Taekwondo Podcast

Episode 9 - Interview with Coach Gareth Brown and CJ Nickolas

March 15, 2022 Taekwondo Podcast Season 1 Episode 9
Taekwondo Podcast
Episode 9 - Interview with Coach Gareth Brown and CJ Nickolas
Show Notes Transcript

   Three years in the USA and already achieved Gold at Pan Am Games, Continental Championships and Olympic Games.

  In this episode, Coaches César Valentim and Gareth Brown discuss the new rules and the changes we can expect in June 2022. Coach Brown and CJ Nickolas, from USA Taekwondo Academy, tell us a bit about their life in Colorado, the USA TKD High-Performance Center and their "Taekwondo University" Programs.

  Listen to some strategies used by the same coaches, who brought several Olympic medals in the last three cycles!

  This podcast is supported by Hawkin Dynamics and Athlete Analyzer! 

  Visit our Instagram @taekwondopodcast and Facebook @taekwondocast

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Announcer: 
Have you been looking for a Taekwondo Podcast with qualified people, who know what they're talking about, who help you keep up with everything going on in the Taekwondo World? Well you found it. This is the Taekwondo Podcast. Taekwondo news, competitions and other events, training and sports science, keeping the fans, coaches and high performance athletes up to date with the latest news and trends in Olympic Taekwondo. Let’s do this! This is the Taekwondo Podcast. And now your hosts Coach César Valentim and Peter Nestler.

Coach César Valentim:
Hello and welcome to the Taekwondo Podcast. We’re a Podcast based out of Austria in English language for everyone out there who likes Taekwondo. In this Episode we talk with Coach Gareth Brown, Olympic Coach from Team USA. 

Welcome to our Podcast, I’m your host César Valentim and with me are Coach Gareth Brown and CJ Nickolas from Team USA. Hi Gareth, hi Nickolas how are you guys?

Coach Gareth Brown:
Hey César, good thanks! 

Coach César Valentim:
So for those who are listening and, I guess it’s very hard to say that no one knows you, when in fact everyone knows you, so for those who might not know you can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Gareth?

Coach Gareth Brown:
Yeah, so I’m the head Coach for USA Taekwondo, currently based in Colorado Springs. I’ve been working for the United States now since the start of 2018, moved out here in October of 2019 and have been building a team with our young CJ, who’s on the Podcast with us as well. He’s one of the initial four athletes that we brought into the program. I’m coming up 43 years old this year and still enjoying what I do, so yeah that’s me.

Coach César Valentim:
<Laugh> Yeah, I’ve known you for quite a while now, over a decade. We’re the same age. I remember when you were with your club and then we’ve met at Sharm El-Sheikh for Juniors and then you moved on to GB Taekwondo . CJ, you’re quite famous as well, 2021 PanAm champion, 2021 PanAm Games champion, recently I met you in Albania, where you won a silver medal, so can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you joined the program?

Athlete CJ Nickolas:
Yeah, my name is  CJ Nickolas, I am 21 years old. I joined the program late 2018, started traveling back and forth from Manchester training and competing. It was my first time going into the international scene. We moved out to Colorado in, I wanna say, mid 2019 as well and it’s just been  competing and training since then, getting into the professional Athlete mindset, you know? I’m a -80kg  Senior athlete and I’m currently gunning to get that top 6 spot, so I can qualify for the Olympics without the whoop-di-wah, you know what I mean?

Coach César Valentim:
I’ve seen you, you’ve had a very successful career, you’ve been in the national team since you were a cadet, you’ve had some good results in Juniors, medals at the Worlds and I am happy to see you in the academy in Colorado. I will go back to you, Gareth, because you do come from Great Britain and the systems in Great Britain and US are a little bit different, what was the biggest challenge you faced when you moved over there? 

