Glen Mills profile

Finding bolts of lightning: meet Glen Mills, the coach nurturing the world’s best sprinters
Matt Majendie
15 Dec 2011

Growing up, all Glen Mills wanted to do was emulate the great Jamaican sprinters of his youth but, at the age of 13, came the stark realisation that was never going to happen.

In the infancy of his teens, he instead turned his attention to getting the best out of fellow athletes and his record speaks for itself. During a 22-year stint as head coach of the Jamaica national athletic team, which ended when he stepped down from the role in 2009 to focus full-time on his Racers Track Club, he oversaw 71 World Championship and 33 Olympic medals.

None, though, have stolen the limelight quite like the fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt, who sought out Mills to become his coach after the Athens Olympics and credits him with nurturing his raw talent and transforming him into the fastest man on the planet.

Spend some time in the company of Mills, 62, and it becomes apparent where Bolt has continued to nurture his relaxed nature. The pair have rather different builds - Mills is a barrel-chested bear of a man in contrast to the relatively slimline Bolt - but he talks in the same languid Jamaican accent as his young charge.

In fact, his voice is almost verging on the soporific, the warm baritone nature of it perhaps better placed for an audio book than barking instructions at the quickest men and women in Jamaica.

“My parents weren’t into athletics - they were just ordinary workers,” he recalls of his all too brief running career. "But growing up I loved the sport and I had the desire to be a sprinter.

“However, I never had that talent and it was early when I realised. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to measure up to the others. But I didn’t let it get me down, I got over it and realised my talent was in coaching.”

He nurtured his fellow schoolmate’s running talents as a teenager, learning his skills under the tutelage of his athletics coach, Henry McDonald Messam, at Camperdown High School in the capital Kingston.

“He was a great inspiration to me, a big influence on my career,” says Mills of his mentor. “He himself was a runner who represented Jamaica and he had a lot of stories to tell. I can’t remember now the exact words he said to me but he was very motivating. I worked with him for about three or four years.”

Today, Mills works with a raft of Jamaica’s top athletes. The most notable is obviously Bolt, closely followed by Yohan Blake, who usurped his fellow Jamaican as world champion following that infamous false start and disqualification in Daegu.

Ask Mills to pinpoint the difference between the two fastest runners on his books, he says deadpan “one is tall and one is short” before letting out a small laugh, which appears to be as much at the temerity of my question as the amusement of his answer.

He adds: “I don’t discuss them or compare them in terms of training. I’m happy to speak about each but I don’t do comparisons because I coach them and have to maintain balance.”

The dream scenario for Mills would be if the pair won gold and silver over both the 100m and the 200m but, if he has a preference for which order, he is not letting on. “If that was the result, it would be a lot of good for our programme,” says Mills.

There are hints in conversation that he believes Bolt, 25, has the bettering of his younger rival. Looking ahead to London 2012, Mills says he can see Bolt running faster in the right conditions.

“He can do better than Beijing and Berlin but I’m not certain of the weather in London,” says Mills. “It’s very tricky but if the weather is right and the climate is warm, he can do it.”

There has already been much talk of which events Bolt will be running in London having talked in a previous interview of his desire to compete in the 4x400metres as well as the 100m, 200m and 4x100m, all three of which he won gold in at the last Olympics.

Of the 4x400m ambition, Mills says: “It’s a desire but there’s a lot more to it than what he says. First, there’s a trial where the quarter-milers are selected. It depends on what the national body of athletics decides here in Jamaica. It’s not for us to say. We can express a desire but Usain is not going to run the 400m at the trials so it would have to be a decision by the association on it.”

Intriguingly, Mills believes that Bolt’s future lies away from the 100m and towards the 200m and 400m.

He adds: “He has all the attributes to be a quarter-miler but he hasn’t taken a liking to the event. He works hard at the sprints but I guess the 400m isn’t for him. When he’s not as fast maybe the quarter-mile will be the option for him. Everybody wants to be a winner and he’s just that in his events. He may have a change of heart in the future.”

Bolt has been castigated by some for his showmanship in the past, most notably on the startline for the 100m after which he was disqualified for false starting, but Mills sees no reason for the runner to change.

“Usain works very hard,” he says. “But he also mixes it with his juvenile character. People need to know he takes his training and his races very seriously.”

In contrast, there is little showmanship from Blake, 21, the young pretender who took the world’s best sprinters and pundits by surprise with his supreme pace, although not Mills, who it would seem does not miss a trick.

“Yohan has been an outstanding sprinter from high school, he held the national junior record so what he did last season was not surprising to us,” adds Mills, a former maths and social science teacher. “He can be very good next season and he’s improving.”

[b]As for a prediction as for what will happen when the two go head to head in London, Mills sounds almost underwhelmed about the whole thing.

“For me, I can’t say that I’m overly enthusiastic about the Olympics,” he says. “To me, it’s another Olympics, I’ve been through six or seven of them. It’s probably more exciting for those that have never been before.”[/b]

London will, in fact, be Mills’s eighth Games. His first was in Los Angeles in 1984 when his protege Raymond Stewart, another Jamaican, won a relay sprint silver and was sixth in the men’s 100m. Looking back on his career, Mills says more modestly than it reads in print: “I think I’ve done it all. I’m in the evening of my career. I never set a date to stop but most of it is done already.”

There are some athletes that he would yet like to get the opportunity to work with. Of the British contingent, he has helped both Dwain Chambers and Christine Ohuruogu, who teamed up with Mills’s training camp this month.

But it is the up-and-coming British sprinter Jodie Williams (below) that excites him the most. “She’s very good,” he says of the world junior 100m champion. “I’m always willing to work with good talent like that.”

The drive for Mills is not all about more medals but about moulding the holy grail of perfection in sprinting.

[b]“Perfection is what we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “But it’s a hard thing to do. I’m sure in a couple of years someone else will come along and put Usain’s record to bed.”

The key aspects to Mills’s coaching philosophy repeatedly come out in conversation. Words and phrases that get repeated include discipline, hard work, fair play and striving for improvement. But he sees the key of his work on the track is, in fact, to fine-tune each runner’s technical skills though he is also as proud of his work off the track as the stuff he does on it.

“I like to help them develop into total human beings,” he says. He has been spoken of in the past as a father figure but says it is not for him to say whether that is an apt description. He adds: “You try to be involved in the rest of their lives as much as they let you. I’m always letting them know that they need to realise there’s life after the track.” [/b]Mills credits that to his stable upbringing. Is that something potentially missing from British athletics in terms of sprinting? He says not and instead puts the blame on mother nature.

“I think the climate doesn’t help, it’s just so cold,” he says. “There are many outstanding sprinters coming out of Europe. I still think Britain is capable of doing it.”

For now, Mills’s target is to make sure that none of Britain’s or, for that matter, the rest of the world’s athletes get close to his runners next season. Judging by Blake and Bolt’s pace, they have every chance of doing just that for Coach Mills, as they call him.