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,
cleaning, polishing, and attempting to find some sense in a daily training and performance that may or may not suddenly prove to be significant to their chances of racing.
This part can be particularly challenging as you’re not solely responsible for performance but have a level of expectation placed upon you.
How you handle each push is something you can control and relies on a close relationship between your personal and professional standards, clear team expectations & objectives, coaching/feedback, and experience.
These wide-ranging approaches and experiences are what the content of this group is attempting to enrich through the community of competitive push-athletes.
Sending off Team Deen at another Lake Placid World Cup
In an adjunct back to my personal experience (because this is all about me), I befell the
same fate in bobsleigh as I did on the rugby pitch – I wasn’t good enough!
In the years I spent as a brakeman, its was clear that the only real position I could compete was on the back of a 4-man.
I was keen to slide, to train, and be as good a member of a team as I could
be. This I did, and I improved. Applying what I knew about athletic preparation and adding the unique seasoning of this sport's specifics I started to develop a philosophy and used myself for experimentation.
In order to prove yourself as a significant team member, you must first demonstrate that individually, which I wasn’t capable of doing against stronger or faster individuals in the present testing scheme.
There are obvious catalysts in any team or squad, and we all believe if we perform with them, we will be able to show our own potential much better, but worry that without that opportunity we can’t demonstrate this as well and therefore are unfairly viewed and judged.
In reality, strong performers will group together, they will continue to perform well, and they will grow stronger together.
My last IBSF race was in the 2011 World Championships in Kӧnigssee. While that was not what I would now consider elite performance, I am happy to say that 2 members of that 4 are now the proud and worthy owners of Olympic Bronze medals (in the same sled no less!).
It was at this time I was persuaded to swallow my pride and step to a more suitable position in the squad and begin training the athletes. That’s when I think the real learning started, and as I write this, hope it never stops.
Since the start of that work in 2011 I have been able to develop myself and my philosophies considerably, with the experiences and assistances of more people than I can possibly list in one sitting.
I really could bore you for HOURS (this can be substantiated by readers I’m sure) with some of my views around our sport, and wider fields of study.
Views from the coach's box with Petr Ramseidl (right)
Instead I will attempt to summarise:
In the past decade or so I have witnessed athletes of all shapes and sizes, with various
backgrounds attempt this sport. Some successfully, others not so much. Some who accepted the sport and its ‘quirks’, others who didn’t. Some who successfully challenged the status quo and helped shift a paradigm away from conventional wisdom, and others who took an easier route to follow ‘tradition’.
The level of athleticism has increased dramatically, and the strength and depth of high-quality athletes and all-round good humans has been a pleasure to witness.
I have had many opportunities to talk to wider audiences about bob athletes, training and performance, and a common theme in response is that they had no idea what
type of athletes were in bobsleigh, or just what they are capable of.
Current events, coaching the Swiss national team
A common fallacy is that of the “failed athlete”, which is frankly unfair. While everyone here has a different background, all are good athletes in their own right!
What people ‘looking in’ can’t contextualise is what push performance represents.
If you know a person is a sub 10.00/11.00 sprinter, Clean & Jerk 2 x bodyweight, former pro-football/rugby, or can ski the Hahnenkamm under 2:00 mins there is a category of performance that is relatable.
Look for the same reaction when someone who doesn’t know the details of our sport is told “this team can push a sled under 5.50secs/5.10secs in Altenberg” and I’ll show you a person looking blankly back at you.
When I have shown and described to coaches, trainers, researchers and/or athletes in other sports the relatable elements of our sport and created context regarding sled mass, inertia, torque, acceleration, speed, gradient, G-force, athlete size,
power output, skill, and neural load…then an air of respect is felt.
Our pursuit of victory in sports is a personal journey to prove ourselves capable. With a common connection, we all aim to learn and share a little more to enable that.
Finishing a push session with all his mates
Chris Woolley MSc is a GB brakeman turned performance coach, and now Swiss performance coach whose encyclopedic knowledge of strength and conditioning will be stolen frequently to bolster this platform. Find him here: