Team Feature: The British Gymnastics Revolution
Posted: Mar 03 2015
With the US men's national team arriving in Great Britain over the weekend for a week long training camp and duel meet, I thought it would be a great time to try and answer an ongoing question I get asked living here in the US; "how did Great Britain get so good?". Answering this question is like explaining why the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800's occurred on the same shores - a multi-faceted and complex answer, but I've always been up for a challenge. I will combine the thoughts and input from several conversations I've had over the years with current and past British national team members and coaches, mixing in my own experiences and insights to explain how Great Britain rose from a low of 23rd in the world in 2003, to a team bronze medal at the Olympic Games only nine years later.
Back in October I travelled home to check in with my former British teammate and current junior national team coach Barry Collie at Lilleshall National Sports Centre during an U12-U14 national camp. The upswing in level is not just a short term wave caused by Great Britain hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, although undoubtedly a key ingredient, the meteoric rise was caused by key under lying factors that I will break down in further detail. What was obvious on my visit is that the depth and level of the younger generations will not be settling for third place and will be pushing the likes of Japan and China for team gold for many years to come.
Must Be System
After the disastrous results at the World Championships in 2003 it was obvious that major changes were required. The slate was somewhat wiped clean with a serious loss of funding coming having not qualified anyone for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Andre Popov, a youthful and successful former Soviet gymnast who had proven his coaching credentials at Nottingham with a young boy's team was handed the reigns to the senior national team under newly appointed technical director, Eddie Van Hoof (coach of the British Olympic team in 1992). Andre was backed up by assistant coaches, Sergei Sizhanov, Alexander Shiryev, and Paul Hall who rounded out a new coaching team and importantly uniting the country under a Soviet school of gymnastics. Gone were the days of an eclectic mix of ideas and backgrounds, instead a strict "system" of training and learning was put in place. This Soviet system was taught and integrated nationwide via training camps, coaching clinics, and by the appointment of the junior programs director, Barry Collie, who visited clubs year round to ensure the correct methodology and technique was being used. The impact this had was that national camp became focused on improvement and learning instead of fixing and correcting.
A Community Of Learning
Over the preceding years a pool of highly talented, motivated, yet perhaps underachieving gymnasts became coaches. This group had a huge thirst for knowledge and learned from the national coaching staff, and with youth and vitality on their side, took the Soviet system to the next level. This young pool of British born coaches includes the likes of Barry Collie (former World Championships team member) who has already led the British to 4 Junior European Championship titles, Lee Woolls, initial coach of Kristian Thomas and currently a wave of talented teenagers destined for great things, Pete Etherington who with his first gymnast produced a Junior Olympic Champion in Giarnni Regini-Moran, and Scott Hann, who is most renowned for coaching one of Britain's most successful gymnasts of all time; Max Whitlock.
The learning community that was growing in Britain had real time examples of the techniques being touted by the Soviet coaches. In 1999, two young Ukrainian gymnasts at the ages of 15 and 16 moved to the UK with their coach Alex Shiryev. Yevgeni Gryschenko and Ruslan Pantelymanov were regarded amongst the top junior gymnasts in Ukraine at the time, possessing technical excellence and a skill level well above British gymnasts of their age. Great Britain had had various Soviet coaches in the past all claiming to have coaches gymnast greats, however this was the first time that a coach had real time examples of his techniques and principles. Watching them reinforced "the system" that was being tought and made the techniques and teachings of the new national coaches easier to comprehend and understand. Yevgeni and Ruslan fully integrated in to British society, and when training alongside them had the effect of making elite gymnastics less daunting. They shattered the glass ceiling that clouded British gymnastics; if they could do it, then we could too was the psychological impact on gymnasts. After 8 years struggling with the Ukrainian federation who wouldn't select them for their team, but at the same time wouldn't release them, they gained British citizenship, with Ruslan going on to become a European team champion with the British team in 2012.
The Olympic Bump
Moderate success at the junior level did not always translate in to direct success at the senior level. Britain was not short on talent or success at the junior level, what it was short on was the ability to keep gymnasts in the sport, turning juniors in to seniors and continuing a highly competitive platform that pushed gymnasts to the limits. I first made the junior national team as an eager 12 year old, yet within 8 years the squad of 12 in my age group had been whittled down to just 2 senior gymnasts. As an example of how thin we had become at the senior level, two injuries occurred prior to the "Disaster of Anaheim" and we were forced to field 4-up 4-count on our first event pommel horse. In 2005 though the huge announcement was made that London would host the Olympic Games in 2012. The impact the Games has on men's gymnastics is easily measured looking at just the last few Games:
- Sydney 2000: Australia went from obscurity to produce it's first World Champion (Phillip Rizzo on high bar)
- Athens 2004: Greece also had a huge upsurge in success prior to hosting, with Ioannis Melissanidis winning his countries first Olympic medal since 1906, then Dimosthenis Tampakos following it up in Athens winning (although some claim gifted) gold on rings.
