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The School Games – preparing our future Olympians

28 January 2014

The Sainsbury’s School Games is a multi-sport event that took place over three days and eight venues in Sheffield in September 2013. The competition offers around 1,600 of the nation’s highest achieving youth competitors from twelve current and future Olympic & Paralympics sports the chance to experience the kind of demands that a major games such as the Olympics will place on them.

Huw Williams, coach of the South East road cycling team at the School Games,  tells us all about the event, what takes place behind the scenes, and why taking part is so valuable for Britain’s future stars.

{Don’t forget to also read our Q & A with Abbie Dentus, one of the most successful young riders in the country and a member of the Olympic Development Programme – she tells us about her experience of the event as a member of the South East team, and how it has helped her development as a rider}

The School Games have a strong track record of providing a springboard for athletes who later go on to compete at a national level and provides an insight in to the identity of those likely to be in contention for team places in the next two to three Olympic cycles.

Approximately 700 coaches, support staff and volunteers make the School Games happen and they offer a completely ‘real world’ major championship scenario. Teams and staff are housed in athletes ‘villages’ where they are looked after by support staff, have no contact with parents between the time they are picked up on Thursday morning and dropped off on Sunday evening. They and their equipment are transported to their respective venues at the start of each day, meal-times are set and communal, there are anti-doping procedures and even full-blown opening and closing ceremonies attended by thousands of screaming fans at one of the UK’s biggest entertainment venues, Sheffield’s Motorpoint arena.

Winner Girls Team Time Trial - Wales - P31B8092

Winners – Girls Team Time Trial – Wales – © Dawn Fry

All regions of the UK are represented and as coach for the South East road cycling team of four boys and four girls, working alongside team manager Natalie Creswick, our duty being to ensure all riders were well prepared to perform to the best of their abilities on each of the three days of cycling events. This actually started well in advance of the games as we held a series of team training sessions at the Kent closed circuit facility Cyclopark where we were able to replicate quite closely the circuit configuration and timings of a couple of the events as well as give the riders the opportunity to work on the technical demands of one of the key events, the team time-trial.

end of day 2 leaving racing venue to return to accommodation - P31B8351

Returning to accommodation at end of Day 2
© Dawn Fry

From arranging vehicles to transport the eight riders, their bikes, kit, spare wheels and sets of training rollers from London to Sheffield, to making sure everyone is not only where they need to be for the various official duties they have to perform during the course of the weekend, but also in the best physical and mental state in which to perform to the best of their ability, the games demand a near-impossible level of logistical competence from riders, their parents and the team support staff.

Taking place at the end of the season when all the riders have just completed an intense block of racing, everyone is already fatigued, but each day’s events nonetheless have a very early start in order to get the riders to the two different venues being used for the cycling events. A short, closed-circuit cycle track at a nearby school was the venue for the sprint and criterium events on day one and a closed road circuit up on the exposed moorlands was the location for the individual and team time trials and road races on days two and three. Each day is a time-crunched logistical challenge of get up early (5.30am), get everyone to breakfast, drive everyone to the venue in time to set up, sign on, do course recce’s and warm up effectively in order to be ready to race. We tried to get the riders to catch up on as much sleep and rest as was possible throughout the day by bedding them down on the floors of whatever facilities we had been allocated as changing/warm-up areas. Then after racing it’s a mad-cap dash back to the athletes village, hopefully in time to throw down a quick dinner, leaving enough time to attend whatever official function has been laid on in the evening, usually a short lecture or motivational speeches by UK sport stars who have competed at the highest level. By this time it’s close to midnight but we still had to brief the riders for the next day’s events in a team meeting before getting them into bed and following the same routine the next day.

Winners - Boys Team Time Trial - Eastern Region

Winners – Boys Team Time Trial – Eastern Region – © Dawn Fry

It’s an intense schedule and it’s designed to be that way. This is exactly what the riders will experience and need to be able to cope with if their chosen career paths continue along the route they are hoping and they become our next generation of Olympic hopefuls. So when we’re getting off the team bus hungry, tired and late after a hard day’s racing and all they can think about is getting dinner and getting into bed, it comes as hammer blow when the guy with the suit and the clipboard picks half the team to attend anti-doping and the whole schedule goes out of the window. But this is how it is going to be so this is what they have to deal with. You can’t say no.

