Here is the continuation of our long interview with Mehdi Bensafi, coach of the “pôle France” training center of Aix-en-Provence. After having explained the purpose of the training structure as well as the scouting process, he shares with us his views on the success factors necessary to reach the high level.
What is a champion made of? What is the relationship with the senior elite team? How do they deal with the athletes who do not break through?
A fascinating insight into the training structure of France’s future taekwondo champions.
KO Podium: You have trained high potential athletes for many years. Are you able to identify a budding champion? What is a true champion made of?
Mehdi Bensafi: I am convinced that being a champion is a frame of mind above all. I am inclined to say that as a champion, whatever field one is in, at school, during training, at night with one’s friends, on the weekend with one’s parents…whatever the environment one is in, one should always give one’s best.
whatever the environment one is in, one should always give one’s best
Why? Because true champions must do everything to constantly surpass themselves, to put themselves in difficult situation in order to stay at the top. It’s with this kind of spirit that one can achieve a great sport career. Those who are satisfied by their sport performances and who are not bothered by their last place in class, at some point are going to fail hard. Because it is this specific frame of mind, in every field, that allows one to remain in the high level.
I am lucky enough to be able to illustrate this very well with my athletes. Magda Wiet Hénin and Estelle Vanderzwalm, who shone in the last world junior championships, had their class council just after they returned from the event. It turned out that the Class Council awarded them the highest distinctions. They are also the two girls with the best behavior grades of the facility, because their rooms are always clean, they are helpful, etc. So they illustrate perfectly this spirit that a champion must have every single day.
Hence, there are many similarities of behaviors among the best athletes?
For the frame of mind, yes, for sure. In terms of behavior, all champions are different. First and foremost they are strong individualities with a special trait that characterizes them.
Coming back to our two girl champions mentioned earlier—one is extremely curious; she wants to understand every guideline, tactic, and training method. She makes suggestions, she is very proactive. With a big faith in the methods, she stays after the training sessions to practice again and again, thinking that if the coach says so, the best ones must be doing it; so to be better than them, she must do even more.
The other’s driving force is what other people think. She shines when she knows that her people are watching, expecting her to excel. She constantly cares about what people think and that fuels her will to do well. Yet another athlete of ours is stimulated by the adversity, the opposition, a relentless clash; she wants to win everything, everywhere, all the time!
For the most talented, these radical traits distinguish themselves bit by bit.
We guess that all these promising girls who dream of becoming champions, look up to their INSEP (the training center of the senior elite teams) elders with admiration. What is the relationship with the senior elite structure?
The goal of the pôle of Aix-en-Provence is really to train the future female champions, and I am lucky enough to work very closely with Myriam Baverel, the coach of the female team at the INSEP.
We really try to be consistent in the discovery phase in all our choices so that we can follow-up on the athlete’s project
First, she helps me in the discovery process, because if I am very fond of a young athlete but that Myriam doesn’t believe in her, we are going to discuss it. It isn’t worth it to train her, knowing that she probably never will join the INSEP. We really try to be consistent in the discovery phase in all our choices so that we can follow-up on the athlete’s project.
Then, one needs to know that Myriam manages a group of athletes with a very complicated agenda. Some of her girls are impacted by the Olympic Games, others by the base events like the World Championships or the European Championships. Moreover, she can end up with two athletes in the same weight class in the same competition, so one of them has to be left aside. When this type of situation happens, Myriam sends the athlete to us in Aix-en-Provence for one week or two, knowing that there will be a good follow-up on her training. For us, it is a great opportunity to show our residents exactly what we expect from them in order to continue their career at the INSEP. The girls closely observe how she trains, her behavior, etc. It creates a real emulation.
Do your residents still have the chance to visit the INSEP?
Of course! Actually, from time to time, Myriam organizes test matches in Paris, and she invites the current most performing girls of the pôle. We gather a small selection that is sent to the INSEP for one day. They train in the morning and do a lot of sparring in the afternoon. That allows them to discover the infrastructure and to see how things are organized there.
