Coaching the coaches is the next item on the agenda to allow young talent to reach potential
On the surface, it seems counter-intuitive. Amid declining memberships, bleeding budgets and after a winter of wrought-iron restrictions, Irish athletes are running faster. Not all of them, and not in every event, but a deluge of national records in recent weeks speaks to a sport emerging from hibernation not so much with a stretch and a yawn as with a startled sprint.
At this week’s European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland, 24 Irish athletes will toe the line, with chief medal hopes resting on the been-there-done-that shoulders of Mark English and Ciara Mageean. For the first time ever, there’s a full complement of Irish sprinters in the men’s and women’s 60m, while all three female Irish 800m runners will feel capable of making the final.
But is the surge in standards as good as it seems? And has it happened because of the current structures or in spite of them? Most in Irish athletics will argue the toss over the latter, but there’s a consensus about the former. The tide is truly rising, but why?
Noelle Morrissey has her theories. As coach to Ciara Neville and Sarah Lavin, who set personal bests recently to qualify for the European Indoors, she’s seen a curious performance upside to lockdown. In a sport where most of Ireland’s best juggle work with their training, there’s truth in that Da Vinci line about simplicity being the ultimate sophistication.
“You can train now in the morning or in the afternoon,” says Morrissey. “The athletes aren’t waiting to train at 7:30pm when they’re exhausted after a day’s work, so the quality of training is much better.”
Daniel Kilgallon, coach to Israel Olatunde — the 18-year-old who smashed the Irish under 20 and under 23 records over 60m last weekend — believes the stay-at-home lifestyle has played a part. In more normal times Olatunde would leave Dundalk on a red-eye bus every morning and, after a long day of lectures at UCD, he was often a tired athlete when he arrived in Tallaght for a track session. But Kilgallon believes the reduction in commuting means “rest and recovery is happening without athletes really knowing.”
Feidhlim Kelly, coach to many of Ireland’s best distance runners, acknowledges that new-age footwear is having an effect on times in middle-distance events, but he also sees a shift in mentality.
“The shoes help, but they’re breaking down psychological barriers,” he says. “I remember Con Houlihan said: ‘The next breakthrough in sport is in the mind.’ At least three women are going to break two minutes for 800m this year and that’s the standard now. Once a barrier is broken by someone else you think, ‘well, f**k it, now I have to go and do it.’
“I think (the pandemic) has helped a lot of athletes: you rest, you train. You don’t go for coffee, you don’t go to the cinema, you don’t go for your casual pint. Everyone is resting better.”
And yet, he believes most Irish athletes could be so much more. “Ireland fails people massively by not allowing them to be who they want to be. With Covid, I think more people are going: why don’t I do what I really want to do?”
At Kelly’s Dublin Track Club the recipe is simple: consistent mileage, week after week, year after year — the only way to the top in endurance sport. “Everyone wants to train like Rocky Balboa for eight or 10 weeks, but that’s not real conditioning. For the body to be truly hardened, it’s continuous training. It’s very simple, but it’s very hard to do day in, day out, all year.”
For many Irish athletes, the biggest issue is finding the means to sustain that lifestyle, given funding tends to operate as a reward system — arriving for athletes after they really needed it.
“I’d like to see the athletes supported more,” says Morrissey. “Time is money and money is time, and athletes who have the potential to make semi-finals and finals at major championships, you’d like that they don’t have to double a day job, that they’d be sufficiently funded to support themselves.”
It’s an age-old problem. Most of those on the Irish team next weekend are in an awkward position: gifted enough to make the Olympics but not fast enough to get meaningful support, and aware that most modern workplaces don’t offer the leeway required to fully chase their dream.
“As (1980 Olympian) Pat Hooper said: ‘It’s a different working world now; they want their pound of flesh,’” says Kelly. “But we don’t need fancy facilities or loads of money. Room and board is all they need, and that’s what people do not provide.”
Dave Sweeney, national field events co-ordinator for Athletics Ireland, believes Ireland should follow the lead of nations like Germany, where athletes are offered careers in public service that enable them to do low-intensity, part-time work, allowing them to focus on athletics before transitioning to full-time work once their career is finished.
“We should start investigating links with the military, defence forces or Gardaí, or on the corporate basis, where we put athletes in part-time and take the pressure off financially,” he says. “They can train full-time and yet have a career plan. If you can sell it on the marketing side and the positives of being associated with achievement, there’s a big opportunity.”
