Invictus Games review part one: the icing on the cake

9th November 2018

Invictus Games review part one: the icing on the cake

Last month saw the fourth edition of the Invictus Games as the competition headed to the southern hemisphere for the first time. The adaptive sports games for wounded, injured and sick service personnel headed down under as Sydney hosted the 2018 Games.

Sitting volleyball was again included as part of the Games. It is brilliant that the sport is part of an incredible event that draws on the power of sport to inspire the recovery, rehabilitation and a wider respect for those who have served their country in combat. The word Invictus itself means unconquered. The event is also a fantastic platform for the sport, showing just how inclusive, fun and dynamic it is.

Team UK has a rich history in the Invictus Games sitting volleyball having reached the final of all previous games. This year, Team UK navigated their way past Afghanistan and Jordan in the pool stages, before defeating Poland in the semi-finals. In the final, they were defeated by Georgia, meaning they would return home with a fantastic silver medal.

We caught up with Team UK head coach Richard Osborne to reflect on the experience of the Games and the legacy it generates for Service personnel and the sport. In the first of a two-part series, Richard chatted about another successful Games for the sitting volleyball squad…

How do you reflect on Team UK reaching another final and winning a silver medal?

I am truly overwhelmed with the team's performance throughout the whole competition and extremely proud of its achievement in winning the silver medal. This was my first year with Team UK and I was reminded just before we started the preliminary matches that Team UK has never failed to qualify for the medal rounds in any of the team sports (Sitting Volleyball, Wheelchair Basketball and Wheelchair Rugby) so I felt a certain degree of pressure not to be the first coach to reach that unwanted landmark! 

Having progressed past the preliminary stage, I was then reminded the Sitting Volleyball team had made it to the final every year since the Invictus Games began and once again felt under pressure to deliver! But my players did exactly as I had asked them and above all, they stayed a tight unit throughout the competition, worked hard for each other and displayed the combative spirit that is synonymous with the Invictus Games.

You had over 100 Servicemen and women try out to be part of the team. Tell us a bit about the squad. How experienced were they and how much did you have to do to prepare for the tournament?

I think it was 133 in total, which is an amazing number and illustrates how quickly the Invictus Games has grown. 

I delivered several training camps at various locations across the country at the start of 2018, where players could learn the basics of the game and decide whether they wanted to apply for selection.  The trials for selection took place at Bath University in April after which I produced feedback reports for every player that had attended a training camp and selection trials. I considered it important to provide as much narrative as possible in the hope players would continue to play, irrespective of whether they were selected for the squad, and could use my feedback to continue their development. 

I was not part of the selection panel, but my scores and narrative were considered alongside other factors such as player commitment and, crucially, what benefit taking part in the Invictus Games would have on their recovery.  I then had an anxious wait to discover who would be selected for my team.

I had a real mix of experience, with one player being a Paralympian to others that hadn’t played before, so we had to start with the fundamentals and build quickly as we only had six training weekends in total to prepare for competition or, put another way, 12 days!  The team gelled quickly and there was an amazingly vibrant and supportive atmosphere at every camp with plenty of ‘banter’ that is unique to life in the Armed Forces.

What was the goal heading into the tournament?

At the start of the process my sights were firmly set on getting to the final and, if possible, winning the gold medal and that remained my focus until well into the training camps. 

Somewhat misguidedly, I considered a gold medal to be the only tangible outcome to reflect performance. However, as I started to get to know the players, spending time with them outside the training environment and gaining an insight into what had led them to apply for the Games, I learnt about the personal trauma and adversity they had experienced, and my perspective changed quite profoundly as a result. 

An analogy that had been used at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto came back to me, that is wasn’t necessarily about crossing the finishing line for some of these players, but simply getting to the starting line. It dawned on me that, actually, medals were the icing on the cake but that it was the process itself that had the greatest impact.

Every time the team came together for training, or went out for a social evening, I could see lost personalities slowly starting to re-emerge, confidence being rebuilt and players who had started out as remote and isolated coming out of their shell and engaging in conversation and banter. 

On the court they pushed themselves to the limit and gradually it was apparent they were rediscovering themselves and finding that although their lives had changed, they hadn’t ended and that there was still purpose to life and they had value.  At that point, it was quite obvious that the real goal here was to help these amazing people find themselves again and I am so pleased to say that I helped in a small way to achieve that. 

In the final, GB were defeated by Georgia. A team you had previously coached to gold at the last Invictus Games. What emotions did you go through in the final against a team you know so well?

Before I mention Georgia, I must pay tribute to Team Jordan, who we faced in the pool stages together with Afghanistan. Only the top team from the four pools progressed to the medal round and Jordan are a team with whom I am extremely familiar having competed against them in 2016 and 2017 when I coached Georgia. On both occasions they presented stiff competition and I was genuinely concerned at the prospect of facing them again.  

It was an epic match that swung backwards and forwards, going right to the wire with Team UK taking the determining final set 15-13!  If we hadn’t beaten both Jordan and Afghanistan we would have been out of the competition and I would indeed have been the first coach not to have advanced to the finals!  

What was most pleasing about that victory, though, was my team’s performance.  They bought together all the things we had worked hard on over the training camps and delivered in spectacular fashion.  

Facing Georgia in the final was something I had dreamt about, and of course I wanted to beat them as I had wanted to beat the UK when I was the Georgian coach, which I think is a natural coaching instinct. 

I knew the Georgian style intimately and we set out a game plan but sadly we couldn’t quite pull it off. I take absolutely nothing away from the Georgians, they are the national team after all and just before the Invictus Games had been competing in France against a host of new nations that have recently become members of ParaVolley Europe.  They train regularly, whereas Team UK had 12 days together as I have said, so to have competed for long spells is a fantastic achievement by my team.  And after it had ended we were all friends still!   

The second part of the Invictus Games review, Richard talks about the legacy of the Invictus Games and the impact it has on the sport of sitting volleyball. Look out for it next week...

Invictus Games review part one: the icing on the cake