Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Future of Coaching (2)

What, in the eyes of the rest of athletics, is the worthiness of a coach? Not much it seems if a couple of recent events are anything to go by. Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner and coach Clyde Hart (to speak by the way at the forthcoming European Coaches Conference in Glasgow) split at the beginning of the year in dispute over Warriner’s proposed 50% cut in Hart’s pay. The athlete’s agent’s fees were to remain untouched. And the IAAF has given scant and so far negative attention to a proposal to set up a Year of the Coach.

Half a century ago Harold Abrahams, a doyen of the IAAF and British athletics establishment, caustically referred to coaching as “bloody kidology.” He had no respect for the English professional team of national coaches for the simple reason that they were paid. It seemed to have slipped his memory that his 1924 Olympic sprint gold was the result of the work of a great professional coach, Sam Mussabini. The prodigious culture clash between Abrahams and Geoffrey Dyson, the first Director of Coaching, titans of amateurism and professionalism respectively in athletics, inevitably led to the latter leaving this country, a disillusioned and embittered man. He went to Canada and successfully replicated the coaching scheme that he had set up in Britain. There he received the respect, for his dynamism and professionalism, which was his due.

In America coaching has always been professional; it’s part of their sporting culture. In Britain the exact opposite pertains for the same reason. To accept money for coaching in athletics is still considered, somehow, infra dig, beyond the pale. Paula Radcliffe’s former coaches, Alex and Rosemary Stanton were genuinely horrified at the idea of receiving remuneration for their services and there are many of the same opinion. At club level paid coaching is unknown.

If athletics’ coaching is to move forward it needs to shed itself of this albatross around its neck. As we said in the previous Blog the lead in the sanctioning of payments to coaches and their subsequent professionalisation must come from governing bodies.

When the Minister for Sport says that behind every great athlete is a great coach he flies in the face of sport council strategy that tends to negate the influence of the individual coach in favour of squad systems with strict central control.

One of the great success stories of the old coaching scheme were the instructional booklets produced by the national coaches. These were excellent and had a worldwide reputation; they were a must for every coach’s bookshelf. No more. The coming of UK Athletics saw them banished to the outer reaches of Amazon’s used book lists, never to be replaced.

A discus thrower arrives at your club but there is no discus coach and you scroll the web looking for help. Nothing official is available. You wonder if CDs or DVDs are obtainable, either nationally or internationally and you wonder in vain. Where can we learn about the latest research in the events that we coach? Apart from the IAAF’s excellent but highly advanced New Studies in Athletics there is, in Britain anyway, nothing.

Unless this highly neglected area is addressed coaching will continue to stagnate or regress.

The imbalance between track and field successes in British athletics is reflected in coaching. There is a real lack of quality coaches in most of our jumping and throwing events and the sad news is that the governing body has never been pro-active in this area. We seem to believe that poor results are the consequence of acts of God. I’m sure this applies globally. Does the genetic make up of East Africans really preclude them from events other than distance running?

In Britain the recent history of women’s high jumping is a classic example of an event in apparent permanent decline as far as international participation is concerned.

Britain has been represented only once at global championship level this century (Susan Moncrieff in 2001). No women high jumper will compete in Beijing
Since 1990 no British woman has jumped higher than 1.91m in a major competition (Debbi Marti in 1992). .
Britain last had a competitor in the top eight in any global or European competition twenty years ago (Diana Davies in the Seoul Olympics).
This century in the nine junior (global and European) championships held, Britain has had only two finalists, Aileen Wilson (2001) and Vikki Hubbard (2007). Wilson cleared 1.87m but her performances have steadily declined since.

What has caused such deterioration in an event? Is it that raw material is not available? Possibly, there were only two competitors in the Under 19 high jump at the recent English Schools. Is it through a lack of quality coaches? Is it that our coaches lack the technical knowledge to take jumpers above a certain level? Or is it because our women high jumpers are not “podium material” so the event is neglected in the scramble of the gold rush? These are questions that UK Athletics should have been asking itself years ago.

And women’s high jumping is just an example; in the men’s shot, discus and hammer Britain has had just one finalist at global level in the last twenty years (Bob Weir; World discus; 1997). In the women’s throws you have to return to the mid-eighties to find finalists. The above questions surely also appertain here.

