The months following Jess’ retirement have been busy but by no means easy. He’ll deny there has been any impact on him, but I’ve been around him long enough to know that it’s been challenging.
Toni is in chipper mood. After all, he is a world-renowned coach who has gone from preparing for the Olympics to preparing for National and Regional age group competitions. That’s not to slight these events – they are significant in their own right and a massive achievement when any athlete succeeds there. However, the Olympics they are not. Added to that he’s had an intense coach/athlete relationship with one of the sports’ true greats every day for over 15 years. 15 years! That’s around 5,500 days. If you believe that mastery of a subject takes 10,000 hours then Toni and Jess refined their abilities together to the level of Jedi masters. And now it’s stopped. That’s going to impact on anyone, even someone as grizzled as Toni.
Yet now, you can sense the drive and focus returning. Amongst some of the young talent in the team, Alicia has emerged to be selected for Great Britain in the European Athletics Team Championships. What marks out this selection is that it means a move up to the senior ranks whilst she still has a year as a junior. I get a little buzz of excitement on hearing the news,
‘You must be pretty pleased?”
Toni is not one for getting carried away, “Yes, it’s a big step up. And it’s unusual for a junior to make it into the senior ranks but she’s got there based on merit’.
“What is the event exactly?”
“It’s an inter-nation competition with one person per event drawn from the 11 nations in the top division. Alicia is representing GB in the 100 m hurdles. It’s a weird competition. On the Friday there are two races – they split the nations six and five. The top eight go through based on times and the final is on the Sunday”.
“How do you think she’ll do?”
“It’s going to be tough but it’s all about experience. She’ll get an up close view of athletes that at some stage she’s going to have to contend against…”
Toni pauses whilst he checks the rankings, “..she’s joint 27th in Europe at the moment”.
“That’s a tall order. You always reckon she performs better, the bigger competition though?”
“Yeah. It’ll be interesting. Last year she did the National Seniors, this year she’s stepped up to European Seniors. She’s dipping her whole foot in the water, not just her toe.
It should put her in good stead for the European Juniors. It will be an achievement to get into 2nd race at the Seniors. Her primary target remains the Juniors. This is an additional race looking forward to the future, but the Juniors? It’s about medalling.”
Alicia already holds the UK’s Junior indoor record for hurdles and I reflect it would be nice to get the outdoor record too. Toni agrees but he is focused on bigger things,
“Remember, junior success is not relevant. It means nothing. It’s wonderful but it’s no indicator of future success. Look at the Football. Brilliant that the under 21s won the world cup but against Venezuela? I believe Serbia won it in the past. I haven’t seen them near a senior World Cup final.
On the other side of the coin Jess never ran faster than 13.26 as junior but did 12.54 as senior”.
We’re touching on a hot topic for sports organisations across the world: how do you identify young talent that can still cut it on a world stage when they are in their 20s? For all the many millions spent on youth development it seems a lottery. I express as much to Toni suspecting he has a view. I’m right,
“My job is to make it not a lottery but ensure systematic improvement. As any athlete grows up there are a lot of outside influences. My job is to help them navigate through whatever comes their way”.
“It still confuses me how few youngsters succeed as seniors. Surely it’s not just that they have peaked? If someone at 17 has a certain amount of talent and physiology, with the right coaching support, I don’t see how or why they wouldn’t continue to improve?”
“In part it depends on potential. How much work did it take to get you where you are? Maybe that individual is already flat out”.
“Look and you can print this, I see a lot of juniors thrashed to death whilst they’re being touted as the next big thing. There is no-where to go with their training, or, at least no understanding, ability or courage to do things differently. Athlete development is not a straight line. There’s injury niggles, people that can’t cope with being beaten because they haven’t had the right emotional development, the inability to accept that sometimes you need to go backwards to go forwards, the conservatism and expectations of those holding the purse strings…”
“Athlete development is not a straight line”.
“I’m guessing that list gets longer?”
“Very few coaches are able to understand elite and how you transition an athlete from youthful promise to adult success. Karla is doing a study for her PhD at John Moores and over 80% of juniors picked to represent at National level don’t progress. That’s as good as it’s ever going to be for them. It’s a staggering figure.
Very few coaches are able to understand elite and how you transition an athlete from youthful promise to adult success.
Here’s the problem. Coaches and Sporting bodies keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. It’s the definition of insanity. Bottom line is this: there is not enough investment in coaches that understand how to make that transition”.
“Meanwhile your responsibility is nurturing Alicia’s athletics career?”
“Alicia? I’m happy where she’s at. Before long we’ll be finding out if she can she qualify and get to major athletics events and be successful. Remember, even if she has huge success by the time she retires she won’t be half way through her life. Her experiences need to set her up for the rest of her life – whatever she does. That’s what coaching responsibility is all about…”
Toni has gone unusually silent. I’m about to break him out of his ruminations when he beats me to it,
“Just image if she becomes a Dame. Two Dames in one coaching career. Now that would be something”.
Yes Toni. It would. Here’s hoping.