With 12 years’ worth of coaching experience, GB Snowsport Para Nordic coach Kieran Jones ensures the athletes are always striving to progress, even during a restricted season.
How and why did you get into coaching?
“Following an undergrad degree where I enjoyed Nordic ski racing personally, I realized that my personal motivation had a lot less to do with my own personal achievements, and had a lot more to do with whatever group or team I was a part of could achieve. I began volunteer coaching in 2009 with the ski club in Ottawa, Canada, that I grew up skiing for, and was fortunate that a year later they were able to offer me a part-time role working with athletes 14-18 years old. It immediately was clear to me that coaching Nordic skiing was rewarding and challenging, and I’ve never looked back.”
What are your main responsibilities as a coach?
“Within the Para Nordic programme, as it is decentralised, my main responsibilities are the coordination and communication of the various elements of the programme, and leading camps and competitions. I work very closely with Simon Allanson, Lead Coach and Biathlon Coach, and he and I coordinate the teams’ activities with our Sports Science and Sports Medicine team.
“Every season our first step with athletes is to set out season objectives, and the athletes and coaches work together to build a plan on how we best feel we want to achieve it. Everything we do flows from that point. We work with a physiologist to write training programs, physiotherapists support athlete health, nutritionists deliver cutting-edge education, our technology partners develop equipment.
“Due to the technical and environmental requirements of the sport, and the difficulty of finding locations that have everything we need for training, our programme is approximately 2 weeks on camp or at competition a month from June to March. This means a high variety of training locations, logistics, and coordination of various resources to make camps highly impactful for athletes. Fortunately, on the logistics front, our Para Programme Manager is outstanding and makes our lives as coaches easier.”
How important is the mental/psychological side of coaching in a modern athlete’s development?
“In my experience, understanding an athlete’s mentality is crucial to being able to help an athlete develop. ‘Natural’ talent is great, but it will only take you so far. To be clear, I’m not talking specifically about mental skill development and engaging psychologists and mental health professionals – although that is quite important. Understanding the needs’ of athletes, what their understanding of the sport and training is, and developing effective paths of communication underpin all improvement and planning for athletes.”
How is the new generation of athletes’ expectations of coaching different from what was expected 10 years ago?
“The primary change in athlete expectations is down to the availability of information, and influence of the internet. The internet has been massively helpful in coach development, due to increasing access to information. However, it’s now easier than ever to get more information than ever; and verifying its accuracy and relevance for the age and stage that an athlete is at can be difficult.
“An athlete can easily find endless amounts of drills, activities, technology, or nutrition advice within seconds, packaged and produced in a way that makes it seem it is the best or the only way to achieve success. While 10 years ago that information existed, it was less prevalent.
“As a result, as the primary contact for athletes, 10 years ago as a coach you needed to have knowledge a mile wide, and an inch deep, with the exception being your speciality (perhaps technique, physiology, nutrition, whatever). Now, as a coach in order to help athletes navigate this world of instant resources, you need to be well-informed and up to date on much more specific information, or if you don’t have that knowledge, have the ability to connect an athlete with the specific expert who does have the knowledge.
“One other piece that has changed massively is awareness and openness around mental health, and the role it plays in athletes lives and ability to be successful. Athletes rightly expect their coach to be part of a positive, healthy, supportive culture and to make that a priority, not just develop pacing strategies, write out training sessions, or provide technical cues.”
Is analysing competition/training footage useful for athlete improvement and development? If so, has tech like mobile phones and drones made this easier?
“Video footage from competition and training is a really valuable tool, especially when matched with athletes’ personal observations. In Para Nordic skiing, given the current popularity and structure of the sport, we rarely have full video of events. Being able to show athletes what they actually look like versus what they see in their minds’ eye provides a massive opportunity for technical improvement, and facilitates trial and error and feedback coaching loops.
“However, it also has to be matched with good athlete feedback. An external coaching perception of what is happening is one perspective, but the athlete is the one living the experience, and the only one who truly knows what it feels like, especially in adaptive sport. As a coach of Para Nordic skiing, I’m never going to be able to exactly replicate and feel the skiing style of a double-amputee, so asking good questions and understanding athletes own body perceptions is key.”
What was the biggest challenge coaching athletes during the most restricted moments last year? How did you manage to maintain a coaching approach with athletes during lockdown?
“For our program, we had two major challenges during lockdown. The first was the uncertainty of our ability to travel to train. With no clear timelines on when we could travel, and a constantly shifting landscape about where we could travel, it made it almost impossible to communicate clear, direct, and solid plans for our camp-based programme. As coaches, it was frustrating because instead of one or two season plans, we were very quickly on to plan ten. For athletes, it was frustrating because of the constantly shifting information, and the short time-scales for changes we were often working to.
“The second big challenge was access to appropriate training and racing. With Nordic ski racing not available in the UK, we depend on travel abroad to get conditions and competition. At one point the entire World Cup season had been cancelled, which meant we needed to get creative to find opportunities for our athletes to compete. Competition is the ultimate test, to find out whether the training, tactics, equipment, and adjustments you have made over the course of the 8-month training season have had the impact you thought.
“In terms of coaching approach, it led us as coaches to value communication with the athletes even more. Without having the ability to consistently know we were going to see athletes in person every two weeks, we used technology to help fill the gap, and improved athletes home environments. Athletes were able to explore their own back yards in ways that they had never done before, as they hadn’t needed to – from constructing home gyms in gardens, to doing technique sessions via video link, to finding new roads for rides close to home, we were able to make the situation overwhelmingly positive from a training perspective. As coaches, we were able to drive home the point that good training, good habits, and execution of the small things are what drive improvement, not just the larger, flashier events and camps. Athletes showed marked improvement across all areas of development, and once we were able to get on snow and compete, turned in career-best performances.”
You can follow Kieran on Twitter here.