Athlete Focus: Taia Tunstall, U20 Discus
Today's athlete focus is on Taia Tunstall, currently the top ranked U20 female discus thrower. We talk to Taia about her recent competitions, how to conquer nerves and enjoy training & competing.
See our video or scroll down if you prefer to read the transcript.
Interview with Taia Tunstall, U20 Female #1 ranked discus thrower, September 2020
We have the pleasure of interviewing Taia, who is the UK U20 first ranked discus thrower as of 2 days ago when she threw a PB of 49.90 at England Throws Camps Invitational series. She is a first year elite sports student at Loughborough University and we said that we would talk to Taia last week after the British Championships where she caged the first throw (achieving 39m) and fouled the other throws. What we were really interested in was Taia’s response to that, how she picked herself up and saw the successes out of her first attendance at the British Champs, went on to win at Lee Valley next day and now Taia has in her back pocket a first ranked position and a PB of 49.90.
We want to talk to Taia about her sport, her athletics, and also what it’s like to compete at the British Champs and competing in general and her views on that.
How did you get into throwing discus?
It was year 5, my teacher entered me for an inter-schools competition. It was indoors and I had never thrown a discus before. My teacher informed me of it and ever since then I have loved it. My first competition I was the one who threw the furthest, and it was even with a foam discus, so it wasn’t even anything that special. Then she said ‘oh you should go down to this local club’, so I did. The first time I went down there, they made me do running and I was never happy with that, so we met with a coach down there and from there it’s just been what it has been. With all the coaches I’ve been through and all the experiences I’ve had, with English Schools and Nationals and such, it’s just continued on from there. Obviously now I have my coach Stuart and it’s going on the up and up.
You are now in the Elite sports programme at Loughborough University, congratulations.
What were your biggest influences as you were developing as an athlete through school and clubs?
Definitely my parents. Ever since I first started they saw that something was there, that I really enjoyed it. Even when I wanted to quit with my first coach, I still didn’t want to stop and they knew that I didn’t want to stop, so having them in my life has been absolutely amazing. My Dad especially has driven me here, there and everywhere, up and down the country. My mum has been really helping me with all my training and the stuff outside it as well. So definitely my parents have been the biggest influence in my life.
What were your first experiences of athletics competition?
My first actual competition was an EYL. Being a thrower in my club was very rare, so I got thrown into any event I could do. They entered me for discus, shotput and javelin. Obviously discus was a big eye-opener – the fact that you had to use a metal discus and things like that. It was kind of daunting because there was girl I knew was throwing far further than I was, but she really helped progress me, just seeing how other people threw and were doing, made me want to get to that standard. Competing in the other throws as well showed me how different people are. It was such an eye-opener that I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to get to their level. When I saw other people competing at a higher level, especially when I got to English Schools, it was ‘oh I want to get to that level, I want to try and win these things, I want to get to where she’s throwing at’. Then my brother started joining in, as well as my Dad, and then it just went from there and it really helped to have so many different people progress me from that point up to now.
So how is competing different from training?
If you are getting motivation from seeing different people in competition, how is that different to training with different people at your club?
In some ways we try and replicate how training is to competition. We figured out this year that me being relaxed is a massive issue that I used to have. Especially at the first competition of the year I got really worked up so I didn’t do my best, so at the moment we are trying to get the same pattern in with my training that we do in competition. Also as Stuart coaches quite high up athletes such as Lewis Byng and my training partner Lily Carlaw, they are quite high ranked in the country, so being around them helps to push me a bit. Also, being around top level athletes in training helps me in competition as I have that similar environment.
So it is not such a shock when you go into competition.
Yes definitely. As my first English Schools I had never seen Samantha Callaway (who was ranked #1 at the time) throw before, so when I got to my first competition it was a big shock. Ever since then of course I have competed against athletes like Jade Lally, Kirsty Law, so that’s been really helpful to see how they throw and how they are in competition. I am also really familiar with them now so it’s not as much of a shock.
It makes sense. I think we can all relate. It doesn’t matter what kind of competition it is – the first time you represent your school, your first time at English Schools, first senior competition, there is a common experience of nerves, new environment, new people and even just a new circle and the set up of the cage can be very different.
So what happened at the British Championship and what was different to your amazing performances a couple of days ago at the ETC invitational?
When I first did it I didn’t know what happened. I went into this thinking ‘it’s just another competition, it’s another training session, there’s no pressure’. I’d been invited to possibly the one of the biggest competitions I’ll ever do and it’s the British Champs, it’s a big thing! I got there, did the warm up, and I think at some point it unnerved me a bit. I had never been in that stadium or circle before and it slightly freaked me out, but then you get into the competition. Yes, ok, I was around people I know, but the cameras is something you never normally see. You might see the odd cameraman out in the field (usually dodging the discus!), but apart from that not. When they did the pan-around of all the athletes before we threw and I saw myself up on the big screen it was an eye-opener. I know that when I got into the circle my body started shaking a bit, so that was telling me it was just a big higher than what I was used to. Comparing that to either the Lee Valley or the Moulton competition, I could relax a bit, as that competition was out of the way. I had done my first senior champs and it was easier to say ‘relax into it, you know what you’re doing, you know how to play these things’. It’s just having that exposure and that’s one thing I really struggled with at Manchester.
