British Para Table Tennis Team will come back stronger

Living in lockdown has become the new reality for everyone since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and for athletes who are used to training every day the enforced inactivity can be particularly challenging. While the news that the Tokyo Paralympic Games have been postponed until 2021 provided some clarity to an uncertain situation it was also very disappointing for athletes who had been focused on reaching their peak in August 2020.

For the athletes in the British Para Table Tennis Team who are used to honing their skills on the table for six hours a day, five days a week, not being able to train creates additional anxiety while the loss of their squad environment is hard for athletes who have thrived on the family structure created by performance director Gorazd Vecko when he joined the team in 2009.

The majority of the Performance Squad are based in Sheffield but most have returned to their families since the closure of their training base at the English Institute of Sport and so are scattered around the UK from Paisley to Plymouth. Working hard to keep the athletes physically and mentally fit is the BPTT support team, led by head coach Greg Baker and head of performance support Jill Crompton who are both taking a positive approach to an unprecedented challenge.

“I do think the team will be stronger after this,” said Baker, who became the youngest member of UK Sport’s elite coaching fellowship in 2017. “In any time like this true values and principles of people, but also teams and organisations, really come out. We have always been a programme that has been proud of our culture; we set up our values and they are being displayed now in the interactions the coaches and practitioners are having with the athletes that are bringing the team together.

“When we do come back – whenever that will be – we will be tighter as a group. Something was probably needed to bring us together and just redefine what we are about so we see this as an opportunity. It is about health first and we are doing everything we can to protect each other but in terms of our sport it can actually bring us together and give us better connections.”

The 16 athletes in the Performance Squad are split between Baker and the other Performance coaches Mat Kenny, Andrew Rushton and Cardiff-based Neil Robinson.

“Each coach is assigned to a number of athletes and is their athlete support coach,” explained Baker. “They have a catch up call with each athlete at least once a week to talk about how they are keeping fit and active during this period when they are obviously not going to be able to technically train. We said as a coaching team that we need to put the person first and performance second – the conversations are more about their well-being and how they are coping in this situation. Do they need any extra support? What can they do now that they couldn’t do before?

“From a wellbeing point of view, this can be looking at things they want to do when their career finishes, their career transitions, education, things they can do online. So it is all about them as a person rather than an athlete. This is what we wanted to do primarily because that is what we believe in but also, if you carry on just talking about table tennis when this crisis is going on you can come across as cold and robotic. So even though table tennis is in the background we didn’t want to lead with that, we wanted to lead with their wellbeing.

“We are also starting to put together group calls with all the athletes, some social things like quizzes, so they are checking in with each other as a group which I think is important in terms of the culture that we have.

“Our Pathway manager Shaun Marples is doing similar things in terms of weekly phone calls individually with the Pathway athletes and as a group with the Pathway and Development squads so there is communication across the whole programme at the moment.

“We see it as an opportunity to get even closer to the athletes than we were before – which sounds crazy when we are not seeing them face-to-face but I think our relationships can get even stronger. This is a good chance to get to know the athletes better and find out more about them as people. I didn’t know one of the athletes lived 20 metres from the beach until the other day and that is one of the athletes I am assigned to, so it is a case of how can I use that going forwards to help our coaching relationship.”

Baker acknowledges that the lack of practice can be stressful for an athlete in a sport which is so skills-focused.

“There are a few athletes who are more stressed than others but a few lucky ones have tables at home so they can do service practice and train against robots. You wouldn’t necessarily use robots in normal training but it is better than nothing as they will still be feeling the ball and doing some technical training. But what we have said to the ones that don’t have access to that is most players around the world are in the same position with the amount of training they are able to do.

“They can still stay performance focused when they are not technically training because there are areas of their games they can work on – such as tactics because they have access to online footage of matches that took place at major championships. So they can use this time to get closer to their opponents, setting up strategies and tactics that they might not have had time to do before. That is what we have tried to get them to focus on if they are worried about their technical programme.

