Monday, 29 April 2013

“don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining”: a guest-post from Dave Hembrough

I’ve picked up a few mcmillanspeed newbies this year - by that, I mean those unfortunate folk who are new to my programming, and get the pleasure of spending a fairly significant amount of time with me over the next few months.  

Normal practice for me when I pick up new athletes is to have a series of both formal and informal sit-downs with them, where we discuss - among other things - the four levels of my training: 
  1. my philosophy
  2. the plan
  3. the periodization
  4. program

Firstly, I need to point out that the specific structure of this concept is borrowed liberally from Mladen Jovanovic - his words nicely organised my thoughts, and the simplicity of the four ‘zoom levels’ of training (Mladen actually uses three) provides a picture that is easily understood.  

I’m not going to go into specifics on this today, but suffice it to say that the closer we get to the actuality of what the athlete performs on any given day, the more democratic and/or autonomous the decision-making process is.  That is to say, my philosophy on training is pretty set - it’s not influenced greatly on a day to day basis by what I see/hear from an athlete; but the program - the specific session details - are (within the periodization of the plan) greatly influenced by the athlete, and how they feel on that particular day.  

While fluidity in daily programming allows for occasions of serendipity, it also provides the flexibility to negotiate through zemblanity (there - your new word for the day!).

My buddy Dave Hembrough and I were discussing this a couple of weeks ago, and he relayed to me a story about a conversation he had with one of his athletes.  I asked him if he would be kind enough to share it on mcmillanspeed, because I really think it is an important message - a message that reveals the reality of a coach working in the trenches -  the necessity of flexibility...

Dave is a pretty smart dude, and a heck of a coach.  He is head of S&C at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. He is also a performance consultant for the Centre of Sport and Exercise Science and an occasional lecturer. He runs an S&C facility at the University via an internship scheme and is the Head Coach of Hallam Barbell Weightlifting Club. He was the lead S&C Coach for the GB women’s volleyball programme for the 2012 Olympics and currently spends much of his consultancy time in professional boxing, where he includes world number five welterweight (as ranked by Ring Magazine) Kell Brook amongst his list of clients.

“don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining”: 
a guest-post from Dave Hembrough

Working with a disability dressage rider recently led me to discuss daily capacity undulation with her. She was 16, so we didn't use those exact words. We were talking about her frustrations with the frequent changes in her levels of function, strength, concentration, awareness and movement control due to her neuromuscular condition. We agreed that she must learn to recognise what she was capable of on any given day and work to achieve a good result in her workout based on how she felt. The phrase we came up with was simple: 

‘don't wear shorts if the sun ain't shining - and if it’s raining carry an umbrella'

Some days her warm-up might be enough to give her a workout, and other days she should be able to really go for broke and attack some decent work with high expectations. She also said that she found this was the same at school but teachers didn't recognise that her condition dictated what she was capable of on a day-to-day basis. Equally, she was unable to match the standards of other students on her course in some activities. Their bad was her best, but as she was marked on the same criteria, she was made to feel bad despite the effort and hard work she put into achieving something that was very good, for her.

As a coach, I'm careful not to fall into this trap. I realise that my athletes are individuals and have other things going on in their lives - and that this will occasionally effect what they are capable of. Equally, there are things that they fail to control and need encouragement to stay on top of. 

A conversation I had with one of my volleyball players recently went something like this: 'coach, I'm not strong today. I was lifting much heavier last week. Am I getting worse?' 

I asked him how he'd been sleeping - what he'd eaten that day and the day previously, as well as what other things he had going on in study and course work. It turned out he'd been mismanaging his diet, studying hard late into the night and been putting extra court practise in. 'Oh, no wonder I can't lift big today' he said. 'I need to look after myself better' he concluded. After a brief discussion with him around what he thought he could do better, I gave him a few suggestions to concentrate on for the next few weeks. Interestingly enough, I watched him to go on to break some PBs 3 weeks later in lifts that had gone nowhere for a couple of months.

Every athlete I work with is expected to push themselves hard regularly. Occasionally though, we as coaches need to learn to back off and alter the workout, or adapt the plan. Even when we were due to 'smash it up' now and again, it's wise to cut the sets back, drop some load, or use an alternative easier workout. Simple clues give this away such as how chatty they are compared to normal, or how enthusiastically they warm up. Sometimes the first few sets of an exercise or basic movement patterns tell me enough to make a decision. Sure - we can use science such as RSIs, HRV or TRIMP, but we must also use intuition and rely on observation and the strength of our relationships as coaches. How often do we get that gut feeling then regret not going with it or eventually coming back to it after going around the houses?

I call this intuitive periodisation and I think it’s important to consider within a plan. It’s one of the things I regularly come back to with the coach mentoring I do; young and developing coaches often don't have the skills to draw out or recognise important information that's often based on interpersonal processes. 

Experience teaches you these things:

  1. how to interact and pick up on the subtle tells
  2. when to push on and motivate
  3. how to shake their cage and fire an athlete up when it’s needed 
  4. when an individual training unit is worth sacrificing to give an on-going positive training experience that continues the training momentum

Watch out most for the ones who play the poker face and want to crack on regardless when it might not be in their best interest. 

Here's the good part of this approach - it demonstrates that you care about your athletes -shows that you are interested in them and helps you build your relationship with the athletes you're helping. It also encourages them to work hard when the time is right, to feel free to be open and honest, and will help them enjoy the training process. 

We don't want to crawl out of the gym every time as training like that's not sustainable.

Don’t wear shorts if the sun ain't shining, and make sure you carry an umbrella in the rain.

Life periodises.


Dave has an undergraduate Sport Science degree and an MSc in Sport Injury and Rehabilitation. He is a UKSCA accredited coach and a coach education tutor for British Weightlifting. Dave is also an advanced Motivational Interview (MI) practitioner and a soft-tissue therapist, both of which are core skills within his coaching practise. 

