Irish athletes face an uphill struggle at the World Athletics Championships, which kick off in London tomorrow. Fierce global competition and drugs are two obvious reasons but there are obstacles a lot closer to home, argues Brendan O’Brien.
It’s early March and Ciara Mageean is standing bereft in the Kombank Arena in Belgrade. Just a hop, skip, and a jump from the River Danube, one of Ireland’s top athletes is explaining why she dropped out of the 1,500m final of the European Indoor Athletics Championships.
The backdrop and the actor are different but it’s a scene to which we have borne awkward witness countless times over decades: An Irish athlete, chest heaving, mind scrambled and emotions swirling as they try to explain where it all went wrong.
Mageean spoke about the injury and illness that had impeded her long before she made the starting line in Serbia but none of it explained why Ireland had posted its worst team performance at the Euro Indoors in 21 years.
To do that you need to step back from the track and take in the wider vista. And what better time than the day before the 2017 World Championships where a dozen Irish athletes will again struggle against overwhelming odds imposed on them from home and abroad?
Athletics is a loaded field. Irish athletes compete alongside the world’s best from 213 other IAAF-member nations and territories. That’s more members than the UN. They do this in a sport where the dice is loaded by the prevalence of drug cheats and an embedded doping culture. That our elite are weighed down still further by domestic shortcomings is almost worse again.
An Olympic race walker in London five years ago, Colin Griffin also coached Laura Reynolds who took part in the women’s 20k in 2012.
So his words carried twice the weight when he spoke to this paper in January, 2014. Griffin spoke about how Irish athletes lived like professionals and how they were supported by professional sports scientists and physiotherapists.
The weak link in the chain, he explained, was the fact that the coaches were voluntary.
“I know from Laura there isn’t enough respect for coaches,” he said. This was no light-bulb moment. Griffin’s concerns echo down the years and a cursory search throws up a continuous loop of athletes bemoaning the absence of any coaching structure fit for purpose.
Kevin Mulcaire pointed an accusing finger at the Irish system earlier this year when explaining his decision to take up a scholarship with Oklahoma State University while Siofraigh Cleirigh Buttner said her Stateside move had basically been the lesser of two evils.
Thomas Chamney is another to bemoan the absence of any full-time coaches while Derval O’Rourke believes the absence of adequate coaching structures is “probably the key reason why athletes are not performing”.
It’s not just athletes.
Patsy McGonagle has been many things to many people in Irish athletics. One of the threads through his long involvement in the sport has been regular stints as Irish team manager at major championships. “There is a duty of care, for the association, to support them, put the proper structures in place,” he said after another disappointing Euro Indoors, this time in Paris in 2011.
“We do need to take a long hard look at ourselves. But one of the things we haven’t had in Irish athletics is consistent leadership.”
By 2004, Derval O’Rourke had broken the 13-second barrier in the women’s 100m hurdles and qualified for the Olympics in Athens.
A product of Leevale AC, she passed through UCD as an athlete of some potential and spiky resolve. Her diet was the strict side of rigid, her work ethic unquestioned and her recovery exemplary. Illness would throw her offline in Greece but she knew herself that there was a gaping hole in her armoury anyway. She needed coaching.
Sean Cahill’s voice kept nagging at her for over a year afterwards. Cahill was helping Ciaran McDonagh, still the Irish long jump record holder, at the time but O’Rourke had spoken to him just the once when he had basically dissed her hurdling technique. That was fine, she knew he was right, so in November of 2005 she cold-called him in Meath.
He only intended giving her the one hour, but Cahill and his wife Terri ended up coaching O’Rourke until she hung up her spikes, along with five major medals, in 2014.
“They literally transformed my career,” the Cork athlete explains. “There were so many parts of my system that were right but it was just that one part that was so off. Most people at the time didn’t even realise they were coaching me.”
Within five months O’Rourke had won gold in the 60m at the World Indoors in Moscow. A silver at the Europeans in Gothenburg soon followed. All manner of national records were tumbling until an ill-advised move to the UK threw her off course.
A reluctant emigrant in the first place, she kept contact with the Cahills and begged them to take her back under their wing on her return. They agreed, though they were already coaxing their own business and a young family.
This was after another Olympic washout, in Beijing in 2008, but by the following year O’Rourke was fourth in the 100m hurdles at the World Championships, setting another new national record and finishing ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Sally Pearson.
O’Rourke’s successes may be atypical but her reliance on good coaching and the way in which she constructed her own support network wasn’t. O’Rourke was lucky with the Cahills and the depressing fact is that Ireland’s best still rely far too much on fortune when it comes to finding the right coach.
Such matters just shouldn’t be left to chance.
“When athletes ask me what they should do my instinct is that they should be working with Terri and Sean, if they could convince them,” O’Rourke explains. “But why should Terri and Sean do that?
