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Business, Engagement Edition GYMNASTICS GENESIS

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By: ADAM SACHS •  4 years ago •  

I was an athlete in gymnastics from 5/6 years old and competed through my late teens and early 20s. I had a bit of a peek at being competitive nationally and travelling internationally in the elite stream in my mid-teens, but unfortunately picked up a back injury that was the start of the end. It was at that point that I realised I wasn’t going to hit the targets I’d set myself as an athlete and started to look at other options.

I really started coaching after finishing school and starting university. At first it was a good way of generating some income, and was certainly more attractive than going to work at McDonalds.

I was very fortunate to start in a small club called Henley and Grange Youth Club, with an older chap called Ken Webb who had been running it for years. He really wanted a younger person with a fresh vision and new energy to come in and take over, to be his successor. I probably knew more technically than he did, but he knew more about coaching, and certainly a lot more about program management than I did, so it was a good fit.

He was a fantastic mentor, not just in the coaching space, but in terms of learning to manage a program and the people within it. That was my first taste of putting the key pieces of the daily training environment together for athletes who weren’t particularly high level, but who achieved success at their competition level. He took the big bold step of paying me – I was the only paid coach in the program which was pretty progressive for him and the sport at that time.

Once I finished university, I picked up a job as the State Coaching and Development Director for Gymnastics South Australia. The 4 years there gave me an opportunity to stay connected, move into different areas and understand a little bit more about the higher level mechanics that go on behind finding and developing coaches.

Following that, I was briefly the General Manager of the State Netball Centre in South Australia before an opportunity came up to go to Melbourne to work with Gymnastics Australia as their High Performance Manager leading into the Sydney Olympics. I jumped at that and moved to Melbourne with my wife. It was a reasonably senior management position, particularly for someone of my age and stage of career and represented a massively steep learning curve. It was my first experience with high performance management and the performance direction of athletes, coaches, service providers, in a truly elite environment. We had mixed results in Sydney, but probably the highlight for us was Ji Wallace’s silver medal on the trampoline. To date [2016] it remains Australia’s only Olympic gymnastics medal to-date.

Post-Olympics, I spent 8 years as the Performance Director at Volleyball Australia, working with both indoor and beach volleyball through two Olympic Games. But after a change of management at Gymnastics Australia in 2011, an opportunity opened up to return as their Performance Director, and I’ve been here ever since.

The men’s, women’s and rhythmic programs were already well established, but a key part of that role was setting up the Olympic athlete program for trampoline.

Trampoline had just been admitted at the last minute to the program for the Sydney Olympics, not as a test event but as a full blown medal event. Trampoline was a separate federation at the time, so as I came on board, Gymnastics Australia and the Australian Trampoline Association were just completing the merger. Trampoline as a sport was about as unsophisticated as you could imagine an Olympic sport might be. Kids and adults still training on trampolines in their backyards!

It was massively steep learning curve for the trampoline athletes to come into a high performance environment and be training twice a day, six days a week. They had to learn to engage with sports science and sports medicine, and their professional, full-time coach. But in the end we qualified both a male and a female. The male, Ji Wallace, had a really shocking year for the 12 months between qualification and the Olympic Games. I remember him getting through his full difficulty routine for the first time ever in the Olympic final. Then the last athlete to compete, who was the current World Champion, won the gold medal, but it was Ji for the silver. It was an amazing experience.

Everything I had learnt as an athlete and through the early parts of my coaching and program management roles, taught me about the key building blocks to high performance. A high performance program obviously needs:

 Quality athletes with clear plans for achieving targets

 Quality coaches to guide/push them

 Quality daily training environments (facilities and equipment)

 Sports science medicine

 Access to competition

 Good performance management

There’s probably two entry points for coaches coming through from the grassroots level. There’s the kids who do gymnastics themselves, whether they’re in the high performance stream or not. Many come through the “level” stream, which is sort of the national club type level of gymnastics, and get to a point where, like me, there’s an opportunity to coach and earn some money. Some of them stick around and pursue that as a career path. We now have a lot of paid professional coaches in our sport, and many of them are quite young, which is fantastic.

