During the last five months the British Para table tennis team’s psychologist Dr Andy Hill has played a key role in helping the team to not only navigate its way through lockdown but emerge the other side stronger for the experience.

“The moment we went into lockdown we were into uncharted territory and there was no instruction manual,” he said. “From a personal point of view I’m really pleased with how well we’ve done, not just because of where we are but because we have got to where we are by design – it has not just happened. There were lots of conversations within the staff team – how do we approach this situation, what do we want from it, what are the opportunities, what are the risks, what are the facts, what could change at any given time and where would we like to be? We set out very clearly that we wanted to use it as an opportunity and be adaptable throughout the process because that was going to be critical to our success.

“This period of pause and reflection has allowed us to potentially pick up one or two key areas that will be really good for us – the culture and values that affect wellbeing and performance. The big thing to come out of this time is the adaptability and flexibility that everyone has shown individually and we’ve shown as a staff team, which has been really positive.”

Hill only began working with the team a year ago and could not have predicted then how his skills and experience would be even more important as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and the sporting landscape within it and the team’s performance targets were put on hold.

“When we went into lockdown there was a shift away from performance and very much on to wellbeing,” he said. “Understanding what people needed and were able to access and what we could do as a sport to facilitate those needs where possible. The obvious initial issue going into lockdown was the social aspect – a lot of people were going to be exposed to isolation and some people would deal with that better than others.

“Our first priority was ‘let’s make sure everyone is OK; let’s make sure everyone has what they need and are supported’. That was our first concern and also identifying those who we thought might struggle – do we need to put in extra support for those people? Then that formed our base and our platform – making sure everyone was going to be OK through the initial phases of lockdown.

“I like to think we have a good understanding of our athletes and staff and what they are like as people and how their preferences tend to play out. We know that we have got a family type community as a team so making sure that connection was maintained was very much a priority. We put in place online café type social events where we would all just meet up and chat and there was no emphasis on the sport whatsoever. It was just about making sure that connection was still there.

“One of the things we did as a wider staff team early on was to tap into the more optimistic mind set and look at the opportunities that this situation might bring. One of the things that Greg (head coach Greg Baker) was mindful of was the opportunities to build relationships during this period – ‘can we come out of lockdown having a better understanding of the athletes as people not just performers?’ Over time that bore out with coaches reporting back that they learnt something new about the people who they work with. They have a better understanding of the wider context and that was something else we looked at doing.”

The team includes athletes who fell into the vulnerable category in relation to COVID and whose concerns were not just around the loss of their training environment and routine and the uncertainty over Tokyo.

“We have some athletes who are in wheelchairs and maybe can’t use their diaphragm properly,” explained Hill, “and with any type of respiratory infection they are generally compromised a lot more than an able bodied person would be. Some of the athletes actively voiced that anxiety and said: ‘I’m actually quite scared because if I do get the coronavirus I’m going to be in a bad way’. There were also people who were vulnerable from an emotional point of view as well – some people who have very close family connections but were stuck in one place and had family members elsewhere.”

Taking a step back often improves clarity and Hill agrees that the team has benefited massively from the temporary shift of focus away from performance.

“One of the things we have done is a series of ‘Reflections on Lockdown’ workshops with the staff and the athletes,” he explained, “and then used them to shape where we are going. One of the questions we asked, particularly around the staff, was ‘if the Games were going to happen this year where do we think as a team we would have been strong and where might we have struggled?’ One of the reflections to come out of that was we are in a really good place but there are areas we could improve. Particularly around connecting our culture and values and maybe engaging the athletes more in what we are doing and giving them a bigger voice. If the Games had gone ahead we feel we would have done well but this extra year has given us the chance to potentially do even better than we might have done, so there is a lot of opportunity there for us.

“For me as a psychologist, the priority is never performance in itself, it is the person and how can I help that person get the best performance, bring that performance at the right time and do it consistently? A big part of doing that is understanding the person and getting them to a point where they are able to manage their wellbeing really well. That is where people really thrive.

“My job is to help people first of all maintain that level of wellbeing or mitigate any potential threats to it. There almost feels like a natural shift now and we are moving into a different phase of lockdown. What we are trying to do is put different emphasis on the different phases that we are going through so by doing that we are able to spend a bit of time considering and managing certain aspects.

“It is important to be adaptable and flexible to whatever happens and part of that could be the worst-case scenario of a second lockdown but we have plans in place for that. The athletes have all done a really good job of coping and so have the staff. It is easy to focus on the athletes and their wellbeing but there is a lot of stress and work being done by all the support staff as well.”

