Do you need a coach?

Top coach and former international athlete David Lowes adds his thoughts to the recent debate

Posted on November 19, 2013 by
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John Anderson, Dave Moorcroft, Linda Moorcroft 1982 (Mark Shearman)

Much has been written of late about the lack of coaching input needed to be a successful endurance runner. Indeed, some coaches have remarked that the comments made in the Athletics Weekly Your Say pages have been flippant. With such statements as “a runner needs a coach like a fish needs a bicycle” and “everything a distance runner needs to know can be written on a sheet of A4”, many have said these are derisory and without any thought as to why coaches give up their time voluntarily.

As an international athlete from the 1970s and 1980s I was indeed from the self-coached brigade – but not before I was nurtured as a youngster and began to understand training physiology, albeit in its simplest form.

Anyone who says we need to get back to the training methodology of those days – big mileage and hard running – isn’t really grasping what it takes to run well in the present environment. So many things have changed in terms of lifestyle that we are now virtually living on a very different planet to athletes of 40-50 years ago.

Of course, loads of miles are necessary, but recovery is vital too and I wouldn’t mind betting that many runners suffered in that bygone era because they literally overdid it and on a regular basis. That’s just the way it was.

“An experienced senior athlete should know what to do in terms of most sessions, but the true value of a coach can come from advising an athlete what not to do”

The plain fact is that in those days runners ran with a stubborn mentality of no pain, no gain and perhaps only the strongest, or even the lucky survived. No one knew what they were doing from a physiology point of view, only that it tended to work, if only for a short-lived career for some. There were no designated tempo runs, just hard slogs and, although lactate was spoken about, it was only when your legs turned to jelly after some leg-sapping reps around a cinder track and everyone agreed that was a good thing!

My own career was cut short well before my prime with chronic injuries and much surgery. Was it over-training? Undoubtedly! So why did I turn to coaching? Not for the obvious reasons I have to say. I did it because I loved athletics, and that hasn’t wavered – it simply kept me in the sport.

At this point I also have to admit that there is no substitute for competing – coaching has always been second best in my book. However, if you take on the responsibility of being a coach, you embrace it with a full commitment and the learning process never stops and that’s why I advanced to level-4 and I’m still helping athletes week-in week-out.

If everything can indeed be written on one side of A4 then that’s irrelevant – it’s how it is put into practice to reap maximum benefits. If so little information is required on distance running then have Messrs Noakes, Coe, Daniels et al wasted their time putting thousands of pages together in their books? Way back in 2002 I wrote a lengthy article for The Coach magazine and my introduction tried to explain what a coach should be: arbiter, teacher, advisor, assessor, friend, motivator, communicator, mentor, chauffeur, role model. That hasn’t changed at all over the years and never will.

In terms of endurance running it cannot be argued that a youngster needs a coach. It’s an apprenticeship that they need to serve to learn the ropes and there have been some long apprenticeships along the way. Of course, there is no evidence of the effect a coach has on an athlete. Some will say that they would not have reached their levels without the help of a coach while others may differ.

My sadly departed friend, Frank Horwill, used to say it is “90% athlete and 10% coach”. Whether that is the correct balance I’m not sure and I’ve even commented myself that I’m not too bothered if it is 99% athlete and 1% coach as long as that small amount is the difference between success and failure. I am also a firm believer that an experienced senior athlete should logically know what to do in terms of most sessions. However, I’m also certain that the true value of a coach can come from advising an athlete what not to do.

There is no doubt that out on the track, roads or cross-country it simply comes down to doggedness and dedication from the athlete that ensures success – the coach can have little effect when the going gets tough – the training has been done, but the end result often comes down to who wants it the most and how much they are prepared to dig deep to achieve their goal. Who takes the accolades for a performance is immaterial as long as “the team” (athlete and coach) have worked long and hard and the goal achieved is desirable for both parties. The athlete gets the medals and the coach gets the satisfaction!

So what do other coaches think? North East guru Lindsay Dunn said: “The measure of a good coach is that they can take someone to a level that they previously couldn’t manage themselves. I agree that not all athletes need a coach on a constant basis, but it should be remembered that a coach can also negate improvements through poor practices such as over or undertraining and inappropriate planning with little or no thought to session content or outcome.

“I certainly wouldn’t stand around in freezing cold and wet weather with my group if I didn’t think my input was of value and I can tell you now that athletes wouldn’t continue to turn up if they thought it was a waste of time. The recent comments in AW were derogatory and an insult to coaches up and down the country.”

