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Olympic Games: Nigel Walker, national director of English Institute of Sport on preparing his team for Rio

The national director of the English Institute of Sport is preparing his team for the Rio Olympics, where more than 100 members of staff will attempt to catapult Team GB to its best ever performance at an “away” Olympic Games

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 11 Jul 2016 issue 124
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Nigel Walker
Nigel Walker

Team GB athletes will carry the nation’s hopes in Brazil this summer when they take to the tracks, courts and waters of Rio de Janeiro. For two weeks in August, the public’s undivided attention will be on the Rio Olympic Games – offering an opportunity for new heroes to emerge and for athletes to become household names by securing an elusive medal.

What the public might not see, however, is the army of support staff helping to clear the path to the podium. As well as individual coaches and trainers, athletes will have at their disposal a legion of physiotherapists, psychologists, sports scientists and technical staff. This unsung group is provided by the English Institute of Sport (EIS), an increasingly important part of UK Sport’s performance system.

SUPPORTING ROLE
Set up in 2002, EIS is tasked with providing sports science and medicine for Team GB athletes and coaches to help them improve performances. Funded by UK Sport, it works with the British Olympic Association (BOA) and Paralympic Association (BPA), delivering its services from nine High Performance Centres across the country – as well as at a number of additional partner sites.

“We estimate that we will have more than 100 members of staff working on the ground at Rio,” says Nigel Walker, EIS’ national director.

“Most of that number will be practitioners – physiotherapists, sport psychologists, strength and conditioning coaches – embedded within individual sports, but we also have a ‘head quarter’ team which will travel to Rio. It is the largest team we’ve ever sent to a Games.”

The EIS has an impressive track record in providing results at major events. Of the GB athletes that won a medal at London 2012, 86 per cent had benefitted from EIS support in one way or another. It’s a figure Walker wants to build on at Rio.

“[The 86 per cent] is a nice statistic, but the glorious London 2012 Games have come and gone and our focus is very much on success at Rio 2016 and beyond,” he says.

“The GB athletes heading to Rio 2016 will be the most supported in history. In the four-year cycle to Rio, our practitioners have delivered nearly one million hours (950,000) of support to Olympic and Paralympic athletes, which represents more than 4,500 hours each week.”

The workload is understandable, considering the aspirational goal set for Rio by UK Sport – to become the first nation to win both more Olympic and Paralympic medals at the next “away” Games after hosting. History shows that other host nations have suffered a dip in performance following their home Games, as the benefits of home advantage and their country’s focused effort on elite sport has ebbed away. Walker says he is confident this won’t be the case for Team GB.

“It’s looking very good,” Walker says. “I was at a briefing recently with Simon Timson, UK Sport’s director of performance. He went through where we are positioned and we’re very confident that at the very least, we will better the performance at Beijing in 2008, where we finished with 47 medals.”

CYCLICAL PROGRESS
The lighting of the Olympic flame at Rio means that UK Sport’s Olympic cycle of 2013-17 is nearing its end. While the cycle’s ultimate success hinges on Team GB’s performances this summer, Walker describes the four-year period as the “best one yet” as far as EIS is concerned. “If you rest on your laurels and stand still in high performance sport, you’ll be left behind,” Walker says.

“We didn’t do that following our success at London in 2012. Our high performance sport system is now stronger than it has ever been – better even than it was in the run up to London.

“The way that UK Sport, the BOA, BPA and the NGBs work together with EIS is a real strength of British sport. You will not find any other high performance system in the world, which would have greater collaboration.”

As proof of the results the system is achieving in its current cycle, Walker points at Team GB’s historic performances at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014. A total of 56 athletes competed in 11 sports, making it the biggest British contingent at a Winter Olympic Games for 26 years.

The quantity was backed up by quality too, as Jenny Jones became the first British athlete to win an Olympic medal on snow and Lizzy Yarnold became a “national treasure” after bringing home the gold from the women’s skeleton.

TOKYO BOUND
While the athletes are adding their final touches to preparations for Rio, planning for the next cycle – which includes the 2020 Tokyo Games – has already started.

“The senior management team and board will be working on finalising our strategy for Tokyo over the next three months,” Walker says.

“We want to keep improving, so we’ve asked for help and garnered views and ideas from both our own staff and from representatives of the bodies we work with. We want to get a 360-degree view on our high performance system and refine the role which the EIS plays in it.”

He adds that the discussions have already led to adjustments and new priorities being identified. “One area in which we will be investing more money in the next cycle is athlete wellbeing,” he says.

“The welfare of our athletes is paramount and we’ve already made improvements to our mental health referral scheme. We’re now working in partnership with a body which is able to provide clinical psychiatry for those people who are showing signs of mental illness.

“Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is currently undertaking the Sport Duty of Care Review, so I don’t want to go into too much detail on our plans – as I don’t want to pre-empt the findings before it is published – but we know more funds will be allocated to that area in the Tokyo cycle.”

Nigel Walker

Walker represented Team GB as a hurdler at the Los Angeles Olympic games in 1984, before switching to rugby and earning 17 international caps for Wales. He served on the UK Sport board from 2006 to 2010 and prior to joining the EIS, he was head of change at BBC Wales

Walker’s “one to watch”at Rio 2016

Giles Scott, Finn class, sailing - Sports Management Cover star

“Giles has been particularly dominant over the past two or three years in the Finn class – the same class in which Ben Ainsley made his name in and competed at four Olympics. Giles is a world and European champion, so while I don’t want to jinx him and start hanging gold medals around his neck, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t do well at Rio.

He is a great example of the ‘full package’ we offer athletes. We’ve got a number of practitioners working with him daily at his base Weymouth. It includes a physiotherapist, a strength and conditioning coach, a psychologist, analysts and also an element of research and innovation when it comes to equipment.

We also have a special interest in Giles, as his brother Nick Scott is an EIS employee. Nick works as a performance lead across a number of sports – badminton, triathlon, ski & snowboard and short track.”

Giles Scott, Finn class, sailing
Giles Scott, Finn class, sailing
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