The coaching team – ‘helping to make dreams a reality’

Today we are posing questions to two of the British Skeleton coaches – Ed McDermott and Mareks Mezencevs – as part of our ongoing series of insights into British Skeleton, and their journey to sustain their Olympic success at Beijing 2022.

Ed is responsible for the planning and delivery of push start and physical sessions across the performance programme during both pre-season and competition. He leads the wider Sports Science and Medicine team during the summer months and his remit is to improve the long-term push performance of all British Skeleton athletes.
Mareks holds the role of Performance Ice Coach within the British Skeleton programme. Mareks joined the British Skeleton in 2019 from Latvia Skeleton where he had worked with the Dukurs brothers (Martins and Tomass) two of the world’s biggest Skeleton stars. Prior to coaching the Dukurs brothers and the senior Latvian team, Mareks slid competitively for his country between 2000 and 2008 on both the World Cup and Europa Cup circuits.  

What makes a great coach?

Britain’s success in Skeleton is well documented but hidden below the surface is the very limited time the athletes get to spend on ice, which amounts to approximately 120 minutes per year. The question of what marks out a great coach, seemed like a natural start point to explore. Mareks was keen to emphasise the importance of the coach/athlete relationship. “We need to establish a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Through this we can then guide them to make the right decisions that will truly unlock their full potential”. Ed followed a similar path: “We need to be able to really get into the shoes of those athletes we coach and establish a real understanding of the opportunities and challenges they face. Building a really strong bond is essential if we are going to have the level of influence we need to have.”

To what extent do you have a single coaching approach applied across the whole team?

We talked about the importance of having a performance programme for developing an athlete that is fully trusted by both the coach and the athlete. “We need some structure and some guiding principles that anchor what we do.”, says Marek, “and we spend a lot of time exploring and agreeing this, so we have something that everyone really buys in to”. “But it is important to recognise that everyone is different”, added Ed. “Our athletes think differently, learn differently and have different requirements. We need to acknowledge this in the way we apply our programme principles”. We also talked about the importance of an athlete’s mentality. “It is much easier to assess and monitor the progress an athlete is making in physical attributes or techniques,” said Ed. “For example, we know just where each athlete needs to be in terms of their push start times if they are going to be competing successfully. It is much harder to measure their mentality or the development of their mental resilience, but it is vital that we pay attention to this as it is critical to their success”.

The importance of innovation and experimentation

In our previous piece it became clear that British Skeleton has built its repeated Olympic success on its ability to out-innovate the competition, and so we were keen to get a coach’s perspective of how this focus on innovation is filtered through and applied within the performance programme. “First of all, it is important that we, as coaches, are seen to role model innovation,” said Ed. “We need to be constantly seeking bold and imaginative ways to gain an edge. For example, in the lead up to the last Olympics we changed Laura Deas’s starting set up to give her a more controlled impact into the sled. Of course, that was a risk, but at the end of the day she won an Olympic medal”. Mareks is keen to stress the importance of knowing when and where to focus innovation. “There are times for us to experiment and play, and then there are times for us to focus on performance. But nevertheless, we must encourage everyone to be curious and to bring forward new ideas. Without this we will never continue to develop at the pace we need to”.

Being part of a high performing team

British Skeleton believe developing a high performing team and the time investment to do this is a key ingredient of success, and the energy from Ed and Mareks for continuing to invest in this was clear. Both talked about the importance of being part of a really strong team that spans athletes, coaches, experts, and support staff. Key ingredients they highlighted included a common purpose, mutual respect, openness and honesty, clarity of roles and an effective way to collaborate and coordinate activity and focus. “We have become a strong team, but we need to continue to further strengthen it”, said Mareks, “this will be vital to our success this year”.

The importance of recovery

We talked about the importance of embedding time to reenergise and recover in the performance programme. “We gain as much performance progress during recovery periods as anywhere else and we need to fiercely protect this key element of the plan” says Mareks. Ed agrees: “athletes like to chase numbers and tend to focus on the time in the gym or the time on the push track. Our job is to balance this off with not only recovery time, but also time to reflect on progress, to learn from what is working and, when necessary, to adapt plans and focus on the things that will really make a difference”.

Getting the energy right

We were interested to explore how to ensure that there is the right level of energy in the camp, recognising that February will soon be upon us. Both Ed and Mareks agree that the coach’s role is to never forget the core purpose of the British Skeleton squad, i.e. to win Olympic medals, and then to anchor those key stages along the way in the minds of athletes, e.g. test events, selection events, first competitions of the season, etc. “With this combination of a clear purpose and a defined set of target dates to aim for, the athletes generate their own energy”, says Ed, “we just have to watch out for burn-out and ensure the levels of energy are sustainable”.

The importance of performance data

We also talked about the increasing impact of performance data in the way coaches work. “We have plenty of data”, says Mareks, “but what is important is that we fully understand the context of the data so that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions. For example, ensuring that we consider things such as an athlete health or the weather conditions when assessing track performance data”. Ed agrees: “we must take full advantage of the data we have but use it alongside other insights such as athlete feedback, observations and our own professional judgement. We must also understand and avoid any data biases that creep in that could further run the risk of us not using this key asset to its maximum”.

How are you feeling with eight months to go?

We finished off by asking both Ed and Mareks what they were most excited and worried about. Both were really animated by the scale of the opportunity, whilst recognising they are about to embark upon their busiest race season ever. “I want us to set an early marker down at the beginning of the season that demonstrates we are here, and we are ready”, says Mareks. Ed fully agrees: “we are really in a good place now with personal bests all over the place. It is scary just how good we could be”. In terms of worries Ed talked about the potential disruption of niggling injuries, whilst Mareks was concerned about ensuring that everyone is focusing on the right things. Both are keen to ensure that they get the maximum athletes qualifying to compete in Beijing, and that they peak at exactly the right time.

It was once again a real pleasure to engage with two people who are so focused, committed, and excited by the role that they play and the impact they can have. So what can the world of business learn from them and what they do? Well, certainly knowing what is important and then really focusing upon it. Beyond this the critical importance of protecting time to recover and reflect, paying attention to ensuring people have the mentality as well as the skills to perform at their peak, the smart use of performance data and continuing to invest in ensuring the whole team is a high performing unit. And ultimately it is recognising that coaching is about dealing with human beings that all have their own unique set of circumstances: the best coaches see and understand this and adapt their support accordingly.

Ed and Mareks have the chance to help turn peoples dreams into reality through the power of their convictions and the strength of their expertise, and we certainly wish them well. If you want to know more, please get in contact at info@ignite.org.uk.