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  • Sean Tait

Silverware and Seventh Heaven!

In this blog I shall try to share a unique perspective into a weekend that saw three fantastic performances from three of our young stars. I will be sharing some insight into the day itself, from my perspective. Why am I there? What difference am I looking to make? Surely I have my own life to live on weekends? Surely I could have said everything to them that week in training?

Let’s just backtrack a little to bring everyone up to speed. This weekend saw twins Kiara and Abigail Bester compete in the marquee events of the 800m and 1500m respectively. Over the last 3.5 years, since beginning work with them, we have been on a journey to firstly find their events, and then climb the ladder to the top. It took three years to get here, three years to get to a place where they realistically had a shot at a medal at National champs. Both girls placed 7th in their respective events, which is incredible when you think that they are the 7th best in the entire country at such a popular event, but we are not getting our heads lost in the clouds...we now know that we really are on the cusp of those national medals.

Our third athlete in action was Demi Katz. Demi is a natural jumper! She has previously placed 10th at Nationals for Long Jump, but this year she narrowly missed out on qualification for long jump, but decided to have a ‘go’ at the triple jump and miraculously ended up having a blinder and qualifying for SAs. I work with Demi exclusively on her speed, running technique and explosive power, but Demi has another coach that works with her on the specifics of her routine on her approach to the pit. Demi is a good sprinter, but she is an exceptionally gifted jumper. I’ve been working with Demi over the last few years, and my approach has always been multidisciplinary – To improve all the fundamental pieces of the puzzle, but not necessarily be the one to build them all together in the end. Demi pulled out another inspirational performance this weekend to earn herself 2nd place and come away with a silver medal, which was absolutely unprecedented, but that just goes to show that the championship title is very much up for grabs in future years.

Now that you have that background, let’s get back to the ‘on the day’ stuff. A middle distance track event and a triple jump could not be more different events. The triple jump is a ‘closed skill’ – A term given to an action where the environment can be somewhat controlled or predictable...Such as a golf swing, free kick in soccer, gymnastics routine etc. Track events on the other hand are subject to many moving parts, which move unpredictably, and quickly too. The triple jump also consists of six individual jumps, between which coaching is possible. The middle distance events are completely in the hands of the athlete from beginning to end, with no opportunity for coaching, or second chances...for anyone!

The common ground found between these events is that there are three very specific young girls taking part that I know well and have worked with for many years. My first and most important reason for showing my face is to support them as a person first, and then as a coach supporting their athlete. Although some tips and strategy, and other coaching-type stuff can be said, you are not going to make them a more skilled athlete that day. That has been done to the best of your ability already. They know how to run. They know how to jump. All you are trying to do is remove all the white noise around them and ensure that they are able to do themselves justice on the day – This is more about addressing and attending to their mental state than anything else.

Demi’s head was a bit all over the place. A few weeks back she had never done triple jump before, now she was jumping against the best in the country. It’s easy to freak out and be overcome by the situation. I knew that before Demi was going to do anything great that day she had to get a decent, but legal, jump in and get herself on the board. We pulled her margins right in, and went very safe, and she pulled out a 10.19m jump. This was a good jump, but nowhere near a medal...but that’s fine, that first jump was everything that she needed. Now the competition began. I told Demi that she had 5 jumps, and to go for broke on all of them. I knew that if she nailed just one of them that we were in business...medal business.

For the twins things were very different. Firstly they are both usually very relaxed on race day – As relaxed as can be at a National Championships – And they both usually deal well with nerves. The big issue was always going to be switching back from the ‘hunted’ mentality back into the ‘hunter’ again. In all their build up races they’d been winning and had comfortably proven themselves to be the best in the Western Cape at their disciplines, but this day would prove to be a different challenge. On paper they were not the fastest athletes. It puts them in a different mindset. I spent a lot of time before the race chatting the girls through the first 200m, emphasising how important track position was. Yet in the race this was their Achilles heel and both girls got boxed in and had to check their stride several times in this phase of their respective races. It’s not that they didn’t listen, it’s simply that they don’t normally have to compete for track position with athletes as fast as, or faster than, them.

As Demi was preparing for her second jump, I told her to go sit down in the shade and envision herself performing the perfect jump in her head. And if it wasn’t perfect in her head, to envision it again...until she does a perfect jump in her head and clears 11m. I honestly felt like the jump would have to be jumps 2, 3 or 4, as I knew that Demi was likely going to tire on the 5th and 6th. As Demi ran in for her second jump I saw her land nearly a full ruler’s length behind the board. In that split second I thought “Well it’s not going to be this one”, but as I panned my head across I saw her land pretty flush in line with the 11m marker. She jumped a 10.96! This put her into provisional 2nd place. In the space of two jumps we had turned a negative and unconfident environment to one where she felt she very much belonged.

I spent much time before the race running Abi and Kiara through multiple potential circumstances. If this or that happens, and what to do. There is a very fine line between information overload and neglect. The truth is that I didn’t know exactly how it would play out, or where the moving parts would be. Not normally, but certainly not in a year following a pandemic. All their competitors were new to the girls and when you put 10-12 of the best athletes in the country together in a once-off final it’s literally impossible to predict the entire race. So they needed to be confident in their own ability to perform and adapt accordingly. Everyone wants to be in a perfect track position leading into the first corner, but only one or two really can be. For this reason building up their confidence in the moments leading into the race is always going to be a better option than a long list of complicated instructions.

The adjustments that Demi made to her remaining attempts lead to her getting slightly closer to the board, but she never eclipsed the distance of her second jump. Perhaps a combination of fatigue on a warm day and perhaps a bit of contempt with already being in a medal position could have lead to that result, but this certainly wasn’t the time to be critical. We had turned a potentially soul destroying situation into euphoric triumph and there is still so much more to come from her.

Abi and Kiara spent the rest of their respective races trying to recover from being boxed in and held up early on, but it’s very difficult to make up that distance when things finally do start stretching out. The reality is that the girls that they are competing against are all champions in their respective provinces, and if you get distance from them, you probably aren’t coming back. This will be a huge lesson for them both going forward – In a few minutes they are reminded that although they are the hunted in their own province, they are still the hunter in this national field. This will mentally prepare them for their next shot at nationals where they will get their next chance to right any wrongs. For now, it’s hard not to be really satisfied with their continuous progress as they continue to climb that ladder.

So that begs the question...why do I drive down to Paarl on a Saturday afternoon when I have a wife and a two-week old baby that need me at home? It’s Simple! Everything you have been working for in the past few years with these girls rest on this annual moment. With the Covid restrictions denying parents access, the girls were basically left alone inside the venue to fend for themselves. It is a scenario that can lead to external factors negatively influencing performances. My goal is to go there and make things as simple as possible for them, whether it’s carrying their bags, managing their warm up and the timing of when we begin it, and make sure that they aren’t sitting dehydrating in the sun before their race if they need not be. Then finally there’s that mental side – Just being able to remove the white noise around them, that gets louder as the event gets nearer. You’re supporting them as people, not just as your athlete! You’ve spent years leading up to this moment, why wouldn’t you want to do everything you possibly can do in your power to see that they actually do themselves justice on the day!

A proud coach


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