Adapting to change

The “glass half-full” attitude adopted by Canoe Racing NZ coach Tim Brabants has enabled the men’s kayak squad he guides to be on the front foot as the six-strong group returned to the water last week.

The 2008 Olympic K1 1000m gold medallist for Great Britain and accident and emergency doctor believes his background as both an elite sportsman and medic has helped maintain focus and clear-eyed thinking during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The skills I learned in emergency medicine and in the UK is transferable in some ways for the global crisis we are facing at the moment,” adds Tim, who is based at Lake Karapiro, Cambridge.

“In emergency medicine you have to quickly take stock of the situation, make a decision, action a plan and adjust that plan as the situation unfolds. In some ways this is no different to my thinking as an elite sportsman.

“Faced with the current scenario you have to pick your battles and realise you can only fight what you can deal with. It is important to maintain confidence in the group and set realistic targets.”

Tim admits, however, it is his good fortune at Canoe Racing NZ he has a team around him that adopts a similar mindset led by CEO Tom Ashley, the 2008 Beijing Olympic windsurfing gold medallist, and a coaching programme overseen by three-time Halberg Award winning Coach of the Year Gordon Walker.

From late-February the coronavirus emerged as a serious global issue and CRNZ were quick to react to potential issues which could arise. In anticipation of a level four lockdown, gym equipment was sourced from HPSNZ including kayak ergometers for Max Brown and Kurtis Imrie – the two Kiwis who qualified a men’s K2 1000m boat for the Tokyo Olympics.

Meanwhile, CRNZ, who had purchased gym equipment for the long-term use of the squad expedited the process to ensure the four remaining men’s squad members – Zach Ferkins, Hamish Legarth, Ben Duffy and Ashton Reiser – had the equipment in time for lockdown.

“We had to remember the health of the nation was of the utmost importance,” explains Tim, who was appointed a CRNZ coach in December. “To follow the rules and the government advice should always come first but we also shouldn’t neglect the fact that the guys in the squad have trained for many years and that we should not take a backward step. We can still progress in the current situation but in a different way.” 

Tim has been hugely impressed by the ingenuity shown by the paddlers during lockdown. Hamish Legarth, a 2019 World Cup paddler of the Hawkes Bay Kayak Club, has made his own arm grinder out of a bike and a wheelbarrow, which sits in the garage of his bubble he shares with two primary school teachers in Cambridge.

“This was something suggested to be by Andrew Keene, our strength and conditioning coach, and once I figured out what I needed to do, it didn’t take too long to make,” adds Hamish, a civil engineering student at Waikato University. “The arm grinder has been very useful because my legs have taken a beating from the extra cycling and running I’ve been doing. It was a relief to do some exercises without having to use my legs.”

For Max Brown, who alongside Kurtis Imrie reached the A Final of the K2 1000m at the 2019 ICF World Cup event in Poznan, the biggest challenge was coping with the news the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had been postponed for a year.

Having worked hard to put himself on the verge of a possible debut Olympic appearance, the 25-year-old who hails from Whanganui struggled initially to cope with the postponement. 

“I had a couple of days when I felt lost and confused,” admits Max. “But then I had a think, accepted the decision and my motivation and drive returned. 

“Once I had clarity around what I should be doing for the next month (in terms of training), that’s when I could once again re-focus on what I needed to do.”

Tim admits one of the biggest challenges as a coach he faces is “allaying some of the fears” athletes might have in terms of losing fitness. 

The fact certain athletes may not have access to the same equipment also needs to be managed but the four-time Olympian says he has used the period in lockdown to make potential gains.

Despite not all six paddlers having access to all the gym equipment they would typically have – Tim says an effective gym programme has been devised. Communicating “several times a day” with the paddlers Tim adds of the gym work: “The quality of what we are doing in terms of capacity and the robustness has been really good.”

Kurtis, Max and Zach Ferkins all have access to a kayak erg – which while generating a different feel to being on the water also allows for some technical benefits.

“It is a very different piece of equipment to move (than a kayak) because you are pulling cables rather than a boat through water,” adds Max. “But when paddling the erg you can set up a mirror and this has been a good opportunity to work on technique.

“I’ve been working on my hand height when I exit out of the water and getting a bit more hip drive and rotation through the hips.”

The squad have all been working on building their aerobic capacity with lengthy bike rides on the static bikes now on the agenda. For some this has been a gruelling assignment but Tim believes their overall conditioning has put them in a good place as the squad returned to the water on an alert level 3 status last week.

“I don’t think the squad have lost any overall aerobic fitness, in fact they’ve probably gained general cardiovascular fitness during lockdown,” explains Tim. “They may have lost a little bit of feel on the water but that will come back quickly and they’ve probably benefited from that extra gym work.”

Very aware of the restrictions around an alert level 3, Tim has introduced staggered start times for on water training and the paddlers are allocated separate areas on the pontoon for on and off water access. 

Tim is abiding for the protocols of no face to face training, but he is establishing a picture of their on water training through GPS and Garmin watches uploaded on to Training Peaks.

Both Hamish and Max are excited to once again hit Lake Karapiro and while both are becoming gradually accustomed to life on the water, Tim insists the New Zealand kayak squad as a collective have coped remarkably well with their lockdown experience 

“They’ve displayed a really good attitude throughout,” says Tim. “The squad understand what they are doing, they’ve been good communicators and, given the circumstances, they’ve done a great job.”

By Steve Landells

Pic credit: Hamish Legarth (Vera Bucsu)