You often hear athletes mention ‘the Team behind the Team’ in post-competition interviews as they give thanks for the wider support they receive on a day-to-day basis. This may typically refer to coaches, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning experts, performance analysts, family, friends….the list goes on and varies from athlete to athlete. So what does it take for Team Leaders and Chef de Missions to bring the whole operation together from top to bottom for a major Games? This time in the hot seat is Sarah Winckless!
This series, in association with SportsAid; 'Behind the Scenes with', sees experienced support staff offering insight into the processes involved in preparing for a major Games. Current and previous Team Leaders and Chef de Missions will share their experiences to help better understand their roles, the detailed planning in the build-up to a Games, and the key considerations during competition-time.
Sarah Winckless is an Olympic medallist in rowing having won bronze in the double sculls at Athens 2004 before retiring in 2009 a year after competing in the women’s eight at the Beijing Games. Since then, she has served as the Chef de Mission at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, also taking on that role at the Nassau 2017 Youth Commonwealth Games and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Here, Sarah reflects on her experiences in a special blog written for Team England Futures:
“I managed to go to three Olympic Games as an athlete – I never went to a Commonwealth Games but I would have loved to do that. I did track and field as a young athlete, and then I actually went into rowing. That’s what I did my senior Games in and then when I retired, I really wanted to make a difference in creating a platform for others to follow. I've been incredibly fortunate as an athlete to have been given what I was given so I started doing some work within the British Olympic Association as Chair of the Athletes’ Commission. Whilst I had that role, I got the opportunity to be a Chef de Mission for the Youth Olympic Games. Chef de Mission is a funny name to call it - I was not cooking!
“When I got on the plane, someone was asking all the athletes, who were in their kit, what they were doing, and then they looked at me, and went: ‘what does she do?’ One of the athletes went ‘she's the boss’, and I sat there thinking, ‘my goodness, I am the boss!’ The Chef de Mission isn't the boss as you'd see at work, but they are in charge of the decision-making for the team. They have done a lot of thinking about the environment that an athlete and the support staff are going into, and we'll look at the resources we have available to us and intend to create the best platform for athletes to perform.
“As Chef de Mission you go into the Games a long time before the athletes and you're looking at it in a different way, so you're trying to create that performance environment for your team, you're trying to understand what they need and the differences between the different sports. In the Commonwealth Games, I had 18 different sports, including para athletes, so really just needed to understand the challenges and make sure that I was creating the right platform for each individual. That's 400-odd people and their support staff, so that was a big old team to start getting your head around.
“Of course, you're taking advice from their coaches and Team Leaders and you have a finite resource, you're trying to make the right decisions for the whole team without breaking the bank, so at the Commonwealth Games, we had a holding camp that lots of people came through and that was a fantastic environment, and you could use it also for rest and recuperation. We were able to have a very small house away from the environment so they could get away if they wanted. This meant they could meet their families and friends and then we spent time, money and energy ensuring there were the right things around for recovery strategies at the Games.
“Of our budget, we spent about a quarter of that on kit and then you’re thinking….how are they going to get there?! So out of our budget you then spend a quarter of it on flights. You have to consider how they are going to prepare once they get into the environment, so again, a quarter of our budget went on that preparation camp. And then you’re at that point when they're at the Games within the village environment and everything else that you need around that for the athletes to be able to perform to the best of their ability, so again, a quarter of our budget went on that.
“It was just amazing when you start to see the things you've been talking about and planning starting to be used and the looks on the athletes’ faces. You can see that they like what you've done, it's giving them a lift and making them feel really special in those moments because they've worked their whole athletic career to get to that point. My guilty secret is I think I enjoy their successes more….I'm like a proud parent! How ridiculous, but every athlete has either come through an Ambition programme [Team GB] I've done, or I've been Chef de Mission for, as I see them progress again. I get incredible joy and pride to see what they have done and what their hard work has given them.”