Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Getting called up to the majors...

In March of 2010, I moved to the UK to work with sprinters, jumpers, and throwers at one of two High Performance Training Centers (Hi-PAC) that were a part of UK Athletics new two-Center ‘Centralization’ scheme.  Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be making such a move.  I would be leaving the relative comfort of Canada and the United States - and the cultural insignificance of amateur sport, and stepping into the big-time.  

The annual budget of UKA in 2010 was more than that of every NGB I had worked with in Canada and the United States combined for the previous quadrennial. So, although I had enjoyed some pretty good success on the western side of the Atlantic, I was a little nervous to see how I would stack up in Europe - where they actually care about amateur sport, and fund it accordingly.   Even more than this, I was now stepping back into a big-time ‘competitive’ sport, rather than the relatively small-time worlds of speedskating, bobsleigh, and skeleton that I had become extremely comfortable with.  

This is meant as no affront to these sports - it is simply the reality of the situation: everyone the world over grows up running, jumping, and throwing.  Athletics events are one of the first movement skills that kids are taught, and they are practiced by every country in the world to some extent.  Speedskating, bobsleigh, skeleton, and a whole host of other sports that attract more niche populations are simply not as competitive.  They do not attract as many athletes.  Very few countries have organized systems, and fewer still have developmental plans.  Only a handful of countries in the world even have the necessary facilities to compete in these sports.  

So I saw getting back into track and field as a step up.  It was an opportunity for me to test my coaching skills against the best in the world.  It was an opportunity for me to learn from some of the best coaches, athletes, and support providers that sport has to offer. I saw the sport (and still see it, incidentally) as the pinnacle of athletic achievement, that which requires the the optimum in athletic expertise.  

I was expecting to immerse myself into the culture of sprint coaching.  I was expecting to be blown away by the professionalism, and the expertise of the world's best athletes, coaches, and programs.  I was expecting to gain some insight into exactly what the secret recipe to speed exactly was.  

Trouble is, I never found out...

Let me explain:

I spent over a decade in Calgary working with some of the smartest coaches and sport scientists in the world, in an environment that was challenging and professional and yet allowed for unbound creativity.  Isolated from the rest of the world, we were pretty much limited only by our imaginations as to how and what we thought were the necessary ingredients in developing the high-performance athlete. We were given virtually unlimited access to hundreds of University and National Team athletes  every year.  If we had bosses, they trusted us to get on with it (I drifted in and out of the ‘system’, but remained in close contact with all within it throughout). Creative and passionate in their own fields, leaders like Dr Steve Norris and Dr David Smith helped to create a passionate group of young sports scientists and strength coaches that - in my mind - remains unrivaled anywhere I have seen and been (unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Center’s sports medicine and sports nutrition, which has been an unmitigated disaster from the start, and was a big motivation for my move abroad).

The freedom that we were given served to feed our passion for what we were doing.  It fueled our creativity, and made us dig deeper in our quest to find the Holy Grail of optimal athletic performance.  We started a Strength and Conditioning Practicum at the University, and brought through the next generation of S&C professionals, who in turn served to drive us forward even more.

It truly was a high performance environment.  Great people.  Great athlete population.  Great facilities. And the time, space, and freedom to explore ...

A young coach really cannot ask for much more.

But it was missing something.  We were doing a great job of working with these young athletes in these ‘non-competitive’ sports.  While we were producing multiple Olympians and Olympic Champions, they were not in the ‘competitive’ sports: those sports that are performed everywhere.  By everyone.  Track and field being - in my mind - the ultimate.  

So I bounced ...

... off to the UK.  

And, after spending three years there, taking two sprinters to the London Olympic Games, having had the tremendously fortunate opportunity to coach three of the country’s greatest ever sprinters, having coached at the London Olympics, two World Championships, dozens of Diamond League events, and numerous other high-level competitions where I mingled with some of the greatest athletes of all-time, and having taken the last few months to process and reflect, I have come to the following conclusion:

They’re all clueless ...

