In this instalment of The Brake Presents, we're honoured to have ALTIS CEO and all-round speed coaching behemoth Stu McMillan present his thoughts on Bobsleigh. This is based on his 20 years experience coaching at the top level. It's a pleasure to have him on TBM, we know this is gonna be popular. Take it away Stu...
He loves a black and white phot and so do we
1. I started coaching bobsledders in 1998, working with a few Canadian women at the dawn of the introduction of the sport to them - with the 2002 upcoming Games being the first that women were invited to.
I began to actually figure out what I was doing in 2001 - working with The Eagles
Bobsled Club. The US team back then was kind of a ‘club system’ - with Brian Shimer on
American Bobsled Club, and Todd Hays and Mike Dionne with Eagles. I was the push
coach for The Eagles, while Chris Lori was the driver coach. We had some really good
pushers - Pavle Jovanovic, Garrett Hines, Randy Jones, Billy Schuffenhauer, Dan
Steele, and a young Steve Mesler. They were all SO different!
2. What makes a good brakeman?
Most people would say size, strength, and speed.
If you are not fast, you better be big and strong.
If you’re not big and strong - then you better be really fast.
The best are all three.
This is the way I used to see it.
I think a little differently now: you can be a good bobsledder if you are strong, fast, and-
or elastic. You won’t find any who are not at least one of these. Good ones are two of these. The best are all three.
BTW - I figured out that elasticity was a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) watching the Russian crew push - Stepushkin was a monster (he long-jumped 7.76 and tripled-jumped 16.33 at close to 100kg). All of those guys were jumpers, and so great to watch - especially in 4man.
3. Sometimes, brakemen are good despite being small, weak, and slow...
Yeh - I don’t know how either. More on this later.
4. What about size?
Size is important, but it’s way less important than most people in the sport think. Far too many place too great an importance on body mass, and end up killing their speed, and-or affecting the aerodynamics of the sled-athlete system.
Put on a bunch of upper body mass - and you are pretty much guaranteed to slow the sled down. You’re better off staying lighter, and focusing on getting stronger, faster and more elastic.
Adding weight to the bottom of the sled lowers the ballast, and gives you a more stable and aerodynamic sled - but that’s another article for another day.
5. “What makes a good brakeman?”
Probably isn’t the most important question is it?
A better question is “what makes YOU a good brakeman?” Identifying “why YOU are good”, is the most important thing for you: it will tell you how you should train, and how you should push. If you are good because you are super-fast, then you should train to maximize this ability, and you should push to take advantage of it.
I call this starting with your ‘unique abilities’ - or ‘mailboxing’. I do it with my sprinters as well - but it's a slightly more homogenous group - there are only so many ways to run 12m/s. There are far more ways to push a bobsled fast.
Force-velocity profiling might be a really good start in determining your mailboxes.
6. The totality of the driver-brakeman system takes precedence over the individuals within the system.
Sometimes combinations just don’t work - even though you might put the 3 fastest
pushers with the fastest driver, they might just be slower than four guys who just gel
together better. The individual parts of the system are important - but (and especially in 4-man), how they interact and inter-relate is often more important.
Stu in full technicolour days with Team Canada
7. If you’re not already a good brakeman — let me give you some advice: go do something else.
You’ll never be good.
Or - more accurately - you might be good. But it’s very doubtful. Good bobsledders are pretty much always good immediately. And great bobsledders are great within three years.
8. What makes a good start?
There are four things that determine a good start:
1. Velocity as you enter the track (15m from the block)
2. Start time (flying 50m from 15m to 65m)
3. Start velocity
4. Velocity as the sled enters the first curve
All of these are important. All are somewhat inter-related.
But velocity as you enter turn 1 is the most-important. (Look at Team Holcomb’s escape
velocities from the 2010 Olympics and you’ll understand what I mean. They didn’t have
the fastest starts, but their velocity out of the push was the difference-maker.)
Use this as your primary KPI, and work back from it.
9. What affects Velocity into 1?
The most-important factor is the speed of the crew.
But all things being equal, it comes down to the depth of the load, and the speed of the
load. The depth is when the first pusher leaves the ice. The speed is the time taken between when the first pusher leaves the ice, and when the last push athlete sits down.
In my Team Holcomb reference, the last down was actually the three slot (Mesler). Typically it’s the brakeman, but their formula was different. More on this below.
The combination of the depth and the speed is the key to maximizing velocity into turn
one. Sometimes you want to be deep. Sometimes you want to be fast. It all depends on the track, and the guys pushing the sled. All tracks are different, and will require slight
variations on speed, depth, and sometimes even crew.
10. If you don’t have a specific push-strategy for each track, then you’re doing it wrong
Every start slope is different. Think about what that means as it relates to the guys on your crew and design a strategy accordingly.
11. The tighter the load, the higher the start velocity (usually)
We created the ‘uni-load’ back in the early 00s: basically having all the push-athletes
load simultaneously. While this tactic didn’t lead to the fastest start times, it did tend to
achieve the highest velocities - which we found to be a more important metric than start
time (this is well-known now, but wasn’t 20 years ago).
