When I was chairman of the British Association of National Coaches, I received a letter from a United States senator. It was addressed to me at "140 Harley Street", presumably on the assumption that such an illustrious address would be the natural home of any British coaching association. Failing to find me in Harley Street, the Post Office crossed out the address and wrote "Try Victoria coach station".
The senator's letter tells us much about American and British knowledge of, and attitude to, coaches. As early as the 19th century, American university sport was a well-attended, high-profile affair, light years distant from the playing-fields of Eton. From the start, Americans realised that coaches were critical to the success of their university teams and this percolated down into their high school system. Thus, in egalitarian USA, in their most impressionable years, thousands of young Americans were exposed to the coach, while in class-based Britain the coach was a forlorn, forelock-tugging figure.
Though the class-base of British sport has shifted, our laissez-faire attitudes linger on. Thus it is that Wilf O'Reilly has to start his ice-sprint training at midnight, our English women rugby players pay £600 each to win the World Cup, the rower Stephen Redgrave flails around for private sponsorship after the Barcelona Olympics, and the injured Roger Black treks to Australia for treament.
Back in 1976, the Australians had a disastrous Olympics. The Australian Prime Minister turned up in the Olympic Village on prime-time television to ask what had gone wrong. He was grabbed by his figurative lapels by Australian athletes and told that he and lack of government support for sport was what was wrong. Some years later, arose the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, which was heavily based on East Germany's Leipzig model.
The Australians initially made the mistake of trying to bring all of their top performers into the Institute, but they later provided a more sensitive programme, with specialist state institutes.The results have been startling.
At the Victoria Commonwealth Games, with a third of England's population, the Australians took 30 per cent more medals. For the Sydney Olympics, they have set themselves a target of 60 medals, double their previous best. It would be a brave man who wouldbet against them.
The Australians rightly understood that poorly funded, amateur governing bodies could no longer deliver success at international level. They realised that the only agency with the funds to deliver facilities, coaching, sports medicine, sports science andfinancial support to athletes was central government. Thus the Australian Sports Commission was created.
The Australian recipe for success in the Nineties is simple. They believe that success is coach-driven. "You are the expert. Tell us what you want. We will do our best to fix it." That is their policy.
But what, you may ask, are the British targets for Sydney. Indeed, what have they ever been, for any Olympics?
Targets. Perish the thought. There has never been any thirst for success at national level by our Government expressed through its sports councils. Rather, Government support for sport has been thinly spread through the whole spectrum, with predictable results. It has therefore been the usually chance combination of athlete and coach such as Denison-Moorhouse, Wilson-Ovett and Arnold-Jackson which has produced winners. Success at international level has never been central to our thinking.
True, we have had our triumphs, notably in athletics and rowing, but any coach in either of these disciplines will tell you that it is twice as hard to win an Olympic medal for Britain as it is anywhere else. This is not because we do not have the coaches, not because we do not have experts in sports medicine or sports science, but because no one has had the vision and the drive to bring all of these disciplines together in the cause of British sport.
So we get back to the coach. If I mentioned the names of Wilf Paish, Kevin Hickey, John Atkinson and Sue Campbell, few eyebrows would be raised. Yet Paish is one of the world's best all-round athletics coaches. Hickey is transforming the British Olympic Association's performance programmes, Atkinson has been the central figure in the improvement of British gymnastics and Campbell is the director of the National Coaching Foundation, the most respected coach-education organisation on earth.
Yet the public, when they think of a successful coach, will turn to the football manager foaming and raging in the dug-out, someone whose academic study of his sport could well be measured in minutes, unlike the coach working with their children at theirlocal gym club.
But coaching is not a science, rather it is a practical art, for the coach must have knowledge of anatomy, physiology, psychology, biomechanics and man-management skills which would tax the cream of British industry. Without good coaching, world-class performance is now virtually impossible.
The Australians realised early that mass participation and excellence were totally distinct areas and quickly discarded the "broad base" theory which has for long bedevilled British sport. Their sports population bases are therefore often small and geographically based.
Thus, though they are world rugby union champions, the game is played seriously in only two states, and rugby league is even more narrowly based. Their top swimmers come from one main geographic area, as do their rowers. And, behind all this, their main men's sport is Aussie rules football and the most popular sport in Australia (male or female) is another non-Olympic sport, netball.
The Australians quickly came to the conclusion (as did the Canadians, who also outperformed us at the Commonwealth Games) that the principles of sport's success were immutable, and that only the means of application varied from country to country. But central to all of the necessary requirements or facilities is the coach, who cements together all of these elements.
We may be at a turning point. Ian Sproat has shown himself to be the first truly radical sports minister, and he has now made our sports councils focus on excellence. With the National Lottery providing the cash for specialist facilities, what we now need is a simple, sensitive coach-driven, athlete-centred support programme, dedicated to British success at world level. For we owe it to our talented, dedicated sportsmen and women as citizens, and we owe it to the nation itself.
The Millennium Fund could not deliver to this country any gift more valued than a successful 2000 Olympic team, and our coaches, who are not only the architects of success but the main transmitter of sporting values to our young, are ideally suited to deliver this to us.Reuse content