Talking at World Rowing’s coaches’ conference in December, Tom Dyson, chief coach of the British Rowing’s Paralympic programme, discussed the tailoring of a performance environment, set in the context of recent competitions including the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Dyson, in discussing the rate of progression in the sport, noted that the winner of the para PR1 women’s single sculls at the Rio Paralympics had to be going faster than the winner of the para PR1 men’s single back in 2007 at the Munich World Rowing Championships.

Dyson addressed “some of the biggest factors that I think influence the way in which I work with the team I have on a day-to-day basis, and the way in which we have developed over the years”.

Pacing progression

Maintaining pace with the rate of progression means that the British Paralympic rowing programme has to be fluid and able to evolve quite quickly, said Dyson. The athletes involved also have different rowing and wider sporting backgrounds. This creates “a real spread in terms of experience … across the team.”

One key element Dyson highlighted is striking the right balance between standardisation and individualisation in training programmes. “Having to shape a programme around all those different experience levels to push them on in the right way, that’s one of our big challenges,” he said.

Relating to athletes’ impairments, Dyson explained “we’re trying to tailor a programme around a very diverse group,” both in terms of the level of impairments and the particular areas of the body involved. “What we try and create has to work for each of these people as individuals, but also we’ve got to find a way of pulling them together as a crew and then as a team.”

“The first question we had to try and answer,” said Dyson, “was what do we standardise and what do we individualise.”

Standardise or individualise

In terms of standardising, “it was pretty much the structure of the training.” This included the location of daily training (centralised at the British team’s Caversham base) and training camps, the type of training and identifying common threads in technical models across the different types of rowing technique used in para-rowing.

 “We were working with individual strength and conditioning (S&C) programmes. We were tailoring water mileages to each of the people and then the supplementary land work they did as well.

“We tailored our coaching approach to each of those individuals,” he continued. With a relatively small group of athletes this helped in building an individual relationship.

“Finally, we tried to seek out competition opportunities with some of them, that would help move them on as individuals,” Dyson added.

The greatest area of individualisation was S&C training, with each athlete having “a completely bespoke S&C programme, written purely for them.”

The tailored water programmes included different mileages for different boat classes and also adjusting athlete programmes on a daily basis. “We were quite willing to shift that training load around on a day-to-day basis to make sure we were getting people through as much of the training as we [could], even if that has to take a different form,” Dyson explained.

On the water, “A lot of time is spent … trying to get the very, very best boat set-ups according to our individuals. Of course, we play with the obvious bits like span, inboard/outboard, but I would say 90 per cent of the work we do on the boats is on things like … seating,” he said. “We’re trying to find the very best seating that supports the rowers in the right way … to deliver their best output on the water.”

The coaches are continuing to seek “opportunities … to individualise and get the best progression” from the athletes, said Dyson. However, in order to get the balance right between individual improvement and building both crews and a team ethos, a number of small elements were introduced in and around the individualised training programmes alongside the maintenance of the standardised training structure.

One team

“One of the biggest risks,” said Dyson, “is that we can go too far down the lines of individualising.” A lot of the work the coaches undertook was designed around pulling the athletes together “into a ‘one team’ environment. Wherever we could, we took the opportunity to bring them together.” For example, in ergometer training, machines were lined up facing each other “for the very purpose of getting [the athletes] to support each other and push each other through that training.”

Weight training was also done in the same area of the gym, to enable athletes to both support and compete with each other. In addition, athletes were asked to give a presentation on an aspect of their lives about which the rest of the squad was unaware. This all helped to drive a closer-knit group.

Boats also trained against British Olympic crews and the para PR3 mixed coxed four competed in open men’s events at the Metropolitan Regatta. Not only did this give the crew experience and a benchmark for “understanding how quick they would need to be,” said Dyson, but it “sent a message to the wider rowing community about the level we are trying to operate at in the Paralympic programme.”

“We’re really trying to push our Paralympic programme forward and operate at a good level,” Dyson concluded.

Copy thanks to Lee Willett