|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:
- Coaching excellence (far and away the most important)
- Quality sports medicine
- 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’.
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?
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.
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If you would like to contact Derek, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.