Cram On Coaching Crisis

Forget popularity contests, coaches need to crack whips to get results

Steve Cram
Tuesday January 10, 2006
The Guardian

Some of my weekends are spent with a group of people who are three months into a training programme designed to get them through the London Marathon in April.
None of them has had any previous running experience and most are not predisposed to exercise of any type.
It’s my job to help coach and cajole them as part of a TV documentary to be broadcast in the spring.

Coaching is often an enjoyable and rewarding pastime and for more than one million people in the United Kingdom that’s exactly why they do it.
For others, though, it is a serious profession but one whose value is often overlooked, particularly in this country.

Coaching at the highest levels in sport is a difficult and challenging environment, especially away from the more highly paid positions that are available in some professional sports, and attracting quality individuals into the high-performance arena is difficult, particularly for many Olympic sports with relatively limited resources.

Coaching as a vocation in Britain has never carried much kudos and generally even less financial reward.

Inevitably when resources became available through lottery funding most sports found that expertise at the highest level lay beyond these shores and from football to badminton the lure of the foreign coach proved too strong to resist.

This policy often meets with resistance from certain sporting and political quarters but the stark fact is if you want to win you employ those who you think are best capable of achieving that goal, regardless of nationality.

Indeed many sports have had great success and have changed values and structures as a result of foreign influence.

The problem is that we are still not producing enough high-level home-grown coaching talent.

Attitudes are changing slowly but not quickly enough, particularly with 2012 looming large.

There are so many hoops for prospective coaches to jump through before they get anywhere near a talented athlete.

Then there is the perennial British problem: the fear of being too pushy and single-minded in the pursuit of victory at all costs.

When Jürgen Grobler, the highly successful rowing coach, came to Britain in the early 1990s he was horrified to find that the slogan on some 1992 British Olympic clothing said that taking part was the best thing in sport.

He was described rather negatively in the media as Mr Ruthless but 15 years later he is widely regarded as the reason for rowing’s gold bonanza.

Bill Sweetenham, swimming’s performance director, has just been cleared by an inquiry into accusations of bullying.

The Aussies must be laughing their socks off. Sack him for not winning medals but, please, not for trying too hard.

One wonders how long Sir Alex Ferguson’s career would have lasted if gentle persuasion had been the only method of coaching available to him. Sven-Goran Eriksson could never be described as a bully but the point is that coaches come in many guises ; we need to encourage more diversity and ambition.

Some methods may appear unpalatable at times but winners don’t generally worry about winning popularity contests.

Jose Mourinho is not everyone’s cup of tea but arrogance and self-belief are essential traits of high-level performers, even if they don’t all wear it as publicly. We work hard to instil winning principles but I’m not convinced that enough emphasis is placed on such qualities in Britain.

I recently read an interview with Rolf Haikkola, the coach of the legendary Lasse Viren. For 30 years the Finns appear to have had much greater scientific knowledge than that available to the likes of Brendan Foster and Dave Bedford here in Britain.
The medical attention Viren received in 1975 and his subsequent training at altitude with the Kenyans in the spring of 1976 played crucial roles in his second double gold medal haul at the Montreal Olympics, but what shone through was the unshakable belief at the outset that he could win the 5,000 metres, 10,000m and marathon in the space of nine days.
In Britain even today I doubt if any coach would be so bold and ambitious.

There is some progress. UK Sport last year set up the British Elite Coaching Team, which gives former winners the chance to be fast-tracked through the coaching structure to where they can be most effective, namely with today’s top athletes.

They include the Olympic gold medal cyclist Chris Boardman and the judo silver medallist Kate Howey.

More resources need to be made available to attract similar performers from other sports into coaching and we need to remove some of the fears and limiting attitudes if we are to start seeing more British names in the top jobs.