In this episode, I discuss the support provided to Parasport athletes. I speak with Dr Mike Hutchinson of the British Paralympic Association to consider this in more detail. On the show, we discuss the nature and extent of support provided to athletes, the influence and role of classification, and how the BPA are supporting athletes in the lead-up to the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
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Transcript of Disability Sport Info episode, ‘High-Performance Sport: Athlete Services’
Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Dr Michael Hutchinson (Participant – Athlete Services Manager, British Paralympic Association, United Kingdom)
[00:00:29] Dr Christopher Brown: I'm delighted to have Dr. Mike Hutchinson from the British Paralympic Association with me today. We're gonna be focusing on the support that athletes receive to try and get the maximum amount out of their abilities and to help them prepare for the Paralympic Games.
Now, Mike is an Athlete Services Manager at the British Paralympic Association. Previously, he was at Loughborough University at the Peter Harrison Research Centre. So he's got a wealth of experience to draw upon and it's great to have him on the show. So welcome, Mike. First of all, I think it's probably best to actually define what an Athlete Services Manager is.
So are you able to explain what your role requires you to do, please?
[00:01:06] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks for having me. It's great to, it's great to be on. I'm Athlete services manager, where my primary responsibility is to lead on our classification work within the British Paralympic Association.
But I guess for some more background context, I obviously then, as my title would suggest, I sit within our Athletes Services team. So within our Athlete Services team, there are four of us. So we are led by our head of Athlete Services. There is me as Athlete Services Manager and we have two Athlete Services Officers as well.
One who primarily supports me from a classification perspective. And then another one in our team as well. And then slightly more broadly, our Athlete Services teams fits within our sports team or our sport directorate. And that sport directorate is one of the, is one of five different directorates that we have at the BPA as well.
So within my role as Athlete Services Manager. So yes, whilst I do focus primarily on classification ,more generally within athlete services, we also have our mandated activities around anti-doping and safeguarding, welfare, and wellbeing. When it comes to more Games time, we also do a lot of work with friends and family.
We know the importance that they play in our athlete's performance. So we put on specific activities around supporting our friends and family as well. And then also just generally throughout our work, we're aiming to identify ways that we can include athlete, the athlete voice and the athlete perspective in any of the projects that we're ultimately having and that are going on within the BPA.
Advocating for the athlete voice and the athlete perspective in, in that way. To make sure that what we're doing is having the most impact and is actually representing athletes and going to serve the athletes in the best way is ultimately what we want to help be able to achieve.
I think actually from the BPA's perspective, it's very much now not just about delivering and the success at the Games. Yes, absolutely, we want to deliver the best prepared team that we can to the Games, and that's one of our two strategic objectives.
But we have a second strategic objective around delivering lasting social impact and social change within the country as well, and ultimately with our vision to improve the lives of disabled people within the country. And hopefully creating the platform and using the successes that our athletes can have on the field of play, and also have wider impact in society as well.
[00:03:28] Dr Christopher Brown: In terms of the support that you provide, obviously, the, the support that some athletes require might differ from another athletes in terms of their support because the nature of their impairment, the nature of the sport or whatever it might be. So how is provision provided to cater for the individual lived experience of each athlete?
[00:03:48] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. Each athlete is an individual anyway, but then we have the nature of their impairment and their condition that they have as well to factor into any support that's provided. Clearly, on a day-to-day basis, the athletes in their sports will have their own support networks within their programmes that they have.
And, you know, that will vary slightly from sports sport, kind of based on the need that they identify, but also potentially, you know, financial implications as well and what they can afford. That support, you know, on a day to day could range from obviously coaching and training support, and, for example, physiotherapy and medical support, strength and conditioning, physiology, nutrition, psychology, performance, lifestyle, all sorts, you know, kind of different types of support that can be provided. I guess what we're looking to do from a BPA perspective, particularly around planning towards the Games, is to work with each of the sports across that whole cycle to identify what their needs will be. What the specific needs that they have are as a result of the athlete group that they have, the impairment types that they do have, and then how we can supplement that and work with them as the BPA to then make sure that it's the most appropriate and that everyone has the support that is needed.
So, for example, if we know that there are a large number of sports that are going to need some expertise in a particular discipline. So for example, nursing, then we'll make sure that support is going to then be available.
So it's really through working with the sports throughout that cycle that we can identify where that need is going to be to make sure that we are then able to provide it.