Winner Girls RR - Grace Garner - East Midlands Region - P31B8862

Winner – Girls Road Race – Grace Garner – East Midlands Region – © Dawn Fry

With all this going on it would be easy to let the racing itself become an afterthought rather than the primary focus of why we are all here. At the end of the day the riders need to be able to zone-out of the chaos going on around them and perform as best they can. It’s down to the coaches and managers to shield the riders from all the logistical challenges and get them focused and ready for the start of each event. We try to do everything as a team for the sake of keeping morale high – I want the riders facing each other on the rollers as they warm up so they can talk tactics and motivate each other if necessary. We all have meals together at the same time, again, facing each other across the dinner tables and all mobile phones, ipods, laptops etc are banned during communal times, until they retire to their own rooms at the end of the day.

Throughout each day’s racing, all riders and staff have to be on their guard as the competition is based on a cumulative points structure, and points gained in races can be easily stripped for transgressing even the most minor rules. There are constant gear checks to attend and a strict dress code as to what kit can be worn. During the weekend stories are rife of various teams and individual riders being stripped of points for various misdemeanors and we found ourselves going to bed one evening in 5th place overall only to wake up the next day promoted to 3rd.

Boys RR - P31B8989

Boys Road Race – © Dawn Fry

Day one on the closed circuit was kind to us weather-wise and on the road for the time trials we once again had reasonable conditions but for the road races on day three we were in for a world of trouble. The course was basically a long drag uphill across exposed open moorland then a long, twisting descent on vary narrow, single-track road with a typical country-lane surface ranging from gravel-strewn to potholed. During the girls race the wind started howling and became so strong it was difficult to walk up the hill into it let alone expect a bunch of 12-14 year olds to race around it.

Winner Boys RR - Lewis Stevens - Eastern Region - P31B9630

Winner –
Boys Road Race –
Lewis Stevens –
Eastern Region
© Dawn Fry

The performances were astonishing given the conditions. By the time the boys’ race started the wind had brought the rain and things quickly got bad. Very bad. Probably the worst conditions I’ve seen for an open road race in the UK and, given that one of the primary concerns for any of us working on the support teams is safeguarding and protecting young riders, I had serious doubts as to whether this race should have been allowed to go ahead. Given any other set of circumstances it probably wouldn’t, but this is the School Games and the massive infrastructure that it demands meant we had a whole fleet of support cars, paramedics, first aiders, motorcycle outriders and British Cycling commissaires and coaching staff on hand to keep an eye on everything. The riders had to endure freezing rain and howling gales for one of the longest races on their calendar but they did it, and the experience gained was exactly the kind of thing the School Games is intended to challenge: high levels of fortitude in the face of extreme adversity.

Within an hour of finishing everything was stripped down, packed away, and we were on our way to the Motorpoint arena for a very emotional closing ceremony then the long drive back to London to re-unite the riders with their families.

All through the weekend the focus was on the process rather than the results – just getting everyone to do the right things at the right times in order that they could perform to their best. The slogan we kept seeing and hearing throughout the Games was “Who’s next?” – a question aimed at reminding us all that we are involved in the constant process of trying to identify and nurture the next generation of Olympic competitors. Given the way all riders at the 2013 School Games performed I feel sure I’ve already seen a lot of our future medalists compete.

Winners - Boys Team Time Trial - P31B8422

Winners – Boys Team Time Trial – Eastern Region – © Dawn Fry

Huw Williams is an experienced British Cycling Level 3 Coach and cycling journalist. He writes training and development articles for a variety of cycling publications & websites and coaches riders from novices to elites.

{Don’t forget to also read our Q & A with Abbie Dentus, one of the most successful young riders in the country and a member of the Olympic Development Programme – she tells us about her experience of the event as a member of the South East team, and how it has helped her development as a rider.}

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All photos © Dawn Fry

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The School Games – preparing our future Olympians

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