Sunday 19 August 2018

‘We can talk about full-time coaching, but who is going to pay for it?’

Gillick believes that only one ingredient can solve Irish athletics' biggest problem - money

David Gillick at the launch of the 2018 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon, which will take place on Sunday, June 3. For further details go to www.vhiwomensminimarathon.ie. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Gillick at the launch of the 2018 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon, which will take place on Sunday, June 3. For further details go to www.vhiwomensminimarathon.ie. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

A great Irish writer once said that progress is impossible without change, and though he was referring to matters far more important than the health of Irish athletics, he was certainly on to something.

Because when you survey the current landscape of the sport here - a flood of talent at underage level, a lack of world-class performers at senior level and a disturbing drought of professional coaches - the only way to move forward may be a change of direction.

For David Gillick, a two-time European indoor champion, there's never been a more appropriate time for such a shift as Athletics Ireland prepares to welcome its new CEO next month.

Hamish Adams spent the last five years as CEO of Rowing Ireland and before that, he spent 15 years working in rugby - from development manager with his native New Zealand to academy manager at Munster Rugby.

As such, he brings a different record than outgoing CEO John Foley, who had a long background in the sport before taking the post eight years ago.

"I think it's an opportunity," says Gillick. "It's someone coming in with fresh ideas, but as CEO you're looking after the whole sport: grassroots, mass participation and high performance."

All three, of course, are inextricably linked, and for Gillick the best way for Athletics Ireland to plug the hole in professional coaching may be to get revenue flowing from one to the other.

"Mass-participation running events are huge and Athletics Ireland needs to tap into that. To be fair to John Foley, he has done that and there are events that bring in the income, but I think we need to do more because we can't be reliant on Sport Ireland funding. If you have a bad championships, that can't dictate the money you get or you're under the cosh the following year."

Gillick is as aware as anyone about the lack of professional coaches here - during his career he moved first to England, then to the US, to get the expertise he needed - but only one thing will enable progress in that area: cash.

Structures

"We can talk about full-time coaching roles and structures, but who is going to pay for it? It all starts with getting a bigger budget. With the new CEO, that's what I'd be looking at: what's his commercial strategy? How is he going to get more money in?"

As it stands, many of the best athletics coaching minds here earn their living from other sports - training GAA, rugby and soccer teams - while those left behind usually volunteer their time despite the sport actually costing them money.

Gillick believes that has to change: "Athletics is the bedrock of all sports. If you're a better runner you're a better GAA player, rugby player, soccer payer. If people want to know how to become a more efficient runner, it should be to Athletics Ireland they're going."

Then there is the product - the strange situation whereby many thousands will tune in when Thomas Barr or Mark English chase a major championship medal, but when the same athletes contest a national championships, all that's missing from the scene in Santry is a tumbleweed.

"We need to make it more lively to entice kids to come to these big events where the stars compete," says Gillick. "How can we do that? How can we get more bums on seats?"

He doesn't have the answers, but Gillick hopes the question will at least start a debate. Though his competitive days are in the past, the 34-year-old keeps a close watch on the sport, and few can empathise as well with the struggles of Ireland's best.

He was watching at home in Dublin - unable to travel to Birmingham because of the snow - during the recent world indoor championships, and in Ciara Mageean's poor performance in the 1500m - she finished seventh in her heat in 4:11.81 - he was reminded of the crushing confusion he often felt.

"I've bombed at championships, as have a few Irish athletes, but it's about what you do off the back of it. That's where Ciara needs to really sit down and work out is it a psychology thing or is it her training?"

Mageean parted ways with coach Jerry Kiernan after a sub-par run at the world championships last year, moving to Manchester in November to train with a professional group under coach Steve Vernon. At the age of 23, Gillick made a similar move from Dublin to Loughborough to train under Nick Dakin, and he knows such changes can take time to pay dividends.

"It can take up to a season or two to bed in with a new coach and environment. I was quite fortunate because I saw results very quick and saw the benefit of training with people that were better than me.

"The change is going to be good for Ciara. It puts her in a full-time position where she can really focus in on what she wants out of the sport. But you're defined by championships and it's such a shame to see someone with all the talent in the world not perform when it counts.

"But the great thing about athletics is that it can take one run, one race, to change everything. She has the talent, I think she just has to believe in herself again. Forget about pressure, forget about medals, forget about performances, just get a race, get out there and compete."

Irish Independent

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