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Karl Cooke, alumnus, preparing athletes for Rio 2016

LSBU alumnus Karl Cooke is using the skills he learned during his PhD to prepare Britain's best swimmers for the challenges of 2016's biggest sporting event

The Rio 2016 Olympics will begin on Friday 5 August, and among the many athletes and coaches enthusiastically training for the Games is Karl Cooke. Karl completed his PhD in applied physiology at LSBU’s Sports and Exercise Science Research Centre (SESRC), and is using the skills he acquired to propel his team of British swimmers to success.

Focus: Rio 2016

As Head of Sport Science and Sport Medicine for British Swimming, Karl is responsible for ensuring our swimmers are at peak performance for the Games. He and his team – 16 practitioners and around 30 coaches nationwide – have been working hard for three years, and aim to alter Britain’s Olympic swimming fortunes.

“We’ve got some real stars on the team,” Karl says, “and we’re coming off the back of our best ever performance in the World Championships. So we’re in a strong position to perform well.

“The relay teams are looking strong too. What’s great is that the team is so young. A lot of them should still be with us for Tokyo in 2020. That’s a really exciting prospect.”

Karl came to swimming from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), where he had worked with the likes of Andy Murray and Dan Evans. After the relatively disappointing results of London 2012, Karl is part of an influx of fresh expertise, using past shortcomings to formulate new, refined approaches.

A lot of effort was put into understanding what happened in London. Those lessons have provided the basis for what we’ve been doing ever since.

Karl Cooke

Learning to build resilience

By analysing past performances, it was found that a key factor was the sheer intensity of the Games. Athletes regularly feel unprepared for the elevated levels of scrutiny they experience, and extraordinarily pressured to meet the expectations of the home crowd. As a result, Karl has focused on building resilience among his athletes and coaches.

“Pressure affects everyone, including members of the support team,” comments Karl. He notes that, since London 2012, there has been greater emphasis on how the nuances of coaching can impact performance.

Theorisation is not enough by itself, though, and Karl stresses the importance of teaching findings in a personalised, understandable way. “When we analyse our athletes, one of the things we look at is their learning style. Some respond to pages of tables and charts, while for others, it might work better to use images or video instead.”

A process for meeting potential

At this elite level, performance improvements are usually incremental – but Karl seeks to make sure that all of his team swim to the very best of their ability.

The process begins by identifying an athlete’s target, or the time a swimmer needs to complete a particular race to win a medal: “We establish that by looking at historical data from previous Games and other events, and also at how the world’s top 10 or 12 swimmers are progressing.”

Next, the swimmer’s performance at different times is analysed: the start, free swimming, turns, the finish. These timings and techniques are compared to world-class swimmers, to identify points for improvement. Karl and his team have used high-speed cameras to capture close footage of their athletes and fine-tune their training programme. Excellent facilities from the British Olympic Association and UK Sport have further aided the team on their journey to Games success.

Nevertheless, Karl’s goals are less about medals and more about athletes’ personal confidence: “Feeling comfortable in your surroundings is key, so we’ll be going out to Brazil a couple of weeks in advance to acclimatise and start adapting the swimmers’ schedules to fit the late race times.”

Now the focus is making sure our athletes reach the start in the right frame of mind to swim to their potential.

Karl Cooke

Methodological approaches

Karl’s focus on analysis and data to improve performance was strengthened by his PhD. The SESRC works in close partnership with the healthcare industry, as well as local and sporting communities, to develop a problem-solving approach to sports science.

“My PhD laid the foundations for my future career,” comments Karl. “It taught me how to run projects independently, and helped me build a strong network of contacts.”

Karl still maintains links with the SESRC, overseeing a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with altitude training specialists The Altitude Centre in 2013. More recently, he has consulted on colleague Scott Pollock’s PhD research into neuromuscular response in elite swimmers, supervised by Dr Katya Mileva and Dr Nadia Gaoua.

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