[00:05:26] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. And for listeners who maybe aren't aware, the BPA is a charity, I'm pretty sure that's correct. Yep. And your sources of funding and finance are obviously, you know, as for any charity, you have to obviously get the funding and you have to depend on other sources of income. So there's a finite budget, obviously, that exists and that would be the case of course, for any organisation, but particularly for you as a charity.
So how can you ensure each athlete is provided the support that they require for their needs? Is there a ranking system that is used in terms of the amount of support that is provided, depending on whether they're likely to win a medal or whether they're, you know, new to the sport, or the nature of their impairment?
Like how does it get decided how much money and income is spent on athletes and from which sports?
[00:06:10] Dr Mike Hutchinson: For us, the Paralympics GB team is one whole team, and it's our responsibility to support that whole team irrespective of their need, their medal potential, their experience, their historical performances. And it's absolutely about, what do they need to be able to go out onto the field of play in order to deliver their best performance?
And so we will do whatever is within our control to make sure that every member of our team, whether they're an athlete or a member of staff, is able to do that. And that's what we pride ourselves on.
[00:06:41] Dr Christopher Brown: Let's move on to a topic where you're more familiar with and more comfortable with. So, classification. So you said a lot of your work is focused on supporting athletes in terms of the classification process.
So would you be able to explain to our listeners how athletes are supported throughout the classification process?
[00:06:58] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. So, classification obviously paramount to Paralympic sport, a fundamental part of it, but one that probably can provide a lot of potential for the stress and negative experiences for our athletes.
So supporting them in the lead up to, and throughout the process and following the process, obviously very important. It's an athlete's right or they have the ability to be accompanied by someone throughout the classification process.
For those that aren't aware, as part of classification, an athlete has to go to an event and be seen by a panel of classifiers. And those classifiers are going to perform a number of assessments on that athlete. And that will usually be buffets for a physical impairment. It will involve some sort of physical tests of the athlete themselves. But they're allowed to have someone that can support them, that can be in there from their support team to be there whilst that process is happening.
They can be there to help explain maybe what's going on or why that's happening. But that person could also have a really important role to play. For example, if the outcome of the classification is not what the sport and the athlete were hoping for, then there may be a protest or an appeal that they can submit, so that person then becomes really important in being able to identify what happened there and then maybe what they may be able to challenge. So I think it's really, it's really important that, whoever is going to be accompanying that athlete through that process, has a relationship and has a certain level of trust, in respect to that athlete, so that the athlete, you know, is going to feel comfortable with that person whilst they're in that classification event.
You know, preparing the person that's going to be accompanying them as much as supporting the athlete in the process is a really important thing to do. Because that person does have an important job to play. I think what's really important to do from an athlete's perspective as well is to educate them before they are going to be going for classification.
I don't think it's f air or right that an athlete could turn up to classification and not know what to expect and to not know what's going to happen. You know, I came from a research world. If we wanted to do a research study on someone, they have to give informed consent before we were able to do any testing on them.
In many ways it should be the same from a classification perspective and that the athlete should be fully informed of what's going to happen. There are cases where that hasn't been the case. Not just in our country, but definitely in other nations as well. I would say that this is definitely still something we need to develop and to build on and improve, so that everyone can be fully informed of what is going to happen and, you know, what the potential outcomes could be and what's going to be expected of them. And also what they can expect of classifiers and things and whatnot as well.
I'd like to think that we have good levels of support that we can provide to our athletes going through classification. But, yeah, definitely still some more to do, I think, around how we prepare our athletes for it as well.
[00:09:49] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. And in terms of that education what do you offer to athletes to help them understand the classification process? Because I know you've listened to the podcast episode with Janet Lawson about classification, you know, she was talking about athlete involvement and the fact that, of course, these are people who have different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge, different levels of experience with their impairment or whatever it might be.
So, yeah, how do we enable athletes to be empowered and to be able to ask questions when they are being assessed? And so they do feel fully informed before they go to the classification process? So, what kind of resources are being offered at the moment by the BPA?
[00:10:23] Dr Mike Hutchinson: We, so we have a few resources that we can use and I think on our classification page, on our website. I think, you know, we do have a really nice video around as an intro to classification video. I think it's a really good entry level explainer of what the basic premise or purpose of classification is, and some of those initial steps into it.
But I think, whilst that's a brilliant initial resource and does give a really good overview, I think to be able to make sure that those athletes are fully informed, then more is needed than just that.
This educational work would've been done on a kind of individual sport by sport basis, and the kind of been the NGBs and sports and national governing bodies would've almost taken it upon themselves to do what they can. I think it's probably fair to say that this could be pretty hit and miss. Particularly dependent on the level of classification knowledge that may be within the governing body, and the resource and time that they kind of have in order to dedicate to this as well.
