Feature: Andrew Kirkland
This month, we speak to Huw Williams, a Level 3 Coach and cycling journalist, who’s doing a fantastic job in the South East. He’s been particularly successful in developing women’s cycling; delivering female-only group sessions, coaching riders one-to-one and working with female elite cycling teams.
Photo: Huw Wiliams with Isla Rush
Tell us a bit about yourself Huw. What do you do and why did you start coaching?
I worked as a journalist and photographer on the domestic and world cup MTB circuit for 10 years, between the early 1990s and 2000s. I worked closely with a lot of the teams, managers, coaches and athletes and was always very interested in the various training protocols. I raced on the road for a couple of years and found myself writing more and more training articles for various magazines, so the British Cycling coaching pathway was a way of gaining formal qualifications.
After completing my Level 2, I spent a year supporting Go-Ride programmes in local schools. Around the same time, the Level 3 award was launched, which provided a way into personal, one-to-one coaching for me. Since then, I've had a solid client base of riders at all levels from beginners to elite. I now also run open group sessions for racers and club riders, primarily at the new Cyclopark facility in Kent. On Wednesday evenings, we’re regularly getting upwards of 50 riders doing a pretty hardcore race training session.
This year, you’ve introduced over 100 novice women to cycle sport through coached sessions. How did you do it?
The women’s road races at London 2012 and world championships showed to the world how exciting and full of attacking intent women's racing is. It was very obvious that there was a growing number of women who wanted to give the sport a try. A lot of women wanted to start racing, but the usual experience of jumping in at the deep end and getting blown away because they were racing against higher category riders, often mixed in with men, meant that many weren’t returning to race again after their initial experience.
So the aim was to provide a series of women-only winter sessions, based largely on the coach-led racing sessions we do at Level 3 and the Regional Schools of Racing format of mock race scenarios. Take a group of between 20 to 30 novice and inexperienced riders on a closed circuit; introduce them to the key racing techniques of bunch riding, going round corners fast in a group etc. Then within a couple of hours, get them racing in short, realistic race scenarios, where they can experience what it’s like to race hard against other riders.
I also include a theory session in the classroom, using the principles of conditioning and components of fitness to give the riders the understanding of how to train for the demands of racing and cope with the repeated short bursts of high-intensity that occurs. By the end of the session, they will have an understanding of how to prepare for their first road race, in terms of the technical and tactical skills needed, as well as how to train properly for it, and be prepared for what’s going to happen when they line up and the gun goes.
Hopefully, this means the riders have a much more positive experience of their first race. A number of riders from the first two sessions at Cyclopark in Kent went on to race the winter series there and have great seasons, racing the Women’s Team Series, Tour Series, national series races and various Nocturnes.
When word of the initial sessions started to spread, requests for more started to come in from different regions of the country. I’ve done several more since and in total about 150 riders have completed the sessions so far. I stopped counting a long time ago on how many riders are now racing regularly.
Long term, I’d hope that many more similar programmes will be run in other regions by local Level 3 coaches and I’m helping advise others on the format and how to promote them.
You work with a number of directeur sportifs in women’s cycling teams. What exactly do you do in this role?
Following the women’s circuit round the country, I get to see all the riders in various race scenarios, on different courses etc, so have a good idea of their various strengths and weaknesses and also a good idea of how the sport is developing. And it’s developing fast.
There is a lot of progression going on in terms of new events and new teams, and 2014 is going to see some big changes. So I’ve been working with a couple of Directeur Sportifs to fit the right riders into the right teams and also work with the riders, advising them on how to approach teams and sponsors in a professional manner, rather than just cold calling or snatched conversations at the end of races.
