As professional sport makes a tentative return this week with horse racing and snooker resuming behind closed doors, the British Para Table Tennis Team’s Performance squad has also entered a new phase in its COVID-19 return to training strategy.
At the start of lockdown in March the team devised a four-phase strategy designed to support the athletes and keep them physically and mentally fit while they were unable to train. After 10 weeks in which the focus has been helping the athletes adjust to the situation while keeping as active as possible they have now begun phase three with the aim of a return to training at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and the Wales National Sports Centre in Cardiff in August.
“The last 10 weeks have really been about letting the athletes have some time away,” explained head coach Greg Baker, “getting them to take a break and of course looking after their wellbeing. We organised online fitness sessions and shadow play sessions as a way of keeping the squad connected and keeping fitness levels as high as we can but more as an opportunity for the athletes to keep ticking over if they wanted to. There was no pressure on them to attend those sessions and I would say about half the group were engaged but the other half were doing their sessions individually which was fine at the time.
“Now we’ve moved into phase three – we’ve called it Project Start-Up – and the philosophy behind this is to get the athletes as ready as possible from a physical and mental perspective before we do come back into training in Sheffield and Wales. We are provisionally planning for this to be in August but we have still got to wait on government guidelines and see what happens over the next eight weeks. We want the athletes to be as ready as possible when they do come back, not just because they’ll be in a better position to hit the ground running but for their own benefit and to reduce the risk of niggles and injuries. They won’t have technically trained for three or four months and there is a risk that if they come back without doing any fitness or shadow play sessions they will pick up niggles and injuries so we have a responsibility as a coaching team and sports science team to make sure they are ready when they do come back.
“Starting this week there is a timetable of shadow play sessions and strength and conditioning (S&C) sessions on Zoom and there is now an expectation that all athletes will attend those sessions. Athletes that have a table at home and a robot can also have sessions on Zoom and Skype with their support coach to start to get used to the technicalities of the sport again. We have looked at where we can maximise our energies over the next eight weeks and we’ve marked it as ‘can we be the fittest we have ever been, from a general fitness point of view?’ This will then give the athletes a focus and a drive over the next eight weeks and really make them feel good about themselves and increase confidence and self-esteem.
“Our S&C coach and physio are giving them benchmark data that they have to hit so they are ready to come back and can start training with a decent amount of intensity and won’t have niggles because they haven’t trained for so long. This is the longest amount of time that our athletes have not trained technically so we have a responsibility to give them the best preparation to come into an environment where they can train without having injuries again.”
Since the start of lockdown the team has been determined to find the positives in the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic and emerge stronger as a team and as individuals.
“The last 10 weeks have been really good,” said Baker. “Athletes have done their general fitness training on their own without being challenged to do it which shows they are taking ownership and I think this time has made them more independent. Athletes on rehab programmes have basically created gyms in their back garden with all the equipment they need and that commitment those athletes have shown to wanting to prepare for Tokyo next year has been great to see. Some athletes have gone out and bought tables and robots so they can carry on doing technical and tactical work and sports-specific work which is fantastic.
“On top of that we have seen the engagement with social check-ins, quizzes and coffee chats we have organised which has really brought the team together. There has been a bit of banter which is needed at times like this and we can now move on and try to improve our culture even more – look at our values and how they have changed during this time for the better and use that as a positive performance difference going forward. I’ve been really impressed with how the group has come together.
“The way that the staff has worked together at this time has also been exceptional. The commitment we have seen from staff in presenting new ideas and innovations has been great as they are not just sitting at home waiting for things to happen. How we have worked together – with weekly team meetings, coaching meetings, sports science meetings – has been better than ever.
“We don’t want to go back to how we were before when we do start training again because I actually think we have made advancements in how we have worked as a staff team – how we communicate and how we bring ideas together before making some key decisions. There are some good things that have come out of this pandemic and we are going to have to look at how we take what we have learnt over this period into a new training programme going forward.
“Working between staff and athletes will have improved, relationships will have strengthened and the way we work as a staff team together to push these athletes forward and give them the best possible environment to work in will have also improved so we are in a very good place. Yes, the guys have not technically trained but now we are looking to get tables and robots out to all the athletes who have space in their flats or apartments so they can start touching base with the technicalities of the sport and start to visualise playing again so they are ready to technically train. If we get that right over the next eight weeks we will be in a position to start training again as a team. All of the areas that could have potentially got worse while we were in lockdown will actually be better so all credit to everyone for stepping up. Everyone has worked together and wanted to help the team so it is a credit to the commitment of the staff and the athletes.”