Mentor to one-lap minds

Countdown to Atlanta: A top British coach is prepared to pay his own way to help fulfil a swimmer's ambition: Norman Fox reports on a man who monitors every move by two medal prospects
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The Independent Online
Such is the depth of talent among Britain's one-lap runners that all eight finalists in the AAA championship's 400 metres next month are likely to be potential Olympic medal winners. Two, Mark Richardson and Mark Hylton, might not have been in this frame had it not been for the work of Martin Watkins, one of the new breed of athletics coach-managers.

First off, this sprint expert, whose "day job" is selling financial software and whose wife acts as his athletes' agent, has no time for anyone who has a "show us your medals" attitude. His own athletics talent did not extend far beyond being an enthusiastic Chiltern Strider, but if any young athlete questions his qualification to coach potential Olympic gong winners, he asks why they bothered to come to him anyway.

"They know what I do. I recognised that I didn't have the talent on the track to get to the top myself. At 18 I joined the Striders, then qualified as an assistant club coach at nearly 19 - probably the youngest in the country. I just got interested in developing other people's natural talent.

"Sometimes you're lucky and it falls in your lap. But I've now got a fantastic squad and if someone wants to come in and I don't think they fit, that someone goes. I don't want anyone who is in any way disruptive.

"I set goals for each athlete. They agree to do a certain amount of work and I agree to put in the effort to help them. If they don't do all that I tell them, then they can't expect me to spend more time on them if they are not prepared to do the work, especially as I have Mark Richardson and Mark Hylton to deal with."

In 1984 he stopped striding and joined Windsor, Slough and Eton AC. He tried newcomers on all-weather tracks and found "it was like introducing them to sweets - I was the candyman who made sure they trained on a proper track".

There was the usual conflict of interest when the Striders thought he was poaching athletes for Windsor, but eventually he turned Windsor from what was predominantly a middle- and long-distance runners' club to one that built a reputation for having quality sprinters.

He saw Richardson as "a pro- digious talent", but "the wheels were falling off the wagon". He put them back on. "I prepared papers and told his parents what I thought he could do. What I had to do was take someone who had already shown ability and take them further."

He believes that Hylton, at 19, four years younger than Richardson, has benefited from the experience gained in the preparation of the older athlete.

Watkins says people predict that by having two athletes competing over the same distance in an Olympic year he is inviting trouble. "Wrong. We think they are of equal potential so they'll stay together.

"We have a collective - the team feeds off each other. We've managed to transfer this into my wife's agency for eight athletes. If the athletes themselves can be self-generating, then our job is only to guide".

He finds little difficulty in persuading young athletes to overcome the grinding routine of basic training. "It all goes down to the importance of the self- centring of the squad. If a new lad comes along and has a lot of talent and disappears for a fortnight, the rest of the guys will take the mick out of him and tell him they're two weeks further on.

"I have a belief that my athletes are stable and well mannered and fully understand what they are looking for in life and in sport. Those like Richardson and Hylton, who are doing it as a business, obviously have a more focused requirement.

"But there have been times when Hylton, for example, has said he wanted to go to an all-night rave, so we've actually planned it into his training. You've got to recognise that he's still a teenager. When he finished the world championships in Gothenburg, I gave him a week of nothing - I said, 'Go and be a teenager.' You have to develop people and personalities."

When it comes to Atlanta, he, like many other coaches, will be adding up how much holiday time he has left after various trips to help his athletes at warm-weather training camps, and whether he can afford the time. Even if he does, he is likely to be offering his athletes advice from the spectators' seats.

"The role of the coach during the Olympics cannot be overstated. But no one in Britain, apart from national coaches, can get accreditation. The BOA have been told that there are not enough passes.

"It could be that I'm standing at a gate shouting instructions to a world- class athlete warming up on the track."

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