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Coaching lessons from London

Last Sunday’s London Marathon was a fabulous day as ever – some outstanding performances, thousands of people raising money for charity, and a brilliant event thanks to the hard work of the Marathon organisers and others. The highlights for me were Mary Keitany’s amazing world record and David Weir pulling off a stunning seventh victory as he approaches the end of his career. With a slightly more conservative start, surely Keitany can break 2:15:25….I can’t wait to see her have a crack at it. And with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, it was great to see so many Japanese para athletes competing.

Since retiring in 2013, I have qualified as a coach and being a newcomer to coaching, I am always on the look-out for lessons to learn and ways to improve. London provided a few good examples, none of them particularly new nor resembling rocket-science.

1. Mary Keitany blitzing it from the start! In the marathon, we all know the horrors of hitting the wall and the role an over-ambitious start plays in burning off carbohydrate before the finish line. The received wisdom says always start off conservatively and if you feel good after half-way, speed up. I have often recommended this.

But eventually, to knock a chunk off your PB or to go for something really special like a world record, you have to throw caution to the wind and take risks. Often this ends with hitting the wall, but sometimes it works, and Keitany showed us how, in spades! Every one of her 5km splits was slower than the last – she was slowing down the entire way – and yet her (to borrow a phrase from Richard Branson) “screw it, let’s do it” attitude paid off brilliantly. It was so refreshing and exhilarating to see an athlete in the marathon blitzing it from the start. This was a lesson for me – maybe I’ve been too conservative and being more aggressive in the marathon is the way to go.

2. Josh Griffiths coaching himself. The Swansea Harrier on his debut marathon showed up the entire GB elite field, crossing the line as first Brit – what a terrific run! But the thing that stood out for me was that he coaches himself. Again there is received wisdom here – every athlete needs a coach. But do they?

Ultimately it is the athlete, alone, who stands on the start line and who has to put their mind and body through pain over 26.2 miles. Coaches are only humans doing their best to help others. They aren’t superstars, and they don’t have silver bullets (at least the ones doing it clean don’t). I’ve seen athletes who are way too dependent on their coaches and, as a result, don’t think for themselves, take responsibility for their performances, or get the best out of themselves. Maybe Josh did so well BECAUSE he coaches himself.

3. Josh Griffiths again – keeping things simple! I liked this quote from Josh: “given my result, I might just keep doing what I'm doing because it seems to be working”. This for me is an often-overlooked but very important principle of coaching. For any athlete, the holy grail is improving. If you are improving, there really is nothing better you can do, apart from improving more rapidly. So if you’re improving, why change anything?

Living in the world of social media and the internet where information is ubiquitous, and in a world where companies want you to buy their products, it seems we are all looking for that extra something, all the time. I was often guilty of this when I was competing. But maybe what we are doing right now is just the ticket, and all we need to do is keep doing it. So as a coach, Josh’s performance reminded me that sometimes all an athlete needs to hear from me is “you’re doing great - more of the same please”.

So the London Marathon provided inspiration, excitement and wonder again. I really hope they invite Keitany back next year to have a crack at breaking 2:15:25. Well done to everyone who ran, and wishing you a good recovery while you rest up (and by the way, if your quads are agony walking downstairs, don’t be alarmed – this is completely normal :)).

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