Working Out with Coach Mitch

HARARE - The first recorded Olympic Games was in 776BC and ever since Olympians have resided at the tip of the sporting iceberg and they are quite simply the best at what they do.

They represent the pinnacle of human ability when it comes to sport and they are exceedingly good at it. If Team Mars took on Team Earth today, we would front up with our Olympians, Judokas and weightlifters to the front of the trenches with Lord Seb Coe as the strategist!

To understand the pressures associated with being an Olympian, you have to understand the magnitude of the occasion. The London 2012 Summer Olympic Games had an estimated global audience of 4 billion people all eagerly anticipating and expecting the unveiling of new talent, new champions, new contests, new records and new experiences.

To the viewer and the fan, this is exciting but to the athletes involved there are pressures and expectations beyond what the majority of the viewership can appreciate, let alone understand. Being the best at what you do for your country, whether in a team sport or as an individual, comes with a national responsibility and with that comes pressure and expectation from the nation and fellow competitors.

The athletes are expected to perform, and the spectator is only interested in the brief moment surrounding their performance. We are rarely privileged to see how they operate and prepare behind the scenes, what they do in the gym, their programming, their diets, recovery systems, social life adjustments, travel itineraries, injury setbacks and skill based training sessions. The journey for an Olympian is not a month long process but more often than not a four year process of dedication, sacrifice and consistent application to a programme designed to meet their objectives. There will always be wins and losses along the way, injury setbacks and failures in the plan but the drive to be at their best every four years is motivating enough to people who are driven to compete and succeed against the best at the highest level. They are true warriors.

Once I understood and appreciated this level of dedication to succeed I was comfortable to work with an Olympian. As a strength and conditioning coach with a rugby specific background, it was a challenge to learn the intricacies of a new sport, particularly one that was performed on water and you spent all day going backwards! Rowing was my new investment. Working with Zimbabwe's number one ranked female heavyweight single sculler Micheen Thornycroft brought about an opportunity to invest existing knowledge into a new sport as well as a way to extract new knowledge from the skills and conditioning demands of rowing that could essentially be transferred to other sports. The sports industry through skill and technical know how, and the health and fitness industry through conditioning, programming and science are forever changing to improve the outcome, but, the foundations for development and progressions are the same. This meant I could successfully transfer my knowledge into rowing and create programmes that became specific to Micheen's needs.

The first strategic objective was to assess her current state of physical readiness through a basic battery of tests and Functional Movement Screens. The results highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in her physical capacity and movement pattern disabilities, and it was from this that we were able to create appropriate programs in which she could be monitored and progressed accordingly. The plan was in motion and her four year cycle to Rio 2016 had begun.

Periodisation is paramount to long term planning as it provides the coaching staff and the athlete with an overview of the “big picture”, and from it we are able to extract the detail that allows for strategic gains. Having no plan certainly contributes to the failure of meeting the objectives, something which became a non-negotiable at the onset of this journey.

Two years down the line and we have had some successes and some failures but this is all par for the course. What is important is that Micheen and her immediate support structures continue to find ways to remain on course. After all, moving that boat backwards fast is the highest priority!

*Ex-Zimbabwe rugby international Grant Mitchell is High Performance Director at Innovate High Performance Centre in Harare and a top strength and conditioning coach. Twitter: @InnovateHPC, website:

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