A new series turns the focus on the UK’s top coaches to find out the secrets of their success. We kick off with former European indoor 1500m champion Matt Yates, who is rapidly making his mark as a coach
Competing at world level has undoubtedly helped me as a coach. The network I have created from my time in the sport has definitely benefited the athletes I coach at all levels. However, I don’t actually give any of my athletes the kind of training that I did myself. Looking back, it was all wrong and I made a lot of mistakes.
I started coaching 19 months ago. It was purely by chance that I got involved after 15 years away from the sport. I got talking to a lad from Essex called Dale Clutterbuck in the local bar and agreed to help him out. I still coach him now, along with the rest of my current squad, including Elliot Giles, Revee Walcott-Nolan and Richard Charles. Within the group, I definitely have a couple of athletes set to come through in a big way this winter.
The secret to coaching success is cold honesty and being upfront with your athletes all the time. I try to take an individual approach and get to understand every athlete I coach.
The biggest mistake an athlete can make is not listening. Learning from mistakes is also crucial in order to progress to greater things. I always try to view failure as a stepping stone to greatness. Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, touches on those views – it’s an interesting read.
‘Train and learn to run at speed’ – is becoming my motto to coaching. It’s a key piece of advice from Alberto Salazar that has stuck with me.
All of my athletes run cross-country. They take part in the Metropolitan League and I really value the benefits it brings. Too many middle-distance athletes miss out on the cross-country season in my eyes.
I like to keep to the old school method of army sergeant major-style shouting. But I don’t really do typical, old-style sessions. The only one I do which is quite old-school is 30x200m off 30 seconds. We do this every 33 days in the winter as a ‘marker’ session for everyone in the group.
Nutrition is too much of a science for me to try and negotiate. My group has a decent nutritionist and so I leave it to the professionals to sort that out. But there are other things that I have learned and pass on. I do believe the best thing that an athlete can invest in is a decent, fitted mattress. That’s where they will be recovering for eight-plus hours every single day. Recovery is so important in order to train hard.
I look at an athlete in the same way that I would if buying a race horse. They must have 100% motivation, a good work ethic, aspiration and commitment. These are the main priorities and the key areas that I look for before I take them on. There are also a few other areas I look at when marking out potential top athletes such as parental support.
My first question to an athlete who wants to join the group is “What do you want to achieve in the sport?”. The answer to that simple question often determines if they join my group or not. I’m not afraid to send someone packing if I don’t feel they would fit in.
The coaching structure in the UK needs a huge revamp. There are a million things I would like to change. The majority of it is beyond contempt and lost in the traditional, amateur ideals of the past. Middle-distance coaching seems to be in the same place it was back in the 1980s and countries like the USA, Holland, Jamaica and Germany are now light years ahead of us. Things need to change if we are to move on.
I don’t feel that current coaching qualifications allow free-thinking or application of new ideas. The only qualification I would deem of great value would be a degree in sports science, medicine or pure maths. Obviously, the courses still offer some value, but the majority are based on ideas from 40-odd years ago.
This coaching game is still new to me and I’m certainly not afraid to admit I am learning all the time. I am lucky to have some great mentors in the likes of Alan Storey, Barry Erwell, Liz McColgan, Barry Fudge, Peter Mullervy, Dr Noel Pollock and Neil Black to call on for advice while I’m on the job. I don’t think you ever stop learning and should never close your mind to new ideas.
I leave all the latest technological advances to the professionals. However, my favourite would be the 7.5mm magnesium based alloy, self-sharpening spikes. Adidas, Nike and the likes – they’re the ones with all the new ideas. All these tiny percentages add up to make the big gains.
I have three main nuggets of advice for other coaches to take on board. Firstly, you’re not just a timekeeper, so get away from that idea. Secondly, don’t be overly protective of your athletes. It’s important to admit when you’ve taken them as far as you can go and selfish to keep hold of them when you’ve done what you can. As coaches, we don’t know it all and never will. Thirdly, remember that the athlete-coach relationship is one of trust, support and understanding. This goes both ways.