The 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony gets underway today (February 9, 2018) and earlier this winter SOURCE headed out to GB Park & Pipe’s training facility in Livigno, Italy to take a look at their secret weapon and to find out more about their innovative coaching philosophy, ‘Radical Gains’. Standing at 60m long, 23m wide and weighing in at 7.5 tonnes, the secret weapon is an enormous airbag ripe for maximising performance. By Harry Mitchell Thompson.
It’s been an incredible four years for British snowboarding since Jenny Jones won her bronze medal in slopestyle’s debut at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a pretty remarkable story considering the UK, despite some rather fickle mountains in Scotland, isn’t blessed with the sort of terrain one might expect for breeding Olympic snowboard medallists. Nevertheless, an extremely healthy indoor and dry slope scene coupled with said mountains has bred many fantastic skiers and snowboarders over the years but it’s with thanks to the birth of GB Park & Pipe in 2010 that really created the structure needed to nourish the current crop of top freestyle skiers and snowboarders representing Great Britain on an international level.
Heading the charge is Olympian Lesley McKenna, GB Park & Pipe’s Performance Manager who after her days as a professional snowboarder and her team management role at Roxy, completed a Masters degree in Performance Coaching at Sterling University and now, tooled with some serious performance coaching theory has developed a fascinating learned approach, which serves as the modus operandi for GB Park & Pipe.
They’ve named the approach Radical Gains, which is GB Park & Pipe’s take on marginal gains – the 1% improvement in all aspects of cycling said to result in remarkable overall improvement – and they’ve coined the phrase to describe the moment when “all the stars align,” says Lesley. “The risk factor is always high in a new trick in our world, so when all the stars align and everything feels right and the athlete’s feeling good, and they nail that new trick they’ve been prepping for a long time, that’s a special moment and something that doesn’t happen that often. Radical Gains aren’t something that happen in increments. Because when you’re going from a 1080 to a 1260, you can’t do it in 10 degree increments, it has to be a Radical Gain from 1080 to 1260.”
The underlying coaching philosophy behind Radical Gains comes from a motivational psychology theory called self-determination theory and Lesley also described some fascinating biochemistry at play. “There are some really interesting chemicals that allow you to perform slightly above your current performance level; endorphins and the likes of DMT are chemicals that people are only just starting to study now – the chemicals that put you in the zone.” And it’s these chemicals that kick in when very skilful and experienced athletes are under very high risk, and allow them to work right at the edge of their capabilities. “We obviously want to reduce that risk, so this airbag is part of minimizing the risk under those circumstances.”
An airbag of this scale is something that GB Park & Pipe’s head snowboard coach, Hamish McKnight has been plotting for the best part of a decade: “I’ve been working on drawings, ideas, and designs for airbags like this and others as far back as 2008/09.” The airbag itself is a grand feat of engineering; designed by Dutch company, Big Airbag the bag arrived in 10 parts and took six days to assemble, with Mottolino Snowpark creating 16,000 cubic metres of snow for the setup, which allows for jumps to be performed at full size (18-25m) providing airtime of 2.1 – 2.9 seconds, allowing for even the most technical of tricks. A replica jump alongside the airbag jump will allow for athletes to then transfer their newly learned tricks onto a snow landing.
Looking at the airbag as a tool for progression, Hamish surmises just how the athletes will benefit from this type of training. “Repetition under reduced risk allows each rider to focus on specific mechanics and elements of trick execution without fear of injury in the landing. They get the chance to perform full tricks over and over until they are confident enough to take them to snow,” Hamish says, concluding, “the chance to experiment with different mechanics in reduced risk allows athletes the opportunity to acquire skills much faster.”
GB Park & Pipe snowboarder Katie Ormerod was bowled over by the progress she’d experienced on the airbag, even just after the first full morning of practice: “I worked on my cab 9s, which before I wasn’t grabbing for long enough and after just that first session I could really feel I was grabbing it and tweaking it for way longer. I’m stoked!”
GB Park & Pipe’s Radical Gains philosophy is equal parts intriguing and inspiring and their huge airbag is a sight to behold. Airbags will surely now become more and more commonplace in freestyle coaching and it’s exciting to see just where they will take the progression of the sport.