So what have been the most important lessons from lockdown?

“The biggest one that came out of both the staff and athletes reflections was very much the importance of relationships,” said Hill, “seeing the person not the performer. Not only the staff seeing the person not just the athlete but the athletes seeing the person behind the coach as well; getting a closer understanding of each other as people. Once people have a better understanding of someone else’s context and what they are like as a person, not just who they are at work, it creates a greater sense of trust and safety and that is a fundamental of any high performance team. To be able to have those disagreements in a safe way is vital to effective team work if you want to get better. So the importance of relationships was massive.

“Throughout this period the athletes have worked really well autonomously and have been very proactive in maintaining their fitness and seeking out ways to maintain their training levels away from the table. The coaches have recognised that they may have underestimated the athletes in that respect. So we want to build on that – get that shared involvement and shared responsibility around how things are going to look moving forwards.

“Technology has been really useful for us – although it has been there it wasn’t an obvious solution and now it has proved it can work and it creates possibilities around things like remote working and shared communication. We have athletes based in Wales and one or two who train elsewhere and we can improve the communication with those people who are not based in Sheffield – staff and athletes – and improve those relationships. That has been one of the big factors as well.

“For me, one of the most reassuring lessons to come out of the reflections was that we are not looking to reinvent the wheel. The programme is very successful, we have nine athletes already qualified for Tokyo through the ranking list and we still have potential scope to get everyone in the Performance Squad qualified through the World Qualification Tournament. As a squad we are in a good place and there is no need to panic.

“Sometimes when you press pause and look at what you could do differently there is a danger of wanting to change everything. Things are on track for the Games but we have been granted this extra 12 month window and I think we are pretty confident that we can eke out a little bit more. Particularly around how can we readdress the values and culture of the squad so we are more supportive as a wider team for each other and get the best out of each other.”

As more lockdown restrictions are eased the team is preparing for a return to its training base at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield next week but is taking a cautious approach with only a handful of athletes initially coming back to the hall and those considered vulnerable continuing to train at home.

“A lot depends on how well we manage the process,” said Hill, “so what we have done is to look at the facts and try and create a bit of certainty around it. During lockdown we said ‘we can do a lot of training remotely, we can utilise technology, we can get tables and robots out to people and do online gym sessions’. We couldn’t predict the future and we still can’t so we just set out to try and create a bit of certainty for people by facilitating their training at home.

“Some of the athletes will be starting to train in Sheffield again next week which is brilliant. It won’t be how it was, it will be very different, but they will be playing against another person and not a robot. For those who are staying at home their training will step up as well so we are making a conscious effort to not leave them behind as there is a danger that your focus could shift just to the athletes who are coming back to the training hall.

“We have tried to be clear in our message right from the start, which is we will do what is right from a health perspective for everyone and the players understand and are quite accepting of that. We will do what we feel is in their best interests but we are looking to mitigate any shortfall where we can. We have been doing a lot of online shadow play and starting to phase in one-to-one coaching sessions with robots; the S&C support has been there throughout and they are still going to be having the home gym sessions as well as ongoing psychology and lifestyle support which is being done remotely, so a lot of things aren’t going to change at the moment.

“We have tried to put things in place so the programme could carry on running because we didn’t know how much access to the training hall we would have once the EIS became available. We didn’t know how many times a week an athlete would be able to come into the hall and play so that online training from home programme was designed to be there in the background. It is trying to mitigate what is lost as much as possible but at the same time being mindful of the opportunities this presents. A lot of the athletes have always been meaning to work on their service and have now got absolutely no excuse not to do that and in the same way some of the guys have really capitalised on their aerobic fitness through this period.”

With improved relationships and communication at the heart of the team’s brave new world Hill believes that the experiences of lockdown have given it a solid platform to cope with whatever the future holds.

“As an athlete you’ve got to be able to adapt,” said Hill, “but paradoxically now is not the time to try and react to everything that is happening and all the changes. I think striking that balance of being ready to adapt but being committed to doing one thing is something we try and promote in the athletes but it is also something as a sport we have done really well throughout this period. We’ve planned for lots of different eventualities and reacted to the situation but at the same time we have locked in on certain fundamentals. With the home training we have tried to create a bit of certainty when there was very little really. The athletes knew they had eight weeks of training from home and what it would look like and they thought ‘right we can do that’. What we have done really well as a sport is managing that adaptability at the right time and then being quite contained at others when it has been necessary.

“As a sport we are in a really good place. Something we want to keep working at is coming together as a team, how we support each other and work with each other and adapt to the situation. Again the crux of it all comes back to the importance of relationships.”

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