A review of coaching is apparently underway. How extensive the consultation process will be remains to be seen. It was a lack of consultation with experienced coaches ten years ago that led UK Athletics down its disastrous coaching pathway.
As long as those conducting the review and those who will sit in judgement on it know what they don’t know there may still be hope.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Future of Coaching (1)

The announcement that a UK centre of excellence for coaching is to be set up at Leeds Met Carnegie is welcome. As usual with such launch announcements we are short of receiving the detail: we know the where, now we need to know the how, when and who. It is generally recognised that the quality of coaching in Britain falls far short of world standards across a whole range of sports (although many British coaches stubbornly refuse to recognise the fact). It is to be hoped that staff recruitment at the proposed centre will take in the whole world.

One statement by the Minster for Sport, Gerry Sutcliffe, intrigued me. “Behind every great athlete is a great coach,” he said “and we want to ensure that we have the best sports coaches and coaching system in the world both at the elite end and grass roots.” Does he know what’s been going on in British athletics, under Sport England’s last regimen, for a decade or so, where many believe that the emphasis has been on systems, squads and academies and not on supporting the individual coach?

For fifty years Britain’s athletics’ coaching scheme was the envy of the world, its pattern being copied by many countries. It was a simple one: regional professional coaches, under a Director of Coaching, entrusted with a bread and butter task of ‘teaching the teachers and coaching the coaches’. Men such as Geoff Dyson, Jim Alford, John Le Masurier, Denis Watts, Ron Pickering, Wilf Paish, Tom McNab, Frank Dick and John Anderson et al, became highly respected figures, both nationally and internationally. And, although it was not part of their remit they produced some of our really outstanding athletes, whose performances have stood the rigorous test of time.

Sutcliffe highlighted the vital importance of coach-athlete partnerships and again we can reel off a roll of honour that is well known to those with a sense of history of British athletics: Coe and Coe; Ovett and Wilson; Christie and Roddan; Jackson and Arnold; Sanderson and Paish; Backley and Trower; Davies and Pickering; Rand and Le Masurier, Moorcroft and Anderson – the list goes back into the mists of time and on and on. Across the world the kernel of individual athletics success has always been the individual coach.

The advent of UK Athletics in 1998 changed all that and looking back over the ten years it is difficult to know why such a dramatic and disastrous change was made. Yes, the scheme needed tweaking but it didn’t need destroying. Separating Performance and Coaching was, as the past decade has shown, a cataclysmic act. Coach Development became Coach Education and the results of the latter can be sadly seen through the technical incompetence of young athletes at any meeting, right up to regional standard.

Meanwhile many millions have been spent on our elite athletes in an almost avaricious quest for gold. This has involved the setting up of squad systems and control from the centre which has sometimes meant the moving of an athlete away from a successful partnership. It hasn’t worked. In the ten years prior to 1997 GB won 42 medals at global championships; in the ten years since it has won 25. The final blow to coaching and a reflection of its worth by David Moorcroft and his cohorts, before they fled the ruin they had created, was the failure to appoint a coach as director of performance.

It will be interesting to see how many other countries have abandoned having an experienced coach at the helm of their Olympic team in Beijing. I think very few. Being selected as head coach and indeed to be part of an Olympic coaching team gave international recognition to the very best. No longer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world class exponent of your particular coaching art; if you’re not employed by UK Athletics you’ll not get any such recognition.

Disillusioned coaches have either retired or retreated into their coaching cocoons. One of the key foundations of athletics success has been allowed to wither on the vine. And now we’re back to the hoary old question I first asked five or six years ago: who’s in charge of coaching?

At the moment, after UKA’s night of the long knives, no one is but a review is apparently taking place. Whether a widespread survey of coaches’ views is contemplated is not known (as far as I know rank and file coaches were not consulted in 1998) but if they are not it seems to me that we’re in danger of repeating recent history.

First of all questions need to be asked. The government promised a few years ago to pump millions into the professionalisation of coaching. As far as athletics is concerned not much seems to have arrived in its coffers since that announcement was made. Or if some money has arrived what has it been spent on? Why has no pathway for a career in athletics coaching ever been developed? And if it has why does no one know about it?

What must happen in Britain is urgent planning for the professionalisation of athletics coaching. For too long we have relied on outmoded, time-consuming voluntary effort in this most important field. Parents of talented young athletes are amazed that they have to pay for ballet, violin, swimming, tennis et al tuition for their other offspring but that athletics coaching is free at the point of delivery. Not one of the many federations that have governed British athletics over the decades has ever suggested that paying for coaching is acceptable, let alone desirable. What is urgently required is a working group of coaches (probably Level 3 and above) to come up with a universally acceptable scheme for coaches to be recompensed for their work which, of course, must be regularly evaluated.

