Meet the unsung heroes of sport

BY Alexis James

21st Mar 2023 Sport

Meet the unsung heroes of sport

A strong backroom entourage forms the backbone to all great athletes and teams. Yet their unheralded talents often go uncredited. It’s time to put some names to the marginal gains.

When pioneering coach David Brailsford led British Cycling through an unprecedented golden era at the Beijing and London Olympics, he famously credited Team GB’s success to a concept he called “marginal gains”.  

He outlined this process as striving to improve every element of riding a bike by 1%. These tiny advancements would, when accumulated together, result in a noticeable increase in performance that could – and often did – prove the difference between silver and gold. 

Crucially, Brailsford believed that nothing should be off limits to the marginal gains’ treatment. That meant that as well as focusing on fitness, strength, and aerodynamics, Brailsford had a view on everything from the pillows his athletes should sleep on to how they should wash their hands. 

What may sound a little intrusive to the rest of us was widely seen within sport as an act of genius. It has since become a blueprint for other elite athletes to follow. But doing so needs more than a visionary coach. It requires an entourage of specialists in every field. Here we wander into sport’s shadows to speak to the unsung heroes of the 1% club. 

The Nutritionist

Kate Shilland places nutrition at the centre of an athlete's potential for success

As well as being a sports nutritionist at Crystal Palace Football Club, Kate Shilland’s client list reads like day one of an Olympics programme. Among her regulars include swimmers, triathletes, ultra-runners, rugby players, and boxers. In 2021, Kate was also part of tennis star Emma Raducanu’s team ahead of the teenager’s breakthrough US Open success. 

Kate thrives on the variety, with each new sport providing new challenges and a renewed appreciation of her chosen field of expertise. “You have to understand nutrition and understand people, and then you can work in any sport,” she says. “In tennis you must learn to be reactive, because you've no idea how long the match is going to last. Whereas football, it's 90 minutes so you know what you're fuelling for.”  

Regardless of the sport, Kate’s ethos remains the same: any athlete failing to respect nutrition, is one who is failing to fulfil their potential. “It is a key part of the training process. It’s not just something that you wing,” says Kate. She advises her athletes to hold nutrition in the same regard as they do their most crucial bit of equipment. “Just as you wouldn’t forget to put your shin pads or your boots in your kit bag, don’t forget to put in your drink and your snack. That informs how well you train. Because you can’t get out if you haven’t put in.’ 

"It is one size fits one. It's what works for you. To be an elite athlete, you need to be an elite eater"

Nutritionists are sometimes unfairly portrayed as militant types dictating what athletes can and can’t eat. But while Kate admits that fighting misinformation is part of the job (“I feel like you’re always battling a fad"), she insists that when is more important than what. “It’s about when’s the right time, and the right amount to have it in,” she says, using the example of a Rice Krispies cereal bar. It may not be recommended as a rugby or football player’s daily snack, but its high sugar content means that it would make an effective half-time option.  

It's a message that Kate says can take a while to sink in. “A lot of boxers say, 'but bananas make you fat, right?', and there's this inherent belief that we mustn't eat those kinds of things. But I'm about not what to cut out. It's about making sure that you've got the foundation right for health and performance. It is one size fits one. It's what works for you. To be an elite athlete, you need to be an elite eater.” 

The Mechanic

Formula One runs on a much smaller scale than rivals such as Mercedes or Red Bull

In most industries, the saying goes that a bad workman blames his tools. But in sport, a competitor can only ever be as good as their equipment permits them to be. That’s never more apparent, than in Formula One.  

“People refer to race cars as being an item, when actually it’s a collection of many items that all come together on a Thursday night, ready for Friday morning,” says Matthew Scott, chief mechanic at Haas F1 racing team. “Then it’s the driver’s tool to make him go around the track as fast as possible.” 

The American-owned team is based in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and runs on a much smaller scale than most of its track rivals. Which means their small but dedicated team of mechanics must work twice as hard, and often twice as long, as their peers at Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull. Matt’s tireless team have been integral to performances that have regularly confounded expectations since Haas’ debut in 2016. 

