Nathan Doyle: An insight into Australian Paralympian Swimmer Ellie Cole’s preparation for Rio Paralympic Games
Interview by Danielle Cox & Benny Pike
Nathan Doyle has been involved with swimming for 18 years. After retiring from competition as an athlete 8 years ago, he began coaching and is currently working at C2K Swimming at Castle Hill in the head position.
Nathan guides numerous swimmers, one of whom is Paralympian and world champion, Ellie Cole. Ellie won 4 gold medals at the 2012 London Paralympic Games and is expected to be front and centre on the world stage at the Rio Paralympic Games. We spoke to Nathan to find out about Ellie’s preparation and what they are doing to keep her in top form prior to Rio.
You’ve previously coached development squads and you’re now coaching a single elite athlete. In terms of structuring programs, what are the main considerations, and what advice do you have for anyone looking to make the same change from squad coaching to coaching an athlete on the main stage?
In terms of coaching development squads, mine coincided quite well with taking on an elite athlete. My program was developing at the same time so the changes that I personally had to make were quite minor in the end.
I strongly believe paralympic athletes, in terms of swimmers especially, blend quite well with able bodied swimmers.
For example with Ellie being an S9 athlete her times will be quite relative to those of an able bodied swimmer. In terms of the considerations we had to make they’re actually quite minor.
If we had our time differently I would do the same again in terms of making very minimal changes because ultimately I find that paralympic swimmers blend quite well with most programs, depending on obviously their classification types.
Some coaches may steer away from coaching an athlete with a disability due to the additional challenges. How were you able to find support for yourself and Ellie within this coaching role?
I think it’s a common misconception that, by coaching a swimmer or any athlete with a disability, presents additional challenges. Obviously with any athlete there are challenges, but my view is simply a body in water.
Whether that has two arms two legs, whether it that has one arm and one leg, whatever the case may be, ultimately as a coach we’re in charge of basically working with a body in water, and using that philosophy I think that the challenges which present themselves are not really any different to any other swimmer.
I think there’s a bit of a misconception of those challenges, and those road blocks, and I think once you’re exposed to the paralympic programs, and exposed to athletes with a disability I think they’re quite easily negated. In terms of support, we’re very lucky in Australia to have support from a number of different angles. Swimming Australia and Paralympic Swimming are great supporters of athletes and coaches.
Coupled with that is great support from the Paralympic committee who ensure that we have enough resources, from media liaison through to services including Swimming Australia’s para-performance manager Adam Pine and the mentoring from Australian Paralympic Head Coach Brendan Keogh. Their support is vital to our success.
Those two entities certainly do help us all the way. I look at other international standards which might not be to the same that we have here in Australia and we are definitely fortunate to have swimming as such a prominent sport and paralympic movement.
What are some of Ellie’s strengths and would your focus be to utilise her strengths, or tap into the areas with the most improvement available?
For Ellie in particular, her strength is her kick, for an athlete with only one leg, that would be a surprising element, but from working with Ellie for the last few years, she’s quite gifted in her ability to be able to kick, and most importantly her balance in the water.
Due to lack of symmetry, balance is something that leg amputees would have to develop and then have to be better at than someone with two legs.
So, me personally, I find that Ellie’s best strength is her ability to balance in the water by using her leg and that leg strength, and that negates any loss of symmetry due to her amputation.
Throughout your coaching career have you developed any strategies towards overcoming or breaking through a swimmer’s mental block?
Yes certainly, I think communication is key. I think having open communication and then definitely two-way communication. I think you have to engage athletes in a conversation.
Now that might be different to other views out there but I definitely think that by having a conversation with an athlete, and not just lecturing, you’re able to draw out of them what their fire and passions are, and then you’re able to tap into that.
So my experience, especially with Ellie and with my other elite athletes is really about that communication and making sure that you’re having those difficult conversations when things aren’t going well. And also making sure you are having those conversations when things are going well, as sometimes they can be overlooked. We sometimes can be focusing just on those harder conversations, rather than showing credit where credit is due.
