Performing under pressure
If one single person could be named responsible for ensuring Scotland brings home medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, it would be Mike Whittingham.
The director of High Performance at sportScotland and former 400m hurdler has spent the last seven years trying to prepare Team Scotland’s athletes for the Games. His aim is a record haul.
After years of work, he is just weeks away from sitting down to watch how his charges get on. Something would be wrong if he did not feel nervous.
“It is right to get nervous – I have been an athlete but also a coach for some very good athletes – Roger Black for nine years, Kriss Akabusi for eight. I have learned over the years that our job is to empower athletes so that by the time they are on the world stage they don’t need us, they are totally confident and in control of their own destiny and that is where we need to get them. But of course I will be nervous because I want them to do well and there has been so much effort put into it from coaches, staff, practitioners over the last seven years – there is a lot riding on it. But our job is to train and add value, which should lower risk. The whole purpose of a home soil games, from my perspective, is to maximise opportunity and lower risk, so I like to think when I watch over that two-week period I will know that we couldn’t have done anything more. That is also what you want for the athletes – to perform their best and the support mechanisms we have put around them should help.”
Whittingham competed in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane – coming fourth – and since then he has seen enormous change take place in the way that athletes are preparing physically and mentally for competition.
“In Glasgow we need to concentrate on the controllables, make sure we add value in every single area, to help every single athlete perform on the world stage because it is going to go to the wire in some of the events. It is going to be fiercely competitive – medals are going to be won and lost with the slightest of margins and so as a result, that extra little bit of help will make all the difference.”
He continues: “So the key area that we have seen a change is in science. The world of science captures data and information and we have a very sophisticated data management system that we have really built over the last three years with the Games in mind – it has been a catalyst to make sure we can record every bit of information that is appropriate for an athlete in one place, so if a doctor’s trying to diagnose or prognose the condition of an athlete, they can see the whole picture. It is all linked through data being in one place. It also allows training sessions to be far more focused and targeted, and ensure that the athlete is fully recovered so we are not overloading them. So the world of science allows us to take blood samples, lactate levels, doctors can check for vitamin D levels – absolutely every thing is looked at to see if we can get that winning small margin gain, which we believe will be crucial for separating those that win medals and those that do not.”
There has also been an increased focus on psychological preparation, with sportscotland’s Institute of Sport keen to teach athletes to take the energy brought by the public spotlight and channel it the right way.
“One area we are focusing on is managing anxiety – a while back, we recognised that home soil games bring challenges – sometimes that is really good, home soil athletes can step up and raise their game, but sometimes it creates pressure. So over the last few years we have looked at best practice around the world and where appropriate, we have brought in very knowledgeable people to train and work with our staff so that we learn more and so that we can then help our athletes cope better. That world is where science meets intuitive experience – what I mean is that we can measure brain activity, we can highlight where we don’t want the athlete to dwell, but on the other hand, we need practical, simple tools to help the athlete cope when they are under pressure.”
These support mechanisms are essential for a small country, which cannot afford to squander any of the talent coming through the system. For Whittingham, the size of Scotland’s population represents a constant – though manageable challenge.
“It is the harsh fact that we are quite a small nation so there is a limited talent pool. I am not saying we don’t have one but it is not like America or China so we cannot afford to have high attrition rates. We don’t want athletes to be de-motivated or de-selected – we don’t want to lose anyone. We need to get it right. So in our world it is about getting the right athlete into the right programme, with the right coach doing the right work. That doesn’t always happen, sometimes, athletes choose their coach or their environment and we need to get better at getting the right environment and the right coach. But our challenge will always be in the talent pool and the number of coaches – we always need more high quality coaches. Look at tennis – people like Andy Murray are jewels, they don’t come around very often and we really need to look after them well and make sure we get it right.”
The institute has benefited from investment from both the Scottish Government and lottery funding over the last decade, creating a stable platform for success. Then, on the back of the record medal haul at London 2012, it received a further £1m from the Scottish Government.
The institute clearly relies on this support from government – training high performance athletes is not cheap, after all. But with so many areas of public finance under strain, is it not difficult to justify spending on elite-level sports while people are queuing at food banks?
“Obviously we, like anyone else, have to make a business case and it would be foolish not to recognise that there are other harsh realities – other things are more important. People need to eat, they need to have accommodation and shelter – these are the harsh realities. I don’t like using the word elite because what we are about is providing opportunities, and whether it is music, art or sport, there is nothing wrong with trying to do something really, really well. It is not about being famous. It is not about going on a talent show and trying to become a celebrity. It is about committing to something and doing it brilliantly well. Not everyone can win but everyone can get the best out of themselves and there is definitely a correlation between people who do music or sport, and achieving success later in your career – because those skills are transferable to other walks of life. It is a fact that successful sports people succeed in other areas of life.”
But if success at London meant a boost in support from the Scottish Government, does that mean that Whittingham is under pressure to deliver medals to retain it? And if that is the case, what if he doesn’t?
“I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the institute since almost its establishment back in 1998. Back then, Scotland was ahead of the game – no other home country had one and people recognised that it was a long-term project – you will not see overnight success, it takes years to reap success and that happened at London 2012, followed by Andy Murray’s Wimbledon success and then another brilliant appearance at Sochi, where we got an unprecedented return. Glasgow is the final cap in that and I think each government, regardless of politics, has recognised that what we have is something special – starting with Jack McConnell and continued by Alex Salmond. The institute has really benefited from continuous support and it has been translated onto success on the home stage. A best ever result, more than 33 medals – is what we are pushing for. And I believe there is a feel-good factor behind us, the whole of Scotland will support its athletes and we need to capture that, put it in a bottle and roll it our for the next twenty years.”