William Griffiths speaks to one of the most successful coaches in athletics about the drive that means he can rarely stay still
Dan Pfaff’s day begins with a bleary-eyed 6am black coffee. Fourteen hours later – if he’s lucky – he’ll be back at home attempting to relax with some historical fiction.
“Relax” is a loose term. The man who could guide Greg Rutherford to a second Olympic gold this summer is not one for switching off entirely. But that is hardly necessary when your career choice leaves you as engaged as Pfaff’s does.
“I do read historical fiction but I am kind of a sick puppy,” he says. “Every time I read a paragraph or a chapter, I am thinking ‘how does this have an influence on my life, my work and my family?’ I think that is the science background where you are always filtering things through perceptual grids to see how that it is affecting the hypotheses that you are currently writing.
“I enjoy people, I really like puzzles. I enjoy the sport – it’s kind of a passion, hobby, vocation. I am a scientist by training so it is my laboratory. There is a lot of energy and wisdom and experience that has come together to place me where I am today so it is hard to identify singular factors but all those things combine to make it exciting. I am pretty blessed – I get paid to play, that is what my wife says.”
That passion to play has seen Pfaff move 18 times in 41 years of marriage. He is still “doing the commuter marriage”, spending six weeks out of every two months working in Arizona away from his family, who live in Austin, Texas.
It’s an American sacrifice that might well deliver a British benefit this summer. Pfaff coaches Rutherford and when we speak the British Olympic champion is completing a block of winter training at the Altis training centre where Pfaff bases himself.
With a background in high school (six years) and college (almost 30 years) coaching, what Altis and Pfaff offer Rutherford – and intriguingly also two of his potential rivals for Rio 2016 gold – Fabrice Lapierre and Mitchell Watt – is not your typical training set-up. There are no personal coaches here in the manner, say, of Toni Minichiello and Jessica Ennis-Hill. Instead Rutherford is a small cog in a collegiate-style set-up, which Pfaff is both accustomed to and confident in.
“I enjoy people, I really like puzzles. I enjoy the sport – it’s kind of a passion, hobby, vocation. I am a scientist by training so it is my laboratory”
“I feel really blessed when an athlete entrusts their care to me,” said Pfaff, who spent three years working for UK Athletics in the run-up to London 2012. “We have about 38 athletes in our jump and combined event groups spread across three coaches and I think all three coaches look at each person as a very special athlete.
“Big numbers, diverse event groups and abilities has kind of been my journey so it’s not really anything different to what I have done in the past.
“I don’t want to come across that one-on-one coaching or small-group coaching is a negative and that it doesn’t work. It obviously works for a huge percentage of the athletes. With my skill sets and history I am driven to help as many people as possible, as well as possible, so the numbers game is more of a driver for me than it might be for a coach that works one on one.
“When I worked in the UK that was probably the smallest group number I have ever had in my career. I probably had about 10 athletes there. I was a classroom teacher so I am used to teaching to diverse levels and skill sets.
“I’ve always believed that training groups elevate training performances, which ultimately elevates competition performance. If people are really grounded then they want good people around them to push them so we do a pretty good screening process. If people are super-narcissistic then they probably don’t fit in here (Altis) real well.”
Rutherford’s critics might read Pfaff’s narcissism no-no and question how he fits in. Pfaff has previously admitted he enjoys the challenge of coaching “wild cards” and goes further with Rutherford, suggesting the world, European, Commonwealth and Olympic champion is not just unique but perhaps a genius.
“Genius is always different,” he says. “Whether you go in industry or politics or military or what have you, people who have unique skills, abilities and vision who sometimes get labelled genius are sometimes very, very unique. So in my experience, in my coaching, conformists don’t always get to the top.”
Is Rutherford in the genius bracket? “I think if you are an athlete that consistently makes world and Olympic finals then you definitely operate in a different paradigm,” he says.