"They did it for a long time and they are not the ones in high-performance roles getting paid over a hundred grand. They are not the CEO. They would actually have done better out of the sport if they had answered the phones in Athletics Ireland instead of coach people.”
Countless athletics administrators have acknowledged coaching’s importance down the years. The problem is that payment on such promissory notes has been absent and so the lack of direction, personnel and expertise continues to hamstring, well, everybody. Athletes miss out, so too the coaches. And the sport hobbles on.
Athletics Ireland is currently in the midst of their latest overall Strategic Review, this one for 2017-2020, so it remains to be seen how pivotal coaching will be to its priorities this time. The last document certainly made all the right noises. More full-time coaches, it read back in 2013.
Better links with third-level institutions. The recent Rio Review carried out on athletics also emphasised the need for the “development and support of a high-performance coaching system” as one of the main targets for Tokyo 2020. People have heard all this before.
Anyone with a passing interest knows where the issues lie.
For a start, Athletics Ireland still has no national head coach. No figurehead to provide the leadership, the direction, the know-how and the sort of pyramidal structure and pathway that other coaches can look up to, learn from and strive to climb.
A staggering state of affairs. John Foley, CEO of Athletics Ireland, said after the departure of Kevin Ankrom as high-performance director last year that “coaching will be more integral” to his successor’s brief. Paul McNamara assumed that chalice, which many will say is poisoned, in April so it remains to be seen what transpires.
If nothing else, Irish athletics is accustomed to the wait.
It’s from here on the complications kick in.
Talk to enough people in Irish athletics and the to-do list when it comes to the coaching conundrum grows to inordinately long. Dig too deep and you are in danger of disappearing down a rabbit hole.
Athletics Ireland says progress is being made. Their 2016 annual report totted up 138 courses with 2,438 people attending through the period 2014 to 2016. Another 118 specific coaching days were held in conjunction with Coaching Ireland.
Reference was made to the fact that performance coaching has come under the auspices of the high-performance director since 2012 and a coaching strategy group has delivered a performance coaching strategy plan but not everyone is seeing change for the better.
The failure to invest in a system with discipline-specific coaches for sprints, hurdles, distance, walks, jumps, throws, and multi-events is a widespread complaint.
One coach, speaking off the record, highlighted, in particular, a lack of focus on multi-event coaching. Highly-successful European athletes across various disciplines — including Dafne Schippers, Robert Harting, David Storl and Renaud Lavillenie — all have multi-event backgrounds but there are too few coaches in Ireland with that expertise and not enough being done to change that.
Ego among coaches and a suspicious culture that shuns collective thinking are other familiar hurdles that few have been able to clear while a heads-down focus on success at underage levels — from some parents and club coaches up to the federation itself — is another major bone of contention.
Boil it all down and there is simply insufficient structure, insufficient leadership from the top and not enough coaches with the requisite knowledge working on the ground.
“There are loads of different elements and some things have gotten better, like the Institute of Sport,” says O’Rourke. “I really think that’s an excellent place and I have loads of respect for all the service providers but my fundamental thing would be, say, if I was a female sprint hurdler coming on the scene now with a bit of potential and on funding.
“So, great, you’re going to provide me with a strength and conditioning coach, access to physio, a sports doctor, blood testing if I get sick. But who meets me day in and day out and coaches me? ‘Ah, nobody, sorry about that. Good luck’. Imagine going to the Munster rugby team and saying: ‘Remember that coach we were talking about? We decided not to go with it’.”
Enda Fitzpatrick has had a good morning. Until the phone rings.
The director of DCU’s athletics academy, and a former athlete of note himself, he has taken himself off to warmer climes to attend some summer coaching conferences and take in the odd training camp but the good mood dissipates when you start to talk to him about coaching issues in Ireland.
He’s already sounded this klaxon time and again and with little heed taken but he’s been expecting the call so he goes again.
“The nature of a lot of the NGBs in our country, they definitely don’t listen to their athletes or coaches,” he believes.
“I have said this numerous times but if I go back to when I was an athlete 25/30 years ago and ask are things different now? I’m not too sure that they are. That’s a terrible thing to say.”
Like so many others, Fitzpatrick simply doesn’t see a culture of respect for coaching in Ireland and he holds up as a small piece of evidence his experience at the London Olympics when he wasn’t allowed into the Irish training camp in Lensbury to talk to his DCU athletes.
Instead, he had to meet with the likes of Linda Byrne in a Starbucks in Teddington. “What a joke.”
His is not an isolated example. Respect can be measured financially too and the simple fact is that there are no coaches earning a full-time living working with elite athletes in Ireland.
Some say funds are an issue in general, others claim otherwise.
Athletics Ireland received €835,000 in high-performance funding from Sport Ireland this year. No other NGB, boxing’s ‘medal factory’ included, came close.
They raise roughly a quarter of that again themselves but bringing money in and spending it are different talents. Another coach, speaking off the record, suggested the money being poured into travel and accommodation for athletes competing at the likes of the recent European Youth Olympics Festival should be diverted instead towards paying for coaches and coach education.
