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).


Stuart Biddle said...

Excellent commentary on the legacy of Geoff Dyson, who had a similar influence on countless student-athletes at Loughborough when he was a staff member there.

Stuart Biddle

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Galloway Lad said...

In my middle teens - a long time ago - I found a copy of The Mechanics of Athletics in my school library in Stranraer, Scotland and found it to be the most useful guide/coaching resource (including blood and flesh coaches) that I ever came across. It was a revelation. I was into shot and discus and it both motivated me and gave me a much better understanding of both events. Now,sadly, all these years later, I find that the gist of this blog applies very pertinently to the situation in Scotland. I'm hopeful that Frank Dick will bring about drastic change but at ground level I see nothing happening yet, and very few quality throwers coming through. When I compare the current and recent crop of throwers with that produced by Finland, for example, the difference is staggering and disappointing. The talent is here but for various reasons it's not being identified and developed . . . . RIP Mr Dyson.
Fine blog by the way!

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Alan Garner said...

Geoff Dyson was one of the four people that formed my life. He was an honest and a kind and ruthless man, who showed that excellence was the only goal.

He gave me a clarity of self awareness and self discipline that made me drop out of athletics when the rest of the English establishment was predicting great Olympic things for me. But I carried his wisdom into my life as a writer, where the only competitor I have to beat is myself.