2020 the year that never was

21/12/2020 20:39:52

Shane Smith

Well, what a year 2020 was, the year that never was. It was a year like no other with huge challenges facing everybody, a global pandemic supposedly planned for by most countries for many years but when it finally struck the various Governments weak plans were ruthlessly exposed and it caused the world to come to a virtual stop. The cost in human life was great and the cost to the UK and the wider world’s economies will be felt by all of us for many years to come.

As a relatively fit & healthy 59-year-old with two grown up children, and both parents in their early 80’s thankfully also fit & well…my sympathies lie with the younger generation and this is where the cost will be felt the widest with education, unemployment, health issues (both physical & mental) and undoubtedly higher taxes weighing heavy on the younger population for years to come.

Of course, as a coach, one of the areas affecting the younger generation of particular interest were the severe interruptions to sports during 2020, with participation rates dropping and many clubs & coaches feeling the strain there will be untold damage to the mental & physical wellbeing of children, both athletes and non-athletes, the length & breath of the country. There will almost certainly be a high cost to sport with some of the talented athletes that have dropped out due to the numerous disruptions caused by this pandemic, and this will be felt in the next 10-15 years on the global stage.

So, within this context how are we shaping up here at Kettering during all the upheaval in 2020? Well, I have to say better than many, I regularly speak to other coaches and many have seen athlete numbers dwindle in the face of the restrictions caused by the pandemic, which is not a great position to be in. Closer to home I am pleased to say we have largely remained intact, certainly within the Middle-Distance squad. Of course, there have been some who have not responded well to the isolation and changes to their training routine and some will no doubt not return once things get back to normal. Thankfully, most of the squad have remained fantastically committed during the past 9 months.

This is due in main to their dedication to the sport and to the Harriers. Sessions given out over e-mail/ Facebook has been slavishly followed with no definite goal in sight which is hugely difficult for competitive athletes. I am truly astonished at the number of PB’s attained by the squad this season (over 90), most of which were set in time trails so will sadly never see the day of light in the official Power of Ten statistics, but importantly the athletes, their peers and the coaches know these times were set so the motivational effect is retained.

This environment I think was vital for the athletes in the squad to retain their competitive edge, and many commented that the time trials set up in the summer made them feel more nervous that real races, perhaps because they were competing against club colleagues, often a different age group and gender but great competition none the less. Of course, a lot of thanks must go to coaches who worked tirelessly to organise & run these time trials, which I must admit gave great insight into the challenges faced by others in the club who normally organise these types of events!

Some of the squad’s athletes were able to find races later in the summer & autumn and put in hugely credible performances with many of the squad enjoying high UK rankings in 2020. I guess some may be tempted to discount these performances and the 2020 track season in general due to the pandemic, but I view this differently, the situation was identical for all athletes, clubs & coaches, so credit must be given to those who responded or adapted the best.

A memory that will live long be with me is seeing athletes/ coaches scurrying around online at the slightest hint of a race going live to try and book a race and with places literally filling in hours once word of mouth got around. As the elongated season progressed there were many more opportunities to race and get a formal time, so I think credit must be given to EA & the clubs who responded to put on events with much more work involved in making them COVID-secure. This belated track season helped many retain real interest in the sport.

So, what are my main thoughts on the season that never was from a coach’s perspective?

Well, I say without hesitation that it’s helped me become a better coach for sure. How so? I will be the first to admit when the lock down started just after the last XC event in March 2020, (English Schools in Liverpool, I remember it well it was my birthday!) the squad had their traditional 2-week rest, I tried to transfer what would have been the typical session plan for a normal track season into a COVID/ Lockdown equivalent. This was a big mistake.

Naturally, unknown at the time we perhaps assumed that track and the big National championships/ peak events would be still going ahead, and it was only after getting well into the build up phase for competition that I realised that things would not be the same. Sadly, for many the build up phase and all the hard work meant they would have to ease off a bit and with no definite dates in the calendar we were in limbo with no plan to work with, an impossible situation for a coach.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learnt was that I should have just switched to an Aerobic block of training during the early stages of the pandemic, although in my defence at the time we never knew just when racing would be re-introduced so I took the view that I would have then ready just in case. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, the Championship races never happened, and some athletes were hitting peak form with no end goal in sight and naturally they never reached their full potential as they may have expected in a normal year. This resulted in some athletes not managing to set a PB, which is an exceedingly difficult thing for athletes to handle. My view is this will be a great benefit to them in the long term, as I do feel this will make them better athletes, the old adage comes to mind, what doesn’t kill you….. only makes you stronger.

This situation did help me become better at adapting sessions and setting them in new ways, in a different environment, I become an expert at deciphering Garmin sessions uploaded, and indeed I found out just how useful the Garmin running watch is for setting activities and letting the watch guide you through the session so to speak capturing all the splits automatically! Well, I never knew they did that!

Later on during the pandemic affected season 1:1 coaching was introduced, allowing me to work closer with athletes which really helped me to understand them better. Spending quality time with them and discussing how they feel during a session, seeing how hard they were working, analysing their running action, all of which is exceedingly difficult with squad sizes commonly between 40-50 athletes before the pandemic struck. This is an aspect which I enjoyed hugely, and it certainly improved my understanding of the strengths & weaknesses of many of the fine athletes within the squad.

There was also a similar benefit when 1:5 coaching ratios were allowed, and although at one stage I was putting in 4x1 hours sessions on a Tuesday & Thursday evening I was thoroughly enjoying the time spent with my small, matched groups, which allowed me quality time with a smaller competitive group of athletes. Another good thing to come of the pandemic was the support of another full-time endurance coach, Cheryl Lamb mother of x3 of the finest within the squad! Better working relationships developed between the endurance’s coaches (John Cairns, Cheryl & myself) due mainly to the smaller squads’ sizes, and I owe a debt of gratitude to both who really stepped up when needed this year.

So, undoubted 2020 was a dreadful year in many respects and one I hope I never have to experience again, but out of the year that never was I definitely think I have become a better coach, the Middle Distance Squad coaching team are working better than ever as a real team to deliver the sessions and motivate the athletes, and of course the athletes have overcome an incredibly difficult year including heavily disrupted schooling, restricted social interactions, and the challenge of solo or smaller squad training sessions. BUT, along with my own personal coaching improvements most of the athletes will I think become better athletes for having experiencing some of these difficulties.  

2021 promises to be a far more normal year, certainly for track season, and I am super excited to see what the squad can deliver this year, Bring It On!

Shane Smith – Head Endurance Coach

Views expressed in this blog are my own views.

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