Kids can see that their sport matters now, says coach of the year Hughes
Gary Baker on 21/12/2011
There is no doubt that, even if it is as cold as this summer at next year's Paralympics, Bridgend javelin thrower Nathan Stephens will feel the heat. That heat will be pressure but, thanks to the work of his coach, he won't be in tears as he was the night before the last Paralympics in Beijing.
The reason being that mentor Anthony Hughes, who has nurtured the 23-year-old for the last ten years, will have put his protégé through more than enough of the mill before he even enters the stadium. And Hughes hopes that the template that he and his athlete have created over the ten years they have known each other can be used to help others achieve the golden heights.
Hughes, from Penarth, has been credited with creating the Disability Sport Wales academy where athletes are turned from hopefuls into real contenders.
Stephens' achievements in 2011, which included winning the World Championships in New Zealand last January and breaking the F57 javelin world record in the Czech Republic later on, have highlighted his work which brought the accolade of Sport Wales Coach of the Year to his door in November. But, even with all these achievements in the bag, the goal of London 2012 is the big target for the duo.
Stephens was there at the Welsh Institute of Sport to see Hughes win his award. He also took the Coach of the Year to Disabled Performers as well.
It is a far cry from Beijing when a 19-year-old Stephens was distraught before his Paralympic appearance.
Stephens said: "Anthony is brilliant in what he does. He is a fantastic coach, fantastic mentor and a fantastic friend. He brings us altogether. The night before my javelin in Beijing (Paralympics), I was in tears on the phone to Anthony, saying to him I was not good enough to be here. We can't let that happen in London. I am mentally preparing myself for what is going to come in London.
"There is going to be so much pressure on the athletes in London, but it is learning to cope with that and use it in the right way. Some people will buckle and some will use it to their advantage. Anthony is good at making sure we can implement that during our training, and stressing us out to our max.
"I have been on the phone arguing with him because I wanted to know what time I was training a day later. It is being able to cope with that. This is how he gets us mentally prepared and he is one of the best in doing that."
Hughes says the psychology of the biggest stage of them all will be an important part of Stephens' fate in London. That is why he is trying to give the thrower a significant advantage beforehand. "Nathan is a very emotive athlete - I was emotive. I understand about taking everything to heart, so you try and deflect that," added Hughes.
"I have tried to crank up the pressure massively this year, to try to get some-way to prepare for next year in London. But I have to say that paralympic sport from Wales, as part of the GB team, will be immense next year - it will be epic.
"I think what you need to remember is that, within a Paralympic games, the programme can change overnight. Athletes know a year in advance when they are competing, they have it in their heads and then it is all change.
"I throw in lots of little bits like this. I keep the melting pot going all the time. In training, we work on our weaknesses so that we get strong. We look at one or two per cent here and that and we say 'Let's have a look at what the rest of the world have done'.
"It is only that day when he goes out in that stadium in London, knowing there is nobody else who has trained as hard as him, as technically as good as him, he is loving it - and they are the ones in reverse.
"Beijing for us, taking him at a young age, was a fantastic learning curve. He sat there for 45 minutes in the bronze medal position and then the last thrower took the bronze medal off him.
"Then, in the World Championships, (the guy in bronze at the Paralympics) threw against Nathan and Nathan beat him. Then, in this guy's own Czech Republic Championships, Nathan took the world record and this guy didn't show up.
"So it was sweet revenge, really. I want him to thrive on that. We went there and did that and that is how London is going to be. It is about how you cope with it.
"It is no good trying to dodge it or block it. It is a reality, so deal with it now and get out there. It is the same as a rugby player. How many times a week do those guys convert it and put that ball between the posts?
"They can do it when the pressure is on. That is why we are putting the pressure on now because we have to do it. There are events you don't want to go to. Certain parts of the world are not nice, but you have to."
And their thoughts have advanced even further than the Paralympics next year to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Hughes added: "London is almost done. It is technical phases and we have some speed work to do. We have a little bit of improvement but we are talking about Rio now. Nathan will have five or six of his training partners who will all be on the podium in Rio - there is no two ways about it.
"I would like them to be selected for London to get the same experience as Nathan did in Beijing. The night before he competed in the World Championships in New Zealand last January, I went to see him. I got him to re-boot the spikes in one of my young javelin thrower's boots and he sat there, he had a shower, and was watching a film called 'Never Back Down' on his laptop. He was in a very different place (from Beijing).
"Actually, we had an horrific preparation for that. We were away at a training camp in Portugal when everyone else was doing their Christmas shopping. When we got there (to New Zealand), he got an elbow injury and broke his javelin.
"Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. That is why I know he has gained the strength - he actually told me to calm down myself because I was too pumped. I even thought he was too laid back.
"Nathan still has to go out there and prove his performance and rightly so. We have an on-going code among ourselves that you have to show progression, which is progression in the gym, progression in as an individual, that's progression in your lifestyle management and you see them growing.
"You see how he has grown from a 13-year-old who was cocky young man. We have had to bring some lifestyle disciplines and we have had our ups and downs. I've seen him being down and the best moments of his life but you have to have the passion."
All of this is why Hughes has become one of the leading Paralymic mentors in the UK - and why Stephens is eternally grateful for all this help.
The Sport Wales Coach of the Year Award, though, came as a bolt from the blue - but a very nice bolt.
Hughes said: "These are the guys who do it. I'm lucky to be the one on the technical aspects, the planning side and the overall managing. This is the best job in the world.
"To be recognized like this was a complete shock, I must say. I was not expecting it. I am pleased for the sport, our performance and our academies. Kids who are at home now can see that their sport matters."
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