Short distance races such as 50m and 100m would require great strength and speed. Can you give us a little bit of insight into how you’ve shaped Ellie’s ability to power through the water so quickly?
Yeah certainly, for Ellie we use a balance of gym specific work and pool work. So in the gym Ellie works on a lot of explosive movements and works quite hard. She’s now 23 and can utilize the gym much more now in her early 20’s as opposed to when she was in her teens.
Ellie still works on everything from box jumps to large explosive movements with bands, weighted squads and so forth to help build that explosive power and we couple that in with water.
We do quite a lot of blocks and anaerobic power work which Ellie is able to produce quite a lot of speed from and gets some good adductations there. That really is the key under her speed.
Ellie competed at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, and is lined up to go to Rio this year. How did her training prior to London differ from her training now? What are your key focuses for her over the next few months?
Look having picked up Ellie after London, I took over coaching her full time. Changes in terms of training have not been as significant. There’s not a lot of ways you can revolutionize swim training.
We have a really specific focus, so obviously we’re not in the pool to do 100km weeks, we’re not looking to do laps for the sake of doing laps. Ellie’s an experienced athlete and we get the luxury now that we can work specifically to where our goals are and we can achieve specific outcomes.
I think the biggest change is probably not in the pool, and for Ellie, the biggest change I guess from the Ellie Cole that went to 2012 London, to the Ellie Cole that’s going to 2016 Rio, is mindset.
I think the biggest thing for Ellie is that she could have walked away from the sport in 2012, winning 4 gold medals. You know there was really no expectation for her to go on to the next level after achieving such great results, but I think for her it was finding passion and basically a love for what she does.
So the biggest difference is more mental, it’s mindset, and that’s made the biggest change heading into Rio, that’s going to be our biggest event.
One of the unique challenges of training Ellie would be that her power source (her leg) is limited to just one. How do you support muscle and power growth, and prevent injuries, knowing that if she injured her leg it would drastically impact her training and performance?
We always have to be very cautious, we don’t have a lot to play with. She has had double shoulder reconstructions, where in one point in time we didn’t have a lot to work with so we did spend quite a lot of time working on developing the strength through her leg, in saying that we have the luxury that swimming is a low impact sport. Swimming doesn’t put a lot of load through her leg, and I guess maybe would jeopardise the leg if she was a runner – we would have certainly more concerns.
We do make sure that we’re building up her leg through gym work. We have a great gym program. We do quite a lot of biometric work and box jumps which can really help with those explosive movements, so we’re building a great structure around her leg.
We have general rules like she’s not allowed to hop on her leg without her prothesis on – little things like that, we can use to negate risks. She’s a great athlete in the gym and that really sets us up well.
Rio is only months away, a short time frame in the world of athletic training. What are your hopes, expectations and goals for Ellie. Does she have any personal time goals or PB’s she’d like to reach?
Yes Ellie has some expectations heading there, obviously coming out of world championships with a new world title and now holding a world record there’s obviously an expectation, not just that she places on herself, but that the rest of the world has, that she’s going to be number one.
In saying that though, my expectation on Ellie is that she enjoys what she does, to know that she is able to go to Rio knowing that she’s done the work, and she can stand behind the blocks and give it her all.
If she can stand at the end of the day on top of the podium with a smile on her face, for me that’s all that I want to see and I imagine it’s what Ellie wants to see.
Ellie’s probably very hard on herself and probably never gives herself enough credit. She has quite an illustrious career in the Australian Paralympic team and she’s probably one of the shinning lights, not only in swimming in Australia, but also around the world.
It comes through hard work, and I think Rio will just be another chapter in that story. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Ellie yet, and I think definitely Rio will be a chance for her, to be almost a second coming, or I guess a different Ellie this time, an Ellie who’s hungry and who really wants to get out there and get it done.