It has been suggested that any development of coaching must come through the clubs. This is arrant nonsense. Our clubs have, for too long, been the holy, untouchable cows of our sport. As a result of strident, sometimes abusive, voices raised in protest at any sign of evolutionary grassroots change none has taken place. There are a number of reasons why developing coaching, even through the 15% or so of our clubs that are viable entities, would not work.

Firstly, the priority of club administrators is the club; the priority of most coaches is the athletes. This leads to an acrimonious clash of interest when these priorities differ. Secondly, the development of coaching through clubs assumes that a full complement of events is being covered when we all know that in the majority of cases field events in particular, are neglected. A survey of clubs undertaken in the 90s indicated that in hurdles, jumps and throws almost 80% of clubs believed that they did not have enough coaches. The decline of the past decade can lead us to reasonably suppose that the situation has worsened rather than improved. There maybe a few concerning clubs at this state of affairs but I know of no initiative by any club to take positive steps to correct it, nor indeed of promoting coaching in any way.

Coaches should be linked to tracks and training venues rather than to clubs. In order to maximise our fast diminishing coaching resources each track should have a dedicated coaching team, ideally funded by the local authority. Where there are deficiencies coaches should be encouraged (probably through financial incentives) to expand their repertoire of events. The drive for new coaches should be via parents, employing good marketing techniques.

Recovery would certainly be aided by the appointment of nine regional coaches in England, similar in nature to the former National Coaches, men and women who would become the focal point of coaching in the area, who would know the region and know where particular problems lay.

What we urgently need is an audit of practising coaches. Then personal contact beginning with Levels 4 and 3, can be achieved via e-mail.. After ten years of neglect it is important that the governing body begins moves to make coaches feel an integral and important part of the sport. Dyson did this many years ago with a Coaching Newsletter sent free to every qualified coach. Today’s modern and swift means of communication would enable a two way dialogue between individual coaches and whoever will be running coaching, especially in a region.

This is not rocket science and there are obviously many other ideas out there to help coaching back to where it was, at the forefront of British athletics.

The former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld once famously said:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.”

The trick is in ensuring that the way forward in coaching is not directed by those who don’t know what they don’t know. Unfortunately, with the sport’s propensity for operating behind closed doors, that probably includes most of us.

(We’ll continue to look at coaching, including international development, is next week’s Blog)

Who is the fastest man?

Tyson Gay’s winning time for 100 metres of 9.68 (aided by a 4.1 mps wind) at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene has prompted reader Brian Burdick from Pennsylvania to re-open that hoary old debate around since the professional sprinters of the 19th century strutted their stuff: who is the world’s fastest man? “Officials are now claiming that Tyson Gay has now been labelled as the fastest human ever,” Brian writes, “regardless of wind-aided-ness. Who would be faster, Tyson Gay with 100 meters or Bob Hayes and his 110 yards? And furthermore with Bob Hayes would the acceleration / transition zone be figured in or not?”

What Brian is referring to is Hayes’ run on the last leg of the sprint relay at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that has long been considered the fastest timed run by a human being. Taking the baton in fifth place Hayes was 3 metres behind the French anchor man, Jocelyn Delecour. He finished 3 metres ahead. He was unofficially clocked at times varying between 8.5 and 8.9 seconds as he stormed past four teams to win gold for the USA. Neil Allen, the Times athletics correspondent at the time wrote that he’d never seen any sprinting that impressed him as much as Hayes’ final leg. “The man just exploded,” Neil wrote, “he was absolutely fantastic, just like a clenched fist travelling along the track…it was the greatest explosion of speed I had ever seen.”

I think we can assume that the timings would have been carried out by athletics statisticians and that they would have carefully timed Hayes from the 100 metre mark in the final take-over zone. Whether the wind-speed on the final leg of the relay in Tokyo matched that of the 100 metre final in Eugene we shall never know but it is anyway an incidental point.

It should also be remembered that Hayes’ run took place on cinders whereas Gay ran on an advantageous synthetic surface in Oregon (synthetic tracks arrived circa 1966). However Hayes would have arrived at the commencement of his 100 metres at speed, whereas Gay would have started normally.

If my maths is correct (doubtful) Gay ran an average of 37.18 kph (23.10 mph) whilst Hayes ran, taking the slowest of the times taken 40.44 kph (25.12mph). Contest over then?