It is not the only opportunity they have to interact with the elite team. When Myriam has a open spot in a competition, she asks if one of our girls can join her team for the event. We really work in close collaboration.
[London 2012] we spent a lot of time analyzing videos and feeding databases to identify the key points we needed our athletes to assimilate.
Besides, it is also the case for the content of the training sessions. As we work a lot together, I could accompany her during all the preparation of the London Games. For example, we studied the consequences of the new sensor-equipped vest on the fighting strategies. Without revealing all our secrets, I can say that we spent a lot of time analyzing videos and feeding databases to identify the key points we needed our athletes to assimilate.
Are there more points scored or taken if I attack or if I defend? Were the points scored with the front or the rear leg? What is the good ratio of shots to the head? What are the consequences if I do not protect my chest after a successful blow? I am hooked on software analysis, so I find this fascinating!! Taekwondo is a young sport and we can still innovate.
All this thorough work produces new elements for the training routines, so Myriam can adjust her athletes, and that allows me to give good basics to my budding champions. In truth, we must not distinguish the elite and the junior teams. What we bring to the elite, if we succeed in instilling it in the girls in the early stages, will allow us to focus only on details once they reach the INSEP.
We are really happy about the work done since 2008. In fact, it should bear fruit for Rio 2016, or even for the 2020 Games. It is a long, drawn-out job.
As good as the discovery and the training might be in the pôle of Aix-en-Provence, places are limited in the INSEP. What happens for the girls who can’t join it?
There are two types of situations. In the first case, we realize early on that the athlete isn’t fit for the requirements of high-level training. For example, not to be in favor of effort, not to like leaving one’s comfort zone, are major liabilities. The girls join the pôle in September and we can tell by April or May that it won’t work out. Sometimes it’s even faster. Like if an athlete has serious behavior problems in November, she runs the risk of being excluded.
Our purpose is not to take advantage of these young people, but really to give them an opportunity when we believe in their potential
The second case concerns the residents that stayed two or three years in Aix-en-Provence, and whose potential isn’t enough to aspire to a place at the INSEP or to foresee any future in the elite. We must be frank with the athlete and her family. We tell them that it will be difficult to join the INSEP and that we have to consider a project end. The idea is to assist the athlete’s comeback to her local club while giving her the opportunity to maintain a high-level activity by inviting her to training camps where she can fight good contenders.
Our purpose is not to take advantage of these young people, but really to give them an opportunity when we believe in their potential. So our duty is to be honest and realistic with them, and to tell an athlete when she has reached her limits. The high level is not for everybody; it is the hard truth. Yet that doesn’t prevent them from continuing to practice at a good level. That’s the reason why we invite them from time to time. Besides, that allows us to offer tough sparring partners to our new residents.
Also, we can postpone the transfer of one of our athletes to the INSEP. Since 2008, the athletes more or less spend their high school years in the pôle. In taekwondo, you are senior at 17, so some of them have spent their final year already in this age class. We can look at Magda Wiet Hénin’s case. She became a senior and her results legitimized a transfer to the INSEP. However, it is the year of her baccalaureat (the academic qualification which French students take at the end of the secondary education), and she could lose her bearings with a transfer. That is also true for her sport career because she would move from a team where she is on top to a new team where she would be the one with the thinnest track record. This is not easy to handle. Therefore, we prefer to keep her with us so that she can finish her secondary education. This is the case for most of the girls.
We realize that your work actually goes beyond sport after all…
On forme d’abord des Hommes, avec un grand H, avant de former des sportifs
For sure. Our supporting responsibility toward our residents is huge. We must not forget that these girls leave their families at 15 years old and train for more than 17 hours per week, plus the school hours… regardless of the numerous competitions! It is an extremely demanding rhythm, and they deserve credit for following it. Moreover, the parents trust us with the education of their teenager as much for the academic aspect as for the behavior and the sport training.
We must do our best and be beyond reproach so that they can grow and make progress in the best conditions.
A big thank for Mehdi Bensafi’s disponibility, and for sharing his passion with us.
Note: Interview translated from French