Renowned international Paralympic coach Clive Milkins, who most notably trained Sophie Christiansen to six Paralympic titles, currently works with Equestrian Canada as technical advisor for their para dressage high performance programme.
During the lockdown, I have realised that many para athletes seem to have been able to cope better with the pandemic than some of their able-bodied counterparts. Having overcome so much, para riders are tough and very good at putting things in perspective. And they’re determined not to be beaten by something like coronavirus.
Talking to my para friends in the UK and across the world, I’ve noticed that most of them have a very similar attitude – leaving the health services to do their job, staying safe and keeping out of the way, while getting on with something else.
Para riders are much more accustomed to their lives being disrupted, whether that’s by illness or injury, and in typical fashion most of them have redirected their energy into other projects during this time.
It’s those who can adapt who will thrive this year, and I don’t know a para rider who can’t adapt. We always say that para riders don’t have problems – they have challenges, and because their bodies don’t function as they should, they have to learn to be much more analytical than other riders, and find different ways around these challenges.
This pandemic is just another challenge we have to face, and while to us sport is the most important thing on earth, in the real world it isn’t. I think para riders have been quicker than most to come to terms with the idea of pressing the pause button for six months or so, and using this time wisely.
Swapping the years
Personally, I have been spending my time over the past few months learning how to do webinars, writing stacks of articles, doing lots of gardening – and rescuing a puppy.
I have also tried to think about what I would have been doing in 2021, after the Paralympics in Tokyo were over, and the answer is that I would have been starting to plan for the 2024 Games. So, I decided to turn 2020 into 2021 and vice versa and get on with all that planning this year – doing a straight flip of the years strikes me as not being a big drama.
I can get quite obsessed with statistics – maybe it comes from my time training Sophie Christiansen, who is a statistician. But I’ve taken the time to sit down with all the results and scores from the past four years, and track everything from individuals’ strengths and weaknesses to gap analysis – looking at what separates us from our rivals.
As much as I love the artistic element of dressage there are a lot of hard facts and stats involved in our sport – it’s a bit like maths in that freak occurrences are relatively rare.
As Canada’s technical advisor, I’ve looked at every Canadian rider’s test sheet from the past five internationals, working out their averages and looking at how we can change up various management aspects, from veterinary areas to physiotherapy or specific riding skills.
In fact, now we have all had to learn to use new online communication platforms, like Zoom, even though I am in the UK I have had more contact with the Canadian athletes than I would have done ordinarily, and I have been able to spend more time with them in a non-pressurised situation, which has helped us all understand one another better.
I’ll be a better coach
Lockdown has actually been a very valuable experience for me. I know I will go into Tokyo in 2021 stronger as a coach having had these months of being able really to assess what is important, what works well and what my goals are.
As a trainer, I think in terms of using every Paralympics as a rehearsal for the next. With Sophie Christiansen, we went to Athens in 2004 somewhat naively, and she won a bronze medal. By Hong Kong in 2008 we knew we could win medals, and we were already looking ahead to London 2012. So for me, Tokyo is a rehearsal for Paris in 2024, a way to see if my system is working.
Ultimately sport is about the journey, the quest, and that never stops.
H&H, 13 August 2020
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