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Commonwealth champion Zoe on WiHP and coaching elite athletes in lockdown

As part of UK Coaching Week, Zoe Baker, Commonwealth Games gold medallist and head performance coach at Winchester City Penguins, talks about her positive experiences on the Women into High Performance (WiHP) programme – and how she helped her elite swimmers through lockdown.

My experiences as a female coach have been mostly positive – I have rarely faced discrimination from my fellow coaches.

I don’t know if this is due to my past experiences as an international swimmer where I was respected, we trained and raced as equals and your performances defined you, or whether its because of my personality as a strong female.

I always walk around poolside 100 per cent confident in my ability as a coach, and have never expected inequality on any level.

My experiences on the WiHP programme were only positive.

I was dubious at first and didn’t know what to expect but the prospect of a group of successful coaches all from different sports was exciting.

In the beginning, to be asked to look at every aspect of yourself, in front of total strangers in group situations was very much out of my comfort zone but due to a brilliant – and very funny – set of mentors and speakers this didn’t last long. It was nice for once, not to be in the minority!

Having a group of all women coaches in one room was such a great environment to be in and everyone was comfortable sharing their ideas, genuinely cared and were actually interested in listening to one another.

The programme allowed me to take some time out to look at myself and to analyse my approach to coaching – assessing the good and what could be better. The staff cared about how you are doing and they were there to help you see things through different perspectives.

This was strange as most of the time coaching is always about helping others to be better but by the end of the course, it made me realise that we need to put ourselves first sometimes so we don’t end up burning out.

During the group discussions, it was good to receive advice from other coaches and to listen to some of their coaching experiences, hearing how different sports have their own set of challenges.

Building a network of contacts

Zoe Baker is now head performance coach at Winchester City Penguins

One exercise which really sticks in my mind was one particular group discussion, highlighting how much we really do actually listen to our athletes.

Do we allow others to talk through their situations long enough, in order to solve their own problems or do we immediately jump in and try “to fix” everything?

On the conclusion of the programme, I felt I was more aware of my team, my organisation, and had better strategies to deal with a range of situations.

Ultimately it was great to build a new network of contacts with female coaches outside of swimming and to establish positive connections with a group of people who you can call upon for a non-bias view or help in the future.

Lockdown was challenging for all of us but I guess for myself, and my elite swimmers, to suddenly have major uncertainty and everything you had been working for be put on hold or cancelled was very unsettling.

The first few weeks were the hardest – just before the Olympics were officially postponed – as we were frantically trying to find pools and ways to train while the entire county was shutting down.

I was faced with two different scenarios with Imogen Clark, who I had only started working with in December 2019, and Kayla van der Merwe, my promising junior who was transitioning fast onto the senior stage.

Both girls had a shot of making the Olympic team in the Breaststroke events.

Imogen was finally settled and being consistent, while Kayla thrives on routine and being super planned – and suddenly they were faced with not knowing when they would next swim again.

The last thing I heard the girls say was “we did all that work and didn’t get to taper” and I remember Kayla being particularly upset on her last swim session back in March.

What I tried to create for them between April and June was a dry-land training programme which had AM and PM workouts and was similar to their typical training week in the gym and pool.

Kayla back to her old self

It was cycled exactly the same with three weeks hard and one week regeneration.

The whole of the club did this with the more complex and detailed programmes at the top end, filtered down to more basics and fundamentals at the bottom.

We had weekly challenges and continually shared the results.

I got them to replicate the same intensities we would in the pool each day whether it be cycling, running, walking, CrossFit WODs, circuits and sea swimming – living in Bournemouth helped with this one!

They were then able to access the NC phase 1 and 2 programme in Bath and Loughborough. We slowly reduced the land work as their swims increased until July.

Both girls had a break and we started our new season on July 25.

Kayla has become more like her old self and I saw a change in her after lockdown.

She was able to reset her goals and take some of the pressure off as she was in a state of panic before lockdown.

As a transitioning junior, I think the 2019 season had been overwhelming and lockdown did her a world of good.

She has returned to training much happier, less anxious and more independent.

I believe that this extra year of training before the Olympics trials will be a huge benefit for her and she will be better for it and has had chance to mature and grow as well as having a break from high level pressure and competition.

Imogen turns a corner

Imogen Clark

For Imogen, who thrives on racing, she struggled a lot during August to find the motivation to put everything on the line again and the frustration really set in.

However, since September, she has turned a corner and is back to the swimmer we had built up back in March.

I think the consistency, a great club environment here in Winchester with great team mates has contributed to that.

The prospect of the International Swimming League and racing soon has also provided a crucial focus point for her to take to the end of the year and roll that into her final phase before trials.

During lockdown the construction work on our new 50m pool continued and we should hopefully be in there at the end of February 2021.

Fingers crossed we can finish our final Olympic cycle in a brand new facility.

This pool has certainly kept spirits up in Winchester and the club is super excited to take swimming to the next level.

I have been at Winchester 18 months now and have been working hard to create a high performance environment which can successfully expand across all levels in the coming years.

I am currently establishing links with the University of Winchester who offer great sports degrees and strength and conditioning courses as well as with Winchester College.

Their new 25m pool opens around the same time as the new 50m pool and we plan to implement these partnerships into our club programme.

Exciting times lay ahead for the club and I am happy to have had the chance to head this up, and be an integral part of its future.