To get to the UAE meant a huge amount of work not only from the shooting para athletes themselves but from the all-important Athlete Performance Support Team and Performance Life Coaches who had their backs in the build up to the World Championships and as they look towards Paris 2024.
For two of the three World Championship team members – Natalie Brunzel and Neelam O’Neill – it was a chance to get back onto the world stage after being denied the opportunity to compete at Tokyo 2020 due to COVID-19 overseas travel barriers affecting the pair’s ability to qualify.
The third team member, veteran Shooting Para Sport competitor, team lead and coach Michael Johnson, looked to build on his gold and two bronze medals across Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2021 Paralympic Games.
Michael provides the context for the significance of competing at the World Championships for himself and his fellow team members, Neelam and Natalie.
“Quite simply no one had travelled overseas in 2020 which unfortunately meant Neelam and Natalie didn’t have the opportunity to win their slots through internationally recognised pre-qualifying events,” explains Michael.
“I had qualified for Tokyo 2020 and the 2022 World Championships but we had to get creative to be able to ensure Natalie and Neelam qualified.
“With limited or no ability to travel overseas, we made a qualifying opportunity happen in New Zealand. As a result, New Zealand held its first ever international WPS Grand Prix in July 2022, ahead of the World Championships with both Natalie and Neelam qualifying for UAE.”
Michael is the first to give the big thumbs up to the massive support from the trios Performance team while in New Zealand which ensured they were well prepared for the competition and for the challenges of international travel for para athletes.
Like Michael, Performance Psychologist Rod Corbans wore multiple hats in his role at the World Championships. He has been Michael’s sport psychologist since 2006, provides psychology support for Natalie and stepped into the role of team manager for the World Championships including providing essential support to Michael on the arduous flights to and from UAE.
“A key focus was to provide the build up support for Michael and Natalie and then to be on the ground in UAE for all three team members,” says Rod.
“With Michael the focus was on reinforcing long standing work-ons to help him steer his thoughts and feelings into positive outcomes, regardless of his results. For Natalie, it was more about educating and helping her on the psychology of performance.
“There’s no magic bullet. Rather it’s a case of helping the athletes navigate a big competition, how to manage emotions and expectations, focus on what they can control and, most importantly, helping them have fun and enjoy the experience.”
Rod’s role also extended to the practical aspects of travelling and competing for a para athlete. He is a lifter, shifter and helper.
“For example, Michael needed someone to get his gear, get his food – practical things that eased the challenges he faced.”
Nutrition is another critical support function for the athletes and HPSNZ Performance Nutritionist Rebecca Cooke worked with all three athletes to ensure they were not only nutritionally at their peak heading into the World Championships but that they had options for competition days which could be challenging.
“At the World Championships, athletes didn’t know what time of day they would be competing so an important part of the nutrition preparation was to provide Michael, Natalie and Neelam with multiple scenarios. For example, if they were competing early in the morning, or mid-afternoon or early evening their nutrition plan would differ,” says Rebecca.
“Travelling also imposed some nutritional challenges. Travel schedules, length of flights and stopovers all had an impact on nutritional wellbeing. Michael and Neelam both flew non-stop which removed the problem of stopovers however it meant 19 hours in an aircraft. Electrolyte support and a good intake of fluids was critical but we also needed to manage the amount of fluids. Plane food can be less than ideal for high performance athletes so we advised on the type of snacks for the team to take on flights to supplement the in-flight meals.
“Our primary goal was to have the athletes arrive in good shape and not on the back foot.
“Medication management can also be tricky so getting that right was critical to ensure they arrived in UAE in a positive physical and mental condition.”
The third key support element for the team is from their respective HPSNZ Performance Life Coaches.
Hannah McLean has been working with Neelam for five years and says her role is to support Neelam with a wellbeing plan that creates a solid foundation for her performance. Developing her career, identity outside sport, and time and energy management skills are a key part of this.
“I had a World Championship debrief set up before Neelam left for UAE so we could unpack the whole experience quickly and while it was fresh in our minds. This is extremely important to help set a framework off the range to help her achieve her goal of going to Paris,” says Hannah.
While very new to her role as a HPSNZ Performance Life Coach, Nicola Lewis-Clifford says she has thoroughly immersed herself into the world of Shooting Para Sport and experiencing some of the demands experienced by these athletes, on and off the range.
“Already I’ve learned a lot about the adversities of this sport and the challenges the athletes face day to day and especially when they are competing overseas,” says Nicola.
“For example, before the World Championships, we worked with Natalie on managing energy and organising time efficiently, planning for the future after the World Championships and instigating processes, always with the goal of Paris in her sights.”
Michael, Natalie and Neelam are unanimous in their thanks to their Performance Support team. “Quite simply it absolutely takes a team to get us to the big events in the best shape we can be,” says Michael.