Dave enjoys the art of coaching and the challenge of leading people to physical improvement through intention, application and direction in the training environment. He works mainly with foundational level athletes of university age or younger and enjoys both the quick wins and the on-going battle of developing positive training habits in young athletes. 

His approach focuses on the bigger picture - how life effects training and how training effects life. He can be reached via email at or give him a follow on Twitter - @dwhembro

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"you can jail the revolutionary, but you can't jail the revolution"*: part II of a Q&A w/ Derek Evely

Last week, I posted on the 15 things that National Governing Bodies (NGBs) and their athletes can do to exist in a more functional system.  Often, NGBs oscillate through cyclical periods of excellence - the nature of amateur sport means that leadership teams are often only there for a quadrennial, before moving (or being moved) along to the next thing (as we currently see at UK Athletics, where almost every single individual in any position of power during the last quad is no longer there), making sustainable excellence challenging.  Most, though, seem to figure out a way to get it done.  Times change - people change - philosophies change - but normally we can predict with some amount of accuracy how national teams are going to compete.  The US is always going to do well in track.  The Austrians will always compete well in alpine skiing.  The Koreans will always do well in short-track speedskating, etc.  No matter who is in charge, usually the Federations tend to be able to figure it out, and get the job done.  

Some NGBs, though, just never seem to get it right...

...just one of the things that coach Derek Evely will be discussing in part II of my Q&A with him.  

I’m really excited to be posting this Q&A.  Like I said in part I, I really believe Derek to be one of the top coaching minds in the world.  And if there were any doubt in your mind of this after reading part I, there will be little left after you read part II.  This is a post you will want to print.  To mark up.  And to keep.  For a long time.  It is a blueprint - for not only how a sporting organization should conduct itself, but how a coach should go about his business.  Derek reveals his thoughts on his time in the UK, his opinions on Charles Van Commenee, his top ten messages for a young coach, and why OTP and Athletics Canada should be held accountable for some massive misgivings...

Thanks again Derek for taking the time to do this with me, and I really hope that some of what we cover here can make a may not start a revolution, but if it motivates one person to act, or one person to change, then that’s a start...

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.” 
- Frantz Fanon ‘Black Skin, White Masks’


SM: The Loughborough Center in the UK did not have a particularly successful Games. In fact, none of the UK’s medals came from athletes based at the Center. 

Can you share your thoughts on why this may have been?

DE: IN a word - injuries

I suppose we (Charles Van Commenee, Kevin Tyler, Neil Black and myself) were all a bit naïve when we began our roles in the UK because we thought that we could change the culture in a year or so, and then start really working towards building a true high performance environment for the Games. But to steal a line from Henk Kraaijenhof: “it is easier to change a coach’s religion than it is to change their methodology”.  Never have truer words been spoken. 

When I started at the Centre in September 2009 the injury rate there among funded athletes floated between 40 and 60%. That means in any given week, 40-60% of the funded athletes in the Centre could not train due to some kind of impairment. I am not kidding - those are real numbers. It took three years to get it under control and by the time the Olympics were upon us we actually had a week where we got it down to below 6%. I was very proud of the staff there for that accomplishment.

But this only reflects keeping athletes healthy, which I would only consider to be stage one of a two-stage process. Stage two would have been where the medical and support team are actually engaged at a level where they are contributing to high performance rather than simply dealing with dysfunction. This is the Gold Standard every team that works around an elite athlete - whether they reside in a Centre or they work in Smalltown Canada - should work towards. And as you are well aware, this takes a certain type of coach and practitioner to pull off. It is very hard work and requires some serious education. We never really got to stage two…we ran out of time.

Keeping athletes healthy is a combination of comprehensive methodology, common sense in coaching practice, and appropriate therapy. At most development levels this can all be picked up by the coach if they are willing to get their hands dirty.  At the higher levels you probably need some kind of daily performance therapy expertise unless you are a very skilled coach and can do it yourself. Regardless of the therapy, however, you can’t get around the need for quality methodology in keeping athletes healthy…it has to begin there. I didn’t see a whole lot of this in the Loughborough Centre other than from some of the younger coaches and Fuzz Ahmed (now they have Rana Reider and Terence Mahon there, so things have improved in that area dramatically). 

When you watch Fuzz coach it is easy to get the impression he is nothing more than a total lunatic on crack, winging things as he goes along (albeit very entertaining). But in reality, the guy is one of the best and most disciplined planners I have ever met. And it showed: very few, if any, overuse injuries in his group and an Olympic bronze medal from Robbie Grabarz in London. His coaching and management of Robbie the year going into London was one of the best pieces of coaching I have ever witnessed…the Brits never gave him the credit he deserved for that.

I think it is only fair that I make an important point in regards to your question: Loughborough was also a major outreach Centre that served a number of our WC and OG medallists, who would access services from our Centre. So while we couldn’t claim coaching success for those medals, in some cases our Loughborough-based support staff had a massive influence on the success of some of our key performers: Paul Brice, for example, was very instrumental in Jessica Ennis’ success; while Mo Farah would have suffered greatly without Barry Fudge’s input. Dai Greene was also in regular contact with our medical staff. But you can do in this Britain…it is much harder to achieve it in Canada. 

coach Fuzz Ahmed with former UKA Head Coach Charles Van Commonee

SM: IOK - so let’s talk about Canada a little: in a recent two-part conversation on my blog that I had with Donovan Bailey, we discussed what Donovan saw as some potential flaws with how Athletics Canada has organized the development of a high-performance program in the country, including: lack of elite coaching, effective coach development program, institutionalized positions that are not based on performance, and former-athlete mentoring programs. It is difficult to argue that track and field in the country has not taken many significant steps forward in many years. 

