Helen Potter is a gymnastics coach from the UK who is not only Head Coach at Bristol Hawks Gymnastics Club but also the Personal Coach to Claudia Fragapane, 4 time Commonwealth Gold Medallist.
Below is our exclusive interview with Helen about her journey as a coach and her preparations with Claudia for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, written by our FCN Olympic Reporter – Lucy Manley.
You yourself competed as a gymnast for Great Britain Senior & English Schools as a junior. Can you tell us a little bit about your career as an athlete and how you progressed from being an athlete to a coach?
I started late in gymnastics at age 11 years. I grew up in the countryside and liked the outdoor, adventurous freedom my brothers & I were lucky to have as children, climbing trees, hide & seek, rock pooling and building dens etc. When I discovered gymnastics I was immediately drawn to the sport especially the challenging aspects of it and I became hooked on the feeling of self confidence it gives you when you work towards something and finally achieve it. My Mum, Elaine, and I learnt about gymnastics together. I was lucky to have a number of inspiring coaches along the way including Graham Watson [my first coach at Whipton Olympic GC]; Eve Forrest at Taunton GC; Chris Davis at Millfield School, my Mum Elaine May [who coached me in my gap year at Hawks GC in Seaton] and John Reeves at Redditch & Bromsgrove GC who was my coach when I was at University in Birmingham.
I was 16 years old & studying for my A Levels when I first gained a place in National Squad and I was selected to compete for English Schools in an International match against Poland in the same year. After Millfield I deferred entry into Birmingham University in order to spend the year concentrating on gymnastics and it was during this year, whilst training with my Mum at our family club that was attached to our families motel business in Seaton Devon, that I fulfilled my ambition to compete for Great Britain. It was also during this time that I first started coaching the younger members of the club. When I went to University I continued coaching arriving early at the gym to coach a class and then train afterwards. I graduated from Birmingham with a first in Anatomical Science and thought about a career in Medicine [my grandmother was a doctor in China] but my parents Mike & Elaine gave me the chance to forge a career in the sport I love and we set up Bristol Hawks GC together.
Was it always your ambition to take your coaching as far as you have?
Yes, although when I first started coaching GB gymnastics was not in the fantastic position it is today. Myself and my two brothers all competed for GB as gymnasts with my older brother Stephen competing for GB on numerous occasions including World University Games & younger brother James becoming an Olympian, Commonwealth Games Champion, British Champion and competing in all the major World events. So you could say I come from an ambitious family. We had great role models as children with our parents both working extremely hard starting their business from nothing and building it as we grew up. My parents, Elaine & Mike, always encouraged us in whatever we were interested in giving us a love of learning and a strong work ethic. When at age 14 I expressed an interest in coaching as a career option, which was an unusual in those days to say the least, they supported me. It is down to them that I am now lucky enough to have a job I love. I work with all levels of gymnasts and I’m as ambitious for the children in our general classes as I am for our elite athletes.
Within British Women’s Artistic Gymnastics I feel we have a good balance of both male and female coaches and that this has enhanced our success. Internationally also our federation of gymnastics has a code of points in which a rule states that if there are two team coaches one has to be female this ensures that on the World stage both genders are represented. I think on the British Men’s Artistic side the balance is not so even, we do have top Men’s Artistic coaches that are female e.g. Michelle Baker who coaches Olympic Bronze Medalist Kristian Thomas at Earl’s Gymnastics but I think Men’s Artistic gymnastics has not had a tradition of its coaches being both male & female so to break through as a performance coach as a women in this branch of gymnastics is more difficult. This is one area where in GB we could lead a change of mindset and it would definitely enhance the success.
The challenges I imagine are very similar to those in any walk of a professional career for women, those of work-family life balance.
How important do you think it is to have female coaches within British Gymnastics and TeamGB for younger coaches to aspire to become?
I think it is essential that younger coaches have great female role models that inspire them to find the role they want to play within the sport at whatever level or branch of gymnastics.
Can you share with us your coaching philosophy and how it has been shaped over the years?
I went into coaching because of what gymnastics gave me as a performer and that?s what has underpinned my coaching philosophy. For me gymnastics was fun, exciting and challenging it taught me many life lessons which has made me a stronger and happier person ? it taught me to face my fears, be resilient, be persistent in working towards something I wanted & to cope with the ups and downs of life. I see coaching as a mentoring process. Yes you have to know the technical aspects and, importantly in our sport, the particular processes that affect children as they grow and develop but I believe in a holistic approach where you aim to get the best out of people by being positive, listening to your gymnast, enjoying the journey together and having a great likeminded supportive team around you.
Which of your coaching achievements are you most proud of?
This is always a difficult question. Whilst it is nice to have historic breakthroughs in gymnastics like the recent GB Women’s Artistic team medal at a World Championships; Rhian Pugh’s first ever European Gold for a GB female gymnast at the Junior European Championships in 2004 and Claudia Fragapane equaling Joyce Coopers 4 Commonwealth Gold?s at a single Championships I’m always thinking the best is yet to come and what I really like is the day to day little achievements that are someone’s first ever especially if they have been hard won and bring a smile to the face.
Claudia Fragapane made history winning four gold medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, as her coach, how hard is it to keep young athletes motivated so they are at their peak for big competitions?
It’s never a problem keeping young athletes motivated when they are doing a sport they love. Gymnastics gives intrinsic rewards to its participants in terms of goals they can achieve each session. It’s important not to lose sight of why young athletes take up the sport in the first place which is often because it’s fun and exciting. Elite athletes like Claudia have a passion for the sport and enjoy the challenges the competitive side of the sport brings so working towards a big goal is in itself very motivating however setting short and medium term goals along the way is important too.
Keeping young athletes motivated only really becomes a problem in certain situations:
For instance when they either are unable to take part due to illness or injury, here the recovery process can be frustrating or boring for them so needs to be managed well so that the planned programme of recovery includes lots of variety.
Another difficult time is when a young athlete is going through a growth spurt or puberty changes then they can feel that they are not making progress. In this case you need to be able to explain what is happening and talk through their worries and how to deal with this.
Motivation can also dip when outside pressures interfere with the performers aspirations and as a coach you need be aware of this and to know your gymnast well enough to help them manage these pressures.
I saw a nice quote from you in an article that said a great coach is a communicator and empathiser. What would be your three key messages of advice for female coaches who want to reach the levels of success you have in your career?
#1 Listen well to your gymnasts individual needs & to other successful coaches/mentors
#2 Keep Learning Its important to never stop learning and adapting your training methods
#3 Work hard & Enjoy it Life is more fun if you are busy
Author: Lucy Manley is a Sport and Health Science Masters Graduate from the University of Exeter, in the UK. She has played badminton for her county team (Avon) since the age of 11 and captained the ladies first team and high performance squad whilst at University. She has always been involved with sport from a young age, playing anything that was thrown at her whilst following religiously the ups and downs of British sport stars and the stories that make Britain Great. With a passion for all things sport and a minor obsession for all things Olympics, the start of Rio 2016 can’t come soon enough!