The other entry point, certainly when I was involved, was parents of kids in programs. Back at Henley and Grange Youth Club, a lot of the other coaches were parents of kids in the club who stepped up to the plate and helped with coaching kids. This allowed us to manage coach to athlete ratios so that the kids were actually getting something out of it.

There is training available for these kids and even for parents who want to step up as coaches. Both at national and state level, our success and our sustainability long-term has been a real feature with participation numbers continuing to grow by more than 5% a year. Our technical memberships – coaches and judges – are continuing to grow strongly from one year to the next, and we’ve still got over 500 clubs in the country. Interestingly, the club numbers have actually dropped over time, so we’ve now got fewer but bigger, more professional clubs. That’s created additional opportunity for people to connect with the coaching pathway and stay involved for longer.

Coaching is more viable career choice now than it was when I started. There are lots of people who make good money out of coaching gymnastics, and it’s not just at the elite end. The fact that our Industry Training and Accreditation Group (ITAG) has been really diligent about preparing and maintaining coach education courses that start with basic orientation to coaching courses, and progress through what used to be Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, is a critical factor to our coach development success. We’ve had a pretty significant overhaul of that coaching education structure in the last 3-5 years, so these levels have new names, but they have been updated to reflect the evolution in the sport from where it was at late 90s/early 2000s to where it’s at now and where it’s going.

The coaches in our high performance system have made an excellent contribution, understanding that they’re an aging cohort who won’t be around forever. We need to move quickly and develop the Australian coaches who are in our system, but also find a way of identifying and developing new coaches who may not yet be in our system, but who could eventually become the technical high performance leaders in the future.

Outside of the foreign technical experts that we’ve invested heavily in, the future of coaching is going to have to come from within Australia. It’s going to be young people with an interest in the sport and coaching professionally, with the ability to grasp technical information but who also have a strong focus on the soft skills – people, communication and interrelationship skills.

We have very young athletes who are involved for many years before they do anything significant in terms of making benchmark events and performing successfully. The key to maintaining an effective working relationship is the ability to understand one another and communicate effectively, so that whether things are going well or not, it can be shared and responded to appropriately. I’ve seen athletes drop out of sport because their relationships with their coaches just deteriorate to the point where they can’t salvage it for themselves.

By definition high performance is all about managing burnout. Sometimes you can manage it, sometimes you can’t, when an athlete reaches their limit of development. A key focus of the work that we’re doing between our coaching and our performance support staff at the moment is managing the incidence of injury and its impact on our athletes’ ability to train and compete. At a basic coaching level, we focus on coaches leading strong physical preparation of our athletes.

Coaches tend to get excited about technical skill development, and that’s understandable, that’s where the magic happens: building skills, putting it together in combinations, constructing routines, and then putting them out on the competition board. But none of that can happen effectively or in a sustained way without good physical preparation.

They need to be as committed to physical preparation as they are to technical skill development and preparation of athletes for competition. Those three things in my mind are at the very least equally important.

The other focus that we’ve tried to promote very strongly is the importance of individual planning for athletes. Traditionally, coaches work with groups of athletes. They have an idea in their mind what athlete A needs relative to athlete B, but fundamentally the program they set is for the whole group, and then modified on the ground. We need to understand our athletes much more intimately individually and be able to reflect that understanding in terms of where they’re at now, where they might be in 12 months or 4 years, through their own personalised individual performance plan.

The landscape for coaches has changed significantly, with a much stronger focus on professional education accreditation, maintenance of safety standards and duty of care. Gymnastics has been very proactive for a very long time ensuring coach professional development, but I’m not sure that we’ve been as innovative as we could have been as a sport. We’re now moving strongly into bedding down the framework for high performance coach development, populated with really sophisticated current or next generation opportunities that we’re developing in conjunction with UQ, the AIS and Melbourne Business School. So there’s a bit of a genesis happening at the moment, specifically in the coaching area.

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