- Beijing 2008: Despite China already being powerhouses, China absolutely dominated, taking all but one gold medal available in men's gymnastics!
Extra funding is one thing, but money can be easily misspent. The biggest effect the Olympics had on British Gymnastics was giving junior gymnasts a clear goal - the most exciting goal an athlete could have - the opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd at the Olympic Games. By the time it came to choose the team, the likes of Sam Hunter (2010 national champion), Ruslan Pantelymanov (2012 European vault finalist) and a recently fit again Dan Keatings (2008 Olympian) missed out.
In 2004, the week after NCAA finals, I travelled to Slovenia to meet up with the team for the European Championships. The team was buzzing with talk of one of our junior boys who they thought would win the junior pommel horse title. This was the firs time I met Louis Smith, a quiet 16 year with cornrows and nerves of steel. To my amazement Louis won gold against gymnasts two years older than himself. I was fortunate to room with Louis on his first senior competition at the Stuttgart Grand Prix, most people would be nervous following pommel horse legend Marius Urzica, but not Louis. I was shocked, this was the first time I'd ever had a teammate that wasn't phased in the slightest by the intensity of competition, and in fact thrived on it. Louis hit his routine, of course, and took home a silver medal. Louis went on to become Britain's most successful gymnast to date (although Max Whitlock could now claim that title). Louis' talent and ethic of hard work was matched by a personality of the same grandeur. Tattoos, cutting edge hair styles, and bags of confidence, Louis gave the new system a face. Louis created a path that those around him could follow, showing success is possible to those that believe and work hard.
My final point that wraps up my thoughts, is that size matters. Great Britain is the size of the state of Oregon, with the population of California and Texas squeezed in to it. This made it much easier to unify a country around the Soviet system than would be possible here in the US. It allows national team members and coaches to come together every week at the national center to solidify the community of learning and ensuring everyone is working to the same beat of the drum, yet importantly allowing for a good "work-life" balance, which psychologically is so important.
It is not possible to replicate what happened in Great Britain over the last decade obviously, but what is possible is to learn and integrate some of the ideas that have developed there. Here are some of my observations and points I learned in the latter part of my career:
- Gymnasts are only as good as their coaches. Natural talent will only take a gymnast so far, it is the coaches job to maximize every gymnasts talent. It is the coaches role to be on a relentless pursuit of knowledge, no matter how many Olympic gold medals have been won, gymnastics is forever evolving. With the likes of youtube there is no excuse to keep abreast of the latest trends and techniques and when the opportunity presents itself to discuss, debate, and argue technique with your peers, try new drills, learn new methods, and ask judges questions.
- Create an efficient system structure to every training session. It may not be possible to create a national system, but start with your gym and your team. Be punctual, be systematic, be clear, and importantly be enthusiastic. Collie has a knack of perfectly intertwining fun and hard work. The boy's seem to be enjoying training too much to even realize how tired they are. He is always pushing and challenging them for greater things, creating mini-competitions and challenges and giving them confidence that anything is possible, with an abundance of enthusiasm that was missing from national training for so many years.
- Patience. This is not women's gymnastics! Two things my coach Alex Shiryev drilled in to me is "must be system" (in his Ukrainian accent) and that a men's gymnastics coach must exercise a lot of patience. We would follow the same strength plan, do the same warm up, practice the same structure of training every day, every week, gradually adapting it weeks prior to competition. We knew what to expect and could over time easily measure progression. How do you get better at something? You keep doing it. Every day. It is a coaches job to continually reinforce the correct technique, without overloading a gymnast with an avalanche of corrections.
- Stop telling gymnasts what they are doing wrong, start telling them how to do it correctly. This is a subtle change, but it will lead to a more efficient method of learning. Don't tell a gymnast that their handstand is arched and their head is stuck out, give them drills and physically correct them EVERY TIME.
With the Olympics only a year away, Brazil has already seen the benefits of the "Olympic Bump", but Great Britain will be looking to replicate the form of 2012 and medal once again as a team in Rio. It won't be easy and they can't rely on the U.S. team not performing to their potential again, that is why this weeks competition will be an interesting duel ahead of this year's World Championships in Glasgow, the first Olympic qualification stage. What is sure is that Great Britain are going to be a world power in men's gymnastics for many years to come.
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Dave Eaton, founder of Turn Gymnastics Apparel, was born and raised in Great Britain. Having gone through the junior national team age groups, Eaton accepted a scholarship to Cal in 2001. Returning after his Freshman year, Eaton became the British AA Champion and went on to compete for Great Britain at two World Championships, before retiring after the European Championships in 2007. Eaton now resides in California.