The worth of these underage events and medals is, at the very least, open for debate.
In December of 2010, a six-man U23 team of David McCarthy, Brendan O’Neill, Michael Mulhare, David Rooney, John Coghlan, and Ciarán O Lionáird claimed the gold medal at the European Cross Country championships in Albufeira.
McCarthy was effusive as to what it could all mean. “Those gold medals provide inspiration and encouragement for everyone,” he said. “This team can come back now and win the senior team title.”
Ireland’s senior men have yet to make the podium since. In Chia, Italy last December they finished 69th in the team rankings but more pertinent again was the fact that not one of those U23 gold medallists from Portugal took part.
That’s an U23 team, not some 15-year olds but it speaks loudly of an alarming drop-off rate among elite Irish athletes between underage and senior levels with Sonia O’Sullivan among those to have fretted publicly.
Standing in the dock is a top-to-bottom system that critics argue incentivises the short-term allure of medals at underage by subjecting athletes to gruelling mileage levels. This at the expense of long-term coaching programmes based on sound biomechanics and other fundamentals.
The result? Widespread burnout and/or athletes hitting senior levels without the tools needed to succeed.
Not everyone is guilty but the temptation for pushy parents and/or myopic coaches dazzled by the prospect of a European Youth champion is all but encouraged by performance/medal targets set by the association and linked to athlete funding. Athletics Ireland targeted 24 medals in the last Olympic cycle and reported a final tally of 25. Most were at European and European Youth championships. How many could you name?
None of which is to disparage the achievements of the young Irish athletes competing at underage events in Grosseto or in Gyor, Hungary recently but Fitzpatrick is fully in agreement with plans to scrap the World Youth Olympics and hopes the Europeans will follow suit. “We’ve got the European Youth Olympics and the World Youth Olympics which, to be honest, is a joke competition.
I could take a 15-year-old and train the shit out of them to go to that championships but you can run the kid so hard at 15 and 16 that by the age of 20 they have no interest. They are not going to be around at senior level.”
Fitzpatrick is practising what he preaches. His daughter Eimear, for instance, is an All-Ireland Schools Cross Country champion but he will swear that she has never run more than 25 miles in any one week, preferring instead to focus on her technique. Still, wider solutions are harder to identify than the problems.
Many are quick to point out that McNamara’s brief as high-performance director isn’t an easy one. “There’s great people in the Federation who are doing their best,” says Fitzpatrick. “But it is very difficult for me to turn around to you, who has been coaching for 20 years, and say: ‘Brendan, you’re making a bollocks of this, you’re not up to speed at all’.”
More coaches and a fully functioning system in which they can prosper and educate others — coach the coaches, as Billy Walsh would say — is needed. What that would look like is another thing what with six different disciplines to cater for and a myriad of other factors to fit in. Embracing the talented Irish coaches already operating here would be a start. Plugging the gaps left over with coaches from abroad is another obvious fix. Fitzpatrick, by way of example, reckons it wouldn’t cost an arm or leg to bring over some jumps coaches from Cuba.
Ireland’s boxing squad at the 2004 Olympics consisted of Andy Lee. One fighter. And a coach in Billy Walsh. Derval O’Rourke used to pal around with them in Athens and found herself in later years marvelling at the strides made by the boxing programme under Gary Keegan and then Walsh.
She doesn’t see athletes or coaches with more talent, just a structure based on good coaching and leadership that excelled despite all the problems in the boxing federation.
Other sports as diverse as rowing and pentathlon have prospered by embracing centralised squad systems led by the best coaches, both from Ireland and beyond, but there is a sense that athletics is a tougher fit.
Athletes tend to be lone wolves with moods and needs as touchy as hamstrings but O’Rourke believes there are elements of other programmes that, if harnessed by Athletics Ireland, could foster change.
“Placing coaching in a valuable position and investing in coaching in a centralised way would be a massive start. One of the things I have been asking for years is why don’t Athletics Ireland put a system in place say even for the sprinters and hurdlers?
"That they can access Terri Cahill every Wednesday between one and five o’clock and that they just pay her a consultancy fee for that. Bear in mind they aren’t in it for the money. If they were they would be broke. But at some point it becomes about respect.”
Enda Fitzpatrick sees the benefit of looking at best practice elsewhere, too. He has looked on with envy at Dublin GAA’s seamless movement of players and coaches up through the various grades.
At how former DCU student Bryan Cullen has been appointed high-performance director and installed age appropriate training programmes for every player down to U14s. “How many paid coaches do we have in athletics in Ireland?
The other thing is that some of our best coaches coach away from the sport of athletics, where they can get paid. A lot of them do it by working with a GAA team. You look at a lot of the good senior inter-county football teams now and you’ll discover a fairly half-decent running coach in the background somewhere. A lot of clubs, too.”
It’s enough to make you weep.
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