In your mind, what has been the major reason for such lack of progress?

DE: FIRST off - and with respect to Donovan - I would disagree with the point about lack of elite coaching. We have a number of elite coaches who have produced international medalists from Canadian soil. Wynn Gmitroski, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, Anthony McCleary and Kevin Tyler have all produced major event medalists in the past decade. We may be short in an event area or two, but that is a pretty stellar crew right there. And I don’t think people truly understand how hard it is to produce champions in this country…you face some pretty serious limitations. 

But his point is well taken and he is dead right - it is not moving forward like it should be. And his reasons are spot on, but I would also add a lack of overall technical leadership - a complete inability to self-evaluate - and this God-awful, ridiculous habit of hiring people based upon who gets along with who...

Let me address them one by one:

Technical Leadership

If I learned one thing in the UK it is that leadership counts. But it has to be the right leader.  For all the faults of the UK athletics culture they demand 2 things from their leadership: performance and credibility. 

You cannot step in and run that program unless you have done it yourself and done it at the highest level. That is why they hired the team they did going into London, and even then it was an extremely difficult process. But in 4 years look at what Charles, Neil and Kevin did: they sharply reversed a 20-year major performance tailspin and gave coaching back its rightful place in British athletics. 

That kind of change in that small a timeframe doesn’t happen without great leadership.


Let me tell you a story: 
I was standing outside the stadium in Edmonton in 2001 immediately after the World Champs had finished. I was standing with a few people from AC (Athletics Canada - I was on the team at the time as a staff coach) and I heard an team official say “I think this has been a really successful Champs for us”. I just about fell over. That World Champs was significant for us for two reasons: 1) we didn’t come away with a single medal, and b) we failed - for the first time ever - to put a man into the men’s 100m final. 

Successful? Seriously?? Exactly what is your criteria for success???

Now, let me tell you another story: 
Early on in my job at UKA I was sitting in my office one day and Charles came in -obviously pissed at something - and that thing was obviously me. He shuts the door to my office and turns to me and says, “Kevin Tyler told me you were a guy that gets things done…that is why you were hired. You are not getting things done and I need things done.” 

I won’t give you the rest of the conversation because it is too depressing, but his message was clear to me: either get things done around here or get out. I realized quickly that what he was really saying to me was “this is your ship. Figure it out and run it.” So for the next two days I spent a large amount of time at my desk and took an honest, hard look at myself and my leadership of the Centre, and I decided to make changes right there, right then. Starting the next week, I hauled every employed coach in the Centre into my office with the relevant support staff and forced them to engage…this happened each and every week from that point on. My weekly schedule was insane, with some weeks 20-25 meetings a week. But it worked, and from that point on the communication between coaches and the support / medical staff took a quantum leap forward, and the injuries started coming down. All it took was a demand of accountability and an honest evaluation of the situation. 

You get the point of the two stories...

Hiring Practices

Lastly - and I think fundamentally this is our biggest problem here in Canada - our leadership here has traditionally filled the employed ranks with people who don’t ask the hard questions of each other simply for the sake of team harmony. 

They also tend to ostracize those who do not fit into this mold. This is the “team” approach… big mistake in our sport. Yes, it is very important that we bring people together at important times and try to create a sense of community within the ranks, but we first and foremost need to recognize that we are a sport of individuals, and in Canada these individuals have largely independent attitudes and values. They may not fit within everyone’s idea of “team” and you may have to manage them - so accept it. 

But give them the attention and respect they deserve and they will produce for you. 

SM: And D - that is such a misunderstood concept.  The first time any coach or athlete decides to do something just a little bit different, they get ostracized for it.  I wrote about this last week in my post on NGBs - it’s essential that those in charge understand that they are dealing with truly unique definition, those who coach and compete in elite sport are outliers...freaks: it is the responsibility of the NGB to not only understand this, but to create strategies to benefit from it. 

I really like a lot of the stuff that Australian coaching educator Wayne Goldsmith has to say: in a 2011 post on his blog in regards to talent identification, he proposes a ‘non-system system’, stating that : 

“...greatness and uniqueness are intimately entwined and uniqueness does not flourish in a system. That’s why the best win – they do it their way, they do it uniquely, they do it differently to the rest….and any high performance sport system which discourages difference will fail”

But, like I said - this requires a certain expertise...expertise that is clearly lacking in a ton of Canadian Federations at the moment.  In your mind, does Canada have the required expertise to develop a sustainable high-performance elite program? It seems peculiar to me that the UK - with possibly the largest track and field budget of any amateur Athletics NGB in the world - would have recruited multiple Canadians for many of their most important positions leading up to the London Olympics, yet Canada seems to show little interest in these same people. 

As Donovan mentioned in our conversation, it is shocking that Athletics Canada has not already hired Kevin Tyler, for instance - after the success he has had both in Canada previously, and the UK over the course of the last four years.

DE: I truly believe you cannot hire a head coach unless they have produced at the highest levels themselves. 

There are just too many important decisions to be made daily that require high-level experience. On one hand, your national coaches will try to walk all over you with their ‘wants’, and on the other hand, the administration will distract you into their Borg-like fucktopian reality - dragging you down to the lowest common denominator. 

It takes a lot of strength and savvy to deal with this day-in and day-out. As well, you must have an intimate understanding of high-level coaching in Olympic track and field. And even then, that is just one part of what it takes to lead in our sport; a strong vision is also essential. 

