British Bobsleigh Interview with Gary Anderson Performance Director

Great Britain have a great tradition in Bobsleigh, in fact often referred to as the most successful of our winter sports. But in Vancouver 2010 results were not great, the sport was in financial difficulty and the future was very uncertain. The appointment of a new performance management set up and a new ...[emember_protected] Chairman signalled changes afoot. We had the chance to catch up with Performance Director Gary Anderson and talk to him about the last three and a half years and the work that has been undertaken to transform the fortunes of British Bobsleigh.

Racer Ready: Three and half years into the job, Sochi just around the corner - on target?

GA: I think you can describe it as "on track' rather than satisfied, the aim has always been to get the sport into the medal zone for Sochi, the performance trajectory is good with us achieving results that are strong performance markers for the future.

Racer Ready: So you have been around the high performance sport scene for many years, achieving success at the top level what attracted you to the challenge of the situation at Bobsleigh?

GA: That's a question I often ask myself! I was approached by Bobsleigh immediately post Vancouver to see if I was interested in the role, at that point I was quite settled in what I was doing and had no plans to change that. One of the directors was quite persistent and I entered into dialogue with no real intention of it going any further but there was something about the sport that captured me. I knew a fair amount of the sport in terms of its operation and history as when I worked at UK Sport it was one of the sports I was involved with on project work. In my first month I felt like resigning every day, but things got better and now I only think about it once a week!

Looking back at the past 3 years and reflecting (as I often do), when I embarked on this project, I certainly believed it was possible to get British Bobsleigh into the top 5 nations in the world but with the knowledge that most people thought it would be a disaster with plans shelved and the sport go back to its old ways within a year. Indeed a number of my trusted performance colleagues advised me against taking on the task, one actually commenting “do not touch it with a barge pole”.

If you sign a 3-year contract, then you can go into these things with a positive attitude and with the support of the board, the confidence to implement a performance system. But, equally, you have to be brave enough that if something's not working very well, it has to be addressed and it's better to step in and change it rather than just persevere hoping it will come good, I think that has happened in the past and then things run away from any performance control.

Racer Ready: So was the sport in a bad place at the time?

GA: I think you could describe it as dis-jointed, no joined up thinking and lots of individual plans rather than a clearly defined strategic performance objective. You couldn't doubt the desire to win but there were so many people pulling in different directions with varying agendas that successes were going to be very difficult to achieve if not impossible.

Racer Ready: Faced with these challenges what was the first things you changed?

GA: I needed to establish some very clear operating strategies; I sought dialogue with the key performance partners and funding agencies to get very clear criteria on how we could establish a performance program that attracted the required level of funding and investment. This gave us a realistic target that i could present to the athletes and share with them the journey we needed to undertake. I needed to get them to accept this as "their" plan - to take responsibility of the outcomes of their performances. Once they were able to do this and were prepared to accept that with performance investment came "accountability" things started to change.

It was obvious that the performance management team needed to be strengthened - new blood was required on the coaching team, coaches that shared my philosophy on performance and truly believed that we could achieve success. That was the same for the athletes, the sport of bobsleigh is unique in that it being a crew sport and the role of the "brakemen" (they accelerate the sled at the push start, a vital component of modern bobsleigh) is unique in that the physical attributes are present in athletes from other sports. Given the age you ca start Bobsleigh at this time is 16 it was obvious that we had to recruit more effectively from other sports. The athletics press have always described Bobsleigh as the sport "where track athletes go when they are past their best or do not quite make the top level in track" - probably an element of truth in this, so we had to make a step change in the way we identified and recruited athletes.

I looked at other sports and traditional talent identification models. It was glaringly obvious that these methods would not achieve what we needed. We knew the exact profiles of the athletes we needed, in many cases we knew their names and where they lived ! So rather than host massive talent try-outs in the hope of finding athletes I went and spoke to them! We now have athletes in our programme who are yet to reach their athletic peak, which is very exciting.

Racer Ready: So what is your performance philosophy and how have you implemented this?

GA: I don't always get it right, nor do the coaches and nor do the athletes, but we are in a continual learning process and we are always conscious of doing “our best” and we are currently learning what “our best” really is. All I ask of the staff and the athletes is their best.