So this is absolutely something that we're looking to do and I'm looking to do as the BPA and how can we join this up and how can we coordinate this across the board, and supply greater range of resources, information, content, so that our sports then have a greater range tools at their disposal to be able to then deliver this, in the way that is most appropriate for them. Because I think the challenge we have as the BPA is obviously we're one organisation and we are working with, what, 19, 20 summer sports and three or four winter sport as well to try and deliver on this.
So, I think it's really important that we have a role to coordinate and support and provide generic information, resources, tools. But then the sports then can take it and apply it within their own context so they know their sport the best, they know the way they will work and their set best.
It'll then be up for us to kind then work with them on that more individual level to make sure that they're delivering this. We've got a way to go. But I think, in the next year or so, I think we're hoping to make some really big strides in the space.
[00:12:24] Dr Christopher Brown: We know obviously that classification does vary, and that's also a factor that sports have to be aware of. So, during the classification process, some athletes, and I don't think it's necessarily commonplace, but it can occur that some athletes end up being, in effect, retired from the elite level of sport if they have become declassified, so they no longer meet the eligibility criteria.
So, first of all, could you explain why that can happen or how that can happen? And also what is the support provided to athletes that go through this? So if there's a British athlete who has become declassified, how would you support them following that?
[00:12:57] Dr Mike Hutchinson: That's a, really good question.
So, ultimately, it could happen for a number of reasons as to why someone, maybe, was classified out of the sport. So, for example, the sport may have changed their eligibility rules. So within classification we have something called minimum impairment criteria. So, basically, within each Paralympic sport, not only do you have to have an impairment caused by an underlying health condition, but that impairment has to be of a certain level before you would be eligible for that sport.
So, in theory, it is possible that you could have an impairment but it not be severe enough to make you eligible for the sport. So, for example, if, say, a sport had conducted some research and then as a result of that research, they found that their minimum impairment criteria needed to change, if they change for example, that you needed to then become more impaired before you were eligible.
It could mean that if someone was close to that threshold beforehand, that because that threshold has moved, that they would therefore not be eligible anymore. And we have seen that in recent years that there are some people that have been made not eligible because of that. So that's one reason; it could be changing classification rules.
It could be that the person's condition has changed to a point that they may not meet eligibility or rules anymore. It could be the classification profile of the sport changes. So maybe some of their boundaries change between some of their sport classes.
This could obviously then have an impact, potentially, on an athlete's medal event, which for example, impacted on maybe their ability to be competitive within the class that they then came in. They've not effectively been classified out, but it might be that they therefore don't have that same medal potential, so then maybe they aren't supported.
So there's a few different ways in that people can be effectively classified out of the sport.
I think the level of support that gets given at that stage, I think can vary. I think if we were to see, say, what should be the level of support, then there should be processes in place, and ideally that the sport would have within their support team, in order to aid that transition out of the sport.
I think there's much more of a focus now on athletes having avenues of focus, and not just being solely focused on being an athlete, but having other focuses as well, be that, for example, study, or other opportunities of work, for example.
And that's all with a view that your athletic career could end at any point. You know, not just because of classification, but because of injury, for example. There should be the support in order to aid with them in that transition out of the sport, if it has been the case that they have been classified out.
And that support could require psychological help. It may be mental health aspect to that as well. There may just be support required around just making the general adjustments. They're not getting off in training every day and things like that. So I think there'll be an element of individual aspects to this as well.
But having resource there to make sure that they are supported in that process, it would be really, really important that, you know, just because they're now not part of the programme or not on the team anymore, they've gone through a traumatic experience and a destabilising experience. So there should be that support in place to make sure that they can navigate through that in the best way possible.
[00:16:18] Dr Christopher Brown: And are athletes prepared for this eventuality? Rather than the support just being made aware to them once they have gone through this process, are all athletes made aware that at any point during your classification it could be, or your career, it could be that you become declassified? Are they aware of that from the beginning or during their athletic careers?
[00:16:38] Dr Mike Hutchinson: I would say, are all athletes aware of that? Then, the answer is almost certainly no. In theory, the sports classification rules could change at any point because of emerging research showing new findings about the relationship between impairment and performance.
So should athletes be aware that this is a possibility? Then, absolutely, yes. That's on us as the BPA and as governing bodies to again make sure that people are fully aware of what can happen. And, unfortunately, it is a consequence that can and does happen. So yes, absolutely, athletes should be aware of it, if they aren't.
