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.

1 comment:

peteh said...

Given the fact that uka no longer think development of anything is within their remit, we might be in with a chance?
Whether or not England Athletics can pick up the baton remains to be seen, but if they do I hope they take a very different direction.
The academy system set up by uka (and now abandoned) paid coaches. The problem is that it paid coaches to coach the few athletes at u17 & u20 level who were already capable of performing at a decent level. In my experience few of them turned up, and even less of them turned up with their coaches to generate the sort of debate that is needed at that level. So money was spent on a few at the top of a precarious pyramid. Perhaps we can now hope that development is done with relative novices and their coaches able to attend sessions, so that we can begin to build a base of competent coaches and athletes.