Coach Gareth Brown:
Setting up a program was the first thing, because the program was non-existent, when I came over here. So it was set up from scratch trying to work with our CEO Steve McNally. and our high performance director May Spence to paint a picture of what a high performance Taekwondo program looks like and how it works and runs. They’ve both got an extensive amount of expertise in other fields and May herself was a competitor, but as we know, the game’s moved on, we’re working in a much more modern Taekwondo climate now, teams are more professional around the world and so the start was just trying to educate and work with them on what we needed, the support services we needed, the fact that we needed the athletes to live here, move, and the United States is huge and I did not fully comprehend how big it was when I moved here. Within that, one of the big challenges was, in England, in Manchester, it was easier to run a full time program, because the athletes could still get access to go see their families, you know, you can live in Manchester and you could drive for 2 hours to go to Wales and go and see your family or you could drive for 3 hours and be at the bottom of the country, but you can’t do that in the United States. So one of the first barriers was how do we enable these young athletes to still get that time they need away from the program to go and see their family and that support network, that they need from their family, whilst working with us and we’re pushing them extensively physically and psychologically in training, so that was a big barrier for us. Building a relationship with the Olympic training center, because Taekwondo is not a mainstream sport in the United States, whereas in Great Britain it got a lot of coverage, a lot of media coverage, it was very well known, it was government funded, so building a relationship with the Olympic training center was key. We were able to get a group of our priority athletes support through their services. And then the last bit for me was moving my family over here and trying to get my family into the way of life, the american style, you know?

Coach César Valentim:
Yeah that’s something that is a big difference, in the UK system you had a huge financial support with the lottery and all the public funds available, those are not available where you are right now in Colorado, yet you managed to bring an Olympic gold in such a short time. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did it?

Coach Gareth Brown:
Me and Paul we have a very set coaching process and a structure which we work to within our training on how we train athletes, the methods we use to train them, the phasing. I mean the phasing, it obviously changes due to the competition calendar and the way that World Taekwondo work and being hit by a pandemic, which is a big impact, but we’ve got a very set process in what we look for in athletes, we set up the talent identification to seek out talented athletes. The first place I went to was the Junior World Championships in 2018 where I saw CJ win a silver medal and he was clearly a huge talent, just the way he was kicking, the speed, how dynamic he was. Anastasija, obviously, won a gold medal there, where CJ won his silver and she qualified for the Youth Olympic Games and there were some others in there, there was ….. Harris, ….. Alvarez was there, Faith Dilan was there, so there were quite a few athletes there that caught our eye at the time, ……., so there are quite a few athletes. But we were unable to access all of them quickly due to just setting up the program and the amount of funds we had access to, whereas in Great Britain you would have been able, all three of those World medalists, you would’ve brought them straight in to Manchester and the others, who didn’t win medals, but maybe lost at those competitions to the gold medalist in earlier rounds, but the performances were close, you would’ve pulled them in. We weren't able to do that so you have to work with them from a distance, build a relationship with them and the parents and it was very similar to working at a school level, at a club level, how I used to do, before I started working for GB Taekwondo. You have to build a relationship with the parents and then with the athlete and try and get the parents to financially fund them, to bring them as often as they can to you in Colorado or wherever you’re based. And then through that process over a period of time you can see them at talent identification camps or you invite them in to come training, then you make an informed decision through their training and through competitions whether you want to bring them in full time and invest and see if it is something feasible for them to do. So that’s what we’ve done this time with these guys and we’ve got CJ.

Coach César Valentim:
I’ve met some of your athletes before you had ever been to the US, so I know a bit about the development of Anastasija and ……. CJ, I’ve met you just a month ago, it’s the first time I am having a conversation with you. Can you tell us a little bit from your perspective, how it was to get into this pipeline and how the program changed your life?

Athlete CJ Nickolas:
Before 2018 when all of this started happening it was almost a laughable thing to think about a resident athlete program being inducted, it was a dream. It was not really feasible, no one thought it was really going to happen, so once it did happen and there was an opportunity for it, it seems like a trend amongst athletes, as soon as the opportunity opens up, you have to jump upon it as soon as it comes, because it’s kinda fleeting. So as soon as I got the opportunity to go out to Manchester, I had to shift my whole life around. I was in high school at the time and when I got the call I was going to go and train out in Manchester it was in my Senior year, so my last year of high school, I had to change from public school, where I was going to school everyday, to online school, which I had never done and I had to work with the change in times, going back and forth and stuff like that. It was a little rough at first, trying to improve my game, learn the new game that we weren’t used to and then go home, apply that and then keep going back and forth. So then once we could get our program set up in Colorado, it’s full time and we are here all the time, it made it a lot easier to progress. There was a lot of lost time in between, where Gareth and Paul would not see us, where I could go to training camps and competitions for like a 10 week block and then we’d go home for four weeks and then come back, there was a little bit of a disconnect. I’m from California. From California to Colorado it’s about a two hour flight, but it’s a 19 hour drive that I haven’t been able to take yet, I want to one day, but I haven’t been able yet. That was a really big thing. I had to disconnect my family life, all my family is basically based in California and it was pretty rough at first to just completely disconnect from them, even though it’s just a two hour flight, so you can imagine when people are coming from Florida or New York, where it’s a four hour flight, that little bit is a sacrifice that was kinda heavy, I guess, but as time is going on I have kind of gotten used to it, living by myself.

