Scoring one silver medal and one bronze medal, the French taekwondo team did great in the London Olympics. Anne-Caroline Graffe and Marlène Harnois confirmed the place of France amongst the top tier nations in the female category. However, they will have to redouble their efforts to take part in the Rio Games in 2016 because the future recruits are on their way, and they are hungry for victory.
I had the good fortune to speak with Mehdi Bensafi, coach of the “pôle France” training center of Aix-en-Provence, who has the most promising female athletes of the country under his wing. How are the girls discovered? What do they endure on a daily basis?
The answers are in the first part of this interview.
KO Podium: Can you explain the role of the “pôle France” center in Aix-en-Provence?
Mehdi Bensafi: We changed how we work back in 2008, when the Ministry of Sports introduced the Parcours de l’Excellence, or Excellence Track. The French taekwondo federation reorganized its high-level programs into three selected training centers: one in Aix-en-Provence with the young female athletes, one in Toulouse with the young male athletes, and finally the Paris-based INSEP, with both female and male senior elite teams. That is to understand the broad strokes of the structural aspect.
Regarding the Aix-en-Provence facility, our role is to assemble the most promising under-17 and 18-year-old female athletes of all of France (overseas department and territories included) and to allow them to enter a high-level path. To achieve this goal, we must accomplish our major assignment: discovery [of promising athletes].
How does this scouting process work ?
Simply put, we have three tools at our disposal for discovery.
The first one is the system dedicated to athletes under 15 years old, which is piloted by a national coordinator. In each region, he works with the local heads to nominate a regional coach who will scout in his area and train promising girls once a week. Basically this is what we call a Centre Fédéral Espoir (CFE) or a Federation-run Center for Under-15 Athletes. The goal is clearly to train mini-elite under-15 teams in each region. The national coordinator leads this network with punctual gatherings on the occasion of nationwide championships or training camps. So the CFE are our first source to identify candidates for our high-level center.
The second tool is the French under-18 championships. We can spot young athletes who did not shine before age 15, but turned out to be very promising. After we study them during the championships, we invite them for a training camp in Aix in order to have a closer look at them.
In some cases, an athlete who didn’t break through either in the under-15, or in the under-17, will show an interesting potential when finally reaching the senior category.
The last element of the discovery process is the senior championships. In some cases, an athlete who didn’t break through either in the under-15, or in the under-17, will show an interesting potential when finally reaching the senior category (note: over 17 years old). Then we follow the same process with a training camp, and sometimes we even get them to take part in an international championship to see if there is room for improvement at an international level. If the potential is proved true, we make an offer to the athlete with a project well suited to her studies/professional course, so that she can join the pôle. Of course the idea here is not to select 25-year-old athletes but rather to identify young senior athletes who are just over 17 or who just turned 18 years old.
Aren’t you taking a bigger risk when selecting athletes who will enter the high level way later than their counterparts?
Not really. Some people get a body very well suited to taekwondo only at a later stage of their growth. Others will gain much psychological maturity thanks to their growth, allowing them to develop above-average tactical abilities. It depends on each athlete; there is no rule.
Actually, what is really difficult with the 18-year-old athletes is to plan out the double project (note: offer the athletes the opportunity to follow their sport career while preparing their professional future). Generally, at that age the girls are already involved in some course of study which is pretty hard to combine with the requirements of the high level. We have to find an equivalent course in Aix-en-Provence, which is flexible enough to be arranged for twice-daily training sessions. It is far from easy.
Are you always the one initiating the discoveries of new athletes, or do your local colleagues make suggestions as well?
The discovery of an athlete comes from us in general, yes. However, from time to time a regional coach will reach out to us and say, “I have a very promising girl you should keep an eye on.” Then if we don’t know her, we will pay close attention to her in the next championship, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not a big deal. The information can come from anybody, and our work is to filter it.
Going back to the training center of Aix-en-Provence, what is the daily training rhythm? What is a typical day?
There are two training sessions per day. The girls have class from 8 to 11 am, and then there is a first training session until 12:30. In the afternoon, after classes from 13:30 to 17, they train between 17:30 and 19:30. On average they train for 17 to 18 hours every week!! Also, it is important to note that every day there is a workout session and a taekwondo-specific session.
Why do you insist on the physical aspect so much?
For young people between 14 and 20 years old, [taekwondo] is physically traumatizing.
We have to keep in mind that we are dealing with young people, teenagers, who embark on a high-level field—extremely demanding in fact. At that age, all of the organs are not totally formed yet, and taekwondo, as with every specific sport, is destructuring for the body. That is, there are many impacts, a high training intensity, etc. For young people between 14 and 20 years old, this is physically traumatizing, and if we do not anticipate this danger, we can end up with 18-year-old athletes, extremely talented, but already afflicted by periostitis, multiple ankle sprains, etc. This is precisely what we want to avoid.
For that reason, we think that fitness training is as important as taekwondo training. We made this choice in 2008. And it has already paid off. This year, in the World Junior Championships in Egypt, two of our girls distinguished themselves: one became world champion (note: Magda Wiet Hénin in the -59 kg class) and the other is vice world champion (note : Estelle Vanderzwalm in the -55 kg class). They both joined the pôle two years ago and they haven’t had any serious injuries. Granted, they got kneed a couple of times, but it was nothing that required a long break. This is exactly why the program is successful. Leaving apart the gold medal, the silver medal, or the simple fact of being on the podium, we have athletes with a lot of potential and whose physical well-being have been protected so that they can perform at the highest level.
Update: Read the second part of this interview!