“They can also increase their conditioning programmes – there might be things they have wanted to work on physically and technical training can get in the way of that because we train so much in our sport. An athlete can have tunnel-vision and be focused on improving their technical skills and it is our job as coaches to make them see this time as an opportunity to improve other areas of their game that they couldn’t do before.”

While the athletes are the priority it is easy to forget that the coaches have also been affected by the postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games this summer.

“We go on that journey with the athlete together,” said Baker, “and put everything we can into getting the athletes prepared for the Games. When that is taken away it is a blow for the coaches as well but we have a new date now and we are trying to support each other as well as the athletes. As a coaching team we have regular check-in sessions on how we are doing, how is family life, what can we do to support each other, so we have increased that during this time. It would have had a more detrimental effect on the athletes and coaches if the Games had been cancelled with an eight year break between Paralympics. With a new date it eases the pressure a bit and gives us something to plan towards. The goalposts have changed but at least there is still something for us to achieve.”

Along with the coaching team the athletes also have the support of a team of EIS practitioners led by Crompton, who has been involved with BPTT since 2009, initially as a physiotherapist and now as head of performance support.

“We are split into two different teams,” she said. “The mental health and wellbeing team is psychologist Andy Hill and performance lifestyle advisor Nuala Deans and their role is to support the athletes around what their weekly schedule might look like, how they plan their routines, how they are going to keep themselves occupied and how they are going to look after themselves and support families and loved ones. We are probably all experiencing things we have never experienced before – learning things about ourselves in terms of how we can look after our mental health and how to look after our wellbeing. Our job is to support the athletes through that and help them to understand where they are at, and maybe also help them to accept where they are at, and see what opportunities this time does give them so they can come back to training in a great place.

“The other team is the physical health team of strength and conditioning coach Adela Carter and physiotherapist Morag Sheridan. There is a challenge involved because it is generally a hands-on type of directorate so there is a lot of video support and programmes have been sent out to athletes to address this – mobility programmes, movement programmes, resistance programmes – to try and keep them in as good a physical condition as possible. We are just trying to keep them ticking over at the moment and then once we get the all-clear and we are on the road to coming back into training then we will start to increase that a bit so they are physically ready to cope with that transition.

“Some of them have their very own specific programmes which allow them to work on things we have highlighted in the past – areas that affect their performance or could enhance their performance.

“There is a risk that the athletes could get injured so some of the programmes have taken that into consideration in terms of types and volume of exercise – trying to find that balance between not doing enough and doing too much. There is always a risk of injury but we have tried to mitigate that risk as much as possible. There is still remote physio support available for them although we obviously can’t get hands-on but we will do our best with video conferencing to give the right advice.

“Some of the athletes have been almost writing their own programmes, which is great to see because it is a skill they have learned through our physical team. It means they are taking responsibility and learning about themselves and then working with us to get the right programme so it is nice to see.”

It is often said that there is strength in adversity and both Crompton and Baker agree that overcoming the unique challenge presented by the coronavirus can have a positive outcome.

“This situation has thrown everybody into the same boat of complete uncertainty,” said Crompton, “and we are just trying to do our best to support each other. As a team we have sounded the athletes out on some of the things we have been doing and they have given us suggestions as to how we can work together as a team. There has generally been a lot of contact socially between staff and athletes and I am proud to be part of this team – everyone has pulled together and really tried to support each other.”

“The athletes need clarity and they need goals in place to cope with the situation,” said Baker. “Initially they may have been frustrated and in a low mood but now they have come out of that and are seeing new ways of working. When we come back we’ll not only be tighter as a group and a culture but we will actually work differently. Performance sport can become quite monotonous doing the same things day after day and this has given us an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. So I think we will be in a better position; as long as the athletes keep well in terms of their health and wellbeing and conditioning – which we know they are – this can be seen as an opportunity for us to really push on when we get back into training.”

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