Jamaicans say relax | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Jamaicans say relax

Frankie Conway describes his time volunteering with the Jamaican track and field team and how their fun approach lit up their time at the university...

Usain Bolt found many ways to make training an enjoyable experience

Frankie Conway describes his time volunteering with the Jamaican track and field team and how their fun approach lit up their time at the university...

Two weeks away from the start of the Olympic games - the biggest sporting event on the planet, the pinnacle of an athlete's career. This period carries massive significance for an Olympic track and field athlete. It is the time when final preparations are made, training is meticulously calculated and minds become fixed upon the looming, career defining competition that represents a lifetime of sacrifice and toil.

If this is the blueprint, the majority of the Jamaican athletics team clearly haven't read it. In fact, the above approach could not be more different to the relaxed, flexible style that characterised the Jamaican method during their two week pre-Olympic training camp at the University of Birmingham.

You often hear top sports people speak of the importance of down-time, moments away from training or competition where an athlete seeks relaxation and distraction, perhaps a lighter hobby which takes the athlete away from the pressure vacuum of their relentless profession. But here lies another key element that separates Jamaica from the norm and perhaps goes a long way to explaining their meteoric rise to athletics prominence in the last four years. Quite simply, athletics is their hobby. Far from being a chore, the regular track sessions completed by the Jamaican team came across as a carnival-like social event.

Training represented a time of expression. The athletes cracked regular jokes, played practical tricks on each other and nearly all went about their work with a broad smile on their face. At the heart of the banter was of course the showman himself, Usain Bolt. The man who is undoubtedly the talk of the games spent time laughing with friend and rival Yohan Blake, running into a lane to interfere with a particular 4x100m relay training session with the women sprinters, and grabbing a trackside megaphone at the end of a session, barking out 'get your knees up man' to his teammates who were still training.

A lot can be learned from this sort of method. While some of the athletes are more intense and regimented in their approach, flexibility and enjoyment are two key themes practised by most of the Jamaican athletes. In my position as a volunteer on the camp I had the privilege of speaking to Blake, current 100m world champion, one evening outside his accommodation block. The 22-year-old emphasised this adaptable approach, stating that training was often adjusted according to the weather conditions and his feeling during the day.

Much like the athletes' relaxed approach to training, the Jamaican stars were just as chilled during their time away from the track. The majority were happy to stop and chat to the volunteers. It was also rare to see an athlete spending time alone, as they seemed to enjoy each other's company, playing football computer games, dominos, as well as exchanging regular banter between themselves. You could have been forgiven for thinking that these two weeks represented a vacation in Birmingham for the Jamaican team, not the two weeks of crucial preparation before the biggest event of their careers.

Far from seeking to rein in the free-spirit that resides strongly within the Jamaican camp, the management set-up instilled a very loose system which granted the athletes a large degree of autonomy. In stark contrast to the iron fist approach adopted by the British athletics manager Charles van Commennee, Ludlow Watts, the Jamaican team manager, and his team seemed to employ a far more standoffish style. Curfews, rules and regulations didn't appear to carry much weight within the Jamaican system. The athletes were given freedom to visit the sites of Birmingham's city centre, eat the foods they wanted and even sample the vibrant night scene on Broad street.

While such a strategy may seem contradictory to most textbook approaches which emphasise eating the right foods and getting enough sleep as basic tenants underpinning the lifestyle of a professional athlete, this unrestrictive system clearly benefits the Jamaican way. Allowing the athletes to be uninhibited by rules means the charismatic personality of the Jamaican stars is undisturbed. For me this has been a vital ingredient that has allowed their athletes to flourish on the international stage. Take away their freedom, dampen their fun, dilute the fun-loving personalities and the performances on the track may well suffer. If the athletes were conditioned to be serial professionals, intense, manically focused competitors, then the individuality of the Jamaican athletes would be quashed. The best outcomes in life often come when one seeks to be themselves. Re-write the Jamaican cultural ethos and you'd take away the expression and humour which has helped propel Jamaica to the summit of world athletics.

On a more personal note, my time working with the Jamaican team was a real dream come true. It was an absolute privilege spending time with the athletes - chatting about the changeable English weather and the history of Caribbean cricket - as well as being able to watch them train, where I got a real insight into their professionalism and discipline. These experiences will live with me forever and I will most certainly be cheering hard for the athletes from this colourful Caribbean island alongside the heroic Olympians of Great Britain.


3rd August 2012 at 9:50 am