Saturday 23 February 2019

Belgian brilliance helping to close the coaching gap for Irish athletics

Increased funding and mentoring scheme is music to the ears of young stars

Belgian coach Jacques Borlee.
Belgian coach Jacques Borlee.

Cathal Dennehy

Back in the 1800s, when Frederic Chopin was composing on his piano in Poland, it's unlikely he envisioned how the music he created might one day influence Irish athletics.

Rock up to a local running track and the sounds you'll hear booming from portable speakers would have the music maestro recoiling in his grave. But when it comes to creating the ideal environment for coaching, it turns out the (very) old ones are often the best.

Patience Jumbo-Gula benefitted from the recent Irish athletes’ workshop. Photo by Giancarlo Columbo/Sportsfile
Patience Jumbo-Gula benefitted from the recent Irish athletes’ workshop. Photo by Giancarlo Columbo/Sportsfile

At least according to Jacques Borlee, a 61-year-old Belgian guru who has, through nature and nurture, created one of the great athletics dynasties.

Four of Borlee's children had or have world-class careers as sprinters, with their dad renowned as one of the great minds in coaching. Which, at a time when Irish athletics has a golden crop of emerging talent, made him the perfect man to bring to these shores.

He was invited by Daniel Kilgallon, national sprints co-ordinator with Athletics Ireland, who last year was granted the daunting task of bridging the knowledge gap between top Irish coaches (who almost all work on a voluntary basis) and leading coaches abroad (who are mostly professional).

With a lack of funding to address the dearth of full-time coaches, Kilgallon has taken a pragmatic approach, which is why, on a Sunday morning in Abbotstown last month, 14 leading sprints coaches found themselves listening to Chopin during a mobility session at the Sport Ireland Institute.

Why Chopin? "It was a calming influence," says Kilgallon. "That's what Jacques wants - working in a calm environment with nothing else interfering with the brain. Something so simple can make such a change."

In the room, throwing all manner of questions at Borlee, were 14 of the best coaches in Irish athletics: Shane McCormack (coach to Phil Healy), Drew Harrison (coach to Thomas Barr), Patricia Amond (coach to Marcus Lawler) and many more.

Borlee explained his philosophy, sharing training programmes of his best athletes. For all the Irish coaches learned, the biggest thing was that they were already on the right track. "It showed we're not too far off," says Kilgallon. "The only missing ingredient is he's a full-time coach."


Little things when combined can make a huge difference at the upper echelons of human performance. An example: Borlee explained how his son Jonathan once clocked a poor 47 seconds for 400m in the first round of a championships, so later that night he made him watch, again and again, the video of his best race, programming in his brain the necessary motor pattern and restoring his confidence. The next day he ran two seconds faster.

"He was hammering the importance of being positive with athletes, that everything around them is positive," says Kilgallon.

"You can work them hard in the gym and track but if their mental well-being isn't right, they're not going to perform."

As Borlee put it, athletes need "to believe in magic". His approach is certainly unorthodox, and in the autumn he plans to bring the Belgian 4x400m squad to base camp on Mount Everest, kicking off their Olympic preparations with a 10-day trip aimed at fostering team spirit.

Such ventures may be outside the scope of Irish coaches but there were many simple, highly-specific technical cues on offer, like the importance of arm mobility, an often overlooked area.

"If you can't move your arms, the legs aren't going to follow," Borlee said. Days later, in his voluntary coaching work at Tallaght AC, Kilgallon was shocked at the lack of arm mobility among some of Ireland's fastest athletes. "It was an eye-opener," he says. "A very simple change but very effective."

One of Ireland's brightest talents, Patience Jumbo-Gula - who recently joined Kilgallon's group - also attended the workshop and the 17-year-old gleaned much from it.

"It was really good, I learned a lot about what I need to improve on," she says.

Such as? "My hips - they are so low when I sprint. He was like, 'come on, lift your hips up,' and showing me how to do my exercises right."

Jumbo-Gula was one of four Irish athletes recently inducted into the Accelerator Academy, an initiative which will see her, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sophie O'Sullivan and Sarah Healy receive financial backing and off-track support in the years ahead.

Many believe such ventures are the only way to ensure adequate support for young talents, given the constraints on Athletics Ireland's purse strings, but a decision at congress earlier this year saw giant strides in that department.

With €3 added to each membership fee, an additional €180,000 has been made available for coaching and development for 2019. One third of that will be used for coach mentoring programmes like the one with Borlee, with €20,000 each going to sprints, endurance and field events.


A full-time field event co-ordinator will also be appointed, with €50,000 also going towards a development team that will try to boost the quantity of members and quality of all-round coaching at grassroots level.

In short, the association - with financial help from its members - is finding a way to close the coaching gap on its international rivals, even if there's plenty of distance left to run.

After the workshop Kilgallon and Jeremy Lyons - who coaches a group of top sprinters in Santry - talked about the best way to implement Borlee's ideas, the first point being his recommended soundtrack.

"Yeah," admits Kilgallon with a laugh. "I didn't introduce Chopin yet in Tallaght."

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