All the coaches, the support staff, the management teams ...
that surround these ‘world’s greatest’ athletes were horrible.

Well - maybe not all

In the UK, I was lucky enough to belong to a truly professional organization, led by a management team that I can honestly not imagine being any better (especially Charles Van Commonee, Neil Black and Simon Nathan), that employed some of the best service providers in coaching, nutrition, biomechanics, and sports medicine the world had to offer.  I am truly grateful for the opportunities I enjoyed to spend time with  - and learn from - nutritionists Glenn Kearney and Matt Lovell, therapists Andy Burke, Gordon Bosworth, and Gerry Ramogida, coaches (and coach educators) Dan Pfaff, Kevin Tyler, and Derek Evely, apprentice coaches Steve Fudge, Jonas Dodoo, and Hayley Ginn, sports Docs Paul Dijkstra and Rob Chakraverty, biomechanists Paul Brice and Deborah Sides, and most of all athletes Greg Rutherford, Steve Lewis, Goldie Sayers, Junior Ejehu, Rikki Fifton, Mark Findlay, and especially Marlon Devonish, Dwain Chambers and Christian Malcolm. 

It was a great three years - three years where I probably added more to my overall coaching repertoire  than I had in the previous ten.  But almost none of this came from where I was expecting to gain the most: experiencing, being with, watching, talking to, etc. those that were responsible for the greatest athletic achievements in the world.  

And for a guy who’s driving philosophy in acquiring knowledge is learning by doing, this was a little disconcerting.

Because, quite frankly, those guys just didn’t seem to have the first clue of what they were doing.  

Where I was expecting world-class technical understanding, there was nonsensical cueing; where I was expecting elaborate and professional support teams, there was often none; where I was expecting in-depth knowledge in nutrition and supplementation, there was Kentucky Fried Chicken and Gatorade.  

I saw some horrendous coaching, even worse therapy input, and as we have all seen over the last few weeks now, some truly disgusting nutritional and supplemental ‘expertise’.

Frankly, it is just not good enough

By placing their trust in us, we owe these young men and women our greatest efforts.  It is our JOBS to become as good as we can at what we do.  Professional coaches should not only know their event inside and out (mechanics, specific physiology, programming, etc.), but have at least a working understanding of the entirety of the inter-disciplinary nature of the development and optimization of an athlete’s potential.   This takes effort.  It takes years.  We need to actually read books, stay up to date on research in the relevant areas, go to Conferences, develop key relationships with other coaches, mentors, and apprentices, to not get bogged down in dogma and tradition, to spend as much time in and with the related disciplines as possible.  

To become a great coach - to actually deserve the trust of these young men and women - is not a passive process!  I simply cannot understand those coaches who’s day is done when they walk off the track.  That is NOT coaching.  That’s when your day should start!

A coach who has actually taken the time, and put in the effort, would never ruin an athlete’s career by allowing for willy-nilly ‘trust’ in charlatan therapists and/or ‘anti-aging specialists ... if you were doing your job, there would be no reason for your athletes to seek out their so-called ‘expertise’.

Rant over...this is my conclusion

Where I thought that moving into a more ‘competitive’ sport would mean a step up in coaching and support service expertise, it actually showed the opposite.  It was significantly worse than what I was used to.  

But this makes no sense, you say?

Actually it does ...

... a few conversations I had in Monaco over the last few weeks (especially so with Lauryn Williams - one of which I documented on the blog a couple of weeks ago) spawned an idea:

The more talented (i.e. ‘competitive’) the athlete, the less he or she needs to do to succeed ... the less that athlete’s coach needs to do for the athlete to succeed ... the less important nutrition, supplementation, sports medicine is for the athlete to succeed.  And without this necessity, there is no impetus for the athlete, and the coach, and the support team, to do anything different.  There is no motivation to drive forward - to seek out more information - to search for optimization of the nutritional plan - to devise the perfect regeneration strategy - to reach out to the best therapists, etc.