Coach César Valentim:
Well you’re in Colorado so you’re pretty much right in the Olympic movement in the US, so wherever you go for a walk you will find somebody who is an Olympian. It’s definitely a good motivation. We will take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

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Announcer:
You're listening to the Taekwondo podcast. Now back to your hosts, coach César, Valentim, and Peter Nestler.


Coach César Valentim:
So welcome back. Here we are talking to Gareth Brown and CJ Nickolas. Gareth, we’ve listened a little bit about your experience and CJ’s integration in the athletes program, the academy that you are doing over there. We talked a lot about changing the environment, but also our sport is changing. There are new rules. The game can become a little different in the second semester, what are your thoughts about these changes.

Coach Gareth Brown:
Interesting topic. Hot topic right now. So, I’m actually on the WT technical committee currently, for the chair for the coaches committee and we’ve had numerous meetings about the rules and how it will look and how it will work and I’ve had numerous conversations with Mr. Song Chul Kim and it’s going to be very much the way it has always been in Taekwondo, I think, whereas you will have some strong referees that will have a very set way of interpreting each rule. There are areas of gray in there, but there are always going to be areas of gray in sport. But I think the clinch situation within the game now is going to go on for somewhere in the region of 3-5 seconds, depending on if one is actually in the clinch or not. But what the referees are asking for is for the athletes to break the clinch themselves, as opposed to the referee having to come in and stop the clinch. So I think we’ll see more action in the clinch and on the way out of the clinch. We’ll have to see how the cancel rule is interpreted within the game by the referees. My understanding is that they don’t want to see any impeding kicks and no blocking with your knee,that’s still written in the rules as it was. I think they might be a little bit more strict with canceling with your leg, with a bent leg, so again, we will see how that is interpreted, that’s my understanding of it. I like the system of winning the rounds. I think that’s going to add pressure to the athletes, which they’re going to need to get used to and perform under. And the pressure’s going to be more in the game, because there’s more pressure to win the round. So we’ll see more of a winning and losing scenario throughout the course of the three rounds, if it goes to three rounds. So I like that. They’ve obviously tried to put more emphasis on spinning techniques by making a decision criteria. So if there’s a tied round and a draw round or a tied amount of points, of cumulative points and if one of them scores a spin or if one scored two spins and one scores one, whoever scored the most amount of spins  gets the superiority to win the game and then I believe it goes to gamjeongs, I’m talking off the top of my head.

Coach César Valentim:
Yeah, then it goes back to the normal ……..But we are talking about, in terms of training, the fact that now a lot of fighting to the head in the clinch is out that in the rounds you have to consider the point gaps per round and a limited number of deductions you can get per round, will make the games a lot more intense. Probably the first round is a little bit more exciting instead of the third round and you will have, of course as you mentioned,  a lot of strength training to be done, isometric to be able to keep the leg up straight as  much as possible instead of a bent leg. Do you think the adaptation from the athletes is going to be as fast as it was to the previous rules?

