Helping local athletes reach their goals

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Within a 45km radius of Waimate and Oamaru, we have three new Commonwealth Games and world championship junior medallists.

How does a small rural area of NZ, without immediate access to international coaches, or superior sporting facilities hail athletes who have achieved such extraordinary results?

Oamaru sporting enthusiast, Adair Craik, met with each of these three young extraordinary athletes to try to solve the puzzle. What were the critical factors that lifted these young athletes from national level Champions, to Junior World and Commonwealth Games medallists?

Approximately 18 months ago, Craik began interviewing local athletes who were achieving success at a national level and asked them, “What was the greatest influence on their sporting career to date?”. Their unanimous response was that their parents were the reason for their success.

This was further backed up by a number of Craik’s clients who are professional athletes who also acknowledged their parents or someone who acted in a similar capacity had had a profound effect on their sporting careers.

After the incredible success in recent months of Johannah Kearney, silver medallist at the World U23 Rowing Championships in Italy, Holly Edmondston, bronze medallist at the World Junior Track Cycling Championships in Glasgow and Dylan Kennett, bronze medallist at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Craik was desperate to ask them the question, “What made the difference?”

Yet again, a unanimous response. “It was someone else believing in me, someone outside my little bubble”.

Further discussion found that it was a mixture of either someone within their sport at an elite level, or a mentor provided to them, whom they had a huge amount of respect for and most importantly gave them self-belief.

Johannah Kearney talked about her mentor who had the most amazing philosophies. Prior to this encounter, she hadn’t’ wanted to look that far ahead. Kearney had short term goals, rather than long term with no thought of success at a World Championship. At U16 level, the Otago Sports Academy introduced an Athlete Life Adviser to Kearney. “The Otago Sports Academy provided great support and I started to allow myself to look at bigger horizons.”

A speech by Mahe Drysdale was also instrumental in her success. Drysdale had gone through a massive amount of injuries, sickness and setbacks, but yet he was still performing at the highest level.

Leading up to the World Championships, one of Kearney’s rowing crews had a serious crash and broke her arm. It was unsettling for all concerned so close to the event, but the team got behind her and she rehabilitated and was able to come back into the team. It was at that point that Kearney was given some very valuable advice from her coach at the time, Gary Roberts, “It is not luck, you make your own luck. You’re not here by chance.”

Holly Edmondston credited her success to her heroes Sarah Ulmer and Alison Shanks whom she has been able to communicate with whilst training at the Velodrome in Cambridge.

But wait, there’s more. There is a second critical piece of the puzzle. The athletes gave credit to their respective sporting federations for the immense amount of preparation that has gone into each of their events.

When they lined up at the starting line, they knew they had done the work, they knew they had prepared as best they could and were in the best shape both mentally and physically. In fact they had already done the race multiple times, not just physically but mentally as well. Kearney added “It was familiar, it was achievable. You had to have complete trust in our coach so when we travelled overseas, we were able to hit the ground running”.

Every aspect of their respective events had been considered in the months previous; the best combination of people, how the team would work together, the speed they were to go, the equipment they would use, down to the tape on their hands and feet, the cleats on their pedals, the way the helmets were clipped, their nutrition. Absolutely no stone was left unturned.

The third piece of the puzzle was funding. Kearney has obtained regular grants through the Otago-based Skeggs Foundation, Edmondston has been supported by her local Waimate and Morven communities, Kennett has been supported by the local Waimate community as well as the Waimate Rotary Club, Trust Aoraki Sports Persons Trust and the Canterbury Sports Foundation. The athletes also have received sponsorship from businesses as well. This allowed breathing space from the mounting costs of preparing for international competition.

The fourth piece of the puzzle has to be desire. Edmondston explained “People can train and train and never improve. Elite sport is 90% mental.”

Kennett, expressed the following “My parents are competitive as well as supportive and there has to be a goal or each day is wasted. I do the sport, not because it’s fun, but because I like to win”

This mirrors the thoughts of the great Peter Snell, ““For me, running was not a No 1 sport; it just happened to be the one I was best at.

“It was a vehicle to satisfy my need for achievement, I’m happy to admit that now.

“My background was ball games. They were games I enjoyed more than running. But what I enjoyed about running was the success”.

John Hellemans, Hhgh performance triathlon coach provided the following comments “What stands out for me is that the potential elite athletes stand out early as they are already good at what they are doing. Peter Snell found that he was a good runner but it was not his first choice of sport, but he liked winning. So he already had a certain physical talent, together with the will/urge to win.

“If you then, also on top of that, have supportive parents and sound coaching it is likely that you make it as an elite athlete. If the basic talent/movement patterns are not there to the extent that is required and/or the will to win/compete, than it becomes more difficult. In my experience most athletes who have been successful have had strong intrinsic motivation, based on a combination of their ability and will to win.

“It is an interesting topic, also different athletes are motivated by different things depending on their personality and circumstances, so the same rule does not apply to every athlete”.

So how can we emulate this type of sports psychology locally? How can we make the difference?

Simon Middlemass is a sports psychologist from the United Kingdom. Middlemass has worked for the English Institute of Sport and has been a private consultant with a range of sports. Middlemass currently works as a researcher and lecturer at the Otago Institute of Sport & Adventure at the Otago Polytechnic.

Middlemass has been invited to come to Oamaru to provide insight into how schools, and local sports coaches and athletes can provide the necessary tools and knowledge to help local athletes.

It is a must come, must listen, must learn from someone who has been there and done that and principals of schools, teachers, coaches, mentors, and athletes are encouraged to attend.

Middlemass is speaking at St Kevin’s College auditorium in Oamaru tomorrow, October 29t at 7pm. Please ring Kate Holland at Sport Otago to secure a seat on 029-434-9379. Cost is $5 per person or $10 per family.

PHOTOS: Holly Edmondston (FILE), Johannah Kearney (GETTY IMAGES) and Dylan Kennett (GETTY IMAGES).