Athletics Ireland taking steps in right direction

Paul McNamara has only been Athletics Ireland’s High-Performance director since April. 

Athletics Ireland taking steps in right direction

That’s a wet week in sports admin terms but one packed with a roll call of recent championships involving Irish elite underage and senior athletes and it continues this week with the World Championships in London.

Add in all the day-to-day stuff and it’s made for busy times.

His predecessor, Kevin Ankrom, was an American globe-trotter with previous postings in Hong Kong, Bahrain and New Zealand and so-so knowledge of the Irish environment. McNamara, by contrast, is a former Irish cross country champion and international and a regional development officer with Athletics Ireland (AI) since 2006 who, among other things, has served with the Irish team management at a number of major championships. Still, the perception is that his is the impossible job.

The appointment triggered a damning chorus in some online quarters but he says his experiences face-to-face with people have been far more encouraging. He describes much of the internet chatter as a mix of balanced and “daft”, much of the latter coming from “vested interests”, and scoffs at talk of AI staff on six-figure salaries.

McNamara is also an IAAF level IV endurance coach, as well as a certified coach education tutor, so he is abundantly qualified to address some of the many concerns over the lack of coaching systems and other perceived coaching shortfalls in Irish athletics and which were detailed at length in yesterday’s Irish Examiner.

The ongoing absence of a national coach, the hotchpotch approach to discipline-specific coaches, the lack of suitably qualified and knowledgable coaches at all levels and a general failure on the part of AI to prioritise coaching and invest the required attention and funds were all areas of concern raised by the naysayers. McNamara doesn’t see things so bleakly.

He points to last month’s European Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy where Ireland claimed three medals and another ten top eight finishes or finalists, various personal bests and a trio of national records broken between U20 and U23 grades.

This, he says, in a “significant” championship which serves as an indicator of success down the line.

“In my opinion, that generation is the first generation of athletes that have benefited from some degree or other from an investment in coach education, from 2006 on,” he explains. “These guys would have been seven, eight, nine years of age then.

“All of their coaches at some point in time over the last ten years would have been part of formal coaching education and informal upskilling networks that we’ve had for the last few years … If you look at the support services we have in the Institute, which is a fantastic facility, and we do get fantastic support from Sport Ireland, this generation is probably the first to be truly embedded in those support structures as well.”

Not everyone is convinced as to the merits of that focus on underage success. The drop-off from underage to senior levels is appalling and the argument is that athletes are clocking up far too much mileage too soon with the results being burnout and athletes hitting senior with ‘great engines’ but without the fundamentals.

McNamara is right in pointing out that large drop-off rates are a global experience — and experienced in every sport — but he accepts too that there is a discussion to be had on how to balance the demands of competition with coaching that is more long-sighted in its aims for the best young athletes. “Tweaking,” is the word he reaches for.

“Whether you are rewarding fundamentals or accomplishment, it is the same pool of athletes you are likely to be dealing with. To a large degree, we are addressing that with our Sport Ireland Institute and our Coaching Ireland institute but we need to be more creative with that going forward. It is universally recognised that we have a generation of athletes here in terms of numbers and talent that we haven’t had before. It is incumbent upon the association to lay a pathway that they are still here in two and four and six years’ time and that, at 26 and 28, they will be going to major championships as successful athletes.”

AI’s CEO, John Foley, said prior to McNamara’s appointment that coaching would be more “integral” to the new HP director’s brief but whether that translates into a more hands-on role for him or the appointment of a separate national head coach is another thing.

It will be well into the autumn before current planning is completed and decisions revealed. All McNamara will say for now is that the elite Irish athletes, while working with their own coaches, need a connection to a “performance lead” and a link via some manner of squad system to the various other support services available.

The Rio Review on athletics said much the same.

“I don’t think we are at a situation right now where we can say we are retaining a full-time director of coaching with a network of coaches but I do think we are now starting to look at the structures and the personnel that are required to support those structures.” He talks about “low-hanging fruit” that can be picked with a little bit of “creativity” and that will be required to come up with a system and the personnel to bring together a disparate community of throwers, jumpers, walkers, sprinters, distance runners and multi-eventers.

“In terms of a high performance training environment, we do need to be creative in how we foster that,” McNamara agrees. “In terms of high performance coaching structures we certainly need to invest in that while acknowledging there is fantastic work being done in certain quarters already.”

There may not be enough qualified coaches in Ireland but there is quality out there, if not quantity. McNamara adds that, while some foreign coaches have been brought in to work with some of the country’s top athletes, there is a need to develop that in a more targeted way. At another point in the conversation comes an acknowledgement that there is a need to “up our game”.

So, what could our best senior athletes hope to achieve on the international stage with the backing of a fully functioning, well-resourced, staffed and prioritised coaching structure that has been missing all these years?

McNamara, like everyone else who digests that question, talks about context. He speaks about an ultra-competitive globalised sport where nations as diverse as Botswana and China are making giant strides but he sees a picture ten years’ down the line where the 12-strong Irish team competing at this week’s World Championships in London is doubled in size and with five or six of them lining up as genuine medal contenders.

“There is certainly scope to improve,” he says. Everyone agrees on that.

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