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International conference should be mandatory for aspiring coaches

PRACTICE, according to a well-worn cliche, makes perfect.

Young journalists, however, are taught, with a hint of irony: "Cliches should be avoided like the plague".

Sports coaches are apt to relate this cliche, then pointedly disown it, because it is perfect practice which makes perfect. Techniques performed incorrectly only serve to embed errors. Those responsible for developing talent are rooted in the mantra about learning the basics correctly.

It's hard to overstate it, in any sport. If technique breaks down under pressure, you fail. That's equally applicable to the approach shot at the final hole of the Open, the penalty to win the World Cup, serving for the Wimbledon title, or the final long jump attempt after two fouls, with the Olympic title at stake. On the ultimate stage, it is technique instilled by years of training upon which champions draw.

Toni Minichiello, coach of Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis, subscribes to the "perfect practice" philosophy: that it takes 10 years and 10,000 hours to reach the top of a sport. Ennis has gone the cliched "extra mile", spending 10,000 hours between the heartbreak of missing Beijing in 2008 and this year's Olympics. That's the equivalent of just over eight hours per day, six days per week, 52 weeks a year, for four years.

Minichiello has been Ennis's mentor since she was 11, and he will be in Glasgow this weekend to present the closing keynote address in the fifth edition of the three-day International Festival of Athletics Coaching.

IFAC, which opens on Friday, is one of scottishathletics' best initiatives, and is establishing Glasgow as an international centre of coaching excellence. Attendance should be mandatory for anyone who aspires to being a coach.

It is the brainchild of the governing body's former chairman, Frank Dick, president of the European Athletics Coaches' Association, and Minichiello is one of six speakers who between them coached seven London Olympic and Paralympic champions.

Sharon Hannan is responsible for Australia's 100m hurdles gold medallist Sally Pearson; Jama Aden coaches Taoufik Makhloufi, the Algerian who won the 1500m title; Damien Inocencio steered Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie to an Olympic record and pole vault gold; Judy Murray has guided her son Andy from the cradle to Olympic singles tennis champion; and Stephen Maguire, Scotland's new director of athletics coaching, was responsible for Jason Smyth, the visually-impaired 100m and 200m champion at the last two Paralympics.

Other speakers include the Dutch biomechanics professor Frans Bosch, an athletics coach for some 30 years, but probably best know in Britain as sprint consultant to the current grand slam and Six Nations champions, Wales; Vern Gambetta, founding director of the USA Track & Field coach-education programme; former Scotland and British Lions winger Tony Stanger, now talent manager at the sportscotland Institute of Sport; and Dave Sunderland, coach of the European 800m silver medallist Lynsey Sharp.

Minichiello is focusing on the 14-year development of Ennis, while Hannan's journey with Pearson is of similar duration. A former single parent mum with no coaching qualification, Hannan couldn't find employment as a coach. Now she has a degree in exercise science, and is among the world's most sought-after coaching speakers. "Her ability to demystify coaching is just fantastic," says Dick.

Murray has helped both her sons to grand slam titles. Maguire took Smyth under his care after having been alerted to his potential by a PE teacher, and made him a double Paralympic champion. Pole-vaulter Lavillenie has improved from 5.45 metres in 2007. Inocencio took over the following year, and Lavillenie now has a best of 6.03m, completing the grand slam of World Indoor, European, and Olympic gold this year, which makes it all the more remarkable that the pair parted company just last month.

Head of elite performance during the golden age of British athletics and one of coaching's keenest analytical minds, Dick presents evidence which makes one question whether the World Junior Championships has a future.

There were six WJC from 2000 to 2010, a total of 360 medals for men and women (20 events each). European men won 127 of those WJC medals, yet only one took an Olympic medal in London. There were 158 European female WJC medallists over the same period, of whom only eight won Olympic medals in London.

Burnout, peaking prematurely, demotivation, or overloading still-developing bodies are all possibilities. "It is a devastating level of attrition," agrees Dick. "Between 19 and 23 we are losing athletes across Europe, and we're losing even more from the World Youth Championships."

Europe's coaches believe the world youth and European under-23 events should be ditched, and replaced with a world under-23 championship, improving prospects of retaining interest and motivation.

Yet the vested interests which have prompted proliferation of global and continental age-group championships, and the expansion of world and European senior championships from four yearly to biennial, guarantee reversion would be regarded as a backward step, a threat to TV and sponsorship revenue. Yet injuries are demonstrably taking a toll on young bodies who never graduate to become senior champions.

Dick will also point to the poor record of athletes delivering their best performances (medal or season's best) at the Olympics. Just 26% of GB athletes did so. Europe overall were poor. Only France (35%) and Russia (33%) did better. China were just 17%. Jamaica have the best record (50%) with the US on 47%.

Dick believes these poor averages require a thorough review of coach education. None of Scotland's athletes, as we recently noted, produced a season's best in London.

The issues to be raised in Glasgow this weekend explain why Dick rates the national development director the most important role in the sport, even above that of coaching director.

The conference runs from Friday to Sunday, based at the new Emirates Arena and Marriott Hotel.

http://www.ifacscotland.co.uk

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