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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 difference...it 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.

Self-Evaluation

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 individuals...by 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 nauseam...as 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. 

Chickenshits...




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. 

..........



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If you would like to contact Derek, you can do so at eveltrak@me.com 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

1 comment:

  1. So so true : “it is easier to change a coach’s religion than it is to change their methodology”

    I don't understand all those coaches that have a massive rate of injuried athletes and yet think it is ok. Their athletes are just fragile and it's too bad for them. Parents should sue them.

    ReplyDelete