Business, Olympic Edition For Best Results: Understand your athlete
By: Craig Hiliard • 4 years ago •
I WAS FORMERLY A 110M AND 400M HURDLER BUT HURT MY KNEE PLAYING AUSSIE RULES AND HAD TO HAVE TWO KNEE RECONSTRUCTIONS. I KNEW I WAS GOING TO BE IN A BIT OF TROUBLE COMING BACK FROM THE SECOND RECONSTRUCTION, AND I’D ALWAYS HAD COACHING IN MIND AS SOMETHING I’D LIKE TO TRY LATER ON BUT NOT AT THE AGE OF 23.
really enjoyed the technical, physiological and biomechanical aspects of sport, especially athletics. I had qualified with a Bachelor in Physical Education and Grad. Dip. in Sport Science, and was teaching at Ivanhoe Grammar School when an opportunity arose at the Australian Institute of Sport as an apprentice coach position in athletics. Thinking I’d never get it, I was encouraged by a fellow teaching colleague, Reg Hatch (the Olympic kayaking coach at the time) to apply while I was still undergoing physiotherapy for my knee. The next thing you know, three weeks later I was flying to Canberra to be interviewed by Kelvin Giles and I was offered the job by Don Talbot, the Executive Director at the time. I took a leap of faith and moved away from my comfortable situation in Melbourne (a scary thought!). I thought I would move up for year to give it a go, but 33 years later, I’m still at the Australian Institute of Sport having progressed to the role of Athletics Australia Head Coach in 2015.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime to be immersed in something that was so new, flying by the seat of my pants, but also with the ability to put my stamp on where athletics in this country was heading. It was an exciting time. I was pretty much ‘thrown’ race walking to start. I was given the coaching duties of the then world record holder, Sue Cook. I applied the sport science knowledge I’d acquired, and Sue kept improving and breaking records, which helped my confidence. More athletes came and this created a strong walking culture. Gradually I took on further athletic disciplines, such as hurdles, long jump and heptathlon, and included athletes such as Kerry Saxby-Junna, Jane Flemming, Nicole Boegman and Rohan Robinson. These were formative years for me in establishing my coaching approach and philosophy. I was very fortunate to be able to develop in more than one area and have success.
A COACH’S EDUCATION NEVER ENDS
Coaching is a constant evolution. I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot with the AIS and with Athletics Australia’s national teams, mixing with overseas coaches and observing the athletes they’re working with. That’s been the real education – to chat with them, see their athletes training, discussing a range of topics and philosophies. You can learn a lot from other sports, not just other track and field coaches.
No matter what knowledge you have or what courses you’ve done, if you don’t understand the people, the athletes you’re working with and communicate effectively, then you won’t succeed. You need to understand what makes athletes tick and how to build their trust in you to be a more effective coach. Working at the AIS in the early days particularly was great for this, as you were surrounded by other coaches, including Bill Sweetenham, all with the same mindset and purpose, sharing knowledge across sports and the unique challenges that confronted each of us.
There are more opportunities for coaches now, however it’s still difficult to make a career out of it. That’s why it is certainly an aim of mine to employ more coaches in the future in the high performance environment. We need more coaches to drive our sport and our athletes, and ultimately impact on the daily training environment and performance. The best way we can upskill our coaches is not just in theory, but out on the track, in the weight room, being mentored by other coaches across the country. There’s no secrets out there – it’s about the application of one’s knowledge relative to the athlete that you are coaching.
WHEN INJURIES STRIKE
The pressure to perform as a coach is always there, and I think through my naiveté in my early years, failure was never part of the equation. I believe that not being obsessed about everything has helped me survive this long in a performance based environment. You can only control so much, and the rest is up to the athlete. You can only prepare the athlete as best you can through sound preparation and planning, and establishing that trust in the relationship. A stressed coach is no use to any athlete.
It’s been a great journey, but sport can be fickle. Injuries strike at the last minute, such as with my squad for the Barcelona Olympics. The eight athletes I had on the team all ended up with something wrong with them leading into the Games, such as Jane Flemming tearing her hamstring ten days out. Every athlete underperformed because of the injury interrupted preparation. It was a really dark period of coaching for me. Prior to that moment, I’d enjoyed a very good run of success with the athletes performing when it counted, so that was a reality check for me. It was a wake-up call for looking at what I was doing, how I was preparing and planning, and what I really had control over.
On the flip side, there are the successes, like Kerry Saxby-Junna’s world records, Jai Taurima’s Sydney silver and Nathan Deakes’ World Championship gold medal. That’s the highs and lows of sport.
You’re always trying to the push the boundary to extract the best out of the athlete, so you’re on a knife edge all the time with respect to potential injury. At the same time, you have to keep refining and understanding what’s going on and make on-the-ground decisions for the athlete and program direction, based on the conditions on the day and the physical and emotional state of the athlete. The athlete needs to understand their body to give you accurate feedback on a session, to share the physiological responses they’re feeling, the differences from the previous day. Then you’ll get a far more effective result in managing the load across sessions, the training block, and eventually the Olympic cycle. That comes through building that trust with the athlete, and is absolutely paramount to performance. If you do that, you’ll increase the chance of success and decrease the chance of athletes getting hurt. You’re always better off counselling an athlete to miss three-four days of training through caution than pushing through and ending up missing six weeks through injury.
RIO IS NOT WITHOUT ITS CHALLENGES
We’ve got a large team of sixty-one athletes with a good mix of youth and experience. The majority of athletes have their personal coaches attending our holding camp in Florida, which Athletics Australia is funding, to make sure each athlete performs at their best. A number of the young debutants have previously competed at the World Juniors or Commonwealth Games. This is very much a transitional time for our sport with a lot of new athletes coming through. There is a very good atmosphere around the team with a strong athlete leadership group. Role models in sports are important and inspire younger athletes. It builds their self-belief in being able to achieve the same results. If we keep the momentum going from the domestic season, I’m confident that our team will produce some very encouraging results.
Australian athletes are competitive beings. Often, the harder the fight, the better we perform. I think it’s part of our culture and how we approach competition. We want to get out there and give it our best crack – which is an important attitude and quality to possess.
The Olympic Games as the biggest sporting event in the world present logistical challenges for the delivery of high performance. Access to the same number of accreditations we enjoy at events like the world championships is unrealistic, but with Australian Olympic Committee support we have been able to accommodate a large number of personal coaches through restricted access accreditations, like those that provide entry to training venues. This allows them to work with their charges through to competition day which is a great result.
MY TOP TIPS
- Never stop learning and continue to challenge yourself.
- Back yourself. Have the courage of your convictions and understand the sport inside and out, including the biomechanics, the physiology, and what makes athletes tick. If you understand this, and communicate effectively, you’ll extract a much better result from the athlete.
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