12. Sometimes load efficiency trumps load speed
The challenging thing about the uni-load is you have three 100kg guys trying to get into a tight space at the same time. This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really hard.
We adjusted this slightly going into the 2010 Olympics when we focused on the three
and four spots loading concurrently, but two steps after the two spot. We found the one
drawback with the uni-load was it left the three spot on the bunk too long - an effective
6’2” windsock. Splitting up the 2-3 load solved that problem.
The depth of the load was key, and we began to show the importance not only of a tight load, but also an early one. Up until that point, most countries and crews ran it as deep as they could - chasing times, at the expense of velocity. I still see some making this mistake today.
13. The best 'hit' is the one that puts you into a position to enter the track at the highest velocity
People are all over the place with the hit. Most of you are overthinking it.
Beat Hefti crouched way down low, with his hands right under his shoulders. This
doesn’t mean that you should do this. Kevin Kuske did the old ‘snatch & sling’. That
worked well for him. But he’s a freak show. You’re probably not.
Want a model for a great hit? Watch Steve Langton. Want to watch the genesis of
Langton’s hit? Watch Pavle Jovanovic. Simple. Effective.
Guidance for one of GB's best sprinters
14. Who’s the best brakeman and brakewoman in history?
Men - Beat Hefti
Women - Shelley-Ann Brown
Kevin Kuske, Lascelles Brown, Steve Langton
Elana Meyers, Aja Evans, Annika Drazek
15. By the way, this is a debate that one of the above athletes and I used to have a lot. I asked him who his top 4 was recently. Here is his list:
Men — Lascelles, Kuske, Hefti, Langton
Women — Shelley-Ann, Elana, Romy Losch, Cynthia Appiah
16. There are few new ideas in pushing a bobsled
Coaches are passed around like trading cards - so don’t rely on them for innovative
ideas. They’re from a time when no one really thought that deeply about pushing
fast. Sprint science research wasn’t as readily available back then, and there was less
influence from the track & field world.
They might ‘know bobsled’ , but they sure don’t know how to push one.
Almost all of the innovation in the sport over the last 2 decades has come from
Pavle, Lascelles, Mesler, Langton — all PhD students of the push. I learned more from
them than they ever did from me.
17. The fastest sprinters don’t always make the fastest brakemen
Some sprinters can’t figure out the whole no arms thing.
Some are too spinny.
Some can’t push weight.
Most are just scared to commit to pushing a sled downhill. On ice.
18. The ratio of ground-contact time and flight-time is massively under-appreciated
Remember earlier when I said I didn’t know how people can push a bobsled fast despite
being relatively small, weak, and slow? I think this is what it comes down to. There’s a
unique GCT-FT ratio, where if you can maximize it, the sum can be far greater than the
19. The interaction of the athlete(s) and sled is an important KPI
The connection between the hands and the handles is your first step to maximizing the
transfer of force between foot and ice to sled.
If your grip is too tight, you’ll retard the transfer of force.
If your grip is too soft, you’ll end up on top of the sled, and will have problems applying
your force in the right direction.
Rather - focus on pushing through the sled with relaxed palms, and tense lats.
20. Locking in the upper body - or ‘keeping your arms tight’ - is not a good way to push a bobsleigh
Many coaches teach a ‘stiff’ or ‘stable’ upper body, with tight, ‘locked’ arms. This is a
mistake. At least for most.
All gaits - from walking to sprinting - involve rotation, and this rotation is transferred as
torque, or torsion, through the psoas to the lumbar spine. The lumbar vertebrae flex,
extend, rotate, and side-bend. This twisting is transferred into the upper body, with the ribcage ticking and tocking, and the shoulders rocking and rolling. And when the hands
are fixed onto the sled, the head will swing from side to side.
The faster the gait, the more pronounced all of these movements are (on average).
Now - here is the key: there is a ‘Goldilocks effect’ between the amount of rotation and
effective-efficient sprinting and pushing. Too little, and we are constraining the effective
use of our fascial slings, reflexes, etc. Too much, and we end up blowing right
through the end-points, and losing stability.
This is where we come back to our mailboxing: how effective are you at utilizing the
rotational properties of your system?
A good way to help determine this is understanding the relationship between proximal and distal muscle-tendon ratios. The muscles around the pelvis have high muscle-to-
tendon ratios, while the muscles closer to the extremities are the opposite - they have
significantly more tendinous and elastic structures.
If you have thick erectors, big gluteals, large abdominal musculature etc, you will tend
to be better ‘force-producers’. If you have less muscle mass around the hips, and
longer Achilles’ tendons, you’ll tend to be a better ‘force amplifier’.
The force-production guys - they will run with less rotation. The amplifiers - their
shoulders will be rolling, and their heads will be swinging.
You try to limit this movement, and you’re taking your gift away.
Huge thanks to Stu for providing this excellent insight. Any thoughts? Head to the comments and let us know what you think.