There is a lot of television coverage planned for women’s racing in 2014 and the women’s Tour of Britain is a big driver behind a lot of what’s going on. Potential sponsors are looking at riders, not just in results terms, but also as ambassadors for their brands and role models for others entering the sport. We’re all working towards raising the bar in terms of how professional sport is perceived and how we present ourselves in order to attract a level of sponsorship that provides the riders with better conditions, financial reward and equipment year on year. A coach much wiser than me once said 'help develop your sport, not just your athlete'. I love that.
You were one of the first coaches to complete your Level 3 Certificate in Coaching Cycling. How has it benefitted your coaching?
Level 3 was entirely the reason I was able to take up coaching and has provided the pathway I’ve followed with all the riders I’ve worked with. It’s given me the confidence and knowledge to be able to provide and analyse effective, annual, personal training programmes for individuals as well as deliver group sessions to riders of all ages and abilities.
What did you subsequently learn from experience?
The extent to which modern, every-day living impacts on training programmes. You leave Level 3 with a perfectly structured plan of how to get a rider from where they are to where they want to be – everything is meticulously planned out in terms of training cycles and targeted events, then bang! Some completely ordinary, everyday event comes along - like an illness or a change of career or a bad result in a race - and the whole thing is in tatters and you have to completely re-work the plan, while keeping the rider positive and motivated. I had difficulties coming to terms with that in the early days of coaching, but now see it as exactly what makes coaching so much of an exciting challenge and determines your success as a coach – how well you can think on your feet and provide effective, progressive coaching programmes amidst the chaos and randomness of modern life, where things rarely go to plan.
You’re also involved in the School Games. Tell us a bit about the riders you work(ed) with and what you do with them as a coach?
Consummately the highlight of my time in coaching so far and I’d like to thank Iain Cook, John Scripps and Luke Anderson of British Cycling for the opportunity to coach the South East region team for the event in Sheffield 2013.
Basically, it’s a mini Olympics where each region sends their best eight youth riders (four boys, four girls) to a multi-sport event held over three days and five stages. You pick the riders up at dawn on Thursday morning and drop them back at nearly midnight on a Sunday and in between you are entirely responsible for them. It’s a full-on team experience designed to give the riders, the coaches and the team manager the chance to witness what it’s like to be part of a multi-sport event at the highest level.
Everything is encountered, from thousands of cheering spectators at the opening and closing ceremonies, to the distractions of 1,300 other (sometimes rowdy) competitors on the college campus where we were accommodated, and being called for anti-doping procedures late at night when all you want to do is eat dinner and get to bed after a hard day’s racing.
Somehow, amidst all of this, you have to get the eight riders in place before each event, prepared mentally and physically to perform at their best in the face of crippling fatigue (the games come at the end of the season after a particularly hard block of racing). It is four days in a cauldron and this is exactly what it is designed to be; giving riders and support crews alike the experience of what it’s like to deliver best possible performance in the face of seemingly impossible logistical challenges.
At the games, it’s all about trying to ensure the riders follow best practice at all times and keep them working as a team, not just in the races but during the warm-up protocols, at dinner, during transport…. everything. It’s one of those life affirming events that when you’re doing it, you’re in a state of permanent alertness and constant fatigue, but you look back and realise you loved every minute of it. The riders all behaved like seasoned pros and performed out of their skin, and we were very proud of them all.
Huw’s top three tips for other coaches:
1. Never stop learning – there’s constant progression in sporting performance due to better coaching, better understanding of nutritional, physiological and psychological requirements and better technology all raising the bar. And pretty much all of it is publically available knowledge if you know where to look.
2. Continually self assess your own performance and feelings – If you’re leaving an individual or group session completely on a high, motivated and inspired, you’ve probably just delivered a great session.
3. Don’t put a cap on performance – whether it’s a target time for a time-trial, a particular ranking in a race series or a power output your rider is trying to achieve, if you put a theoretical ceiling on it chances are you’ll stay below that ceiling. There’s ALWAYS room for improvement by doing things better.
For more information about British Cycling's coaching qualifications, please visit www.britishcycling.org.uk/coaching.