[00:17:09] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, so it's probably fair to say that needs to be looked at going forward to ensure that athletes are prepared. It's never a nice subject to talk about, you know, they could be young and just starting their career and saying, oh, actually, by the way, there could be that possibility you don't carry on as an elite athlete!
[00:17:22] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, there is some work that's been done around athlete transitions and para athlete transitions out of sport. And, you know, for all sorts of different reasons that can happen. But I think particularly if it's classification related, it could be extremely difficult to take.
So, being fully aware of what could happen is really important that we make athletes aware of as early as possible.
[00:17:44] Dr Christopher Brown: And this may be a silly question, so please humour me for this particular question. Is it possible to be classified, then declassified and then reclassified into the sport?
Is it game over completely if you become declassified, as in there's absolutely no prospect of you being able to get back in the sport? Or is it that you're declassified for now, but who knows, you could potentially get a route back in? Has that ever happened?
[00:18:07] Dr Mike Hutchinson: I won't say that it never happens because I don't know for sure. So it's possible that it could have done. In theory, it would be possible to be declassified, so be in the sport, to be declassified at the sport and to be classified back in. It would be possible if new evidence came around to an international federation, which allowed them, or compelled them to change their classification system.
Then, in theory, and again, if I go back to that example I gave earlier around minimum impairment criteria that they can change based on kind of, if new evidence was available around the relationship between impairment and performance, it's unlikely that that's gonna continually change. But in theory, it's possible, but it's just very unlikely.
So again, if someone had a really borderline level of impairment in relation to that threshold or to that criteria. If that criteria did move up and down, then someone could be not eligible, then eligible. But in reality, the research and things that are required in order to change a system for that level takes years.
It takes a long time to do. So, in reality, whilst that could happen, it's very, very unlikely ever to.
If someone is declassified because of the type of condition and the impairment that they have. So, within Paralympic sport, there are 10 eligible impairments, and you have to have one of those eligible impairments to be eligible for Paralympic sport.
So there are cases in the past where a sport's rules have allowed people with a non-eligible impairment to compete in that sport. When the IPC have found that out and have made the sport change their rules, and some people have been made not eligible because they've got a non-eligible condition, unless there are changes to the IPC's list of eligible impairments, then that person would not unfortunately have a route back into the Paralympic sport.
[00:20:02] Dr Christopher Brown: I mean, as equivocal as you can be as a scientist, I think basically saying that it's very unlikely. Of course, you can never rule it out, but yeah, the chances are, because you'd have to have high level of evidence and high level of quality evidence to change the classification, in the first place, then it'd have to take even higher levels of evidence probably to go back.
Okay. Alright, well, thank you for that. I think it wasn't a horrendously bad question. It was not too bad. No, you probably don't get asked it much. But yeah, thank you for answering it.
So I'd like to turn to mental health now if that's okay. So obviously we know mental health is important for everybody, not just athletes, but, you know, just general society. So it's an important topic. So how are athletes and their mental health supported and safeguarded?
[00:20:45] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. And quite rightly, the focus on mental health has increased massively in, in recent years. And, like you say, not just an athlete's perspective, but also from a staffing perspective.
I would say again, on a day-to-day basis, the athletes' support teams that they have within their programmes, hopefully, would have someone in there with a focus to be able to support and monitor athletes’ mental health on that day-to-day basis. From a BPA's perspective, the way that we support that happened in Tokyo for the first time, in that we did have a designated mental health lead as part of the sports science and medicine team that we had. So the central team that we provide to supplement sports individuals, teams, we had a mental health lead as part of that. That was the first time I believe, I think I'm right, saying that was the first time that we had that as the BPA, as Paralympics GB.
The benefit that they gave was huge. It was, you know, very difficult Games with all the kind of Covid overlay that we had in Tokyo as well. So I think the benefit that person was able to give us the lead was massive. What we had as the BPA was this number of mental health champions within all of our environments as well.
And these were people that had obviously not training to the same level as the lead, who was a clinical psychologist, but they had a level of mental health training and awareness in order to, you know, be aware of I guess what potential issues may happen in such a situation over the Games, but also have the skills in order to have appropriate levels of conversations with people and to be able to listen, support, and provide the empathy and the level of awareness that's needed in those situations to support someone through, but then also, I guess to then be aware of any next steps and follow ups that may be needed as well.
