Francis makes a big splash

Dan Silkstone
March 5, 2009
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IN THE world of athletics, Steve Francis is a big thing. The Jamaican sprint coach makes one of the unlikeliest sights in sport. A man with little athletic background and none in running, he consistently produces the best sprinters in the world. A bear of a man who can barely manage a brisk walk, he spends his days bellowing through a megaphone at some of the fleetest athletes on the planet. They appear terrified of him.

At Olympic Park this week, his squad has trained each morning. Sometimes a light jog, followed by a leg-burning series of sprints. Then, they sit cross-legged on the track like obedient schoolchildren while he takes them through “mental application training”.

There is Melaine Walker, Beijing gold medallist in the 400-metre hurdles. To her left is Shericka Williams, silver medallist at Olympic and world championship level in the 400m. There’s the legendary Asafa Powell — 48 times he has run under 10 seconds. Michael Frater, part of the world record-setting Jamaican 4 x 100 team. Nesta Carter, tipped as sprinting’s next big thing. All of them nod like seven-year-olds. Francis talks slowly, through heavy-lidded eyes. He is the failed discus thrower who completed a masters degree in finance at the University of Michigan before deciding to try his hand at coaching. Who founded the MVP athletics club that now dominates the sport in Jamaica. Who has reached the top of his profession in just eight years. People talk about the Jamaican sprint factory … Francis is the foreman.

How has he done it? Francis says the most important attribute for a coach is a relentless desire for knowledge. “The willingness to get rid of all that you thought was right is important. Whatever we do now, other people will copy, but by next year we won’t be doing it any more. We make big changes each year to make sure nothing remains the same.” Technique, he says, is not so important as most people believe. “I appreciate the value of technical excellence, but I don’t aim for technical excellence in and of itself. Hard work and strength count for much, much more.”

Nowhere is Francis more contrary than on the topic of performance-enhancing drugs — a slur that has sometimes been levelled against his over-achieving squad.

“I am against cheating but I have nothing against drugs personally,” he says. “I believe it (doping) probably can be done in a safe manner, but I am against cheating. As long as it is against the rules, I can’t, but I don’t understand it.”

Such words are scarcely politically correct. “I understand that some people will say my athletes are on drugs because they defy belief,” he says. “Nobody can say they expected Shericka Williams to be Jamaica’s best 400m runner … they want an explanation for why it is happening so they say she is on drugs. I expect that.”

Francis is a voracious reader. In his first years as a coach he devoured every text he could find about athletics training. Now he reads more widely: sports science, psychology, the great coaches from other sports. Currently he is obsessed with swimming; he wonders how training loads can be so similar for sprinters and distance swimmers. “It’s crazy, almost the same mileage.”

He is an unusual man with methods to match, beginning with his raw materials. “I prefer to coach people who are unappreciated.” Powell, he says, “was not anything to speak about when he was 18”. Then there’s Shelly-Ann Fraser, whom he coached to Olympic gold in the women’s 100 in Beijing. “She was nowhere. There were many, many girls who were way ahead of her. Nobody in their right mind would have seen her where she is now.” Sherone Simpson, who won silver in that race, is another of his unlikely heroes.

Francis is the ultimate alchemist, taking unloved materials and turning them into gold. But why do things this way? “All I look for is someone who will do what I require of them,” he says. “I believe that when athletes have very little ego it is easier to get them to surprise themselves. I look for athletes who have no ego and are not convinced of their star quality, which is rare for sprinters. If you are no good, you are more open to suggestion and influence. If you are good, you believe that everything begins and ends with you. It is more of a chore to get through to those athletes.”

It is, of course, not so easy as that. The absence of ego can also be a challenge. Much psychological prodding is needed to give his athletes the self-belief that they have greater talents. “I need to make them believe they can beat the people who have grown up beating them. We have to transform them mentally.”

Powell says he does not fear his coach — “I’m a big guy, you know” — but adds quickly that he always follows orders. “He is very, very strict, but he treats us like a father. He can be fun, but he is very serious about his work.” The star attraction at tonight’s Olympic Park competition admits his coach makes some weird decisions.

“You wonder what he is thinking but you never see the results until right at the end. It’s very different to training with anyone else. The girls especially are quite afraid of him.” One of those decisions was ordering Powell to run an uncomfortable 400 in Sydney last weekend. Powell has been the fastest man in the world for much of the last four years but has consistently underperformed at big events. If he’d run the 100 in Sydney he would have won easily. Francis wanted to place him under pressure.

“He’s one of the smartest guys you will ever meet,” Powell says. “From the athletes he produces he makes it hard not to trust and believe in him.”

It is sometimes difficult taking instruction from a man who has not been there himself, a man who waddles slowly while screaming at you to run faster. But, Powell admits, the reason he obeys is simple. It works.

“The athletes I have know that they owe their success to the program I run,” says Francis. “It’s easy to get them to listen. They understand where their best interests lie.”

ulie Tullberg

March 05, 2009 08:51pm

A STRONG headwind stopped Jamaican sprint star Asafa Powell from breaking 10 seconds in the 100m track event at Olympic Park tonight.

With a 1.4m/s headwind, Powell was facing a mighty struggle to clock a sub 10-second time in the class field at the World Athletics Tour Meet in Melbourne.

The former world-record holder clocked 10.23sec, ahead of Jamaican sprinter Nesta Carter (10.42sec) and New Zealand’s David Ambler (10.52sec).

It was a cool and blustery evening that spoilt Powell’s goal to break the 10-second mark.

Speaking to SEN radio, Powell said he was satisfied with his performance, despite the strong head wind.

“I’ve been working hard this year because I’m working to catch myself.” Powell said.

“It was a very tough head wind … I’m not feeling bad about that race. I’m feeling good … I didn’t get out as well because I didn’t push hard.”

Powell said the race gave him a strong indication of how he was responding to his work on the track.

“I know where I’m at and I’m excited,” Powell said.

“I thought, ‘I really have to push through this wind to get a good time’.”