Coach Gareth Brown:
From the athletes? Yeah I think the athletes will adapt quickly. I’m sure the athletes will. At the end of the day it’s a combat sport. If your instinct is to go in there and fight and score points, you’ve got a better chance of winning than you have if your instinct is not to go in there and fight, so I think from an athlete's perspective, yeah, they’ll adapt quickly. I’ll be interested to see how quickly the referees can adapt, because they have a hard job. I don’t know plenty of referees that do the job and it’s very difficult and bringing the new rules in where we have lost the year due to the pandemic and we are going into the next olympic games and we have lost a year of that already, so in essence, referees and the athletes and the coaches lost a year to learn how to perform or do their job within those new set of rules. It puts this pressure on everybody involved for them to get the rules right, to deliver them consistently right in a very short period of time and then the athletes and coaches to be able to follow. The coaches job now to be able to follow what's going on in the game with regard to who scored what in the first round and who’s conceded how many gamjeongs in the  first round and did we spin, did that spin score and keep track of that when you’re going into that last round, you’ve got far more to remember. And on top of that, what we need to think about as well is how the sport comes across to the spectators. Now within the system of the rounds, I think that is going to have a big impact, because if you get the top athletes with the right mindset, they're going to go win from the start, to win every round from the start. That’s what they are going to do. I don’t think there will be any of that playing it safe. However they do that, whichever their strategy is, whether they play a defense strategy aggressively  or whether they are just outright aggressors during the game, they will go to win from the start. But the scoreboard and how the spectators can follow the game, is one concern of mine, because if the coach is having trouble to remember who conceded how many gamjeongs during the first  two rounds or who’s accumulated a certain amount of points over the first two rounds, how are the spectators going to do that?So it needs to be clear for the spectators to be able to follow what's going on, for the media to be able to follow what's going on, so that they can commentate on it. We’ve run the system a couple of times in house, in Colorado and there are opportunities to promote it in such a way, where you go into the last round and blue needs to win by seven points or blue needs to win by four points regardless what the score is. If it’s commented on in that way, promoted that way, I think it will add excitement to it, as opposed to them just going out and going: Blue needs to win this round , because the first one is tied and red’s won the second. If everybody can follow the scoreboard correctly we can add more excitement to the game, but we need to work out how the scoreboard is going to be easy to read for the spectators.

Coach César Valentim:
That’s one of the things. This new system will be more appealing, especially for the generation of millennials and the new generation. They know from computer games, even our generation knows from video games this round system. So which player wins which round and of course there still needs to be the tiebreaker criteria, which are always a little bit more complicated. I remember in London they were quite polemic and of course these situations will arise, but I think a good scoreboard, a good information visible out there will make it easier for the commentators to do their job. Regarding refereeing, there’s the problem with our sport. We are professionals as coaches, we do this for a living. The players are professionals, most of them live in residence programs, full time programs and then the referees are the ones who still have to pay their own air fares, buy their own uniforms and do this mostly out of charity or friendship, because there are not really professional referees in our sport. But that is something that eventually will change as the sport grows. 

Coach Gareth Brown:
I hope so, because it’s crazy, like you say. How are we trying to compete with a fully programmed, high profile Olympic sport like track and field or swimming and all those sports, when we’ve got referees that are doing it from their own back and of their own accord. I’ve had that conversation with quite a few referees within WT. Even if we can’t have a huge group of professional referees, we can have 30 professional referees on a salary, that is split across the continents and they travel to the competitions and they oversee the rings, they’re not actually on there. They make sure that the rules are being applied correctly and are able to provide the feedback and do reviews with the referees. As a coach, we are very big at reviewing our athletes performances and I think it definitely should be part of the parcel of how we develop our referees and we need a group of professional referees to be able do that. The referee standard at the Grand Prix is very good, it is very high. If you watch it across the world it is very consistent.

Coach César Valentim:
Same as the Olympics, yeah.

Coach Gareth Brown:
Yeah, very good at the Olympics, but it has taken two Olympic cycles to get there, since 2012. And now they ‘re going to be expected to do that again in a three year period ready for Paris and that is a crazy expectation to have on them, which is why my only concern is, can we make these new rules stick in this short period of time or should we wait? But I think it’s a good point. We should have a group of professional referees, 100%, within the sport, to make it fully professional we would need to have that.

Coach César Valentim:
CJ I will ask you a very short question, since we do not have too much time. What’s your opinion on the new rules?

Athlete CJ Nickolas:
It’s a lot to take in as an athlete. I find myself, when we were applying the new rules in trainings and fights and stuff like that, I find myself going back to what is natural and then catching myself and having to pull myself back and being like: “oh, that’s going to be a gam jeong soon”. It’s a lot more high-pressure. In my opinion, I think that it’s going to separate the athletes that are trying to steal matches and the athletes who are super aggressive and I think it is going to favor the athletes that are super aggressive a lot more than it has been in the game. But I will say that I think that matches are going to be stolen a lot more often, if a kick comes from nowhere and just decides that they’re going to throw down against one of the top dogs, if you know what I mean.  If they decide that they are not going to be on their game that day or that specific fight, it could be over in four minutes. It’s just two rounds, you know? I think it’s going to take a lot more ……. and a lot more focus from the first minute of the first round. You cannot waste any time, you can’t have a wasted round, because you are in this hole where you have to dig yourself out in the second round and then dig yourself out again for the third round. So it’s going to be interesting, but I’m pretty excited about it. 