So if this is our starting point, who do we have to draw from in Canada who is not already essential in day-to-day coaching for us? I can only think of one, and that is Kevin Tyler. Everyone who knows anything about high-level athletics in Canada knows he is the only viable candidate. His experience in the sport is so broad and far-reaching that he simply stands alone against the other candidates (SM - he has been to four Olympic Games in four different capacities - as an athlete, a coach, in coach development, and in sports marketing)

I know he is my buddy and has given me my last two jobs, so of course I am a big fan of his, but so are a lot of other people who wanted to see him in that role. For example, after part one of this interview came out I was contacted by one of the best coaches we have had in my time in Canada who has long since removed himself from the sport for reasons I have been discussing here. He was excited to hear Kevin had applied for the head coach role and wanted to get back involved in a leadership capacity. But, he has withdrawn now that has heard the news. Sad. Kevin Tyler was far and away the best candidate for the head coaching position, and he was told he didn’t even make the top 2. 

That is an abomination and bloody-well reeks of politics. 

But of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Our sport administrators in this country are afraid of people who get things done. They want to surround themselves with people whom they like to be around and do not cause any issues, people who won’t rock the boat. 

But you know what? People who are good at what they do rock the boat when people get in their way...

That is how it works and if you are a sport leader, and you want success, you had better be willing to manage and work with those who can produce. It isn’t always easy, but it is the way to success.

So the system in Canada is set up to perpetuate this cycle. Think of how the hiring process went for the AC head coach position: not a single accomplished athletics coach on the hiring committee. Brilliant! Let me tell you something: if you put a group of good coaches into a room to do the hiring they are going to hire you a good coach. If you put a group of monkeys into a room to do the hiring they are going to hire you a…

Anne Merklinger (CEO of Own the Podium) and her Mob axed Kevin’s chances because apparently he is thought to be ‘divisive’. Are you kidding me??  Divisive is exactly what’s required: we need someone to divide those in the way from those who are getting it done. 

Divisive? Give me a break! 

So now OTP is calling the shots for AC and doing our hiring. Have we really lost that much control of our sport? I wonder if Anne would like to come to Kamloops and shovel some manure as well?

Rob Guy (Athletics Canada CEO), the head coach hiring committee, and the entire board of directors should be held accountable for letting this opportunity slip by and selling out our sport to OTP. It is colossal mismanagement - not to mention a disastrous precedent and they should all be put up for a vote of non-confidence. Coaches need to speak up and be vocal about how their sport is being hijacked. 

SM: OK - clearly AC is not on the right path.  We have discussed their specific dysfunctions ad Donovan also alluded to down in Jamaica.

So what is the right model?  In my mind, we had a pretty good team in the UK, starting at the top with Charles Van Commenee.  What was it like working with? He’s known as a pretty hard-line operator, but it’s hard to question some of his successes - did you guys have a good relationship? How about some of the other leadership in the UK? 

DE: TO me as a coach, great leadership is about faith. It’s about knowing that someone has your back and is ensuring you can get on with your job.

I’ve spoken a lot about Charles already so I am sure those who don’t know him get the picture. I will say this though - and it applies to Kevin as well: too often we let the media and the ‘noise of the collective’ decide our impressions of people. We tend to listen to too many Dicks. 

For example, with Charles, he is often labeled as uncompromising. In my experience, he was anything but uncompromising. No question he often sees things in black and white and, because of that, a few times I disagreed privately with some of his decisions, but the truth is I watched him compromise constantly…literally, every day. He just did it behind closed doors most of the time. Ironically it was that compromising approach that led to many of our successes. So when someone as credible as Jessica Ennis shits on the guy in her book for wanting her to relocate her training but then leaves out the part where Charles basically compromised his beliefs and gave her everything she needed to succeed, I wonder what is wrong with the world.

Love him or hate him, no one can deny that when Charles stepped on the track he was a strong presence. Yeah, some coaches who were used to not being held accountable didn’t like him, but under the pressure dome of a Championship environment he gave the athletes and coaches a sense that everything was going to be fine and they could get on with their business. That is priceless.

It is the same with Kevin. With him you feel empowered and inspired to do good work: he really understands how to manage people. Kevin’s team in the UK loved him, and they were cracker-jack because of it. They busted their ass for that guy because they believed in him. But now it seems as if he is getting penalized for his demand for accountability and his ability to make hard decisions. It scares people. 


The only other guy I have ever worked with in this sport that has the same presence as Charles and Kevin is Andy McInnis, who, as we all know, led us into our last successful hey-day in Canadian track and field. But the bureaucrats pushed him out too. These kind of guys do not come along very often…we can’t afford to disaffect them. 

So at UKA we had Charles, Kevin and Neil Black running the show on the Olympic side. Three of the best leaders I have had the privilege to work under. Neil was the hardest working guy I have ever met - a great colleague, and an even better friend. 

And let’s not forget Simon Nathan: as Performance Operations Manager, he was responsible for all of the National Team logistics going into a World Champs or OG, amongst other duties. You NEVER had to worry that things were not taken care of with that guy; he was completely in charge of his team and on top of things. And you always knew if something went wrong, an answer was close by…to me that instills faith and allows a coach to get on with the job at hand. But Simon is a former high-level coach as well. He understood performance and prioritized accordingly. Now the Aussies have hired Simon to run their ship…God, we could have used that guy here!

It was a great team of leaders we had in the UK…I doubt there will ever be another quite like it. Competence and experience…there is no replacement for it.

SM: I have the exact same opinion of Charles.  We spoke quite a bit after the Games, and I remember one conversation we had, where I asked him if he had any regrets - now that he was stepping down.  He replied that his only regret was that he was TOO compromising!  Not an opinion that will be shared by many in the UK - that’s for sure.  But knowing Charles the way I do - and I don’t know him like you and Kevin do - I fully understand his comment.  It killed him to be so compromising on so many levels.  But it was this that made him such an effective leader - when to compromise and when to be hard-line.

