A coaching maestro

Jemma Simpson’s latest update outlines why she thinks her coach has so much success

Posted on September 16, 2011 by
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Jemma Simpson

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Eugene brainstorming ideas for my next blog when it springs to mind that in all my time of being coached by Mark Rowland I have never taken the opportunity to express my thoughts on how good he is at what he does best – coaching.

Usually when Mark appears in Athletics Weekly it is for his success as a steeplechaser, gaining his bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and for his British record of 8:07.96, which has lasted for 23 years.

His contribution to athletics as a coach gets largely overlooked for a number of reasons. Aside from being a media-shy, humble character, Mark sets aside any glory he may gain through coaching achievements and attributes the success gained by his athletes purely as their own doing.

He is a strong believer in empowering the athlete internally. When I first joined Mark, he said he would coach me so that one day I would be able to coach myself, giving me all the tools I would need so that if and when he wasn’t there I wouldn’t hit the panic button and would have enough knowledge to be able to coach myself.

This theme runs parallel with his own running career. Training with Steve Ovett meant that digging deeper and drawing on other aspects such as psychology became a focal point of Mark’s success. Being beaten time and time again by your training partner was never an easy thing to take, but it made him strong. It ultimately became a valuable tool for coaching athletes.

When asked, Mark always downplays the success of his career as an athlete and does the same when it comes to coaching. I guess this is part of what makes him so good. His humble nature is a constant reminder that he can always find ways of improving his coaching ability.

As a coach he is far from stuck in his ways. Since coaching me, every year has been different and we have constantly experimented, adding to Mark’s knowledge base for coaching.

He is the first to admit that he makes mistakes, but pushing boundaries in training is what it takes to keep moving me to the next level.

In fact, since being coached by Mark, I have improved every year. I have taken my 800m PB from 2:03 as a junior to 1:58.74. Every year we have seen improvements in my endurance, speed, power and recovery. I guess I could say that Mark has helped shape me into the athlete that I want to be; it is up to me now to put the icing on the cake to make finals and win medals, the part that Mark can’t do for me.

How does Mark help us gain consistency? First, when coaching a new athlete he figures out their strengths and weaknesses physiologically, physically and mentally. He then spends a year trying to correct those weaknesses. For example, teaching good biomechanics from the start helps to reduce the risk of injury when the training volume increases.

We all come to the table with very different personalities. Some people simply don’t respond well to an aggressive approach, for example. Therefore, Mark finds ways of coaching the individual dependent upon what works for them.

He quickly figured out when coaching Hayley Tullett (world 1500m bronze medallist and 3:59 runner) and me that a one-size-fits-all method doesn’t work. Our characters couldn’t be more opposite if we tried and neither one of us was easy to handle. Mark always joked that he would never coach women and for that he was dealt some of the most difficult women out there!

Now Mark coaches a whole host of women and we are all completely different, but I think he handles us all pretty well. He used to say that Hayley caused him to turn grey, Michael East caused him to go bald and I have probably shaved 20 years off the end of his life!

As he deals with 16 athletes in America, I have started to see how good Mark really is. As I have grown older I can appreciate the method in the madness and see how Mark approaches things and realise how he helped to shape my career. When it was just me training, I just got on with it and didn’t think much, but seeing what he does with the others helps me to understand how he coaches and what makes him so successful.

No two athletes in the group have the same training programme. Our goals range from the 800m to the marathon and are all at different ages and stages of development. We are also from many different countries so national trials fall on different dates. The Kenyan and American trials are so competitive that some have to be in good shape to even think about making the team for the championships.

Mark has a knack for helping athletes gain consistency. Another of his athletes, Chris Thompson, has trained more consistently than ever before, as proved by his results.

Another, Nick Symmonds, after his second full winter under Mark has had his most consistent year of training in his life. He has maintained a 1:43 mark for the 800m over the past two years. It is hard to get much faster than that, but by training as much as he has managed this year, it is exciting to see what he will do.

Sally Kipyego of Kenya joined the team last year and has made huge improvements. She tops the world 10,000m rankings with a time of 30:38.35 this year. Her husband, Kevin Chelimo, is also coached by Mark and has improved his 10km PB to 27:30.50.

Tyler Mulder joined the team two years ago as a 1:46.8 guy for 800m, has just set a lifetime best of 1:44.83 and I think he will run a lot quicker.

Mark also has a couple of steeplechasers, Ben Bruce (8:19.10) and Bridget Franek (9:32.35), making some good developments and other athletes who are looking to gain consistency in their training after long-term injuries.

How does Mark help people gain consistency? Apart from what I have described above, it is an art. Famous painters don’t always know why they are so good at creating artwork, but they just have a gift to do it well. Mark knows when to push an athlete forward and when to hold them back, never over-stepping that individual’s threshold and therefore allowing them to get years under their belt and unleash their potential when the time is right.

Mark and I often consider whether coaching is a science or an art. I think with the aid of science, coaching can be perfected into an art. By developing an athlete at the right rate, flavouring the sessions according to what has been and what is to come, someone with Mark’s ability could build an athlete a sustainable career that will see success and hopefully some medals along the way.

2 Responses to “A coaching maestro”

  1. J. H. says:

    Wonderfully put Jemma! What a great description not only of Mark Rowland's coaching ability, but also his character. You are a great writer as well. I really enjoyed your descriptions and how you broke things down. Its clear you've really thought about what your coach offers, and that you have a lot of respect for him. It says a lot about you as an athlete that you've given this subject so much thought, rather than take your coach for granted like so many other top athletes seem to. I've always respected you as an athlete, and this article makes me like you that much more. Well done, and best of luck to you this coming year!

  2. Dave Ford says:

    I used to train with Mark Rowland in the early 1980's Indeed I was the only athlete, other than his. best man, at his weddng.I was a 400m runner, living in a village some 10 miles away from where Mark lived in Bury, West Sussex, England We both ran for Bognor AC and were coached by Martin Bilham (Commonwealth 4X400M medalists in 1970)We used to meet up every Saturday morning and mainly did reps (e.g. 6 X 300M). He was more of a 800m/1500m runner in those days and tended to use me as a "tame" srinter to help with his basic speed. He went on to move to Phoenix AC (at Brighton) & I joined Edinburgh AC (who competed in Div 2 of the British league) Dave Ford.

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