Monday, 20 April 2009

Geoff Dyson and the Appliance of Science

Tom Tellez was a top American coach, Head Track and Field Coach at the University of Houston. His finest athlete, Carl Lewis, was arguably the greatest the world has ever seen, Specialising at 100, 200 metres, long jump and sprint relay, Lewis won more combined Olympic and World gold medals than any other athlete in history. His sprinting and jumping techniques were impeccable.

At the drop of a hat Tellez would produce a well thumbed book and cry “this is my bible!” a book, written some twenty years before he was coaching Lewis, by an Englishman, G.H.G. Dyson and was titled the Mechanics of Athletics. Tellez told me, twenty years ago, that he had read it perhaps fifty times. “If I have had success as a coach I owe a great deal of it to Geoff Dyson,” he said. “His book started me on the trail of discovering the real facts about track and field.”

The Mechanics of Athletics, translated into French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese that ran to eight English editions, applied the immutable laws of motion of Sir Isaac Newton to every event. In his day Geoff Dyson, the British Chief National Coach of the time, toured the land preaching a gospel of the appliance of science to training, illustrating his mesmerizing presentations with turntables and film loops.

Dyson also instituted instructional booklets on every event that were soon coveted by coaches round the world; he encouraged those who were pioneering loop films, men like Guy Butler and the German Toni Nett, who obtained stadium access to film the greatest athletes of the time in action, which could then be globally marketed and repeatedly specto-analyzed in slow motion.. It was a trail-blazing, pioneering time, and for those of us privileged to be involved in Britain, very exciting. 

It is somehow symbolic to me that the Mechanics of Athletics is out of print, symbolic of the fact that the scheme that Dyson conceived sixty years ago, that became the envy of the world and was re-constructed in Canada, has been desecrated over the last decade or more by those who don’t know what they don’t know.

He conceived of the idea of a team of national coaches who would ‘teach the teachers and coach (my italics) the coaches’ in the different regions of Britain. I think the mantra was deliberate. Teachers would be taught but coaches would be coached in the art of applying the science they had gained. Different men down the years have filled the role with distinction, highly respected not only in their regions but also, in some cases, around the world of athletics. Many left in frustration and anger and when the British Athletics Federation went bankrupt in 1997 national coaches were unceremoniously swept aside and a mess of pottage replaced their work.  

Dyson fought a losing battle to earn respect for coaches and coaching against the philistines of the AAA establishment. In his time there were those who sneeringly referred to coaching as “bloody kidology.” His battle still hasn’t been won. If you consider the question of how important is coaching to the development of the sport worldwide and then study the websites of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the European Athletics Association (EAA) and in Britain, UK Athletics (UKA) you have to conclude that it’s not very important at all. 

All you can find on the IAAF site are details of the various coaching awards available and information on how to obtain the very academic publication New Studies in Athletics; the EAA site is similarly bereft of information and news with just a link to the officers of the European Athletics Coaches Association (EACA) but not to the association’s website. In Britain, it’s the same story.  

But as to what is going on in the world of coaching - who’s producing the current crop of great athletes, what’s their philosophy, who’s innovating in the various events, is there new information to be gained in the crucial areas of strength training, gender, nutrition, sports psychology etc then internationally (and domestically in Britain) - there is nothing at all. The idea of sourcing and collating all such relevant information seems not to have entered the mindset of any of the relevant personnel.

In some ways you could say that Dyson’s ideas were globally ahead of his time; certainly, in Britain, they appear to be ahead of our time. With the availability of modern technology you have to ask where are the DVDs that show us frame-by-frame analysis of the great technicians; where are the event booklets that maybe would encourage coaches to consider events other than their speciality; where is there a film, for instance, of the greatest long jump of all-time, Powell (8.95) versus Lewis (8.91w) in Tokyo in 1991? 

In 1975 Dyson rose, at Olympia in Greece, to address the 19th session of the International Olympic Academy. It was almost thirty years since the creation of his coaching scheme in Britain and twelve since he had similarly launched the Royal Canadian Legion’s Sports Training Plan in Ontario. It was mainly a reflective lecture but in it he relevantly said:

“In his study of athletic performance the modern coach stands at the crossroads of several sciences. Thus, to the physiologist, athletic performance is a phenomenon of cells, humours, tissues and nutrient fluids obeying organic laws. The psychologist sees the athlete as a consciousness and a personality, while to the physicist he suggests a machine unique in its organisation, adaptiveness and complexity. To the imaginative coach the borders of these and other specialities are seen to overlap; the techniques of one science become meaningful and illuminating in others.”

2011 sees the 30th anniversary of his untimely death from a heart attack and surely the time would be right to resurrect his place in coaching history as a great genius, pioneer and innovator, the man who applied science to the most complicated sport of all. He has rightly been described as a prophet without honour in his own land. 

British athletics owed him so much and yet deigned to honour him in his lifetime, though belatedly he was recently inducted into a England Hall of Fame. There are many ways in which he can be remembered but perhaps one of the most enduring would be to recreate the Mechanics of Athletics electronically with appropriate film and commentary from the book so that a new generation of coaches can benefit from the man who single-handedly changed the concept of coaching in Britain.  

The Dyson Squad: Left to Right: Geoff Elliot (1954 Commonwealth Pole Vault Champion); Maureen Gardern-Dyson (1948 Olympic silver medallist); Dyson; Shirley Cawley (1952 Olympic long jump bronze medallist); John Savidge (1954 Commonwealth shot put champion).