OK - you have had some great success as a coaching educator - in our last discussion, you spoke of the importance of mentoring, for example.  Over the last few years, UK Athletics has operated a pretty successful ‘Apprentice Coach’ program, and generally - under the leadership of Kevin Tyler and Richard Wheater - they are fully responsible for the coaching education of prospective athletics coaches. While in Canada, the specific programs are organized and implemented from a national committee (COC-NCCP), which makes little sense to me...I personally feel that it should be the domain of the NGB to develop its own coaching schemes, models, and philosophies - what are your thoughts on this?

DE: I agree completely. It has been a long time since I have looked at the NCCP athletics modules and what is in their content, so it is hard for me to comment accurately. I am not even entirely sure who creates the content. I will say this however: the more you bureaucratize coaching education the more you create conditions where it is possible to end up with no correlation between your higher-educated coaches and those that produce. This creates yet another vicious cycle, where the establishment perpetuates its own bullshit. It’s a form of control… “oh you aren’t level 506 of the coaching education stream? Well then, we are not going to fund your athlete”. Come on - really? You develop and embrace the coaching community through building relationships, not bureaucratizing them into submission.

This is why when we set up the CACC website / programs we went out of our way to disallow any form of curriculum with the content. We (Kevin, Brian Kropman and I) wanted to make sure that any coach from any level of coaching could access any area of the site. That way, any young coach could immediately tap into a Boo Schexnayder video or a Henk Kraajjenhof article and get inspired… That is the kind of coach I want to be…I want to be as knowledgeable as that… I want to have a command of my event like that”

They didn’t have to worry about someone else deciding whether or not the information was above their heads or not. 

The thing I have never understood about coaching education in Canada in the past 10 years is this: why does Athletics Canada try so hard to keep the CACC at arm’s length? It is one of the best coaching resources in the athletics world, yet they seem to turn their noses up at it whenever they can. It makes sense to me that the CACC should be the coaching education arm of Athletics Canada. Hey, but what do I know?

former Canadian 400m runner Tyler Christopher, who was coached by Kevin Tyler & Derek Evely

SM: A vast majority of the World and Olympic individual medalists that Canada has ‘produced’ over the last couple of decades (Donovan, Bruny Surin, Mark Boswell, Dylan Armstrong, Perdita Felecien, Gary Reed, Tyler Christopher, Mike Smith, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, etc.) are not really involved in the program at all. As these athletes constitute the only success that the country has enjoyed over the last two decades, do you find it curious that they are not more heavily involved? 

If so, how do you suggest Athletics Canada involve such athletes?

YES - very curious...and the answer is easy:

Step 1: Build a Federation that they can be proud of - something they want to be a part of.

Step 2: Create a relationship with them. At least try to understand them when they were an athlete.

Step 3: Listen to them.

SM: Let’s talk about the role of support services in the success of a program. A few years ago, we saw the advent of the PET program and the IST program, and it’s become very popular in Canada - especially in the winter sports, but I’m not certain that it has been entirely successful as yet. 

What do you think of the Canadian IST model, and how does it compare to what we see in the UK? It seems to me that some of these services are just ‘pinned on’, because someone feels they should be there, but there is a lack of understanding of how to effectively integrate them, and thus they quickly become marginalized. Thoughts?

AGAIN, I agree completely.

If you buy into the idea that Donovan and I have proposed, that is that coaching, therapy and warm weather are the basics of building a successful program, then the current system makes no sense, because it is set up around a centralized group of practitioners. 

It cannot work in Canada. 

It works in the UK because a centralized crew can see everyone regularly, but even then, we had a lot of issues where the practitioners were frustrated because they didn’t get enough hands-on time with those residing outside of the Centre. In one case, Charles made the decision (read: compromise) where he sent one of our best therapists down to Bath once a week to look after Dai Green, who was having injury issues. This kind of compromise would not be possible in Canada.

I sat through one of the AC IST meetings in Arizona recently and it immediately became apparent that these practitioners rarely - if at all - have hands-on contact with the top athletes. This raises some alarms to me: What happens when a team goes into a major Games situation, and the people who know the least about the athletes are the ones who are doing the treatment? What kind of information regarding the health status of the athletes is the Head Coach getting if the practitioners only see the athletes at camps and competitive events? How are your top coaches supposed to work with practitioners they rarely see?

The bottom line is this: you can create all of the acronyms and dump all of the money into ‘sport science’ you want, but when it comes down to it, your top athletes need steady and consistent therapeutic input from people who work with them weekly (if not daily), and all that needs to be set up, and monitored by, the coach. 

Recognizing the reality these days that team accreditations are limited, you take with you to major events the practitioners who have the most hands-on time throughout the year with your potential finalists / medal prospects. You hire one very qualified practitioner to manage communication and practice and decide with the Head Coach who is going to get the nod at each event. Simple as that. 

And as far as sport science support goes, you only employ this where there is a coach that can drive the process him or herself. Otherwise it is a colossal waste of time and energy. This can be incredibly useful, but only in the right coaching hands. 

SM: OK - rapid-fire round:

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the athletes I have helped to develop who went on to become major event medallists / finalists with other coaches with little or no injury histories. I think they left my program very coachable and very ready to have their abilities exploited to the fullest. Through that I think I made a difference in their lives.

I am also very proud of the work we did in Britain. I think we helped to change a culture despite very difficult conditions and pressurised circumstances. It was an honour to work with that leadership team.

The one coaching moment I am most proud of is when Sophie Hitchon broke the British record in qualifying at the Olympics in London and went through to the final. Maybe not the gold medal but to the two of us it meant the world.

What does success look like to you?

IT depends upon what level you are talking about. If you are talking about developmental athletics (anything non-elite) then to me success means being able to produce coachable, healthy athletes that have a chance of maximising their potential. If they are talented and capable of high end success, then it is your job to prepare them so that when it is time for them to move into a truly world class program, the coach there (whether it is you or someone else makes no difference) should not have to spend two years with that athlete correcting your mistakes or rehabbing chronic injuries or dysfunctions. This is a very undervalued (but also under-practiced) expertise in our sport, hence the reason we have a rift between developmental and elite athletics in this country. 