It’s a huge success to even step foot into that arena. There are so few people who have the chance to compete at the British Championships that effectively you’ve won just by being there and it is something to be very proud of. I wonder for the people who are listening, what might be useful:
What advice would you give yourself if you were to go back next year at the British Champs, what have you learnt from the experience?
One thing I’ve learnt is to try and distract myself from all of it. If I start singing songs in my head, then that helps me. If I am focussing on that then I’m not focussing on anything else, like the tannoy or the movement of the cameras around. If you are someone who gets anxious quite a bit, who doesn’t like all the attention, then try to focus on something which is just for you. You’re in a training session, that’s all it is really. That’s what Stuart and I have been trying to work on – that I am not stressing out, I’m not getting in my own head, it’s just what it is. You know what you are doing, you know how you are competing, it’s just another situation. It might be higher up, it might be a lower level competition, but it’s just another training session with another circle and another discus. It doesn’t matter what it is really.
It will be really interesting to see lots more of you and to see as you get more experienced with those environments that you can really thrive and take them on as your own. Because this is the thing that every athlete has to remember, either on local club level or on the international stage or Olympics: You’ve earnt the right to be at that competition. It is your competition and you belong there. So it is interesting to hear your focus.
What advice would you give a 14-15 year old discus thrower?
I have my coach licence and last year I used to coach year 7 and 8 in discus and shot put, and a lot of the advice I give them is just to enjoy it. I know especially when you are younger age (and I don’t mean this bad on anyone) a lot of parents or clubs will force you into competitions. If you don’t enjoy it there is no point doing it – that is what my parents used to say to me. I used to play rugby as well, there came a point a couple of years ago when I didn’t enjoy it, wasn’t happy being around the team, but I loved discus. It’s the one thing that makes me happy and makes me want to continue on. That’s all I can say. If you really want to do it and you’re really loving it then you’ll want to get better. For example, my brother doesn’t like discus but loves rugby. I fell out of love with rugby and fell in love with discus. So it’s completely different for different people, but when you find something you really love, you’ll keep going on with it.
Great! The other thing I’m interested in is that a lot of fantastic athletes are coming through Loughborough, and a lot are also choosing to train in the States.
What made you choose Loughborough for training and for your university education?
I was offered the chance to go to America. At the time I was throwing 44m, which was my PB at the start of the year, and you need to hit 50m to get a scholarship. My family can’t afford it, so I had to get a full scholarship, otherwise I couldn’t come. Their facilities are so impressive: they have indoor throws areas where you can throw the discus full length. But in some cases it just wasn’t me. It wasn’t what I was looking for. The Loughborough facilities are impressive, but it also feels more homely. This flat feels a bit like a hotel, but it just feels like home, not anything else. Not just the facilities, the course I am doing is really impressive. It’s one of the top ranked courses and is something I really want to do, which drew me to here. Now that my coach is here as well it makes it even more of a draw.
Your course is in Sports Exercise, Coaching and Physical Education. It is interesting as you have had opportunities as a junior to come to Loughborough, your coach is closely linked and you have been to various training camps either at or close to Loughborough, so this was a feeling of coming home to where you belong.
Interesting to see the talent development pathways for athletics in the UK clearly working in your case. That is really good.
It is really cool. I was partially on the futures programme last year and just being here around other athletes. You see Olympians train here and it is just a reality of ‘I actually get to be here, I deserve to be here’. It feels very homely.
And again, you have earnt your place here, you deserve to be training alongside those Olympians.
For the other discus thrower who are watching:
What are your favourite discus drills?
If anyone knows me, they know I don’t like doing drills, which is not the best thing! Now my coach has made me do them more, it has been an eye-opener as I have to do them. A lot of the drills on the England Throws Camp website I absolutely love. (see bit.ly/etcdrills) I have started doing a dumbbell discus swing. Holding a dumbbell in my right hand and doing a standing throw, obviously without actually letting go. My standing throws before were atrocious as I never used to do them – they were a bit of a warm up and that was it. But now that I am getting more used to it, it is becoming very fun and helping me to lock up my left side (which is something I had a problem with a couple of weeks ago). It’s helping a lot and doing that repetitiveness and getting into a routine of doing the drills helps not just in the cage, but anywhere else as it helps to build the muscle memory of what you need to do.
In a very specific way
What are goals and ambitions in athletics? Where are you going from here?
The next year is going to be trying to hit 50m first, then hopefully 52m as me and my coach are aiming to get to either the Europeans next year or the rescheduled U20 World Champs which were supposed to be this year in Nairobi. That would be a massive thing for me as I have obviously never represented GB before. We are also looking at the Commonwealths in Birmingham 2022 and then honestly, who knows. Maybe LA or the Olympics after that – that would be an eye-opener to get to that. I want to get to 60m, maybe 70m. We shall see.
We have every faith in you. If you keep going like you did a couple of days ago, that 50m will be soon in the coming, as you are only 10cm off.
Hopefully it will be gone soon, so I don’t keep getting teased by my little brother about it! Every PB I throw, he keeps saying ‘its not far enough’! I want to make him proud – well I know he is proud, but I want him to shut up a bit!!
Yes, little brothers are always proud, but would never tell you! Thank you for talking to us and the very best of luck in your career.