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

A Good Vintage

Since his arrival as Head Coach of UK Athletics (UKA), Charles van Commenee has shown how crass and destructive was the decision by the previous incumbents of Athletics House to appoint a sports psychologist to lead Britain’s international athletes, a man who misspent millions of pounds and subsequently failed to meet his own overly modest medal target in Beijing. The stupidity of Moorcroft’s decision is emphasized by the fact that van Commenee was working at UKA at the time, seemingly ignored because the CEO had decided, apparently on the advice of Sir Clive Woodward, that a coach was not the best person to lead athletes. The Dutchman soon flew back to Holland to take up duties there.
One fears that the decisions made between 1997 and 2006 will haunt British athletics for some years to come and indeed will have a detrimental effect on our performances in 2012 which is why (as I read somewhere) van Commenee’s resolve to resign if he does not meet his own target of eight medals in London is not one I agree with. He needs more time to right the wrongs of a decade of maladministration, especially in relation to coaching.
He may have problems in areas where he has no direct control. England Athletics’ unseemly rush to comply with its paymasters latest wheeze, abandoning its nine regions in the process, seems to have left coaching in an angry limbo. And coaches have been angry for some time, not so that England AA seems to have noticed. The new system, hardly in place, is already generating a lack of confidence in Level 3 and Level 4 coaches. Such coaches tell me that communication is non-existent, e-mails go unanswered. No one seems to know what is going on.
The current state of coaching would have made Geoff Dyson burst a blood vessel, something that those who knew him (as I did) would confirm he was always prone to do. With Geoff (founder of our coaching scheme back in 1948) it was always Apoplexy Now and it finally led to him being hounded out of British athletics in the early 1960s. But he left behind him a legacy that was the envy of the world. Traces of his work are still around us, some of it inevitably septuagenarian in nature, in men who have more coaching wisdom in their little fingers than the majority have in their whole bodies.
In van Commenee, by his actions and pronouncements, one recognises a man of similar persuasion, a man who knows athletics and athletes. He clearly does not suffer fools gladly so in British athletics he will have a hard time of it. He has been described as a volcano and I for one look forward to hearing the eruptions that are necessary to put Britain internationally back on the right track.
Talk Talk
Prior to the world’s finest athletes descending on Berlin’s Olympic stadium in August a few hundred administrators from around the globe will assemble for an IAAF Congress. I’ve been around a few of these massive talking shops and it has amazed me each time that so much time and money is spent and perhaps wasted on what, in the end, primarily turns out to be nitpicking of changes to the competition rules. It gives those who love to indulge themselves in such pedantry a field day. As usual on these occasions a very few self-appointed experts dominate the discussions; the rest are bored to tears.
It’s obviously too late to change the format for 2009 but surely the IAAF should think of doing so when mostly the same people gather again in Daeju, South Korea two years later. Our sport is not in such great shape that discussion on its future by the top administrators from each country would be a waste of time. Why not, over three days, have seminars on the three fundamental areas of athletics: coaching, competition (including officials) and facilities without which athletics could not function. It really is time that the world governing body interested itself in what is happening below its athletics ivory towers.
Living up to the hype
British performances at the world cross country championships in Amman disappointed many including many of the athletes themselves. The real question (and it applies even more to track and field as well as we shall see) is whether our athletes lived up to expectations. I think most of them did. What they didn’t live up to was the hype generated by good performances achieved in the gold fish bowls of British and European competitions. We were up to it again after last weekend eulogising runners for being in the top five in Europe; we have yet to learn that, in world terms, European standards no longer serve as any criteria.
One of the problems seems to be the spin spawned by the need to sell the televised meetings. Our young sprinters have had enormous pressure put upon them over recent years by being put on a par with the Americans and Jamaicans; heads to heads built up at Crystal Palace and Gateshead, arousing media and public expectation. The latest is Mark Lewis Francis “challenging” Usain Bolt in a street sprint at Manchester. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? A look at the world rankings lists is all it takes to bring about a sense of reality.
Let us take the careers of three young British sprinters: Mark Lewis Francis, Harry Aikines Aryeetey and Craig Pickering, all lauded to the skies as future Olympic champions, even world record holders. The former two won World Junior titles; Pickering was European Junior champion in 2005. After he won his title in 2000 Lewis Francis was named as his successor by the Olympic champion, Donovan Bailey; after his success in 2006 Aikines Aryeetey was dubbed Britain’s big hope for the 2012 Olympics. Pickering has somehow found himself to be the next big white hope. And of course it has been natural for the athletes to believe the stories, to revel in the interviews, to have expectations that, frankly, have exceeded their grasp. Such disappointments can be mind shattering.
90% of British athletes who will be contending in 2012 are probably known to us. Anyone contending for the final of the 100 metres in London should surely now be running sub-10 seconds. Only three British sprinters have ever run under that time, the last, Dwain Chambers, ten years ago. It is inconceivable to me that there will be a British 100 metre finalist, let alone a medallist, in three years time in London.
Shaping the destinies of sprinters in their teenage years to gain bums on seats is, to put it at its mildest, a dubious practice. Let us praise Lewis Francis, Aikines Aryeetey and Pickering for what they have achieved, not for what we would like them to.