Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Fontainebleau's “Pôle Espoir” (Elite Academy): A “Blue wave” of progress

France has always been one of the world’s greatest driving forces in MTB Orienteering. It was in Fontainebleau, just over fifty kilometres south-east of Paris, that the first World MTB Orienteering Championships took place in 2002, and it was there that athletes like Laure Coupat, Caroline Finance, Jérémie Gillmann and Matthieu Barthélémy became famous names in this discipline’s history. But the years then passed and, though always feared by their opponents, France constantly failed to come back to take the world lead. Some sporadic successes – Jérémie Gillmann and the Men’s Relay in 2007, Gaëlle Barlet in 2011 and Baptiste Fuchs in 2014 – just confirmed a period with few high spots. However when we come to the end of 2015, we find four Frenchmen in the IOF MTB Orienteering World Ranking’s top 20 and two French women in the top 10! When we look at their results in the European and World Championships, we can begin to understand that something has changed in a big way.

The change is significant and likely to be long-lasting. Since 2006 French MTB Orienteering has undergone a major reorganisation, becoming much better structured, with the fruits beginning to emerge consistently a few years afterwards. Success was first fully appreciated (and celebrated) by the youngsters in Hungary in 2012 when Lou Denaix won the Junior World Sprint title. In 2013 Cédric Beill enjoyed one of the greatest achievements in MTB Orienteering’s history, being crowned Junior World Champion in all four distances: Sprint, Middle, Long and Relay. The French men’s relay team won the silver medal at the 2014 Junior World Championships. But it’s in 2015 that one can truly appreciate the results of this long-term work, the magnitude of which brings France back to the forefront of World MTB Orienteering.

Training is not an exact science”

Sports teacher, promoter, adviser, cartographer, organiser and public relations person, André Hermet is also a member of IOF’s MTBO Commission, coordinator and coach of the French MTBO team. And he is Coordinator, at regional level, of the most important MTBO development institution in France and a true example to the world: Fontainebleau’s “Pôle Espoir”, its Elite Academy.

A cyclist when young, Hermet encountered Orienteering at the age of 24. This was too late to see his dream, to get into the French Foot Orienteering Elite Team, come true. But he still wanted to improve his knowledge, learn the secrets of physical preparation and know more about how to achieve technical improvement; his interest in putting these things into practice led him in due course to a period of study, and he was awarded his Sports Teacher Diploma at the age of 42. From that moment he began to devote himself fully to coaching at high level. To him, “coaching is to identify, bring forward, prepare, and lead an individual or a group in ways which realise their highest potential. But it’s by not doing the same as others that you take a step forward.”

What steps enable a musician to become a virtuoso? How do pilots of fighter jets manage stress during the flight? “High levels exist not only in sport”, André Hermet comments. “I’ve always tried to innovate, applying new training methods based on knowledge and scientific research on the complexity of achieving excellence”, he says. Bringing in theoretical concepts about perception, memory, logical thinking and planning, among other things, André Hermet just wants to improve the athletes’ effectiveness whilst competing: “Training is not an exact science. There are no secrets or miracles. As a coach, it isn’t enough just to know and understand the principles of training. I need to know how to combine and use these principles to create “my” method. The percentage of MTB orienteers with large potential is not greater in France than in Spain, Finland or Portugal”, he affirms.

Life in the Academy

In 1993 André Hermet found himself excited by and committed to MTB Orienteering, which was almost a novelty in France at the time. It was at that time that he began to promote the discipline regionally, but was faced with an insoluble problem: the lack of young people involved in the sport. It wasn’t until 2000 – at a time when he had already been nominated as Technical Director of the first World MTB Orienteering Championships – that his efforts intensified. He became the coach of the Fontainebleau Pôle Espoir, an Elite Academy created by the French Orienteering Federation and recognised by the French Ministry of Sports. It is here that he’s been recruiting orienteers from all over France who demonstrate potential, both in Foot Orienteering and MTB Orienteering. These young athletes are a group of 10 to 15 boys and girls who stay at the Pôle for three to five years, doing their studies and having daily Orienteering training.

The Pôle can be seen today as an intermediate stage between the clubs that develop Orienteering activities and the French team. The team is composed of twenty to twenty six athletes from all over France, the best athletes of the Elite, Junior and Youth categories. It’s in the Pôle that athletes follow a programme with a training load of 12 to 15 hours a week, adjusted according to their age and technical and physical level. Trips away from the Pôle for further preparation range from Cross-country Skiing (one week in February) to specific preparation for major international competitions, with Training Camps in relevant terrain within or outside France. The results are now there, and just confirm that French MTB Orienteering is going the right way: this season the athletes from Fontainebleau’s Pôle Espoir won seven gold medals, eight silver and three bronze in European and World Championships. To the names mentioned early in this article we now have to add those of Florian Pinsard, Constance Devillers, Antoine Vercauteren, Mathilde Sipos and Lou Garcin, among many others. A real “blue wave” is developing, and promises to grow into a “tsunami”.

[Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido. See the original article on Orienteering World's last issue at, on pages 14 and 15. Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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