Some of the country’s top athletes have been coached by George Gandy over the years and he spoke with Eilish McColgan to discuss what it takes to coach at the highest level

I’ve been coaching for 52 years. The secret to doing it successfully does not come down to any one particular thing. It occurs from a fortunate combination of high-quality experience, academic and practical knowledge, life-dominating hard work and commitment, relentless persistence, unbreakable optimism, and an enduring prioritisation of best interests, potential and targets with regards to the individual athletes.

I competed as an athlete before getting into coaching. From the age of 12 to 18 years old, I competed over the 880 yards, mile, two miles, three miles, road and cross country, but at around the age of 21 to 24, I picked up a persistent Achilles injury which forced me out of racing. As I got older from the ages of 43 to 48, I started up again, taking part in five-mile road races to half-marathons and even the occasional cross-country race.

I’ve built up years of knowledge. Over the years I’ve worked with more than 80 athletes who have gained international selection, some going to major games. They have comprised athletes from a range of distances from 400m to 10,000m on the track plus cross country and marathoners.

I learned a lot during my time as a national coach. I had this role between the years of 1992-1997 and again from 2009-2013. From a personal development process, I really embraced training; qualifying as a double-distinction physical education teacher with five years heading school PE departments, alongside a master of science degree in human biology and more than 30 years as the director of athletics at Loughborough University.

The easiest mistake an athlete can make is doing too much high-intensity training. More particularly, starting it too soon. This applies to all ages of development and in all periods of training. It’s absolutely vital to lay the effective foundations for the appropriate stage of development, season and year. That should always be the priority.

“The easiest mistake an athlete can make is doing too much high-intensity training … It’s absolutely vital to lay the effective foundations for the appropriate stage of development, season and year”

Wilf Paish shared with me a great piece of advice in the 1960s. He said that the ‘foundations of fitness’ are the six s’s – speed, strength, stamina, suppleness, skill and (p)sychology. It’s the coach’s job to ensure enhancement in each one. Today’s understanding of these concepts is far more sophisticated, but the basic principle is the same and I believe that Wilf’s warning still rings true: ‘Ignore any of them at your peril!’.

It’s important to advise on other aspects of training, like sleep and nutrition, albeit selectively. Some athletes will already receive substantial guidance or they will stay on the ball without the necessary nudge. Where relevant, I will link athletes with the true specialists for long-term education and direct intervention.

A high-quality combination of properties mark out a top athlete. To me, these are:

1  Structural strength, power and resilience;
2  Posture and postural control;
3  Technical quality and sustainability of limb movements;
4  Great engine (heart, lungs, circulation and biochemical function);
5 Great mental strength (rationality and emotional control, strength of self-belief, ability to focus on the immediate and controllable rather than wasting time on the uncontrollable aspects of the future, toughness in dealing with adversity and a relentlessly optimistic and preserving persona);
6 Having the right coach and following the correct training programme.

I would like to see the return of a full-time national coach within the UK coaching system. I think a young, healthy, enthusiastic, full-time coach would be key to head up, motivate and generate an increasingly successful athlete-coach activity. More specifically within England, I believe having one coach for each region (SE, SW, Midlands, NE, NW), another for the East and West of Scotland and another for Wales and Northern Ireland would be beneficial.

“A basic stopwatch, eyeball evaluation and a loud voice are sometimes all you need”

Education and qualifications are important. Partly for theory, partly for the practical side of things, but fundamentally they set a reasonable and minimal competence; a suitability baseline. However, they are only a beginning and beyond that lies a potentially huge and massively rewarding journey. By far the most important aspect of coaching remains learning on the job.

Coaching in our sport has evolved over the years. There is a plethora of technology that we use nowadays. Laptop and mobiles for direct communication alongside blood tests and exercise physiological testing in order to gain knowledge into an athlete’s VO2 max, lactate threshold and turn-points, etc. Garmin watches are a simple way for the athlete to track their heart rate, distance covered and effort zones at their own discretion.

A basic stopwatch, eyeball evaluation and a loud voice are sometimes all you need. Shouting instructions, split times or even just encouragement is hugely important. It’s also valuable to use subjective judgment regarding pacing too – for example, 400m effort, 800m effort, 85%, 90% or even just in simple terms of easy, steady or tempo.

I like to do a Monday morning test with my athletes. This is a subjective assessment of how they are feeling at the beginning of the week and they give themselves a mark out of 10. When it comes to our Wednesday evening and Thursday morning runs it’s always the athlete’s call regarding the effort-recovery balance of the run. As a coach, you need to have periodical, one-to-one discussions or meetings with every athlete to ensure they stay on track.

TYPICAL SESSIONS

Winter

Pre-Christmas they would be doing something like 5x1000m (3min recovery) or 6x5min (1min) recovery. Moving towards January: 10x300m (2min recovery) and 12-20x1min efforts (30sec or 2min recovery).

Summer sessions gain more quality. The 800m group would typically do something along the lines of: 3 sets of (300m at 800m pace, 200m jog, 200m at 400m pace). The 1500m group: 4 sets of (400m at 1500m pace, 20sec recovery, 200m at 800m pace). And finally the distance squad of 5000m/10,000m would be challenged with a 4x1600m at 5km pace session with 90sec recovery.

» The above sessions are specific to the individual athletes and may not be suitable for other athletes