Laura Deas has competed across World Cups and a World Championships this winter, with all events staged under strict COVID-19 protocols. Here, the skeleton racer and BAC ambassador shares her thoughts on the impacts this can have, and her advice to other athletes facing similarly tight restrictions at events in the coming months.
“Almost a year ago to the day I found myself writing a piece on the uncertainties that the global COVID-19 pandemic had brought to the athlete community. One year on and although we know so much more about the virus, how it behaves, and the effect it is having on our communities, it strikes me how much uncertainty there still is about how it will shape our future.
“We have seen in the past 12 months a wide range of measures from global sporting communities to attempt to navigate the challenge that hosting sport in the new reality brings. Some activity has unfortunately ground to a halt completely, whilst other sports have found ways to adapt and still continue in some way. I count myself as very lucky that my sport (skeleton) fell into the second category, and our governing body (the IBSF) has gone to great lengths this winter to run an international World Cup circuit as close to normal as possible.
“For the British squad, having no ice track in the UK means that not being able to travel to compete would have rendered us completely unable to practice our sport at all, and at now one year out from the Olympics in Beijing that would have put us at a massive disadvantage. So I was very grateful that the IBSF felt able to run a circuit, although with the COVID-19 rules in place there were significant added challenges to life on circuit, and particularly to performing on race days.
“Wearing a face mask seems like such a minor change but when it’s within the context of the strict rules of an international race it can add a lot of extra stress. Our rules were very tight around wearing one at all times, even when warming up outside away from other people – it’s surprising how much harder doing an intense physical warm up is with a mask on, especially in extreme cold (and sometimes at altitude). We also had to wear one right up until we put our helmets on to take our runs, and were also expected to immediately replace it at the bottom, even before catching our breath. As you can imagine, after flying down a track at 70mph or more with your chin centimetres from the ice, finding and putting on a face mask immediately after removing your helmet isn’t a natural thing to do.
“Aside from the wearing of one, there was always the constant anxiety of forgetting your mask because you are so focussed on the job in hand, and potentially getting in trouble inadvertently. There was also a great sense of responsibility to follow all the rules to the letter because we were in such a fortunate position to be competing at all and didn’t want to mess it up.
“Another big change was the way the training week before the race was scheduled in order to allow minimal contact with other sports at the track. Usually, skeleton athletes will train most days for a couple of runs leading up to the race, and because normally the biggest challenge in a race week is figuring out the track quickly, a little every day is considered a good way to go about it. Instead, this winter we only had two training days at the track before each race with a bigger volume of runs, with days off in between and before the day of the race.
“This meant that the pressure to figure out the track quickly on the two days on which we had access to the track was really ramped up, and we tried to plan those sessions with our coaches to accelerate learning even more than normal. Of course, for those athletes with a home track, this ended up playing to their advantage even more than normal as all the other athletes were scrambling to learn as much as they could in less time.
“Also, as skeleton can be quite tough on the body physically because of the G-forces and speed, an increased run volume in one day could be quite hard to deal with. Mentally too, the really busy days at the track interspersed with lots of down time could be difficult to navigate – the psychological aspect of skeleton is very important because the margins for success are so small, and so keeping your head in the game through the uneven week presented a new challenge.
“Probably the other biggest hurdle to performance was the restriction on who from your support team could be at the top of the track with you. In order to reduce numbers in the indoor areas to keep to distancing regulations, coaches and other support staff weren’t able to sit with us in the start area as they normally would, and run through detailed video reviews of our runs. This made it a lot more difficult to have an in-depth discussion with your coach in between training runs, so efficient communication was more important than ever.
“Another aspect to the start house restrictions was that physiotherapists weren’t able to enter the start house or changing areas either. This was tricky if you had an injury or issue that needed management close to when you were going to slide – it either meant adapting the plan to be ready some other way or led to some very chilly outdoor physio sessions in car parks!
“Overall, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced the international circuit this year, and actually although there have been many challenges and obstacles, it has definitely also generated positive adaptations both in my own performance and in how we operate as a squad. Many of the situations have proved useful rehearsals for what might be a COVID-19 affected Olympic season next winter. As I started by saying, I wrote twelve months ago about the stress and doubt that COVID-19 has brought to the sporting community, and I’ll finish by quoting what I wrote a year ago, which I think continues to ring true for many in the sporting world:
“In times of stress or difficulty a favourite saying of my first skeleton coach always comes to mind, which is to ‘control the controllables’. It’s a useful way of reminding yourself that, as difficult as it seems, there is little point in wasting energy, physical or mental, on things outside of your control. Equally, it acts as a reminder to put your positive energy into things you can impact, such as proactive strategies to support your mental health and communicate regularly with your support network. As I started by saying, these are unprecedented times- we don’t know what the situation will be even a week from now, but I hope the British athlete community can take some comfort from knowing that we are all in this together.”