When Is A Coach Not A Coach?

from Chasing Mavericks

He’s ruffled a few feathers by challenging the status quo. Now Toni Minichiello discusses his platform for change: to take coaching from marginalised and misunderstood to the centre ground of physical development and athletic endeavour.

Toni Minichiello

In our previous interview Toni put forward his views on the state of athletics coaching in the UK. It provoked a significant groundswell of interest – from these shores and beyond. Now his nomination to be the ‘Senior Coach Representative for the UK Athletics Member Panel (try saying that in a hurry), is official, I want to know what Toni thinks should be put in place to replace the current system.

As usual our telephone conversation is punctuated by barked instructions, feedback and requests for coffee – all delivered to his group of athletes in what, for him, is a seamless transition between hands on coaching and a strategic repositioning of the vocation he feels so passionately about. I resolve to leave questions about multi-tasking to another day and focus on weightier issues. Although his answers relate to the athletics community I believe, from my own experiences working across a broad range of sports, that his words will strike a chord with coaches and athletes far and wide.

Having reflected on our previous conversation I’m interested in establishing what Toni thinks about the application of the phrase ‘coaching’. I explain to him my initial take on our discussion, something I believe anyone who has experienced an elite sporting environment will recognise immediately,

“I’m not sure that many people, even those working in sport, necessarily understand the differences between a coach and athlete seeking to perform ‘well’ and those who have serious ambitions to be amongst the best in the world. I’m not casting a value judgement but it can be chalk and cheese ”.

Toni is quick to take up the thread,

There is a distinct difference between the range of activities that currently fall under the umbrella term ’coaching’

“First up coaching comes in many different forms but it’s not a singular continuum, it’s not a ladder. That’s a misunderstanding that seems prevalent in the general public, the media and most unfortunately with some people in our Governing Bodies. There is a distinct difference between the range of activities that currently fall under the umbrella term ’coaching’. Each strand is hugely important and vital in their own way but – and this is the important bit, they’re different and need to be treated as such”.

“We’re on the same page there but how you delineate between the different coaching activities?”

“From my perspective, there are three strands of coaching. The first is about getting people off the couch and getting them active. That’s the ‘Sport’ England agenda. Moving people.

Then there’s a strand that focuses on enjoyment and safety. That’s predominantly a leadership piece, specifically for youngsters. Getting them excited, keeping them engaged with broad based activity.

After that you have a strand that focuses on performance, by which I mean concentrating on improvement in specific disciplines whilst driving towards excellence”.

Working with Jess Ennis-Hill

I see where Toni’s going with this but wonder if he will get challenged that it’s still not clear enough,

“But there can often be a gulf of difference between top of the class and world class. I’ve witnessed fantastic effort and dedication from ‘lower level’ coaches, teams and athletes but they’re never going to live for a second with the very best”.

“At the very top end, the elite if you like to call it that, it’s about converting excellence to world class. I think that this is the peak of the performance pyramid and it’s where both coach and athlete need a far less structured approach to improvement. If someone has proven their ability to rise to that level then they need a system that supports them in a tailored manner”.

“Tailored by the coach to the address needs of the athlete?”

I’m not the only coach that has fallen out with a Governing Body because I felt their demands would be detrimental to the athlete and the athlete’s performance.

“Precisely. I’m not the only coach that has fallen out with a Governing Body because I felt their demands would be detrimental to the athlete and the athlete’s performance”. He pauses, “Of course, a set of objective criteria would need to be established to assess someone’s move into the ‘elite’ end of the performance strand and at that point, more than ever it becomes a coach lead, athlete centred approach”.

“Isn’t there a danger that, for some, these ‘strands’ would cause a degree of confusion? Maybe even frustration?”

“Because of the differences between the roles and the participants we need to move away from a progressive hierarchy. It’s not like the ‘Coach Active’ award sits below the others, it’s just that it’s a different thing all together. It’s not to say someone wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the other coaching strands but that would be down to the individual concerned. Similarly, you would look to encourage and provide support for people to develop and improve within their chosen coaching area. Excellence should be encouraged, supported and formally rewarded at all levels”.

Toni and Alicia Barrett

“But everyone has to start somewhere, just like you did. How does that work?”

“I think most people have an idea about which area they’d like to work in. Anyone interested in performance is likely to start in that strand which then enables them to progress in line with their potential”.

“So you can achieve excellence within a particular strand by remaining in that strand, fine, but what if I start in participation and then want to move to performance?”.

“I see it as no different than changing career path. Some career changes are less dramatic than others. For example, a plumber becoming an electrician is not that unusual but a chef becoming an electrician probably is. Anyone moving from participation to performance will have acquired knowledge, skills and experience that will facilitate the transition. I see it as less usual to move from the strand focusing on getting people active to performance but by no means impossible. It’s just a bigger change”.

“And how would you change the current Coaching awards?”

“I would create three distinct awards, each tailored to the type of participant and the specific coaching skills required by that strand. I also believe there’s a lot of work required to improve much of the content in the existing programme. Each of those awards would have categories to enable individuals to further themselves and acquire additional qualifications”.

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Our conversation is becoming more and more fractured as whatever drill Toni is observing is evidently picking up in intensity. I have one last question before our time is up,

“How do you see the independent coaching association being launched by UK Sport fitting into your plans”.

“Right now, I don’t. The jury’s out. It’s early days. Will they really be there for coaches at all levels? Will people who really understand coaches lead it? Will coaches, relevant coaches influence its direction? There’s a lot of questions that need answering. When they’re answered I’ll re-assess”.

When Toni chooses to keep his powder dry I’ve learned better than to push him for answers. I’d have more chance of success than one of his athletes trying to skip drills. As if they would. I close on the imminent ballot,

“Do you reckon you’ll get the nomination?”

“If I get the most votes”.

“There’s a quote Brian Clough would have been proud of. Maybe you’ve more in common with him than you think?”.

“I’m not saying I’m the best candidate but I’ll put myself in the top one”.*

There’s only one response to that, “Now then young man”.**

Toni laughs and we say our goodbyes whilst I go back to reflecting on the state of the (coaching) nation. What would ‘Cloughie’ have made of it all?

*To avoid any confusion or spluttering indignation Toni is paraphrasing the great man himself.

** So am I

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