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?


Tim Grose said...

Relay legs must be surely be faster as you get a flying start. I seem recall Carl Lewis was timed at 8.95 secs for last leg in the 1984 LA Olympics.
Tim Grose

John said...

You have to compare like with like. Relay legs with the flying start are always going to produce a faster 100mts for the individual concerned than a static start.

Gay, Powell, Bolt, et al, could all run 8.something which means their mph/kph speed would certainly match Hayes and probably better because they've all run faster static start 100mts.

Just because Neil Allen thinks Hayes's relay leg was the fastest he'd ever seen a runner go doesn't mean it is.