Updated: Mar 15
Former GB and current Swiss Performance Coach, Chris Woolley, provides us with a story of bobsleigh that provides both personal and professional insight to this magic sport. This is another good one for the newbies.
Still working for GB, it was likely he'd just erased a penis from the whiteboard
As I write this piece for ‘The Brake’ my hope is to relate to and connect an audience who all share a common interest and devotion for our crazy little sport, and yet who likely all have very different stories about how they came to find themselves inexplicably pushing sleds over a hill, and stopping it at the bottom, in order for an egotistical, runner-obsessed pilot to get all mardy explaining about the preceding 14-20 curves.
That really doesn’t make it all sound too glamorous, however a longer explanation of what we [that is you, rather] do is moot to this audience, while attempting to convince you of any inherent glamour would actually be patronising.
The best way I can attempt to do this is by sharing my personal story, and hopefully
imparting a little experience as I do. While many of you know me as a coach, I was at one time capable of holding-my-own on the back of a sled.
A mad-keen rugby player through school and university, and usually quick on my feet
around the field, Bobsleigh was only something I’d seen on TV, or in the classic ‘Cool
Runnings’ movie. Memory stirs of reports of some of the England Rugby team back in the 90’s training with the British Bob team, when rugby was still amateur.
It wasn’t one factor that led me to explore bobsleigh as a transfer sport, rather many in a certain time frame, and circumstances that allowed it to happen. Just at the end of
University I managed to rupture my left shoulder, and for some years it would give me grief when playing, often subluxing/dislocating due to the damage I would discover when surgery finally beckoned. I also sought to go into post-graduate study, not happy with the outcoming prospective of an undergraduate degree.
Sending off the girls with ice coach Petr Ramseidl at a Lake Placid World Cup
Plus, by this time, my skill was running out, quite frankly. I was always fast, usually rather strong, and powerful, and a dedicated trainer, and I like to think a strong team performer.
What I lacked, was the skills to progress further and regional club rugby was a frustrating ‘inbetweener’
The MSc afforded me an opportunity to explore the science of sport deeper, and develop myself into the field of research, training, and application. At the same time, I went under the knife to get the shoulder anchored, which allowed a greater devotion to study, but a restriction in range of movement (anyone seeing me attempt to overhead squat can attest to).
I decided during rehab that I needed to explore a new sport, and through certain avenues of research around power sports, I stumbled across bobsleigh. All the pre-requisites seemed to fit what I was searching, so why not give it a try?
We all know how the next part goes:
Attend a physical performance trial of some variety, meet some experienced bobbers [some of whom are keen to see potential talent, others who immediately feel threatened by you as you “might be good”].
Get told to be better without any real instruction as to how that might happen, listen to various boasts about the magnitude of people's power clean, be told limitless amounts of myths about; speed, velocity, G-forces & crashes, learn just how significant 0.03 seconds is, do another push trial.
Next thing you know, you’re wearing a helmet, a pair of ice spikes, and a ridiculous onesie at the top of a track made out of sheet ice, wondering what the f**k you’ve gotten yourself in to as you watch your pilot go through some kind of pre-rehearsed seizure with their eyes shut (track visualisations), just to reassure you that this was possibly not the best idea you’ve ever had.
Assuming that experience was more fun that it was terrifying, you’re up for doing it again, and this time as is human nature, you want to go faster. The time you spent on the push track suddenly starts to make sense. As you progress through the season you begin to realise what commitment is required to be successful in this sport.
You’ll also now encounter a whole new level of science, myth, and alchemy with regards to what contributes to successful performance. Unless your bullshit filter is particularly fine, much of this hearsay will start impacting on what you think is important.
Conventional wisdom lives strong in our sport
Challenges to the status quo are not often accepted very well, especially by a newcomer with ‘little-to-no bobsleigh experience’, irrelevant of your background. It's true, there are some things which are not immediately explainable around performance and take a tangent to the conclusion you had probably come to on your own.
But there are also things that remain unassailable regarding the science and philosophies of human performance and the physics/mechanics/engineering of these [rather basic] bits of equipment with which we perform.
And it's here where we meet our first divide
That between the pilots, the coaches, and the push athletes. I say divide, as that’s what it can feel like if the relationship is improperly conducted.
Pilots run their teams and are the figureheads regarding success or failure as it is their name in the rankings. Federations and sponsors invest heavily in pilot development as a long-term programme.
Brakemen/women are an essential part of that success or failure as they have the possibility to impact start performance significantly, which we all ‘know’ is as simple as 0.01 at the start = 0.03 at the finish!
Here comes the importance of team dynamics and human behaviour – the best result for the team comes when each individual does what’s best for themselves AND the team (to paraphrase John Nash – we’ve even got onto mathematics now!).
Enjoying the views with his life partner - sprint coach Michael Khmel
Long story short, you need each other. Confidence is self-replicating!
It is common to feel that division in job roles is a division in the team. However, it is
necessary to enable the functioning of our sport. This feeling can be further enhanced when observing the relationships between coaches, mechanics, and pilots who spend hours on track walks, video and time analysis, as well as more time in the garage tinkering with seemingly anything that is able to be adjusted – all of which is dubiously recorded, and of not-exactly obvious and measurable significant impact.
While all this is going on, push athletes are humping and dumping, attaching, detaching,