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For sports such as football, tennis and baseball vast television audiences are taken for granted, but for many less well-known sports, the Olympic Games are particularly special. Think synchronised swimming, cycling, curling, diving, the parallel beams and Nicola Vaughan-Ellis’s sport: power lifting.
Ms Vaughan-Ellis, head power-lifting coach for Team GB, the British Olympic squad, is one of about 70 Olympic sports coaches who have been learning how to get the best out of their athletes thanks to a coaching programme at Ashridge, the UK business school.
Ms Vaughan-Ellis says that the coaching has been particularly important because power lifting for women is beginning to attract a global audience.
She has been doing the 10-module programme for several years, sometimes paying for the programme out of her own pocket. “I realised that I got such a lot out of it, I wanted to go back and do it again,” she says.
For Ms Vaughan-Ellis, the programme brought two benefits: “What was so wonderful is that we rarely get the space to ask whether we are doing the right things for these people [athletes].”
The second, she says, is working with coaches who specalise in other sports. “Every four years we become Team GB. Otherwise we’re just in pockets, working in isolation.”
Ms Vaughan-Ellis says although the 10 one-day modules on the programme are all very different, many of them rely on military or extreme metaphors – climbing Everest, for example. “If the military fails, people die,” she says. “We’re one step down from that ... We’re dealing with people’s dreams. I think this is really important.”
For Roger Delves, one of the lecturers on the programme, the two competing commercial Everest expeditions of 1996, in which five people lost their lives,
hold invaluable lessons for Olympic coaches. Just like the coaches, the expedition leaders contained individuals who had high levels of personal ambition operating as part of a team.
In the Everest case, both team leaders were disciplinarian and created hierarchical team structures with themselves in charge. On the day they climbed Everest, however, they both “lost the overview in the drama of the moment”.
These days, says Mr Delves, most successful Everest team leaders direct the climb from below the “death line”. “We used to expect leaders to be operational but now we expect them to be strategic,” he says.
To date people from every sport, from yachtsmen to showjumpers, divers to archers, have been through the Ashridge syllabus and the school is now recruiting for its fourth Olympics coaching programme.
But, as with many business school programmes, the credit crunch is biting. Although Ashridge charges just a fraction of the fees it would usually charge for an executive programme – £2,000 per coach for the 10 modules – many sports can no longer afford this, says Ian Bell, who is the programme director of the Sport Business Initiative at Ashridge.
“It’s really frustrating for all the smaller sports that have had their funding cut,” Mr Bell says. However, he says he is hoping to raise enough sponsorship to put a further 25 coaches through the programme in the coming year.