COE on Coaches

Coaches crucial to Olympic dreams
By Sebastian Coe
Last Updated: 9:11am GMT 19/12/2006

The Sport Coach UK annual awards, at which I was a guest last week, had far less razzmatazz than the BBC Sports Personality of the Year event in Birmingham. This gathering celebrated the hidden hand behind many of those who formed the parade of champions in the BBC’s night of celebration.

Family man: Boxer Joe Calzaghe is coached by his father, Enzo
The day before the coaching awards lunch, I was asked in an interview what the most important ingredient of sporting success was. I thought for a moment and told my puzzled inquisitor: “The ability to select your parents carefully.” I was probed no further and the interview ended.

Actually, it was not quite such a frivolous answer. Winning the genetic lottery of life is the first big hurdle on the way to the rostrum. Hard work and world-class coaching will take you only so far. The difference at the very highest level comes from those skills being melded to naturally inherited anatomy, physiology and mental fortitude. The greatest sponsors most Olympians will have over the course of their career, which in my case spanned two decades, are parents and family.

The public purse and commercial sponsors rarely become a part of the network of support until a competitor reaches the upper echelons of competition. And for me, the role of parents went a little further. My father, Peter, also became my coach, which to this day remains a relatively rare relationship. When it works as it did for me, it works well. On the night of the BBC awards, Joe Calzaghe, who must be starting to wonder what he needs to do to get the public recognition that he deserves, paid a warm tribute to his father, Enzo, who is also his trainer and has been such a crucial part of the boxer’s success.

This is a relationship, however, that has on occasions ripped athlete and parent apart, with the family often following shortly behind. In my case, it was the sensitive management of my mother which provided the essential balance in my early years and the support for her husband that allowed him to devote more than 20 hours a week to my coaching by my mid-teens.

There has of late been much talk about the role of mentoring, particularly when provided by former high-level competitors. This can be an important tool, and there is no doubt that preparing first-time Olympians for the experience of sitting in a call-up room with eight or nine other finalists for 40 minutes before walking out into a stadium of 100,000 people requires an insight which few can provide. But it should never be confused with coaching.

My father, like those honoured at last Wednesday’s lunch in London, was a proper coach. It is not inspirational words on the warm-up track that provide the ammunition to survive a 55-second third lap in a 1500 metres against East or North Africa’s finest. It is the coaching skill that understands the physiology of speed endurance. I broke 12 world records; that gives me insight through experience. It does not make me a coach.

I was the product of high-quality, rigorously applied skills learned in equal measure from theoretical analysis, practical application and experience. It was 24/7. It was focused and unstinting and the loyalty unreserved. A good coach is a mentor, physiologist, natural psychologist, confidant and friend, creating a centre of physical and mental excellence, an ethical framework and a moral compass. And only recently has the role become properly recognised in the UK.

It has struggled rather in the way that the engineering profession struggled for many years because it was considered by many, including the trade unions, that anyone working on an assembly line, if only putting light bulbs into sockets, was an engineer. It is only now and thanks to the work of Sports Coach UK that the role and status of coaching are properly recognised.

After winning the right to host the Olympic Games in 2012, there was much talk of Britain finishing fourth in the medal table and maintaining our second place in the Paralympic Games. This will not be done unless we not only have world-class coaching taking the promising junior athlete from national standing into the Olympic arena, but also high-quality coaching that can nurture the talent in the earlier years.

There are no happy accidents at an Olympic Games. Quite simply, Britain’s haul of medals in 2012 will be the result of genetic disposition and natural talent, hard work and the coaches’ intellectual rigour.

Britain has a proud tradition. Our coaches in the past have led the way in so many of our sports, among them Sam Mussabini, Harold Abrahams’ irascible, quirky and visionary coach who was brought to life over half a century later by Ian Holm in Chariots of Fire, Betty Callaway, who worked with the sublime Torvill and Dean, and Harry Wilson, coach to my great rival and as our careers came to a close, my friend, Steve Ovett. These and many more were British coaches who gave great lustre to our international coaching reputation.

And my own coach could be paid no greater compliment than being told by the coach of the great Moroccan, Hicham El Guerrouj, that the basis of his training came from the hard miles and fast laps of my own endeavours in South Yorkshire. Thank God he wasn’t around at the time.