When you surround yourself with ambitious people (staff and athletes) who want to win, then inevitably there are going to be times when they can clash and do you know what sometimes that is important. But the key thing is to be honest with people - tell them exactly what the objective is and what we're trying to achieve. That clarity of purpose is absolutely critical. It is impossible to keep everybody happy all of the time - but that's part of performance management, and you have to expect that it goes with the territory.

How you deal with it is the most important thing.

I was asked the other day what is my role? I was asked do I still coach athletes? After another period of reflection I had to admit that I do not coach anymore (regrettably), I was then asked do I write the programmes, again I had to admit no (I have good people working for us who do that), “well what exactly is it that you do”? - I had to take a minute to think but I guess it is the combination of two roles as I see it - firstly as a conductor of an orchestra, arranging all the sections so that each section knows their role and together we produce great music. Secondly I see it as bus driver taking a group on a journey, people can hop on or hop off that bus at whatever point but the bus continues on its journey to the destination.

Racer Ready: What have the lowest moments of your time with Bobsleigh?

GA: I have learnt that in performance sport you ride the “Roller Coaster” - and I try to live by the mantra that “adversity is the true test of character” but I have to say that two incidents were particularly difficult both professionally and personally. Firstly the crash that occurred in Winterberg in the pre-season of 2011 - this was probably one of the most difficult periods I have experienced in sport, two athletes hospitalised one with what at the time were described as critical injuries. The media attention on the crash and the pressure on our other athletes at the time really tested our systems. My staff were brilliant as were the athletes.

The other incident was when one of our athletes tested positive as a result of an out of competition drugs test. We have an excellent record and in the UK our policies are some of the strongest in world sport, thanks to UK Anti-Doping. All our top athletes are subject to “whereabouts” and have to comply with the WADA code and input movements on the ADAMS system, all our guys are very compliant and have learnt that this system is a responsibility of all funded athletes.

The positive side of this was that it illustrated that the system in the UK would catch athletes that elect cheat, simple.

Racer Ready: After that can you share your highlights?

GA: There have been many, winning the first ever Europa Cup Gold, Americas Cup Gold were all landmarks. But the World Junior Championship Gold in 2011 followed up with a Bronze last year has to be up, there as was the Silver at the Youth Olympic Games another great markers of our sustainable programme through Sochi and beyond. The 4-man crew's rise up the world rankings to be in the Worlds Top 5 and one of the fastest starting crews in the world has set us up well going into an Olympic year.

Racer Ready: You often refer to PROJECT50, what is this?

GA: In 2014, it will be 50 years exactly since GBR last won Olympic Gold. PROJECT50 started out as our research and development programme with McLaren and UK Sport - this has resulted in some real performance gains. This project has now expanded to cover all areas of our Olympic preparation programme. Our aim is to be the best prepared, physically, mentally, tactically and technically we can be in Sochi 2014. We will leave no stone unturned in this quest, we have bought in proven world class coaches and support staff to ensure this happens, the athletes and staff are working with some of the UK's top psychologists to ensure that they are able to cope with the demands of the Olympic Games.

Racer Ready: We have heard you mention something about the Italian Coffee effect what is that all about?

GA: So this Italian Coffee thing - well its my philosophy, it is based on the principle of “the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts” - so, you can have the finest coffee beans, the best coffee machine, the finest filtered water and the absolute exact water temperature and pressure - you can brew a fine cup of coffee - BUT it will never taste as good as it does in Milan. The team of staff and athletes I have must work like this, each member to do their job, contribute to the winning philosophy and we will surprise ourselves at what we can achieve. Whatever we accomplish is due to the combined effort of everyone involved but the result is the athletes - that is what we are all here for to facilitate athletes to achieve their best and we must never ever forget that.

Racer Ready: So Sochi hopes? And beyond?

GA: Sochi hopes are really quite simple - to deliver the best possible performances we can, we can control that, if we get that right we have a real chance to be in the medal zone. Beyond Sochi ? I was always my intention to build a World Class Programme that is sustainable and one that creates a “dynasty winning” culture. We still have doubters and that's good, it keeps all of us on our toes. If people don't want to share the optimism that I share, or the goals that I have they're entitled not to - I hope that our results and the sustainability of what we are building answers that.

I enjoy the performance and the process of putting a squad together that has the capacity of winning on the biggest stage in the world and do you know what? We are very close to that right now.

My glass isn't just half full; it's over half full with the potential to be overflowing!

We are all in this together...


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