Olympic diving physio Gareth Ziyambi reveals what’s behind a gold-medal winner

Gareth Ziyambi, founder of A2Z Elite Health & Performance, has worked in elite sport for 13 years, looking after Olympians and World Champions in a wide variety of different sports, including Olympic gold medallists Tom Daley and Matty Lee.

Team GB diving duo celebrate gold medal win with the team physio
Pure gold: Team GB divers Matty Lee and Tom Daley celebrate their win with physio Gareth Ziyambi

He is currently physio to Team GB’s diving team, supporting athletes including duo Tom Daley and Matty Lee on the way to their Tokyo gold medal win.

Here he answers our burning questions on how physios contribute to that gold-winning performance.

Q: How do you keep athletes gold-medal fit?

Over the years I have changed my priority from preparing to compete, to preparing to train. The ability to maintain the training as long as possible is the most important factor in a technical sport like diving where repetition is necessary to master the difficult manoeuvres under the pressure of Olympic competition.

The key is to define what a gold medal performance actually is in terms of the scores, the degree of difficulty needed to achieve those scores, and what the opposition is doing. We are very fortunate in our team that we have both Olympic and world champions so we have not had to look far to see what the best in the world looks like.

The next thing was to try to define in physical terms what contributes to this performance. My focus is obviously non-technical and looked at monitoring training loads and volumes, the physiological responses to training ie recovery.

This information coupled with understanding the demands the sport of diving places on the body creates a data set we can explore for reproducible patterns. It is these patterns that help us to identify whether we are on track in keeping our divers gold-medal fit or whether we need to make adjustments to the training program to ensure continued fitness and avoid injury. 

Q: How do you handle injuries during competition?

This depends on firstly the severity of the injury, secondly what round the competition is in and thirdly the importance of the competition. In the first instance, it is clear that the diver’s health supersedes the need to train or compete, and in severe injuries this is a clear line to draw. In less severe injuries the other two factors weigh in.

Diving preliminaries can take up to four hours and so there can be as much as 40 minutes in between rounds. This provides plenty of opportunity to assess and manage injuries that happen in competition and to decide if it is safe to continue and if so, to prepare the divers for the next dive. For finals, the time in between dives is reduced to about 10 minutes so your management options are limited.

Q: How has lockdown affected Team GB’s divers?

As a sport, I must say we emerged from lockdown fitter and stronger than may have been the case in a normal season.

We had focused on strength, flexibility, core stability during lockdown with conditioning including somersaults, gymnastics, gyrokinesis, yoga and pilates. We made very good use of whatever equipment the divers had at home as well as modalities such as blood flow restriction training.

At the end of lockdown, there was actually a significant improvement in their cardiovascular fitness (all those HIIT sessions actually work) and more flexibility (without the repeated impact of pool training). Shoulder, hip, and core strength also were significantly improved. 

From a physio perspective, it was an ideal time to work on the long-term niggles and injuries, develop better strength for areas of potential injury, and a time to develop self-management strategies so divers were encouraged to get their own Theraguns, Compex, foam rollers/yoga wheels, trigger point balls, etc.

Each diver had a specific prehab program addressing their particular needs as well as addressing the key areas susceptible in diving, such as triceps strength in the platform divers.

I had a big emphasis on education and so ran a number of online education sessions on the types of injuries they get, how to manage them and identify risks. I increased their understanding of the role a physiotherapist plays in the wider multidisciplinary team. 

As a team, we worked hard to mitigate the psychological impact of losing daily routines and the athletes’ anxiety around the effect it would have on their Olympic preparations. Our sports psychologists were simply superb during this time. 

Q: What's in your poolside bag?

Massage cream, gloves, protective googles, nitrile gloves, disposable aprons, sport tape scissors, sportstape (kinesiotape), rigid tape - especially for wrist taping - adhesive spray, roller wrap, ice bags, plasters, triangular bandage, Jelonet, wound care and dressing packs, ear drops, Vaseline, tape measure, hand held dynamometer, hand grip dynamometer, mulligan seat belt, easy angle digital goniometer, Compex, blood pressure machine, finger pulse oximeter, electrolyte tablets and protein bars.

Q: What is going through your head when you're watching them dive?

Far too many things! Firstly I'm hoping I've done everything possible to get them to the start line in the best possible shape. Right up until the last moment I'm evaluating if there is anything I can do or making a note of things I can do better for the next time.

Secondly, I’m hoping that the divers do what they do in training and remember their processes. If I’m sat with the coach then I’m making sure they have everything they need to be fully focused on the competition, providing an ear to listen or for the coach to bounce ideas off. I am ready with information such as dive scores, current placings, distance to medal positions etc.

And somewhere in all that jumble, I’m hoping that they didn’t injure themselves. Diving can be a dangerous sport if it goes wrong, which is a reality under the intense pressure that comes with competing at an Olympic Games.

Q: What’s the Tokyo 2020 experience like, especially without supporters?

We are definitely missing having the supporters and while the divers are getting on with the business of competing, the atmosphere can be a little subdued, especially without the roar of the crowd when a Japanese diver comes on to dive. We completely appreciate the reasons and are very grateful for the chance to be competing at an Olympic Games. Each diver is focused on their objectives and it’s still making for a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.

Q: How will you spend the rest of the Games?

Once the synchronised competitions finish, we begin the individual competitions which will finish on 7 August with the Men’s 10m individual final. This will allow Tom a chance to go after a second Olympic medal this Games.

Q: So, as you’ve mentioned him, what’s Tom really like? 

Well I can honestly say that he really is the way he comes across. He’s a very thoughtful, intelligent and the consummate professional athlete when it comes to his training, recovery and preparation. He sets very high standards and works very hard towards those. He has a great balance in his life that I think has really helped him this Games. He’s also very down to earth and quite happy to pull a prank or two! 

Tom Daley competes in the Men’s individual 10m platform dive preliminary this Friday (6 August) at 3pm. See the Olympics website for more details. 


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