And unfortunately, our current leadership has no clue how to foster the relationship between these two factions within our sport. No idea what so ever. And with the recent decisions of our NGB, the future in this regard does not look bright...

In elite athletics, success to me is simple: win medals and give back to coaching more than what it gave to you.

What messages do you have for a young coach who wants to succeed and make a difference?
  1. Work your ass off, then work your ass off some more
  2. Create something that people want to be a part of
  3. Find a mentor(s) and do what you have to to spend time with them
  4. Take charge of your own coaching education
  5. Develop your own methodology… and let it evolve
  6. When it comes to your methodology or system, deal in facts, not guesses, hopes or assumptions
  7. Respect tradition and those who came before you, but stay current and relevant
  8. When things go wrong, look at yourself and your program first before you start blaming the athlete
  9. Don’t bitch when you realise no one gives a shit whether you have produced something or not, because those who understand what 'producing athletes' means do not control the process of rewards and incentives. Enjoy your hard-earned results and the chance to live a life among great people, that may have to be enough
  10. Put your signature on everything you do

What is the difference between winning and success?

Winning is placing first; success is making a difference.

What are the three most important factors for an athlete to reach success?
  1. Find a good coach.
  2. Train smart and stay healthy.
  3. Have faith in your abilities, your coach and the work you have done…you will learn what this means when the time comes. 


If you enjoyed this post, please share 
on Facebook and/or Twitter...join the revolution!

If you would like to contact Derek, you can do so at and/or on Facebook.   Since he has returned to Canada, he will once again be doing some work with the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre - directly helping coaches in a mentorship role. If you're interested, check out the CACC website.  

*title quote by Huey P Newton

Saturday, 20 April 2013

from shovelling sh*t to London 2012...a Q&A with Derek Evely

British Record Holder in the Hammer, Sophie Hitchon

Today’s post is part I of a two-part interview with Derek Evely.  Chances are, you have never heard of Derek - he’s one of those coaches I was writing about when I wrote this.  

He truly is one of the best coaches I have ever come across.  He has as sophisticated a knowledge on periodization and planning concepts as any coach I have ever seen, and is undoubtedly the world’s leading expert of legendary coach/methodologist Anatoliy Bonbdarchuk’s unique system (besides Dr B himself). See an excellent and in-depth 3-part interview with Derek here on Martin Bingisser’s site going into more depth on Dr B’s system.  

Besides the technical know-how, Derek is also a highly successful coach.  Beginning in Canada in the mid-1990s, he was first the Head Coach of the Kamloops Track and Field Club (where he worked with international athletes Shane Niemi, Gary Reed, and Dylan Armstrong, amongst others), before moving to Edmonton to work alongside Kevin Tyler as the Sport Science Manager at the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre (CACC).  Established as part of the legacy from the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Edmonton, Kevin and Derek together built the CACC into one of the premier coaching and training  Centres in the world.  Focussing on coach education and training, application of sport science to track and field, and the overall development of the sport in Canada, the CACC was a hugely successful endeavor that led to both Kevin and Derek being recruited to high-level positions in the UK.  Derek moved across the Atlantic in 2009 to become the Centre Director of the Loughborough High Performance Centre (one of two in the UK - the other being in London, where Dan Pfaff was the Centre Director, and I his assistant).  Besides managing a group of coaches, administrators, and support staff, Derek coached a young group of throwers in the UK, including Sophie Hitchon, who under his tutelage broke the British Record in the hammer at 19 years old, as well as qualifying for the Olympic Final in 2012 at the age of 21!

Through his coaching career, Derek has been named to 4 World Championship Teams, 2 Olympic Teams, the European Championships, European Team Championships, European under-23 championships, and many others.  Following the 2012 London Olympics, he joined the unfortunate exodus away from UK Athletics, and is now back home in Kamloops, enjoying life with his wife and three children.  He’s also a hell of a nice guy, and I am very lucky to call him a friend.  


SM: Firstly, thanks for doing this Derek. It’s great to connect on this side of the pond.  I really enjoyed our many chats in the UK and at holding camps around the world (most specifically, some great evenings in Portugal and Korea). You have been a great aid and inspiration to me in my own career, and have helped me a ton in improving my understanding of performance, planning, and periodisation through our relationship.  Now that we are both back in North America, I was anxious to get you to agree to a Q&A for mcmillanspeed - so thanks again for doing this.

You have been a high-performance coach and coach educator for almost two decades, yet for those who may not be familiar with your career, can you begin by discussing some of the folk who have influenced your career?  Maybe you can touch on the role of mentorship in coaching expertise? For example, you have been mentored by some of the best coaches in the world...can you expand on this?

DE: TO begin with, thanks for asking me to share my thoughts on your blog, Stu. The blog is a great service to coaches and athletes everywhere. I especially loved the Donovan interview - I thought it was the best interview of him I have read to date and a great insight into the Jamaican athletics culture (thanks D!  SM).

I think you would be hard-pressed to find a coach out there with a better stable of mentors than I have had: Andy Higgins, Dan Pfaff and Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Even my high school coach - Ken Taylor - masterminded one of the greatest high school athletics dynasties in Canada, which produced a number of Olympians over the years, including decathlon bronze medallist Dave Steen. Add to that the fact that Andy McInnis gave me my first break into National Team work and spending almost four years working alongside Charles Van Commennee and Kevin Tyler as they steered the juggernaut UKA program into a British home Olympics, and I can honestly say I have seen the best of the best work in this sport. I am very fortunate.

Mentorship is critical. 