Coach César Valentim:
Thanks CJ. Finishing up Gareth, this is probably a question many of our listeners have, especially us, the coaches. What do you do differently,that nobody else does in this sport?

Coach Gareth Brown:
I don’t know, because I don’t know what everybody else is doing in our sport, but we have got a set of values that we work to with the athletes and I’ve mentioned it before, we have this process that we go through where we educate them and we try to put a lot of pressure on the with regard to performance in training and performance on the court, but we take a lot of pressure of them with regard to results. So, we have got a very set way of doing things. I’m not sure if we are doing anything different to anybody else, but I’d love to be able to go into the entire detail of it all now but we’d be here for days if I was to do that. But I would say we have got a clear set of values how we expect our athletes to train, how we expect our athletes to behave and act outside of training, we go through a constant review process of their performances and just program reviews on a 3 monthly basis and if the standards aren’t upheld, we get to a point where we can’t continue to invest my time or the little funding that we have in the United States, so we have o be very strict here. We try to put them under as much pressure to get them ready for high pressure situations, that are going to come even more so now with the new rules and take the pressure of them from results, because although we want gold medals, of course we do, that’s why we do it, we are all in it for gold medals, Olympic gold medals, world gold medals, there’s only so many ways you can control whether you get an Olympic gold or World gold medal or not. So focusing on the gold medal isn’t one of the ways of controlling if you get a gold medal or not. So we try to educate them in that way. 

Coac César Valentim:
 Well, that’s a very interesting answer and thank you  for that and thank you for inviting yourself for a special episode on your program. Regarding your program there is something you would probably like to share with our listeners, it’s your Taekwondo University program, can you tell us a little bit about it.

Coach Gareth Brown:
Yeah, if you’d like to find out about what maybe it is that makes us different from other programs, we’ve launched a university program. It’s got five tiers to it and it’s basically a mindmap of the training methods myself and Paul have created over the years of working at GB Taekwondo, at US Taekwondo. The methods we’ve created to try and stay ahead of the game or keep up with the game in some cases. We’ve put it into easy to follow five tiers system. One being very basic to follow and going up to five, which gives detailed technical coaching points and tactical coaching points with regards to the method itself and where the method fits, how you use that training method and what it’s for. If you are looking for a way to either progress yourself or educate yourself, I would 100% suggest you have a look at what we’ve put together and what it is. It’s a very professional put together piece of work and it's got all up to date , current training methods, that we used to get Anastasija her gold medal at the Olympics and that we use with CJ and our other athletes that are pushing to go to Paris and win us medals in Paris. And I feel it’s a very good way for coaches to have something within the Taekwondo world they can show to potential employers or potential sponsors, that they’ve done some education within the sport, you know? You can go to University and get degrees in many different types of fields. I mean, although this is probably not up there within that high recognition  of a PhD, it’s a programme that's got five tiers,so it has been put together by multiple Olympic gold medal winning coaches, that have done it over three Olympic cycles, so there’s got to be some value in that and it’s got to be a great string to have in your bow as a coach. 

Coach César Valentim:
Can you tell us where we can find this program?

Coach Gareth Brown:
If you go to the USA Taekwondo website you will be able to find a link to the University program there.

Coach César Valentim:
Thank you Gareth, thank you CJ, it has been a pleasure to be here with you and with everyone that is listening. This was the Taekwondo podcast. If you haven’t already listened to our other episodes that are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. We are releasing new episodes every Tuesday. Stay tuned, subscribe to our podcast, leave us a positive review and share it with your friends.

Announcer:
You've been listening to the Taekwondo podcast, keeping the fans, coaches, and high performance athletes up to date with the latest news and trends on Olympic Taekwondo your host coach César Valentim has all almost 20 years of experience with high performance Taekwondo and has worked all around the world. As a Taekwondo trainer. Peter Nestler has been teaching Taekwondo for more than 20 years, and he's currently one of the top referees in Europe. We hope you enjoyed the show, make sure to like, rate and review and we'll be back soon. But in the meantime, find us on instagram @taekwondopodcast on Facebook @taekwondocast and the website taekwondopodcast.com. See you next time.