Geoff James, an endurance coach with Birchfield Harriers and an England Athletics mentor, added: “I was extremely disappointed at the recent comments from people who seem to have no appreciation or understanding of the importance of a coach. A coach provides the catalyst and motivation for the many years of progressive work and enjoyment within our great club system. An experienced coach is able to call on all their experiences that have been gained through successes and failures and pass these on to his current group and other coaches if required.

“It is also true that a very small amount of great athletes, over many years have managed to succeed as non-coached, but I suggest they have educated themselves via books, been influenced by coaches, or just joined other coached groups.”

Mike Johnston, Scottish national endurance coach, said: “I don’t believe there’s a simple answer of coached or uncoached – it will vary with individual circumstances, knowledge and ambitions. However, all endurance athletes benefit from having someone to discuss their training with even if it’s only to give them a structure and advise them on training loads. In the club environment this can often come from discussion between experienced athletes.

“With young or inexperienced athletes a good coach is essential to help an athlete maximise potential and avoid common training pitfalls. The relationship between coach and athlete should continually evolve from one where the coach may tell a young athlete what to do, to one where the coach almost becomes a sounding board for the very experienced and successful athlete.

“At the high performance end success in modern athletics is rare without the back-up of a good coach or a good coaching multi-discipline support team where the lead coach not only advises the athlete but also manages the input from other members of the team.”

The final word goes to top under-20 distance runner Jonathan Davies from Reading. The Rob McKim-coached athlete said: “For me, having a coach is essential. I know for sure that without his guidance I wouldn’t have got anywhere in the sport. It seems pretty obvious to me that having a wiser and more knowledgeable person on your side is going to make you a better athlete.

“Even very experienced athletes cannot be hindered by having an extra opinion – two minds are always better than one. Most top athletes such as Mo Farah will not only have a main coach but a range of coaches and back-up staff, such as a strength and conditioning coach, where ideas are shared and the athlete will benefit from this.

“Even though you can look up things on the internet, or read books and magazines, this does not tell you how to apply it to an individual athlete which a coach, through his intuition can do. Maybe as you get older you can make more individual decisions, but getting rid of a coach altogether is surely foolish.”

Athletes of the calibre of Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Jim Ryun, Kelly Holmes, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, David Moorcroft (pictured top with coach John Anderson), Peter Elliott and Mo Farah are just a few of the stand-out names that profited from their legendary coaches. Indeed, Percy Cerutty, Arthur Lydiard, Bob Timmons, Margo Jennings, Peter Coe, Harry Wilson, Jimmy Hedley, John Anderson, Wilf Paish and Alberto Salazar are arguably as famous as their charges, such was the impact they made and in many cases continue to do so.

In conclusion, would Farah, who decided to go Stateside to be with Salazar, be a double Olympic and world champion without his current set-up? We’ll never know for sure and without doubt he was a fantastic runner beforehand, but achieving his now legendary status certainly hasn’t come on a whim.

The bottom line is simple, if anyone thinks that in athletics or indeed life in general that they can do their absolute best or muddle aimlessly through without any advice from a more knowledgeable or sympathetic person, they are being very foolish indeed. Everyone needs someone, whatever that capacity is!

2 Responses to “Do you need a coach?”

  1. john bicourt says:

    Dave, I would agree with much of what you have said and particularly the need to have a coach/advisor. However, the notion that our endurance runners in the 70-80's lived in a different, apparently less demanding world, is misguided.

    For a start most ran a lot faster and achieved far more than most today. Why? Because there was a different culture in running and clubs than there is today and the competition in the UK was greater.

    There was an incredible club team mentality in those days and around the country some very impressive high quality training groups were evident, from Bristol and the South, through Birmingham and the Midlands and up to Newcastle and the North. They all produced international athletes of a very high calibre. But even so a number of other athletes still achieved world standards from other areas and in different set ups, like the RAF teams and where athletes from different smaller clubs came together to train on a regular basis. Some even managed it entirely on their own.

    I could go in to pages as to why we are not as good today as we were but essentially it has nothing to do with the lack of talent (that's all around) but in the lack of direction, aspiration, application and reward. Too few are prepared to train like they did in the past or as well as they did in the past. (I was no particular talent but I persevered, applied myself and to date no British athlete has run faster than my 8.22.83 in the last 22 years!)

    So the main reason why we have such a drought of achieving talent from 5000-marathon, inc sc. (men in particular) is the lack of high quality, driven groups doing the most productive training and the lack of sufficient rewards to be spending 10-14 hours a week training their bollocks off.

    nb: I have posted expanded detail about our endurance dilemma and what in my opinion is the best way forward on the Mahon thread on eightlane if your interested enough?

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