Around the table with key components of the GB Fourman Bobsleigh Team! Part 1 – Chris Woolley

Why is the GB Bobsleigh fast becoming one of the top teams in the world? We talk with Chris Woolley, the start coach for GB Bobsleigh

The World Cup season is over for the Bobsleigh crews around the world. John Jackson, Britain’s number 1 driver in both the two and four man versions of Bobsleigh racing finished 5th in the 4-man Blue ribbon event at the World Championships and 5th at the Olympic test event . Despite being injured for a number of events, Paula Walker finished 11th in the season standings in the woman’s two man. With strength in depth, GB Bobsleigh is on the rise with all roads leading to Sochi in 2014.

At the British Championships in Igls, Austria at the beginning of March, the British team athletes were in wind down mode. There were still titles to be won but the planning for the Olympics, now just 11 months away, was still being finely tuned. The most important part of the whole run in a bobsleigh race is the start. Chris Woolley, the start coach for GB Bobsleigh, explains what makes a good brakeman:

“What makes a good brakeman is extreme power. The ability to provide brute force power at very high frequency at a sustained period of up to about five seconds.” With the requirement of having to push a sled from a standing start that weighs 300kg as fast as possible, is what it is all about. The start is where the race can be won and lost and so getting the sled from static to moving along the ice as quick as possible in as short amount of time, is what it is all about.

Woolley is an ex athlete that did not make the grade himself but has worked out what is required to get athletes to the top of the game. Many of the brakemen that have come into the sport of Bobsleigh have come from a variety of sports but “aren’t where they have the ability to train to that level,” explains Woolley. Some have raw talent due to the nature of sprinting: explosiveness from a standing start. While five seconds does not sound that long to the man in the street, Woolley explains that that is twice as long as you would really want your body to be working for.

Once the programme have identified athletes that can come into the programme, what sort of training programme can athletes be expected to undertake? With the level of competition at the top of the game, Woolley does not want to give too much away that rivals can pick up on. He firmly believes, and the stats back it up, that his crew on GBR 1, aka ‘George Fourman’, is one of, if not the fastest starters in the world. What he does give an indication of though is that “there is a lot of lifting, a lot of sprinting and a lot of plyometric efficiencies: The ability to create strength in short cycles and be very elastic. Going a little more indepth, guys and girls that I train, load their bodies incredibly. The amount of external load that I expect them to shift would be higher numbers than most people would think of.”

The training process is very much train hard, play easy. “It is all about having the strength to move that amount of force,” explains Woolley.

With two of the GBR 1 crew sitting with us, Bruce Tasker and Joel Fearon, of contrasting statures, the training is very personal to each athlete. Tasker is tall while Joel is shorter but still very powerful.

Woolley started sliding in 2007 himself and while he was getting involved in the sport he started to develop ideas that combined with what he had learned from Sports Science, he felt “would make the best bobsleigh push athlete he could.” Woolley realized soon that Bobsleigh is “an absolute sport and I am a little small for it.” Where he did not feel that he would make it as part of the crew, his ability has been more than realized in harnessing his knowledge and ideas to make better pushers. Every person has a role in the team and this is where Woolley has made a real impact.

Woolley is always looking to improve the athletes and he “does not know anyone in sports science that is not experimenting, things change, I now have a formula that certainly works,” he explained. With most things to do with sports science published, the ideas are all out there, where Woolley makes the difference is how the ideas are implemented with the athletes. “What the secret is, is how you put them together with individual athletes and the team,” Woolley admitted.

Woolley works individually with all the athletes. Generic programmes are not written, individual programmes are carefully written and it is these little attentions to detail are what help to make the GBR 1 that little bit faster. With races decided by hundredths of a second, the faster the sled can start, the more speed it can have when it breaks the beam to start at the top of the course.

So how does Woolley turn potential into elite performance? “The guys and girls I am working with now have already shown the ability to work at an elite level, it is after this that I start tweaking certain areas to get the most out of them. I do work with some of the development squad and this is more generic, with the more basic areas that I expect them to be good at.”

At the World Championships in 2013, the gap between fifth place, GBR 1, and third place was a mere seven-hundredths at the start. From third down to seventh and eighth was “pretty close, and we were only one hundredth ahead of sixth.”

Woolley does not believe that there is a perfect person as a brakeman. “If you were to take the top ten brakemen in the world, you would probably see some very different shapes and sizes. You would find a common theme: they are probably the strongest and fastest person in their squad.”

Balancing up the crew of a four-man crew is hard. It is the ability to work together as a team that is now the focus of Woolley and the rest of the team of coaches. Like GB Cycling, the small gains will bring big gains come the moment in Sochi. Come Sochi, Jackson, Tasker, Fearon and Stuart Benson, have little doubt in themselves that they will be on the nail when it comes to getting on the power out of the start. Chris Woolley will watch them from the start knowing he has done his part for the team.

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