No book, video, lecture, audio interview or blog (no offence) can give the insight that 20 minutes of watching a master coach with his or her athletes can. The 4 trips to Austin I made in the late 90’s to visit Dan and the season I spent living and working with Dr. B absolutely revolutionised how I thought about preparing athletes, and those are two coaches who have written and presented a lot of information, all of which I had read beforehand. But watching them work on the track and being able to sit them down face to face and ask questions gave me the answers I was looking for that I couldn’t get from the written material.  It provided context to everything I had read. 

Before I became a professional coach, I worked in bars for 13 years so I developed some pretty solid people-watching skills (not to mention an affinity for dealing with degenerates and assholes, which no doubt we will get to in a bit). So every time I get the opportunity to watch a good coach work I watch the little things: where they stand or sit when they coach, their body language, how they modify their language, non-verbal cues, how they interact with an athlete, how they deal with mistakes, how they deal with successes, etc.  I don’t watch the methodology itself as much as I watch the coach. The methodology I can get from a book, email, or a sit down over a coffee. 

Mentorship is, of course, how we pass down the specific tricks and tools of our trade. But more importantly, it is how we pass down our values, beliefs and wisdom. It is how coaching evolves from one generation to the next. This is why I get annoyed when I hear our generation classify coaches into ‘old school’ and, well, whatever it is we call ourselves. When we pull that shit we completely miss the point. We should be so lucky to be called ‘old school’. Believe it or not, my true coaching heroes are not in the current elite coaching ranks of this world. They are the coaches who came before me who dedicated their lives to building the school and community programs our athletes come from. The ones I know, the Willi Krauses, the Gerry Swans, the Tom Masichs and the Don Steens are the guys who built the sport where I live; decade after decade - for nothing. Yeah, perhaps some of these old bastards have never used an excel sheet to plan with before, but they can handle an athlete and there is wisdom in that. I watch these guys hobbling around tracks on bad knees, bad hips and bad attitudes, giving people shit who aren’t listening to them…I love it. 

SM: Absolutely agree!  It’s essential that we understand why we are coaching...what we are trying to get out of the sport...where we fit in.  And it’s a fact that without grassroots coaching and guys like the ones you mentioned, there won’t be any future - for coaches and athletes alike.  So that leads me into my next question: 

What are you trying to accomplish in sport, and why?

MY goals at this point in my career are very simple… I have been given an amazing life through athletics and have been afforded the opportunity to make a small difference in a few lives here and there, and I want to make sure that other young coaches now get those same opportunities to make a difference and experience what I did. But I am worried, because in Canada we seem hell-bent on making sure that people who do not get this concept are in charge of running the sport. I believe the only way these young coaches will get what they need is through a rebellious, resistance-type movement, and that is a shame.

early protege of Derek, Canadian shot-putter Dylan Armstrong

SM: Again - I agree.  But let’s wait a little bit before we get into some of the Canadian stuff.  I know we’re both not super-happy with how the current climate of Canadian track and field is developing, but for now let’s talk a little about your UK experience, and maybe what you have learned about the development of elite sport:

You have now been an integral part of the set-up of three successful high-performance training centres: Kamloops, Edmonton, and Loughborough. In your experience, what are the keys in establishing a truly elite centre?

OK - well, I can tell you what they aren’t… they aren’t computers, MRI’s or Dartfish. And they aren’t muscle biopsies, vibration platforms or $100,000 treadmills. In fact, they aren’t any number of wild and wonderful devices that our Federations love to spend money on in order to impress the people who cut the cheques. 

Truly elite Centres are built around truly elite coaches. That is, those who consistently produce at the highest levels. I look at things very simply: what does it take to produce a champion athlete? Well, the only elements in successful programs that I have consistently seen are:

  1. Coaching excellence (far and away the most important)
  2. Quality sports medicine
  3. Access to warm weather (in Canada, this means camps)

These are the keys - everything else is secondary. First, put your resources into these three, then build your Centre around that - do not do it the other way around.  Do not kit out a Centre with support and medical staff and then try to figure out who your coaches are going to be.  All the bells, whistles and support staff expertise can really help but only if driven by a coach who knows what to do with the information harvested from such tools. Without this, it is all a waste of money…money that could be better used for a coach’s salary.

Of the three Centres you mentioned above, the one in Loughborough was arguably the least productive in terms of producing major-event medals despite having an overall budget, staff and pool of resources that colossally dwarfed the other two. Why? Because the first two Centres had exceptional, world class coaching (Bondarchuk and Kevin Tyler). Loughborough had some outstanding coaches working out of it but didn’t, at the time I was there, have an employed coach that was proven to win consistently at the highest level. The only exceptions to this were George Gandy, who never produced a medalist in the time I was there (but has in the past), and Fuzz Ahmed, who produced Robbie Grabarz out of the Loughborough centre. Fuzz is a truly world-class coach, but ironically it wasn’t until Robbie moved back to Birmingham in 2012 (still coached by Fuzz) that his career took off. 

The bottom line is this: Centres don’t produce athletes - coaches do. And Centres need good coaches far more than good coaches need Centres. Centres are simply an environment for coaches to produce. They work, but only when the people in them are top shelf.

SM: OK - so let’s talk continue to talk a little about your experiences in the UK. You were the Centre Director of the Loughborough High Performance Training Centre for UKA. As part of this role, you were a member of the UKA Olympic Task Force (OTF), who’s mandate was to establish how best to ensure both short-term and long-term sustainable success for the program. 

A few days ago, I wrote a short post about the relationships between NGBs and their athletes, as well as quickly exploring what are the main objectives of a typical NGB. It’s a tricky position to be into: responsible on the short-term for high-performance, Major Championship success - and in the long-term, grassroots and developmental systems that can hopefully feed the elite end of the sport.   In your opinion, how can an NGB balance the needs of both short-term and long-term objectives? And what are the most important factors that contribute to building a sustainable high-performance program in the long-term?

