Wednesday, 13 February 2013

mind over matter: a guest-post by Craig Pickering...

Recently, British sprinter Craig Pickering caused a bit of a stir in the UK by turning out for the British Bobsleigh team - and, after starting the sport only 3 weeks previous - actually competing at the 2013 World Championships in St Moritz, Switzerland.  With personal bests on the track of 6.55 over 60m and 10.14 over 100m, Craig has officially become the fastest sprinter currently on the bobsleigh circuit (though he’s not the quickest ever: Canadian 4x100m Olympic and World Champion sprinter Glenroy Gilbert, who had a 100m PB of 10.10, competed at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games;  American sprinter and NFL player Willie Gault, who also had a 100m PB of 10.10, competed on the US Bobsled team with current US Head Coach Brian Shimer at the 1988 Olympic Games in Nagano; and American sprinter Jeff Laynes, who has a 60m PB of 6.54 and 100m PB of 10.01 competed for the American bobsled team in the 2001-02 season, but never made a World Championship or Olympic Team...many other sprinters have tried the sport out, but to my knowledge, these are the four fastest to ever compete on the World Cup circuit).

I’ve been bugging Craig to write a blog for me for a while now, and I’m glad to say that he’s finally gotten around to doing it!  Currently trying to train at the Olympic bob track in Sochi, Russia (I say ‘trying’ because the track has had a whole host of problems, and training has been delayed repeatedly - at least for all the countries that are not named ‘Russia’!), Craig is just finishing up on his first season as a bobsledder.  

As many of you know, I first started this blog as a bit of an exploration of what defines success in high-performance sport - both from an athlete’s and a coach’s standpoint.  What are the requirements?  What are the commonalities?  What are the differences?  Craig has had some tremendous successes in his career, including bronze at the 2003 World Junior Championships, and bronze in the 4x100m relay at the 2007 World Championships (and 10th in the 100m).  He’s been one of the top sprinters in Europe for close to a decade, so if anyone can speak on success, I believe Craig can.  

Today, through the narrative of transitioning from sprinting to bobsledding, Craig underlines some of the keys to what has led to his triumphs over the years:

Five weeks ago, I stood on the start block of the bobsleigh track in Königssee, high atop a beautiful lake in Bavaria near the Germany-Austria border. I had never pushed a bobsleigh before - not on ice anyway.  I had never been down a bobsleigh track in my life. I had sat in a real bobsleigh once - 30 minutes prior - to make sure I could fit in properly. And here I was, about to push the bob like my life depended on it, jump in, and experience one minute of ???who knows???

It had been a very quick journey to this point. In October 2012 I was informed by UK Athletics that I would not be retained on the funding programme for 2013; partly because I had missed the whole of the 2012 season through injury (I had surgery on one of my lumbar discs). After getting this news, I spoke to Gary Anderson - the Performance Director from British Bobsleigh - about the possibility of trying something new, and he seemed keen. In November I went to do some initial testing, and scored pretty high, and then, in the mid-season squad testing, I actually finished first in all the push tests. 

Off the back of this, I was invited out as part of the team to gain some experience. 

So there I stood - on that block in Königssee. And I felt very, very underprepared. A large part of me didn’t want to do it. But I forced myself to commit to the hit (the initial part of the push to get the sled moving), jumped in, and took the journey down. I did the same an hour later. And the next day. And then again in consecutive weeks. Even now - here in Sochi, Russia (site of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games) - standing on that block, I don’t really want to get into the sled; but I do...  

My family are always asking if I am scared of crashing. I’ve yet to experience one, but I’m obviously apprehensive about what its going to be like.  I don’t think of that on the block., as it’s not something I am in control of.  Bobsleigh can be divided into two parts – part one is the hit and the acceleration of the sled. That’s my bit, and it’s the part that I can control. All of my energy (physical and mental) goes into that 50m section, and I have to perform at my best each time. Once I’m in the bob, my job is pretty much done. I just have to keep my head down and stay as still as possible. Everything that happens after this point is out of my control. I cannot affect it, so I don’t think about it. If we crash, there is not much that I can do to stop it.  I will just have to react to it in the moment that it happens.  Control what I can...don’t stress over what I can’t. 

And that’s what I think gives me an edge over many athletes, and what has allowed me to perform at a high level. There are many out there more physically able than me, but cannot apply themselves like I can.  Many are affected by the unique pressures of competition, when time and again the Major Championships are where I perform at my best. I love the pressure - in fact, I need that pressure to perform optimally. I crave the feeling where every fibre in my body is telling me to bolt - to run away and hide; that feeling when I don’t know if my legs are going to work properly - when the little voice in my head is going “can you really do this?”  Coaches like Stu who have seen me train can tell you that my performance in training is terrible – I look a shadow of my competitive self (I can attest to fact, I could probably dust him over 30m in training - SM). But once I’m at that competition, I am a whole different person.

They say that one’s greatest strength is often one’s greatest weakness, and I feel this definitely applies to me: I want to understand as much about my body and my sport as possible. I’m forever researching nutrition, psychology, physiology, training theory -  anything that I feel will give me an edge and improve my performance. The biggest breakthrough I have had this past year is understanding my body. For example, one of the main hangovers from my long term back problem is that I still get some nerve pain down my leg. Through trial and error (and much research), I’ve learnt the key spots that I have to self-treat in order to manage this pain. One of the great things about spending six-weeks on the bobsleigh circuit is that it’s forced me to learn the sport. It’s been a six-week cram session. 

I understand more what the required physical attributes are, and now I can go and work on improving them. 

My aim is to win another Olympic medal, and the 4-man GB team have a pretty reasonable chance of being in the mix in Sochi next February (they currently sit in 5th place in the World Cup standings - SM). Right now, I’m not good enough to be part of that team. But I can promise you - I wont leave a stone unturned over the next 8 months in my quest to be there.


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