In at the deep end: training Sheffield’s diving athletes

Diving board

To celebrate the launch of our new Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre website, we are shining a spotlight on our sports and physical activity research groups.

Tim Vernon of our Sport and Human Performance Research Group is currently involved in developing a 20-year retrospective of Sheffield Hallam University’s relationship with the City of Sheffield Diving Club and GB Diving.

Tim Vernon

Tim Vernon

Speaking about the relationship, Tim told us, “Sheffield has a history in Olympic diving that stretches back to the mid-1980s when the City of Sheffield Diving Club was based at Sheaf Valley Baths, now the site of Ponds Forge International Centre. Our association with the sport and with Sheffield’s divers dates to the inception of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sport and Exercise Science in 2000. Since then, we have supported athletes competing at national and international competitions, including the Olympics Games, Commonwealth Games, and World Championships.”

Tim also recently interviewed Dave Hembrough (strength and conditioning coach) and Tom Owens (head coach at City of Sheffield Diving Club) about how our Sport and Human Performance Research Group supports the development of divers in Sheffield . . .

Dave, can you tell us a bit more about the work you do with Tom and his diving athletes?

Dave Hembrough (DH): I’ve been delivering sport science and strength and conditioning support to diving athletes since 2012. During this time, we have seen junior divers become seniors, champions and retire. The full athlete lifecycle.

And, Tom, you’re the head coach, can you tell us what the work you do with Dave does for the club?

Tom Owens (TO): Sheffield Diving club is a dynamic and inclusive club with a wide programme for social, recreation and competitive diving. The purpose of the work with Sheffield Hallam University is to optimise the physical development of our elite pathway divers to help them perform and win at the highest level possible.

You’ve mentioned strength and conditioning but, without giving away any trade secrets, what is it specifically that you do with them?

DH: It boils down to a simple recipe physically. The need to run fast, jump high, twist, and turn gracefully in the air and enter the water cleanly and safely.  But the biggest challenge of working with divers is that it’s a sport that requires great ‘feel’. A diver’s awareness of their body and movement in time and space is important in their practice.

Sounds like a tricky balancing act.

DH:  It is. The approach we take is a slow, steady, and progressive one. Build key technical abilities in the gym, increase strength, power and robustness over time and allow these physical qualities to transfer into their diving. Key exercises include squats, Olympic lifts, deadlifts and pulls, lots of jump variations and a range of core and upper body exercises.

Does this approach work for you, Tom?

TO: Definitely. The impact of this approach is that it builds strong, confident, and capable athletes who know their body, are committed to their training, and experience gradual, sustained progress over a long period of time. We’re getting happy, healthy, fit, and strong athletes who perform well and are able to compete at international and Olympic levels.

Obviously, the strength and conditioning work is only one part of a divers training; how do you balance the need to work hard in the gym with the need to be able to still perform in the pool?

DH: They can feel fatigued occasionally, which impacts on how we train them. If they aren’t fresh while practicing then the session might not be worthwhile or, at worse, it could be dangerous. In our programming we use a traffic light system for recuperation, progressive and impact weeks. The divers all know what this means and buy in fully to the training process.

I aim to educate the athletes and give them autonomy and ownership of their programme. An example of this is that we include them in the decision-making process around exercise selection and how they want to progress. For example, do they want to lift more weight, do more reps, use additional sets, or take less rest?

TO: The emphasis of their training will change dependant on the time of year and the competition calendar. During pre-season we want to push them physically and it’s ok for them to feel fatigued during the pool sessions. As we move towards competition, it’s important that they are coming fresh to pool sessions, the divers know how they should feel and having worked with them for so long, Dave knows how hard he can push them in the gym without compromising their ability to perform in the pool.  When you’re stood on the edge of the platform, ten metres above the water, there’s no room for error, everything has to be right.

You talk about autonomy and ownership, sounds like this might have come in handy over the past 12 months when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?

DH: The last year has been really challenging. For a large part of it, we’ve not been able to deliver face-to-face training and obviously with gyms closed, athletes haven’t necessarily had access to the right sort of equipment.  We’ve had to be innovative and work hard to look after the athletes. As a minimum, it’s important that we help the athletes retain their physical qualities during this disruption and help them move forward and improve where possible.

So what’s next for the programme and the divers?

DH: For as long as they want us, we’ll continue to work with Tom and his divers. We’re constantly developing new ways of challenging the athletes, which keeps the programme interesting and hopefully one step ahead of the competition.

TO: Yeah, we’ve got a number of our divers on world-class programmes, which means they have the potential to compete on the world stage. We’d love to see them challenging for Olympic places and, ultimately, winning medals.






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