Unique coaching lessons of 2020 for Adam

15 Sep 2020

There is more than one reason why the fitting theme for this year's UK Coaching Week is 'Support Your Coach'.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of the country, with sports coaches playing an important part in supporting communities across the country to stay active throughout a time of varying lockdown restrictions. 

But now is not only a time for thanking coaches for the way they have helped athletes of all levels and ages - it is also about making sure that every person involved in sport, in all roles, feels supported themselves. 

For British Diving coach Adam Smallwood, a symbiotic environment across the City of Leeds team has been crucial to ensuring a successful return to training and making sure everyone got back to poolside and the dry dive in the best possible condition, in body and mind.

And in unique and difficult circumstances, Adam says athletes, coaches and support staff alike have also been able to get to know the people they work so closely with even better. 

"In terms of the athletes, each of them handled the situation of this year quite differently, and it affected each of them in different ways. I saw changes," he explains.

"You see a different side to people. Once you take away the main part of their life, then I feel you get to understand them a little bit more. 

"Jack Laugher, for example, has been diving for years and years and years, he has been on the circuit for so long - and this year is the first in a very long time where that's not been there anymore. So you take away the main aspect of diving from him and you get to see a different side to him.

Adam Smallwood with Jack Laugher and Dan Goodfellow
Adam Smallwood (centre) with Jack Laugher and Dan Goodfellow

"For some, sometimes it can leave them quite vulnerable as well, because you haven't got the one thing that you are really good at, that is not there. It's just you, and you're in the same boat as everybody else.

"When it comes to communication and looking after everyone, we were doing daily sessions over Zoom, so there was a lot of time to catch up and make sure that everyone was all right. For the coaches, myself and Marc Holdsworth work quite closely together, and there were always opportunities for me and him to have a discussion, check in with each other and make sure we're all right as well.

"As for the support staff we've been working with, a lot of them have been working with us for quite a few years now. We've got good relationships, to the point where we know each other pretty well - we've travelled with each other a lot, you get to know people through that.

"So throughout lockdown, in terms of support staff, we probably had more contact than usual, just because it has given us a little bit more time. It has given everyone a little more time, you don't feel rushed. 

"There were some staff members that I found I was having daily conversations with, over the phone, just ringing up and basically catching up with them. It's someone to talk to, different people. For me, it's been massively important to have that." 

Part of Adam's role, of course, is helping the likes of Jack Laugher and Dan Goodfellow to master the incredibly technical details of their discipline, as well as developing innovative ways for the athletes to learn and stay in elite condition. 

This was another area that required a quick rethink when lockdown was announced back in March. 

"No-one really prepares you for that. It was just a case of adapting to the new situation," adds Smallwood.

"The easier part of it at the start was we didn't really know how long this was going to last. I think we initially thought it was going to be three weeks out of training, so it was a case of 'how can we make the most of the next three weeks?'

"So we did a lot of Zoom sessions and just took it one day at a time, which didn't feel too bad at the start. I think it was when we got past the three-week mark and we knew it wasn't just going to be that, when you hear that competitions are being cancelled and so on, that's when we knew we were going to have to completely re-look at everything we are doing here.

"We sat down with all the support staff and adapted the training programme the best we could. While they were at home, we managed to get the athletes some equipment from the pool, so that allowed us to do some of the things we would normally do.

"But then other than that, and especially towards the back end of the lockdown situation, it was about keeping yourself sane."

The re-think did not just bring challenges. For Adam – British Swimming’s 2019 Diving Coach of the Year – it also provided opportunities for him as a coach and time for him as a person to appreciate some of the more important things in life.

Adam Smallwood Diving Coach of the Year 2019
Adam was named Diving Coach of the Year at the British Swimming Awards in 2019

"Personally, I found some parts of it all difficult, but I really enjoyed some parts of it too. I like the personal aspect of coaching, and that's completely gone when you're in lockdown and you've got to do it through a computer screen. I found that quite challenging, and I think a lot of the divers found it difficult as well, especially towards the end.

"I just want to go face-to-face and have a conversation with someone, when you're not able to do that. 

"Having said that, I think a lot of the athletes, and certainly I know myself, found it a good time to appreciate what you have at home. We obviously spend a lot of the year travelling and we're away from family, whereas this has allowed us to have a good amount of time at home and appreciate what we have on our own doorstep, which is what I found and have enjoyed."

With Britain's elite divers now back into the swing of things after the lengthy lockdown lay-off and a short summer break, attentions are very much turning to the 2021 season and building up to a second go at the Tokyo Olympic year.

The same can be said for coaches like Adam, who is relishing being back poolside with a newfound fervour and admits that seeing other facilities remain closed "makes us realise how grateful we have to be for the fact that we are actually in our pool, because that's not the case for a lot of people around the country."

In that context, Adam's excitement, for now at least, is less down to what lies ahead and more about the simple joy of being reunited with a sport and a role he loves so much.

"At the moment, since we've come back, I've not enjoyed my coaching this much in a very long time. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it before - but because I've not been able to do it and have that contact with the athletes, I'm really enjoying it now," adds Smallwood.

"I always see coaching as a bit of an art form, and I haven't been able to do that art form for so long now that, coming back in, I've just really loved doing it.

Adam Smallwood Jack Laugher Dan Goodfellow 2019 World Champs

"In terms of the end goals and the plans, they are not set in stone because anything can change. Things could change next week, who knows. So it's not just playing it by ear, but just enjoying the fact that we are diving at the moment, rather than feeling like we are under pressure to get ready for something. 

"The raw aspect of just doing the sport, since we have been back, has been there a little bit more - and that's been really enjoyable."

To find out more about UK Coaching Week 2020 - including how you can make your own #GreatCoachingPledge - visit the campaign website HERE.