Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Listening to Wisdom

When two of Britain’s former Directors of Coaching and highly respected international coaches are expressing the same opinion about the treatment of coaching by UK Athletics over the last decade its time that the federation started to listen.

Frank Dick and Malcolm Arnold are unanimous in their opinion that coach education has been severely neglected. “What was developed in the 1980s and early 1990s has been decimated,” Arnold recently wrote. “Syllabuses, where they exist (I think there is still no syllabus for Level 4 after 10 years) mimic second-rate coach education degree courses in third rate universities.”

And the results of one of the Moorcroft regime’s more toxic policies are there for all to see. Level 1 and 2 syllabuses have produced armies of bewildered souls unable to cope with the actual business of one to one coaching and thus stay in a safety zone of running crèches for youngsters who spend most of their time doing warm-up exercises. The drive has not been towards coaching competence but towards fulfilling Sport England’s KPI (Key Performance Indicators) targets.

This has resulted up here in Cumbria (and I’m sure elsewhere) of having 74% of qualified coaches at Level 1; another 17% at Level 2, making a total of 91% qualified at the lowest two levels. 8% are Level 3; 1% Level 4. And these are just qualified and absolutely not necessarily practising. Furthermore I have yet to meet anyone who feels that they have learnt anything worthwhile on either of the lower two courses.

It now seems to be realised that athletics coaching in Britain is in crisis. “It is a wonder,” Malcolm additionally wrote,” that we are doing as well as we are on the world stage.” The widely expected appointment of Charles Van Commenee as Head Coach has shown that coaching is back at the helm of performance. Van Commenee recognises where the problems lie: “What I can say is that there will be a much greater emphasis on coach development and coach education,” he recently said. “It has been undervalued and even ignored in recent years and it must be our emphasis.”

It is now six months since the services of Callum Orr were dispensed with and there is still no sign of the appointment of a Strategic Head of Coaching Development and so that area continues to remain in a vacuum. The problem of the new hierarchies at both UKA and England level is that we seem to be in a continuous state of flux of either waiting for someone to be appointed or for them to "settle in". As the weeks go by the greater the chances that many other coaches will give up in sheer frustration.

Going Round in Circles

UK No 1 Discus thrower Philippa Roles’ recent criticism of Lottery funding for athletes, whilst perfectly understandable, rather misses the point. It is because of Lottery funding that our women track athletes have done so well in relation to the men over the last couple of Olympics. Prior to its introduction women were very much the poor relation when it came to trying to earn a living from competing on the Grand Prix circuit, where the IAAF and EAA competitive network is heavily loaded in favour of men’s events. And as for women’s throwing events – forget it.

Where Roles is absolutely right and where she is echoing her predecessors from past decades is in her condemnation of the treatment of throwers, especially the heavy throwers. Three throwers represented Britain in Beijing, all women. Two of them, Roles and Hammer thrower Zoë Derham did not receive lottery support and Philippa spends her days driving trains around the south-east of England in order to support her athletics.

It is an excellent sign that Charles Van Commenee has appointed Bob Weir to take charge of the heavy throws up until 2012 (and hopefully beyond). Bob has been there, done most everything and sent innumerable postcards. He last represented Britain at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; in his sojourn in the States he coached Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson and has been head coach to an American World Junior championships team. But what Van Commenee and Weir need to emphasize strongly to those that govern these things, is that without financial support for our throwers, no matter what technical expertise is available, we will still be bereft of competitors, let alone finalists, in throwing events in 2012.

On his appointment Weir made a most significant comment. He pointed out that Stephanie Brown-Trafton, the American winner of the Discus title in Beijing, was of British parentage, which negates talk of Britain having a genetic fault line that does not produce big enough athletic specimens. Brown-Trafton is 6’ 4” and weighs 225lbs. She went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and throughout the early years of this century competed in the highly competitive NACA meetings. In the USA she belongs to the Nike club, has an agent and only 2.07 metres separates her 2008 US best performance from the third ranked. As we keep repeating such competition lies at the root of USA success.

What would have been the prospects for Brown-Trafton if her parents had remained in Britain? If she had gone to a college or university there would have been the dreary annual BUSA championships usually held on a very unseasonable date in equally unseasonable weather at Bedford. There would then follow the usual parade of county, territorial and national championships with the extraordinary excitement of the UK Women’s League to look forward to; she’d have won all her competitions by a large margin. International competition? Roles this year went to a European Winter throws competition in Croatia in March, a meeting in Cyprus in April, a meeting in Germany in May, the European Cup in Annecy. Wow! Great preparation for meeting the world’s best in Beijing.

What would Brown-Trafton have done? Taken up Rugby.

The truth is that, so far, the small successes that our heavy throwers have attained down the decades have been despite of rather than because of the system.. Britain has won just one Olympic or World Championship medal in the heavy throws. That was achieved in 1924 by Hammer thrower Malcolm Nokes who won bronze. Nokes, incidentally, was one of the early pioneers of coaching in Britain in the 1930s. There has been only one finalist (Lorraine Shaw in the Hammer) in global championships since 1984. There have been only eleven finalists (six men and five women) since the Great War.

If Bob is to make an impact some significant spending needs to be done. Let’s begin by ensuring that Philippa Roles doesn’t have to rise at some unearthly hour of the day to transport commuters into London before she trains for her true love, the discus.

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