Sweeney sees the difficulties for Ireland’s top field eventers, who are in a constant battle for access to facilities, a situation that worsened in recent months with training exemptions granted primarily to track athletes.
“They do feel it really badly. They can’t get in to train anywhere and it’s hugely frustrating for them. You’re asking these people to put their lives on hold and train their ass off and you want to help them, but you can’t.”
There is no field eventer among the Irish athletes going to the European Indoors, a symptom of comparatively tougher qualifying standards as well as the gulf in class between Irish track athletes and those in field events. Sweeney hopes to change that, and believes coach mentoring can play a role, with experts such as John Shepherd (long jump) and Sergey Litvinov (hammer) having done workshops to up-skill Irish coaches in recent years, and all-time greats such as Stefan Holm and Javier Sotomayor recently taking part in webinars with the Irish high jump community.
“It’s going to take time, but there’s more people signing up with coach-education courses and in time you’ll see the investment return. It’ll be applied with the 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds and hopefully it’ll have an effect in a few years.”
A key driver of those programmes was Athletics Ireland’s decision in 2018 to raise its membership fee by €3, with the resulting €180,000 funnelled into coaching and development. It allowed a host of Irish coaches to pick the brains of world-class operators.
In the endurance programme overseen by Matt Lockett, they’ve been able to soak up the wisdom of the likes of Alan Storey (former coach to Sonia O’Sullivan), Robert Denmead, Steve Magness and Steve Vernon.
“Most recognise there is no single magic formula in trying to get the best solution for individual athletes,” says Lockett. “So there is value in discussing ideas and collaborating with their domestic coaching colleagues.”
In the sprints programme overseen by Kilgallon, Ralph Mouchbahani, Jacques Borlee, Tonja Buford-Bailey and Dan Pfaff have offered their insight, a who’s-who in world-class coaching. Pfaff in particular is revered in such circles, having guided Donovan Bailey (100m) and Greg Rutherford (long jump) to Olympic gold medals. The American guru was due to come to Ireland last May, a trip postponed for obvious reasons, but in an online session with Irish coaches last week he outlined his theories about transitioning junior athletes to senior level and explained the training structure he implemented with various Olympic medallists.
“There’s nothing mind-blowing about what these coaches are telling us and nothing extremely scientific,” says Kilgallon. “But it’s a lot of common sense. You come away with more confidence in what you’re doing.”
Of course, the reality is a lack of resources means a professional coaching structure in Ireland remains a distant dream. The sport’s structure is sustained by a horde of volunteers.
Four years ago, Morrissey recognised she didn’t know enough to bring gifted junior sprinter Ciara Neville to the top level so she reached out to Stephen Maguire, a Strabane native who was then overseeing the sprints programme in British Athletics. Maguire put her in touch with Michael Afilaka, coach to a string of international medallists, who has been her mentor ever since.
“There was an awful lot I had to learn,” says Morrissey. “I was inclined to run them into the ground a bit, (thinking that if) you train hard, you get results, but that’s not necessarily the game.”
The improvement in coaching standards, coupled with better support structures at universities, means top talents no longer have to go abroad to reach the next level, but many still do. Rhasidat Adeleke and Davicia Patterson were two of the most recent departures as the sprinters accepted scholarships to the University of Texas.
“It’s sad to see Rhasidat go but as a coach who worked with her, I couldn’t blame her,” says Kilgallon. “Can we provide the same supports as universities in the US? No, but we’re going in the right direction.”
Another project Kilgallon is working on is athlete mentoring, whereby established seniors will offer guidance to under 20 and under 23 athletes, and he hopes to re-commence work soon on a coach carding scheme that was postponed last year due to budget cuts, one that would offer more support to those who give so much time and energy to Ireland’s top athletes.
Because behind every Phil Healy lies a Shane McCormack; behind every Sen Tobin there’s a Feidhlim Kelly; and behind every Ciara Neville and Sarah Lavin is a Noelle Morrisey — coaches without whom the whole fabric of Irish athletics, and all that medal-winning potential, would quickly fall apart.
When he thinks of how it is for most Irish athletes and their coaches, Kelly is reminded of the words of his old PE teacher at Belvedere College, Olympic shot putter Phil Conway. “All we have to offer you is hard work,” he says. “So you’ve got to love that hard work.”