Toni has little time for New Year platitudes. After a friendly but brief exchange concerning our respective (in his case short) festive celebrations, the real subject on his mind bubbles to the fore,

“What do you call a Circus with no acts?”

Sensing this isn’t a left-over cracker joke I play along, “Go on”.

“A Tent in a Field. It may be a pretty tent, but none-the-less, it’s just a tent”.

“Let me guess. We’re not actually talking about a circus?”

Toni, warming to his metaphor, ignores my comment,

“The critical thing that makes a Circus worth watching are the acts. It’s about putting on a show in a very simple but crafted way”.

“I think P.T. Barnum was the master of that. A top billing star surrounded by other stars. Each one either great, good or up and coming in their own right. But stars none the less?”

Toni brings the metaphor down to earth,

“Andy Norman, the athletics Meeting Promoter of old, had a simple philosophy when putting on a meeting; ‘you need to start with a British win, have a British win in the middle and end on a British win’ “.

“That sounds like the perfect show but sport isn’t scripted. How can you guarantee that?”

“Serial medallists”.

“Like Usain Bolt?”

“Think about it. What was Bolt? An entertainer? Yes, but that’s a bonus based on his character. A Winner? Yes, but that was expected.” Toni takes a breath, “In fact, it was demanded. What Bolt did was back up the winning with Major Global Medals, lots of them. He’s was the Serial Medallist. There was a time when Britain would start with Sally Gunnell, put a Colin Jackson in the Middle and finish with a Linford Christie. All serial medallists…”

“That would give you the beginning middle and end of the show”.

“Precisely. And it’s what keeps the circus alive”.

“Six-million-dollar question. How do you create a serial medallist?”

“Any team going into a Global Championship can be divided into 3 parts; Passengers, Possibilities and Probabilities. Passengers are those members of the team who scraped a qualification and will go out in the early rounds but are there to gain experience, to learn and develop. Possibilities are the ones who could possibly win a medal if circumstances, not of their own making or truly within their control, go their way”.

“Such as a slow pace race, a favourite making a mistake?”.

“Yes, but even a Possibility has to be at the top of their game, non-hesitant, ready to pounce and take advantage of the situation, if and when it arises”.

“And the Probabilities are those who will podium?”

Even making a mistake they still medal. How? Because they are the product of the collision of ability, work ethic and coaching.

“Yes, barring a disaster, the only question is what colour their medal will be. A great performance sees them stand on top of the Podium and an average performance sees them to the left or the right. Even making a mistake they still medal. How? Because they are the product of the collision of ability, work ethic and coaching. It’s only where that happens, where you can find a Serial Medallist”.

I sense in this description of athletic nuclear fusion we’re getting close to the cause of Toni’s evident frustration,

“So why can’t we replicate that ‘collision’ to produce our next generation of serial medallists and ensure the show goes on?”.

“This January, British Athletics won’t renew the contract of only coach it employs and probably the last Coach it may ever employ who understands how to create a Serial Medallist, Lloyd Cowan”.

LLOYD COWAN AND CHRISTINE OHURUOGU (CREDIT:UKA)

Amongst other medalling athletes Lloyd Cowan coaches Christine Ohurougu, a serial medallist by anyone’s account. I ask the only question possible, “Why?”.

“Because of an organisational, systemic failure to understand what it takes to produce serial medallists”.

“Particularly in relation to the role of the coach?”

“Being a Serial Medallist Coach is not just about what you give it’s also about what you take away. It’s like a master sculptor looking at a block of stone, they remove the stone so the statue that is within can reveal itself.  Organisations are good at dealing with knocking the big blocks off but only a master sculptor can apply finesse . A Coach balances, in fine detail, what’s there in the athlete with what’s not there. You introduce, or take away, whatever is needed. It’s a skill you only really learn over time and I believe it requires working with athletes of mixed abilities over a long period of time”.

It’s little known but as well working with Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill over an 18-year period Toni has continued to work with athletes at a range of ages and development. We’ve discussed this on numerous occasions and Toni is convinced this is critical to his own ongoing development as a coach. Working with younger, less accomplished athletes over a period of time enables both coach and athlete to learn through making mistakes. As Toni puts it, “It’s how you learn to grow”.

“It seems obvious when you explain it, so why isn’t it understood and acted on by those who have the power, influence and funds?”.

Coaches of serial medallists don’t necessarily fit comfortably into existing systems. It’s in their nature to challenge; themselves and those around them.

“Coaches of serial medallists don’t necessarily fit comfortably into existing systems. It’s in their nature to challenge; themselves and those around them. Organisations often cannot handle someone not prepared to accept instruction without challenge”.

“I struggle to understand how organisations expect performance excellence without some degree of disruption, challenge and alternative thinking. Or maybe they think anyone can coach? Just tell a talented athlete what to do a ‘voila’, medals…”.

“I understand that everyone wants to work at the high-profile, lucrative, top end of the sport. To that end Governing Bodies have tried to accelerate the learning and transition into coaching of ex-high performing athletes. But developing as a Coach is a personal development journey that you have to be motivated to travel. Putting the education on a plate and just feeding someone is unlikely to make them the coach you want them to be. It’s experience that tempers the steel of coaching but experience is often hard won. To start at the top end is tough. Once ex-athletes, turned coach don’t have medallists and the associated fame and Money they will leave coaching, or worse, they’ll be fired”.

It’s experience that tempers the steel of coaching but experience is often hard won.

“Isn’t Lloyd Cowan an ex-elite athlete? That makes the decision even more confusing. Is it impatience? Pressure for medals? Focusing on the podium instead of the process of getting there?”

“It’s probably all those things and more. Bottom line, if we don’t address the way we develop our athletes with our coaches then I can’t see how we’re ever going to produce the next generation of serial medallists”.

The warning is clear. By under-estimating the impact of coaches, misunderstanding the skill of coaching and failing to grasp what coaching is, British Athletics runs the risk of becoming a “Tent in A Field”; struggling to produce contenders and bereft of star turns. It’s how a sport dies. It’s how a circus dies. I make the point to Toni, “Is it time to bring on the clowns?”.

He sighs, “I hope not”.

It seems fitting to end on a P.T. Barnum quote,

“No man has a right to expect to succeed in life unless he understands his business, and nobody can understand his business thoroughly unless he learns it by personal application and experience”.