McGovern gives insight into coaching at the Tokyo Olympics

Following the Tokyo Olympics, we caught up with Irish 49er Coach Matt McGovern. He tells us all about the preparations for the event, an insight into the Games and his advice for aspiring coaches.
11 Oct 21
Coach in Focus

Can you tell us a bit about preparations going into Tokyo?
We had done a lot of preparation before getting to the venue, including working out what it was going to be like in the environment, expectations etc.   On arrival, we had to stay in a holding camp for 4-5 days in a different region, where we could acclimatise and get ready.  In the days leading up to the Games starting, the focus was on equipment testing and final race preparations, which went very smoothly.

What sort of Covid protocols did you have to follow?
Everyone was happy to follow the protocols and these were much the same as anywhere else.  With the Olympics there is always a lot of extra aspects added on;  getting the right buses, security checks, showing identification tags – all airport-style security, so some additional protocols weren’t difficult to follow.   Additional elements included wearing masks, temperature checks and areas to hand sanitise, so nothing too difficult as part of a routine.

How had Covid restrictions impacted your preparations over the past year?
For Robert and Sean, one positive aspect was that they probably wouldn’t have been favourites a year ago and so Covid gave them more preparation time to build up to qualifying.  In the last few months normally we would have come to the venue to do a couple of training regattas, but this hadn’t been possible. So we always had a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and even a Plan D and just had to roll with it.   
(In Tokyo) No one was allowed to put a boat in the water until the 14th July, so it didn’t matter where you came from. It all affected everyone equally, no matter what country you were from.

What was a typical day like at the Olympic venue?
For me, as a coach, it was trying not to eat too much of the free food!  We were in a hotel with a number of other nations and normally breakfast would be early, sitting at individual tables in a large room.   Buses were scheduled, so you had to book a time in advance for the 45-60 min journey to the site, depending on stops, traffic etc.  
The Irish Team had a container at the venue with office and TV for debriefs, ice making products and a small fitness area.   The Strength and Conditioning coach would run some fitness sessions before the event to help keep us acclimatised (e.g. a 30 min cycle in the heat).   After coming off the water, it was then usual equipment checks, getting picked up and out of the heat back at the hotel.

What was the temperature/ humidity like and how did it affect day to day plans ?
There was a good set up to get a daily ice allocation for each team.   There were hydration stations across the venue.  In the suntrap areas (around the containers), the temperature would get up to 35 degrees, not as bad as two years ago when it was reported to have been a further five degrees on top of that!  On the water was around 30 degrees and the breeze obviously helped keep us cool, making it all more manageable.  The sailors had all done a lot of heat training before arriving to help deal with the conditions.

What makes the Olympics so different to any other event?
It’s the media attention.  The boat park is ultimately the same - same competitors, same boats, it’s just the Olympic flag that is different.  The sailing schedule is also different to normal with rest days and racing often starting later.

That’s what you have to remember; that it’s all the same and don’t let the magnitude of the event cloud your mind.   In previous Olympics, the Olympic village is the kind of stuff that catches you out. For example, bumping into the poster boy/ girl of the event.  With Covid, in that sense, it has actually made it feel more normal.

At the Games, when you are racing in a smaller fleet (there are 19 in the men’s 49er), does it change your approach?
There are a few things that are different.   The most visible is the likes of risk taking and strategy balancing – where you have 10 boats below you and there is a split, suddenly that is 50 per cent of the fleet (as opposed to racing in a fleet of 60+ competitors).  So working out where your risk falls is different – you have to visualise how the course looks in a different way compared to other boats.

There is of course less dirty air with fewer boats around, so comebacks can actually be slightly easier, for example following an incident.
Ultimately, with low numbers, you have low scores, so every point becomes even more critical towards the end of the Regatta.  The desire to take just one boat extra at every opportunity is always important.  When you break all the calculations down from previous championships, a couple of points will always make a huge difference – this was ultimately seen in the 49er medal race that was decided in the last few metres. 

Which do you prefer, coaching or competing?
There’s still a bit of the competitive nature in me, so I would enjoy jumping in the boat when I can.  Since the last Olympics my wife and I have had two children. I look at the hours the guys put in and, as a coach, you have to think ‘could I really put in what these guys are doing to earn the place and the right at the Olympics?’  So, I am happy where I am and have new goals and motivations going forward.

Do you feel pressure as a Coach and do you set personal goals?
Certainly, there is a bit of pressure, as with being an athlete.  Watching the racing, you want it to go well and can feel the tension.  You are trying to do the best job you can.
I’m relatively early on in coaching.  I have the same internal goals as opposed to external - the results will always be there.  As the Games started my goal was to ensure we had done our absolute best to prepare.  I had some smaller process goals for myself during the event.

Are there any tips you would give anyone considering to become a coach at their club or even internationally?
I guess you have to want to do it and be committed to it.  I would take this as seriously as anything else I have committed to.  I was used to racing for so many years and I suppose its about switching that energy into coaching.
I’m amazed at just what some volunteers do give at their club.  I think if you turn up at any level, you need to be 100 per cent committed to doing your best.   Feedback to improve is always important – reviewing your self and the day is always a key part to improving.

Would you have any guidance for clubs looking to start race training?
Getting the right people involved is absolutely key.  People who helped me in my career often just arrived at the club and out of the goodness of their heart gave time and energy to help people. Even just getting one person doing that, it often results in four or five more getting involved.