to Greg he might have different experiences to what Ken has had and the same applies to different athletes that I’ve spoken to. So I am just being a sponge and soaking up the knowledge and experience that Ken has got and I can put into table tennis.
“I think it helps that I am a snooker fan so I know his background and I know what he has done and been through and how hard that has been. It also helps that he is still competing – last time I spoke to him he was preparing for the snooker shootout so he was talking to me about how he is training, who he is training with, how he is approaching it, when he is travelling to the venue, all those sort of details are valuable for me in seeing how he prepares (for tournaments) so it definitely does help.
“I’ve made my biggest gains from external things and it is a massive help that Ken is from another sport. For me to make those next gains I need to think outside the box a little more so I can’t wait to see how it goes although one thing we’re never going to agree about is football as I support Liverpool and Ken is a Man Utd fan.”
Snooker and table tennis may appear to have little in common, but both rely on a strong mental approach.
“I was speaking to Ken about this,” said Hunter-Spivey, “and we basically play a very high-speed snooker in a way as they are putting balls in different positions with different spins trying to catch the opponent out, so it is not a million miles away from what we do. Table tennis is a lot more physical but in terms of mental approach it seems similar in that it is one of those games where you are thinking quite quickly – it’s not a power sport.”
Learning from other sports is another thing that Baker recognises can be very valuable.
“Obviously, we can take a lot from our own sport and will continue to do that, but it is also good for athletes to take experience from someone else into their own environment to help them when they might not have had that advice before from somebody else. I think TAP is a great concept and we will continue to monitor it and see how it expands with a view to getting more athletes on board as long as they see the value of what mentoring can do. I see mentoring as a two-way process where you can help each other. Jack has gone through some experiences which Ken can relate to and Ken will take as many things from Jack as Jack will from Ken. That relationship is very powerful and therefore can only be of benefit to both of them.
“What TAP is trying to do in a nutshell is broaden the athletes’ perspectives, give them more knowledge and understanding of what people in other sports do, how they dealt with situations, how they dealt with times of stress, times of very high performance. We are in a demanding industry which is still quite results-driven so I think it is very important for athletes to understand how other athletes have done that and maybe not always in their own sport where things can be seen in one way.
“This aligns with UK Sport’s future strategy of not just winning but how we win. It is very important for an athlete to understand that when they are involved with sport and in day-to-day performance that they have an identity outside sport. Performance sport is an unforgiving environment and not every athlete makes it. We need to put things in place for athletes so that if they do come off programmes or get an injury and can’t compete we are equipping them to cope with that and I think this programme will help.”
Hunter-Spivey has spoken openly about his own mental health problems and feels strongly that mentoring programmes such as TAP can only benefit athletes in the high-performance environment.
“I’m lucky enough to be part of the BPTT programme and have those people around me who noticed something was wrong when I was going through my toughest time. Other people might not have that support network around them and even if you do it is still really hard to reach out so if people can make it more normal to speak about it especially from a mentor/mentee perspective that can only be a positive thing.”