Gowin for gold with the British Army

Sam Gowin on the podium at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Credit: REUTERS/Eddie Safarik)

The British Army has a proud tradition of delivering world class athletes capable of thriving under pressure. But a new breed of servicemen and women is better placed than ever to hit their career targets and achieve their sporting goal and TASS is at the heart of an exciting partnership pushing soldiers to go for glory.

When Sam Gowin climbed the podium on Australia’s Gold Coast to receive his coveted bronze medal, the ambitious soldier was celebrating much more than a personal victory. His was a triumph for diversity, inclusivity and the dual career dream: a win for those determined to combine elite sport with a demanding profession.

Gowin, a sergeant in the 16th Regiment Royal Artillery, took third place in the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and was one of seven Army athletes shaking things up Down Under. Given the chance to shoot full-time, his sights are firmly set on Tokyo 2020.

“The Army are very supportive,” explained the England international. “I’m on an Elite Athlete posting with the Troops To Target scheme in Bisley. It was set up as an incentive to try and train soldiers with a view to being selected for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“Being on the scheme allows me to train full time, away from regimental duties, while maintaining my career in the British Army. The posting gets reviewed – and potentially renewed – yearly. It’s an incredible opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity enhanced by the personal support package delivered by TASS. The organisation has opened up a dedicated hub at the Army’s Aldershot base and offers the same level of support to serving soldiers as it does to student athletes across England.

“There was a gap in our performance pathway and a number of the national governing bodies have the same issue,” said Lt Col (Retd) Alan Billings, Army Elite Sport Performance Manager.

“We needed to bridge that gap and TASS provided an excellent solution.  Critically, the Sport England TASS programme has a high level of governance and assurance which was a key aspect of the decision making process.

“The wider support package that the athletes receive includes sports psychology, nutrition, strength and conditioning and athlete education – similar to those benefits athletes would receive on a fully funded programme.

“And we’re already seeing the benefits of working with TASS. If we look at the Troops To Target scheme then one of the big areas for development was a lack of sports psychology support.

“Sergeant Gowin is a classic example: he’s learnt coping strategies to help him in very stressful competitive shooting situations. The primary reason he won a bronze medal in Australia is that he’s mentally tough. And that comes from the sports psychology support he’s had as a TASS athlete.”

Lt Col (Retd) Billings believes the partnership can only flourish in the future and added: “Sport is very much aligned to many of the core values of the British Army: leadership, integrity, team spirit, courage, discipline, respect for others and selfless commitment.

“That’s why we will continue to support and encourage Army athletes and continue to work with TASS as a mechanism to underpin and develop these values.

“Crucially, the regional TASS sites allow us to keep soldiers with their units and allow them to access the core sport services at the same time. That’s a huge benefit for us. Those athletes who aren’t based at the Army hub in Aldershot don’t miss out – they can access support from the TASS network across England.”

Where TASS has traditionally focused on supporting emerging athletes seeking to combine elite sport with a full-time education, working with soldiers embracing the Army lifestyle has given the organisation a unique insight into the unique demands and opportunities at the heart of the dual career model.

Luke Allen, TASS Army Hub Co-ordinator and Lifestyle Practitioner, added: “Army athletes are a great example of how dual-career aspirations can be pursued and supported. They have the benefit of engaging in career development and progression while also being supported to participate in international sport.

“Those selected to compete on a full-time basis are reminded of being a solider first, which means they can be asked back to work as and when they’re needed.

“Other challenges can include spending periods of time away from training and competition to complete promotional courses for career development or, alternatively, spending time away from a career to participate in training and competition.

“It’s even more important for the athletes, their unit and their sport to work together closely, ensuring the athlete has a flourishing dual career. TASS is there to support and nurture this relationship.”

Boxing, like shooting, is a natural fit for those talented athletes looking to combine sport with a full-time Army career: Corporal Alanna Nihell is based in Aldershot and captained the Northern Ireland women’s boxing squad at the Commonwealth Games.

“I’ve been competing for the Army for more than a decade now,” said the 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps (RLC‏) star. “I pre-date the TASS days and so I can say with some confidence that the overall support package for athletes is much stronger now. It’s much more in line with what you’d expect from a national governing body and there’s a structure that’s very similar to Team GB.

“Every boxer has an individual training plan and the TASS support is tailored towards building on our strengths and working on any weaknesses. My regiment is so supportive and it’s the same for the rest of the girls. There are six or seven of us based in Aldershot and I can only see the squad growing and becoming more successful in the future.”

Nihell’s fellow countryman Stuart Hill represented Northern Ireland in the small bore shooting competition at the Commonwealth Games. Serving with 1stBattalion The Royal Irish Regiment, the talented marksman returned to competition after five years focusing on his career, including a stint in Afghanistan.

“Sports psychology is the area where I’ve really benefited from TASS support,” said Corporal Hill. “In terms of my mindset I’m stronger than ever. With shooting there’s a lot of pressure mentally as well as physically. You have to control your body in terms of your adrenaline and heart rate and focus fully on the target.

“My sports psychology coach even spoke to me on the phone when I was in Australia just to make sure I was in the right frame of mind. I didn’t know too much about the benefits of sports psychology but I was optimistic that it could make me a better athlete and I jumped at the chance to give it a go. On the range, once you’re told to start, that’s it. It’s just you out there. Your head has to be in the right place and all the preparation kicks in.”

Royal Engineer Sapper Michael Bamsey agreed. The Welshman kept a cool head to finish fifth in the 10m Air Rifle event on the Gold Coast and added: “The Commonwealth Games experience has inspired me to push on to be better than I am. The next goal is Olympic qualification and I intend to be on the Tokyo 2020 team.

“The Army and TASS have been 100% supportive. The main struggle has been balancing my timelines so I can get all my Army training completed whilst also preparing for major championships.

“To balance the two I have to set block periods. I will train and compete for six months and then I will go back and complete my Army training for the following six months. It’s a bit of a juggling act! It is all about finding the time and making necessary sacrifices when and where it is necessary.”

Lt Col (Retd) Billings has big plans for the Army’s TASS hub and believes Troops To Target is already proving its worth. “We had seven athletes on the Gold Coast – to get so many selected for the Commonwealth Games was hugely significant but to come away with a medal as a result of the Troops To Target programme was a tremendous outcome,” he added.

“Sam Gowin has gone from picking up a sport shooting pistol for the first time to winning a Commonwealth Games bronze medal within a year. I think that says it all.”