This weeks’ post was going to include a range of topics as diverse as Californian athletes, photocopiers and cheap hotel rooms. Then on Thursday Mark sent me an article written by Jim White of The Telegraph.
I duly sent the article to Toni who was unaware of it and thus suitably bowled over by Jim’s words.
We then had a brief chat that went something like this:
Me: “Are you still conversing with mere mortals?”
Toni: “Not sure if I should. Do you have a request to make of me in my lordliness”.
Me: “Yes oh wise one. What about this weeks’ blog?”
Toni: “I think it’s written isn’t it?”
Me: “I think so. I couldn’t have said it better myself”.
Toni: “Nice one”.
Thanks Jim. I get to knock off early this week. Here’s the article:
Society must not waste the wisdom of coaches
This week I found myself addressing a group of journalism students. A bright, sharp, ambitious bunch they were too, anxious, presumably, to pick up tips from an old relic on what not to do if they want to succeed.
As it usually does in such circumstances, the inevitable question came up: who are the most interesting people you have met in sport?
And the answer is always the same: it is the coaches, not the athletes, who provide the most intriguing company. Sir Ian McGeechan, Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Alex Ferguson: it is hard to think of anyone in business, politics or the arts who could match such people for insight, conversation, charisma.
Sir Ian McGeechan is always compelling company
What makes top coaches like these stand out is how open they are, how keen to absorb new information, how alert to the world around them. And it made me think, talking about why they are so enthralling, that wider society does not make as much use of them as we should.
Take Toni Minichiello. He was on the radio on Thursday talking clear, cogent, coherent good sense about something which had little to do with his work nurturing the athletics career of Jessica Ennis-Hill: the subject of athlete funding. Listening to him, suddenly everything made sense.
His reading of the current issues was persuasive, sensible, lucid. What was clear as he spoke was this: they should put him in charge of this stuff. Elect him to the board of UK Sport, make him head of British Athletics, give him a job advising the Minister of Sport, exploit some of that knowledge accumulated over years of podium-level coaching.
Because let’s face it, Minichiello is at a bit of a loose end right now. Ennis-Hill, his superstar athlete, has just retired. He might be continuing his development programme in Sheffield, trying to unearth another gem, but the singular focus of his last 15 years has gone.
Now is the time to harness that accrued wisdom. Sure, there are those who have long claimed that the coach is no more than the Ringo Starr of athletics, the man who got lucky the day a teenaged Ennis-Hill walked on to the Sheffield track where he worked.
The theory goes that since that moment he has ridden on her coat-tails, been a Boswell to her Dr Johnson, the flukiest man in the game. Except Ennis-Hill would be the first to admit she would not have won half the things she did without his input.
His nurturing – mental as much as performance-related – was fundamental to her success. Take the day she stepped into the Olympic Stadium in 2012. Ennis-Hill was almost poleaxed with nerves at what confronted her. She had never seen such a crowd before, never been obliged to complete the early rounds of the heptathlon in front of 80,000 people. She was terrified she would not be able to do it.
Minichiello told her not to worry, these were 80,000 friends, each of them hoping for an invite to her impending wedding. It was the perfect thing to say. His wise, warm words settled her immediately. He was similarly in her ear ahead of her world title wins, before she tried to defend her gold medal in Rio; wherever she has competed, he has proven himself to be a man who knows exactly what to say and when to say it. That is some talent.
Stupidly, in the past, our great champions such as Daley Thompson and Steve Ovett were allowed to drift from the mainstream on their retirement. Part of the professionalising of our sporting system has been the recognition of the importance in not allowing such valuable resources to slip away. UK Sport organised a recruitment fair this week for some 350 recently retired athletes, helping them find new direction.
Administrators need to be equally focused on coaches: Minichiello is someone whose experience not just sport, but society as a whole, would be foolhardy to squander. If nothing else, he should be immediately invited to deliver a guest lecture to journalism students. You suspect he would make a whole lot more sense than those they get to do it at the moment.