Profession still stranded in limbo land

The Coaching Debate
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The Independent Online
THE coaching profession, if you can use such a term, paid homage to its past last week. A lunch to mark the first inductees into the Coaching Hall of Fame and the first recipients of the National Coaching Foundation medals of honour was a worthy and belated attempt to anoint a largely unrecognised sporting band with a drop of historical credibility. Quite what Sam Mussabini, in whose honour one of the awards was named, would have made of it all is another matter.

Mussabini, whose role in coaching Harold Abrahams to gold was celebrated in Chariots of Fire, helped to produce 11 medal winners over a span of five Olympics during the first two decades of the century, but was widely reviled for his professionalism. Sixty years on, as some of his illustrious successors received their awards from the Princess Royal, he would have reflected how little has changed. With a few notable exceptions, British sport is propped up by a host of well-meaning amateurs. Despite the attempts of the NCF to broaden the base of coaching in this country, the coach still finds himself in limbo, desperately trying to keep pace with technological developments, yet often deprived of sufficient funding.

"Coaching and the work of individual coaches lies at the heart of sport," the Princess Royal, patron of the NCF, said. "Yet all too often the role and contribution of the coach remains unrecognised and unacknowledged." In the absence of outside recognition, the NCF decided to honour their own. And a varied group they were too; from Sir Alf Ramsey and the late Ron Pickering to Jim Greenwood, once staff coach of the Rugby Football Union, and Betty Calloway, coach to Torvill and Dean. Some names eluded the memory: Peggy Potts, who coached England's women to victory in the forerunner of the World Hockey Cup in 1975, and Betty Galsworthy, rewarded for a "lifetime's dedication to netball". Frank Dick (athletics), Mike Spracklen (rowing) and David Whitaker (hockey) lent a more contemporary appeal to proceedings.

The culture is starting to change, but only slowly. The very fact that the NCF has to be partly funded by membership fees suggests that commitment at the top level, despite the brief appearance of the Minister for Sport at the NCF's 15th anniversary lunch, is still some way short of total. A coach as successful as Jim Saltonstall, profiled below, regards the NCF as a decent, distant and largely irrelevant organisation.

"We've always been something of a cinderella service," said Kevin Hickey, technical director of the British Olympic Association and one of the recipients of the Mussabini medal, said. "Something like the awards today is important for the self-esteem of the coaches as a whole because it shows we are getting recognition. We just need investment in coaching to catch up and that could happen over the next five years." But it is a reflection of the years of neglect that Denise Lewis should turn to a Dutch coach to help her take the final step towards world and Olympic gold, that Barry Dancer, an Australian, now coaches the England national hockey team and that a half-decent Australian accent will net you almost any coaching job on the county cricket circuit.

The cause of coaching is not helped by the cavalier attitude adopted by our most influential sport. When Hope Powell, the new head of women's football at the Football Association, questioned whether her Uefa B licence was sufficient qualification for taking on the role, she was told she was better qualified than Glenn Hoddle. While the Charter for Quality instigated by Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, is rapidly modernising the structure of coaching at all levels, the Premier League, the game's shop window, is more concerned with buying success than coaching it.

Though his side seem to have hit the buffers this season, Dario Gradi has taken Crewe Alexandra to impossible heights through good coaching. Yet, at Newcastle, Ruud Gullit complains daily about the inadequacies of the multi-million pound squad bequeathed to him by Kenny Dalglish. As Arsene Wenger said recently, if money could buy success, Internazionale would win the Champions' League every year and Real Madrid would not have taken 30 years to win it again. But managers in need of a ready excuse will not listen. A well-coached side with good team spirit - Aston Villa come closest - could cut a swathe through the Premier League this season just as Lens and Kaiserslautern did in France and Germany last year.

The NCF deserved their self- delivered pat on the back. Despite limited resources, the NCF do their best to educate and support coaches. Last year, 15,000 coaches and a further 12,000 schoolteachers participated in programmes provided by the Foundation. Whether they have the financial clout to cope with the demands of professional coaches is a different matter. "The voluntary coach is part of the richness of our system and we don't want to lose that," said Hickey. "But we have to professionalise the coaching structure at the elite level." An ambition that Mussabini, for one, would thoroughly applaud.