TO be honest, I wasn’t a massive influence on the OTF and was brought into it midway to give my input from a Centre Director’s perspective. It was really all Charles, Kevin and Neil (Black - current UKA Performance Director) who ran it, and they did the bulk of the work and decision making in those meetings. 

But - as usual - I have an opinion anyway:

It’s simple - hire the right people to make the decisions. 

That is exactly what UKA CEO Niels DeVos did when he hired Charles and Kevin: one in charge of short term success (medals in London - Charles); and the other in charge of long term change (rebuilding a battered coaching culture - Kevin). Two different men indeed, each with their own leadership style and philosophy. But where they overlapped was in their understanding of high performance, professionalism, desire for change and - more than anything else - demand for accountability. 

Being at ground zero, it was truly an impressive thing for me to watch those two steer that ship into London - and an experience that taught me incredible things. At times their objectives may have seemed to conflict against each other, but they never butted heads and always worked together to get everything done with great respect for one another. And let me tell you, they faced a ton of bullshit every day - from all sides. You had to experience it to truly understand. 

So, in a nutshell, it comes down to leadership, simple as that.

former UK Athletics bosses Kevin Tyler and Charles Van Commenee

SM: In the UK, there is a semi-fluid, semi-Centralized model, where a majority of the coaching and support-services are based in a single Centre (UKA have recently gone from a two-Centre model to just one). This presents many challenges even in a country the size of England. 

What are your thoughts on ‘Centralization’?  Do you think that this model is the most effective? If so, is it the way forward in larger countries, such as Canada?

I think the OTF came up with right balance for the UK: a single Centre from where support is driven with resident elite coaching, but also a recognition that great success can be achieved outside of that environment, and therefore there are pockets of support outside of the Centre where coaches are doing great work. 

But remember that the UK is less than half the size of BC with double the population of all of Canada. Therefore, on this side of the pond, we have to be careful about how much faith we put into centralization. We can’t centralize just for the sake of centralization; it has to make sense and has to be built around a productive coach. I think the best model in Canada is to build ‘centres’ around coaches that are achieving consistently high results and let them determine their own needs. We need to look for coaches who are producing, and invest where it makes sense. Once the coaching, therapy and access to warm weather is where it should be, then, and only then, is it prudent to look at other investments like hiring biomechanists, physiologists and the like. And at that point I would only contract out the best of the best, guys like Barry Fudge or Paul Brice (Fudge is an exercise physiologist - who did a ton of work with double-gold medalist Mo Farah; while Brice is the UKA biomechanist - by far the best track and field biomechanist I have seen - and has been heavily influential in the success of Jessica Ennis - SM).

SM: Great!  So before we delve into some of the Athletics Canada stuff, maybe you can address one concern for me: when I was talking to some folks in Canada about your Q&A, and what they would like to hear from you, one of the questions surrounded your ‘professionalism’!  Now - never having been accused of being the most professional person in the room myself - I didn’t even realize that this was a potential contentious point!  Apparently, some ‘polite Canadians’ think otherwise...

So - you have been accused of a lack of professionalism in Canada before, how do you respond to that?

GUILTY on all charges. But here’s the thing…when you are an up and coming coach in Canada, you fight the system and the bureaucrats all the way.  You scrounge, you scrape by and you struggle to get things done for your athletes. You live and operate in anything BUT a professional environment. This develops a certain type of attitude that is necessary to survive. Then, if by chance someone with an ounce of foresight - like Andy McInnis giving you a chance to get your foot in the door - the same bureaucrats all of a sudden turn around and expect you to be onside with their bullshit and be all ‘professional’. 

Fuck off!

When the bureaucrats bring a truly professional environment to athletics in this country (i.e. people who know how to win running the show) then I will play their version of ‘professional’.  If Charles Van Commennee or Kevin Tyler tell me I have to act professional (which they did in no uncertain terms when I started in the UK), then I will act professional - because those men are leaders I respect. I shaved every day for 3 and half years in Britain…just about killed me.

We built the Kamloops program into a pretty productive program given its location and available talent pool, grooming a World Championship medalist and an Olympic medalist. 

How did we do it? 

Selling shit!

Horse and mushroom manure to gardeners...seriously!

By 2004, we were loading 8000 60lb bags a year into trucks and hauling all over the city. You think I enjoyed that? Just how ‘professional’ do you think the guys I had to deal with on that project were? I tipped the truck driver who hauled 40 tons of manure to me each year in booze so he would bypass the scales and up the loads we were getting. We had prison inmates do the majority of bagging for us and I had to be there daily to make sure they were doing it properly. Real professional that was! 

But you know what? That sale brought Anatoliy Bondarchuk to North America, and an Olympic and World Championship medal to Canada. So I did the manure sale in April and then the Athletics Canada World Champs teams in August - sorry if I forgot to switch to professional mode along the way.

I am more concerned with maintaining a level of humility than I am professionalism. And trust me, that is difficult enough for me. I can only focus on one character defect at a time.


Anyone who knows Derek will know that he is just getting warmed up - it takes him a little bit of time to get limber, but when he does, he typically doesn't hold back.  So, look out for part II of this Q&A, which will be posted in the middle of next week. You won't want to miss Derek's thoughts on leadership, success, and his time in the UK.  He also speaks at length about the future of the sport in Canada, and what he feels about its current (mis)management.

If you enjoyed this post, please share 
on Facebook and/or Twitter...thanks!

If you would like to contact Derek, you can do so at and/or on Facebook.   Since he has returned to Canada, he will once again be doing some work with the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre - directly helping coaches in a mentorship role. If you're interested, check out the CACC website.