The best track and field athletes in the world were generally the best athletes at every age-group they ever competed at.  Used to being the best, there has been no reason for their coaches to expand their current knowledge base.  ‘I’m already coaching the city’s/region’s/state’s/country’s/world’s best - I obviously already know what I’m doing - so why should I change?’  And this is a self-sustaining system - the more success that athlete has, the more athletes that coach can recruit, then the more different managers/agents and shoe companies come knocking - further feeding their mis-guided confidence in their own abilities.

So what?

I actually find this incredibly encouraging.  For from my standpoint, there is no reason why - with additional understanding and increased focus on the support services - elite  track and field athletes cannot continue to improve every year of their career.  Indeed, the optimal plan necessitates it - at least until the inevitable late career down-slide, as other factors begin to play a larger role (such as family, money, post-athletic career, etc.).  

If the truly elite track and field athletes are currently not maximizing their potential (as I believe), then it offers hope to those athletes that hit the early- or mid-career plateaus that are so common.   Increased understanding of the inter-disciplinary nature of the development of elite success will lead to the athlete making better choices, and an eventual weeding-out of the passive coaches who do little more than stand idly by, yelling their idiotic instructions and blowing their stupid whistles.  

Once again, it comes down to education.  We all need to do a better job of educating these young men and women, so that these ridiculous mistakes that continue to cost these athletes their careers are eventually eliminated.


  1. Solid stuff Stu. I get the feeling your theory likely holds up across a number of S&C/Coaching examples in Canada. My issue in this "industry" has to do with the false sense of expertise that follows the trainers/coaches/therapists that work with the very elite in any sport. We see many examples in Canada where once an athlete has reached a certain level of success, they are "saved" from the lowly system that developed them into World/Olympic Champions to be surround by "real" expertise. Additionally we see athletes who rise through the ranks, dominating at every level including the highest levels of professional or international competition, and the one who "trained" that athlete as a youth is hailed as a a God send. I won't go as far as to suggest these support staff folk dont know what they're doing, but in my experience the best skill you can offer a truly world class natural talent is to simply get out of their way.
    So yes, you're experience jives on a certain level with my observations around these neck of the woods!

  2. Great stuff Stu. I really like your thoughts around the incentive to learn more when you have a mega talent. The most I have learned in the last few years has been with a kid who was quite talented but was never going to be world champion. We searched every nook and cranny to find a better way to make her better, and succeeded - I am sure I wouldn't have tried this hard if it had all come easily and she was a champion just by turning up.

  3. Nice Stu. You hit on some key issues. I'd love to sit down with you and hear about your UK experience and talk shop sometime. The one additional thing I would have liked to read in this article is the art of coaching. Coaching is teaching, and no amount of technical expertise can help a coach who can't teach. Many of this country's supposed experts or gurus are terrific at putting on clinics, but absolutely terrible at developing athletes, training them in ways that keep them improving AND healthy and successfully coaching them through championships. Any coach who has a history of injured athletes near championships and/or athletes that under-perform at championships might also be considered a Charleton.

  4. I think you have hit the nail on the head!

    Teams/ athletes/ staff at the very top become complacent because they are already where they want to be, they don't have to work hard to be better or change anything to improve performance because they feel they are where they want to be. Unfortunately at some point they are going to get stuck; performance will plateau, injuries happen and people change - this is when most athletes have to step down because they do not have the right support system around them and their life falls apart.
    If however the people at the top did not just want to be the best in their field but rather they wanted to be the best THEY can be then they would have the support system around them who were constantly trying to push the athletes and themselves to find the most effective ways of getting the results they wanted.
    People, especially in the higher tiers of sport should be working constantly to improve themselves and their practice no matter what area they are in. By doing this they can go to bed at night knowing they have done everything in their power to help that athlete or team be the best they can be.

    I don't understand anyone who can work in this area and not want to be the best for their team or athlete, its a constantly changing environment and people need to work to keep up.

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