"Through the eyes of an F1 mechanic, the driver is simply the final component that allows them to realise their own ambitions"

Back then, Matt was one of the first mechanics in the door. He arrived at an empty workshop without a wheel gun or front jack in sight and was forced to hack chunks off the gearbox in a desperate bid to get both cars out on the track. Yet, against all expectations, driver Romain Grosjean finished sixth in Haas’s debut race in Australia. Then they followed it up with a fifth-place finish in the following race in Bahrain. “The immense amount of reward we got from doing something which no one expected was very big. It’ll take a lot to beat that. In anything I do,” remembers Matt. 

To those watching on from the grandstand, a mechanic may be considered service personnel. A walking, talking driver’s toolbox. What is often overlooked is that their competitive edge is as strong as that of the pilot behind the wheel. And so, through the eyes of an F1 mechanic, the driver is simply the final component that allows them to realise their own ambitions.  

“The most successful drivers realise it’s a team sport,” says Matt, offering a glimpse into this mindset. “They realise that the recognition must be more than just them. They haven’t built the car. They haven’t designed the car. They haven’t set the garage up. They haven’t had the car in the wind tunnel. They don’t have the models; they haven’t done the science. There are a lot of people all aiming towards that one goal. A good driver understands that.” 

The Groundsman

John Ledwidge's Sports Turf Academy includes a doctor of sports turf

At Leicester City’s state-of-the-art training ground in rural Seagrave, John Ledwidge oversees the world’s first Sports Turf Academy. With its classrooms, canteen, mechanics’ workshop, and laboratory, John intends for the academy to become a gold standard in the training and education of ground staff. His ambitious venture runs alongside his chief role of maintaining the King Power Stadium pitch to the highest standards in the Premier League. 

"We are a cog in a big machine,” he says, referring to his widely lauded grounds team. “But I think we're quite an important one. The players do up to about 90% of their work on our pitches. And I think it's important that we embrace the understanding of what's going on underneath their feet." 

John’s 50-strong team includes sports scientists and a doctor of sports turf. “That exists, believe it or not,” says John, insisting that today’s grounds staff are more than red faces with dirty fingernails. They are now experts in agronomy, meteorology, business, and technology. “We’re here to produce a platform that they can perform on.” 

The innovation at Leicester means that manager Brendan Rodgers knows the exact length and firmness required of his pitch in order to get the best performance from his players. "We have a massive bearing on the outcome [of a game],” says John. “If we don't get the moisture or the height of a cut right, it could kill a game. And we work closely with our manager. We know what he likes, and he trusts and respects us for what we do.” 

The Chaplain

Simon Bailey is the confidant to may athletes who feel they can't talk to anyone else

Sport isn’t always won on the field of play. Quite often, the key battlefield is in an athlete’s mind. And while psychologists are increasingly sought by sporting institutions keen to cultivate a winning mentality, they are not always the answer when it comes to resolving off-field issues.  

When it comes to athlete wellbeing, Sports Chaplaincy UK provides over 600 chaplains throughout British sport. Their services, described as “pastorally proactive, spiritually reactive”, are offered to those of all faiths or none.  

Simon Bailey is the national chaplain to horse racing. Based in Newmarket, he helps jockeys cope with the pressures of a relentless sport where even its best proponents will lose many more races than they win. “With it being an elite sport, it’s still seen as a sign that you’re weak if you come out with something that you don’t want to be heard. They don’t want to tell their boss,” says Simon. “They maybe don’t even tell their best mate. And so, I’m here as that private and confidential first port of call that means they can get things off their chest.’  

"It’s amazing when, against all odds, somebody pulls through"

A 2019 Racing Welfare survey found that 87% of jockeys had experienced stress, anxiety, or depression in the previous 12 months. “Horse racing is under scrutiny a lot. There’s been a lot of [social media] attacks on jockeys,” says Simon, who then provides a U-rating flavour of the tone. “You didn’t give that horse a great ride, you’re a cheat, you’ve thrown the race. That can go as far as death threats as well. Which you just shake your head at.” 

In an increasingly quarrelsome society, Simon’s sage counsel can prove to be a rare moment of non-judgemental refuge. “A couple of years ago we sat in a room with a jockey who, to all intents and purposes, had blown it. It was all over. And I didn’t really do anything but sit in that room when nobody else would. He understood what he’d done wrong. He understood what he had to do to put it right. He went above that, and he’s back doing what he loves. It’s amazing when, against all odds, somebody pulls through.” 

Unsung: Not All Heroes Wear Kits, by Alexis James, is out now on Pitch Publishing. Head to Unsungbook.com for more. 


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