Talk of Olympic finals illuminates an intriguing by-product of Pfaff’s multi-tasking. At last year’s World Championships, Pfaff-coached athletes claimed gold and silver through Rutherford and Australian Lapierre respectively.
With 2012 silver medallist Watt on his way back from two years of injuries, in theory Pfaff could claim a podium clean sweep in Rio. While the training environment thrives from rivalries, surely an Olympic final is no place for such a coaching conflict of interest?
“No, like I said. I’m a teacher,” he says. “You want all your students to do well and when you get to the final exams someone is at the top of the class and other people fall behind them. For me it’s just an educational process.”
As Pfaff’s inability to switch off testifies, the commitment to that educational process has become a life’s work. Athletics is, as he says, a passion, a hobby and a vocation. So how then does he react to recent events that have tarnished the sport he has dedicated his life to?
“This is my 44th year in coaching and probably 38 of those have been spent in elite sport, in many sport disciplines, not just track and field but American football, tennis and golf,” says Pfaff. “Scandals, drugs, corruption – it’s gone on since time immemorial so none of this stuff is very shocking to me, maybe a bit surprised that key people and key topics are being exposed finally.
“Part of being an Olympic finalist or being a medallist or a coach of said person is staying focused on the task. Marshalling your energies towards the greater purpose.”
“Scandals, drugs, corruption – it’s gone on since time immemorial so none of this stuff is very shocking to me, maybe a bit surprised that key people and key topics are being exposed finally”
Even he must have been shocked more than most by the last six months, including the total ban for Russian athletes? “Not at all. To me it is just another day at the job,” he says.
“Institutional and federation or government scandal and cheating – it’s gone on forever. Banking, economies, world politics, it’s not just sport. Sport is a microcosm of society. I am a historian, I love history, I study history and I try to learn and glean from history and I think a lot of this smacks of Machiavellian principles and that book was written quite a while ago.”
A man of Pfaff’s experience could offer plenty of insight into the way forward. “I don’t think it is my position to judge,” he says. “I don’t have all the inside data on what went on and how things work. I do think track and field is probably a little bit too big to fail in the IOC and WADA’s eyes so I think it is a complex puzzle and it is probably way above my pay grade to evaluate how to sort this out.”
Pfaff’s payslip used to come from UK Athletics. As well as Rutherford he has also spent time coaching GB pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw, who catapulted herself back into Rio medal contention by finishing seventh at last year’s World Championships in her first season back after a nightmare run of injuries.
“Anytime you work with an athlete I always tell them that I am their coach for life until they fire me,” he says. “She’ll reach out periodically and I try to email her during tough periods. Scott Simpson, her coach, and I are good friends and colleagues so we share a lot of data and analysis. I wouldn’t say I am directly involved, but I am interestingly watching from a distance.
“She is a special talent, a special mindset. If she is healthy then she has got to be a factor.”
Pfaff might see Bradshaw deliver on her potential in Rio. If it takes the British pole vaulter another Olympic cycle to reach her peak then he might have to watch from afar.
Rio 2016 is likely to be Pfaff’s 10th and final Games on coaching’s front line. “I have a granddaughter who is four years old and she is a fairly special part of our life and I am obviously missing a lot of that,” he says.
“This is my 10th Olympic Games as a coach and I have got a feeling that, unless certain people need me, I doubt you will see me in Japan. I would like to stay in coaching, but probably slow down a bit after Rio. I hope to stay deeply tied into the centre at Altis, but the day-to-day travel, at my age there is a cost so each year you have to weigh that cost.
“I love fly-fishing, but I haven’t fished in 10 years. I do read a lot, I have various reading lists and topics. I do watch a lot of documentaries – I truly enjoy history and probably would have been a history teacher. But everybody discouraged it when I was in university and said there were too many of them and that you don’t get paid, so here I sit.”
Ten Olympic Games; 10 years with his fishing rod in the garage. Few could argue Pfaff is due a sit down.