And this is something that's then continued on since. So it was continued in Beijing for the Winter Games, just over a year or about a year ago. And we'll continue on into Paris and beyond as well. So making sure that, I guess mental health support is just embedded into the everyday networks that we have on, support teams that we have out there in other Games, and now how we had them in all the environments as well.
Most of our team, or a lot of our team will be based in the Paralympic Village itself, but then we have lots of, particularly our staff team who are based out of village and then maybe not in the village on a day-to-day basis. So again, making sure that we have mental health support in place for our staff that are in those environments.
[00:23:13] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay, great. And you mentioned Paris. There's a nice segue into my next question. So we are recording this conversation on the 17th of February 2023. So, what are we, a year and a half away.
Yeah. So I mean, it sounds a long time, but obviously as you're in the industry, you know, it's not a very long time, so it's obviously getting closer and closer by the day.
So how are athletes supported to maximise their ability and hopefully medal at the Paris Games?
[00:23:38] Dr Mike Hutchinson: They'll have fantastic support teams around them on a day-to-day basis that, you know, are fully in control of all of their training programmes and everything that they'll need to do from the performance perspective to make sure that they're in peak condition from the, you know, physical and mental perspective when they go.
What we do from the BPA's perspective is to work with their sports support teams in order to kind of plan across the whole Games cycle so that, again, to identify what their requirements are when they're in Paris, and to work as best as we can to make sure that we can deliver on those and deliver them for them.
It involves a lot of our team, a lot of members of our team to identify all the different types of support that's required. But I guess, ultimately, the approach is to take any of the worry of that away from the athlete, so that they purely just have to focus on what they need to focus on, which is getting themselves in the right shape.
And it's training, it's recovering, it's having their downtime, and then just focusing on their, being able to turn up and focus on their performance, and not have to worry about any of the rest of it.
So, you know, I guess best way to say, yeah, it's just the best way to support them is to try and do as much of the rest of the stuff for them as possible so that they can just do what they do best, which is go out there on the field of play and deliver those amazing performances that they do.
[00:24:59] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Okay, so I think just to draw the conversation to a close, if you were to summarise, maybe, key points or key aspects of what standard athlete support is, what would it look like and are we there yet?
[00:25:13] Dr Mike Hutchinson: I mean, I think the simple answer to that last one is no.
Realistically, there's probably always things that we can do better in all of our work. And we would continually aspire to always do better anyway, even if we felt that we have done something that was really good.
What does gold standard support look like? I mean, you have to know the person, you have to understand the individual.
And I think that, you know, that is obviously particularly relevant within Paralympic sport when we have, you know, not just different personal skills, attributes, qualities that different people have anyway. But understanding that person's impairment, the condition that they have, and the needs that this gives. I think had examples or heard examples before of where, you know, athletes saying themselves, they've been working with a practitioner who hasn't understood them as a person, hasn't understood the condition that they have, and has effectively just tried to treat them and work with them as if they were a non-disabled athlete: that's never going to work in Paralympic sport.
The most important thing is to understand the context and to understand the person that you're gonna be working with. From that, you know, I think ultimately accepts that we're not gonna know anything ourselves, but they're probably the best fountain of knowledge that when working with a Para athlete that we can have is the athlete themselves as well. And use them and learn from them, in order to infuse them with the technical expertise that we hopefully would have in order to apply that to be able to then support them in the best way.
[00:26:35] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay, great. I mean, that's a common theme that I'm getting from these interviews with the high-performance sport angle is obviously keep the individual in mind.
Yes, you can have a set of best practice and guidelines, of course, but don't be completely dominated by it or directed by it. You have to have the individual in mind to make it the best for them.
[00:26:53] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Absolutely. You need to have the ability to adapt your approach and to be flexible and to, you know, to change your approach when needed to meet the requirements of the athlete.
That's who we're doing it for. That's what we're doing it for. We're not, you know, we're not going out there and doing the performance ourselves. So it's all about the athletes. It should be all about the athlete and doing what they require.
[00:27:15] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Alright, well, it's been really great chatting to you, Mike.
I've really enjoyed it. I really do value you taking your time out of your very busy schedule to speak with me today. And I think the listeners have definitely gained a greater insight in terms of how the BPA, the British Paralympic Association, support athletes and your role in particular.
So thank you for that.
[00:27:32] Dr Mike Hutchinson: No, no problem. It's been fun and, yeah, hopefully people have been able to get a bit of an insight and they found it interesting. Thank you.
[00:27:39] Dr Christopher Brown: I really enjoyed chatting to you and I look forward to catch up with you soon.
[00:27:42] Dr Mike Hutchinson: Great. Thanks very much.
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