March is an exciting month for gymnastics in Britain, with the 2019 Gymnastics British Championships and the 2019 Gymnastics World Cup taking place on consecutive weeks.
In the latest in a series of interviews with key staff, we caught up with James Thomas, British Gymnastics Performance Director, about the role he plays and the aims for our high-level gymnasts leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and beyond.
Help us understand your role as Performance Director.
"My role as Performance Director is being accountable for the performance arm of British Gymnastics. This means the international performance of all our disciplines; from the Olympic funded disciplines of men’s artistic, women’s artistic and trampoline, but also the British Gymnastics funded disciplines such as acrobatic, aerobic, TeamGym and rhythmic. Although rhythmic is Olympic, it’s not part of our UK Sport funding.
"I’m responsible for the whole team and the performances of the different strands. We have a team of around 25 British Gymnastics staff who deliver the programme, ranging from coaches through to administrators and managers. In addition, we work with the English Institute of Sport (EIS) who deliver our sports science and medicine services. This consists of around 23 contractors, ranging from nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists, through to sports physicians, so that makes our team 48 people, meaning it’s a fairly big team."
What’s the thing you’re most passionate about?
"I’m most passionate about working with the gymnasts. My background is that I was a rugby player to a fairly high level, and I had big dreams which were taken away through injury. When I regrouped after retiring at 21, it was all about what I was going to do next. For me, it was if I can’t do it myself, then I want to help other people achieve. There’s something very special about the Olympics as it captures people’s attention, it really ignites a passion within the British public, and I wanted to be a part of it."
What are the biggest challenges you face and what are you doing to tackle them?
"The big challenge is expectation. Obviously, the Rio Olympic Games was fantastic for Great Britain as a whole but also for British Gymnastics, winning seven medals which had never been done before. That creates the expectation of being able to do it again, so there’s a challenge around that.
"There’s a balance needed around our ambition and the athletes we have right now. The gymnasts want to have the same success, but I have to be sure that when we say it, that we have the evidence behind us to succeed. This is where a lot of our analysis comes in, and the coaching expertise we have, to say what medals we are going to challenge for.
"I have to manage the relationship with UK Sport, who put a big amount of funding in to the world class programme, to be able to say with confidence where we are at. We have a target range of four to six medals for Tokyo, and all my work is with the head national coaches and staff around how we best ensure that we deliver."
How do you ensure that you’re focused on the things that matter most?
"It’s a big focus but we work on four-year cycles. That’s what it all comes down to. At the same time, what we’ve got to balance is that short term view of the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo but looking longer term to Paris in 2024. It’s about how we make sure that we’re going towards a successful Tokyo, but we’re also doing the work underneath that to ensure that once Tokyo finishes, we have the next crop of gymnasts coming up, with the right skills and right experiences that can succeed into Paris and beyond.
"Over the last few years we’ve also noticed a desire for athletes to have their own voice, which we recognise and have hopefully put some positive steps in place. We’ve appointed two athlete ambassadors; one from the sport in Kristian Thomas, and one from outside of the sport in Hannah England from athletics. They will be independent people who work with me and work with the gymnasts to share their views and hopefully work positively to affect change.
"We’re also looking to appoint athlete representatives. These will be active gymnasts from all disciplines, who can share the views of their teammates."
Why work for British Gymnastics?
"When I stopped playing rugby, I went back and studied for a masters in biomechanics. The department I worked in was interested in gymnastics biomechanics, so I had a taste of the sport then. I was then part of a PhD study where I was coached as a non-gymnast to do a giant swing on a high bar, which I managed to complete successfully, and had a lot of fun doing it. That was only a very small taste of gymnastics from an academic point of view, but it meant I was always intrigued. My sister was a gymnast too, so I had an understanding of the sport.
"I then worked in athletics, boxing and judo. I remember my first conversation with UK Sport when I was working at judo, who asked what my dream job was. I’d moved to Shrewsbury to work in judo, but I said I’d really like to be the Performance Director at British Gymnastics. That was six years ago.
"For me, I love watching gymnastics. I think it’s one of the purest sports you can watch. Working with the people here, with the gymnasts, club coaches and the staff, I think we’ve got bags of potential to do what we did in Rio, but to be even more successful. That’s what drives me; the opportunity to do something really special."Last year, we spoke with David Marshall, Participation Director, and Richard Evans, Integrity Director. Click the links to read what they had to say.