Is­sues fac­ing Holmes show ruth­less turn in UK Ath­let­ics

Re­ports about world in­door cham­pion John­son-Thom­son prove it’s tough at the top

The Herald - Herald Sport - - COMMENT - DOUG GIL­LON

IT was like watch­ing a car crash: Katerina John­son-Thom­son’s cat­a­strophic Olympic javelin per­for­mance in Rio, where she slipped from third be­fore the penul­ti­mate event and out of medal con­tention. Watch­ing the an­guished, anx­ious ex­changes be­tween the world in­door cham­pion and coach Mike Holmes felt like an in­tru­sion on pri­vate grief. Her spear was more pa­per dart than javelin and she fin­ished 28th of 30 com­peti­tors, and a trau­ma­tised sixth over­all.

Holmes has coached her since she was 15. Though one of UK Ath­let­ics’ most ex­pe­ri­enced coaches (32 years on their staff) and a for­mer throws cham­pion, there have been hints that UKA would like KJT to switch coach – de­spite Holmes hav­ing en­listed both Mick Hill and Goldie Say­ers (re­spec­tively World and Olympic javelin bronze medal­lists) as spe­cial­ist ad­vis­ers.

John­son-Thom­son once paid trib­ute to Holmes on her web­site for her port­fo­lio of ti­tles and medals: “Couldn’t have done it without you!” Yet she may now have to, fol­low­ing re­ports yes­ter­day that she and Holmes are part­ing com­pany.

John­son-Thom­son is re­port­edly not keen to leave her na­tive Liver­pool, so find­ing a new men­tor may be prob­lem­atic, although Tony Minichiello, coach of for­mer Olympic and World cham­pion Jessica En­nisHill, is wait­ing for his pro­tege to de­cide whether her ca­reer is over.

Coach/ath­lete re­la­tion­ships are del­i­cate, fre­quently fraught, and of­ten defy logic. Young­sters, of­ten not even out of pri­mary school, go along to the lo­cal ath­letic club and are taken un­der the wing of a club coach. A decade on, if that kid is very tal­ented and very lucky, they may progress to in­ter­na­tional level, and even Olympic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. And their ath­let­ics ca­reer is of­ten still in the hands of the coach who picked them up by chance on that first night down at the club. A clas­sic ex­am­ple is Jimmy Hed­ley, the Ge­ordie who steered Steve Cram from school­boy ath­lete to World cham­pion.

Ed­u­ca­tors, pri­mary and sec­ondary teach­ers, col­lege lec­tur­ers, tu­tors and pro­fes­sors, all have dis­tinct skill sets, yet ath­let­ics of­ten works in de­fi­ance of ed­u­ca­tional prin­ci­ple. One akin to the pri­mary teacher re­main­ing the guid­ing ed­u­ca­tional force through sec­ondary, univer­sity, to post-grad­u­ate doc­tor­ate men­tor.

If one set out to de­sign a coach­ing model, this ath­let­ics tem­plate would be re­jected. One would surely go for a struc­tured, pro­gres­sive path­way. Yet this per­verse sys­tem of­ten works, and the sport should be grate­ful, for it’s the main en­try route for coaches – par­ents take their kids to clubs, then stay to help long af­ter their chil­dren have left.

How­ever, the abil­ity of coaches to recog­nise that their ath­lete has trav­elled fur­ther and faster than they them­selves have (very of­ten while learn­ing their trade ‘on the job’) is be­yond many coaches. It’s a se­duc­tive thought that your ath­lete may make it to top level, and un­der­stand­able that the coach might want to go all the way with them.

It’s rather like be­ing a par­ent: giv­ing your chil­dren roots to grow and wings to fly. Know­ing when to let go is the hard­est trick, both for par­ents and coaches.

Par­ents make the best – and worst – coaches. Con­sider the abu­sive re­la­tion­ship be­tween Damir Do­kic and his ten­nis prodigy daugh­ter, Je­lena. Yet it can also work well, no­tably in ath­let­ics be­tween Seb Coe and his fa­ther, Peter, while top­i­cally we have Robert Hawkins who de­liv­ers a work­shop today at Glas­gow’s Emi­rates, venue for the scot­tishath­letcs coach­ing con­fer­ence. He has steered his sons, Cal­lum and Robert, from Kil­barchan club level to the Olympic marathon. And tomorrow Trevor Painter presents a work­shop on coach­ing his world 800m medal­list wife, Jenny Mead­ows.

Yet I know of coaches who have had to con­front par­ents who think they know bet­ter.

In team sports, es­pe­cially where sig­nif­i­cant money is in­volved, the dy­namic is dif­fer­ent. Play­ers (left off the team) are of­ten at odds with the coach (or man­ager). And this has now spilled into sports where sig­nif­i­cant Lot­tery fund­ing is at stake, no­tably Jessica Var­nish whose com­plaints against cy­cling coach Shane Sut­ton led to his res­ig­na­tion.

Yet the Aussie ap­pears to have more sup­port­ers in the GB team than de­trac­tors.

In rugby, we have an­other di­men­sion, ex­em­pli­fied by a pend­ing le­gal ac­tion be­tween for­mer Sale Sharks scrum-half Cil­lian Wil­lis over al­le­ga­tions that the club was clin­i­cally neg­li­gent over a con­cus­sion in­jury. The for­mal duty of care is a di­men­sion of sport alien to my gen­er­a­tion, but rifts be­tween coach and ath­lete are not.

When Al­lan Wells parted com­pany with Char­lie Af­fleck, to be coached by his wife, re­la­tions were less than cor­dial. Liz McCol­gan split ac­ri­mo­niously with John An­der­son and was coached by husband Peter; and Yvonne Mur­ray parted from Bill Gen­tle­man, her for­mer school teacher, and switched to Tommy Boyle – also a dis­cor­dant part­ing of the ways. All had been suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships. And so were the new ones.

Scot­tishath­let­ics is bask­ing in the glow of hav­ing had a record 15 ath­letes in the Rio Olympic team.

Rodger Harkins, who will in­tro­duce today’s Emi­rates con­fer­ence (9.30am), is per­haps best known as men­tor of Lee McCon­nell, but his role as the gov­ern­ing body’s di­rec­tor of coach­ing may prove his great­est ca­reer marker.

Pic­ture: Getty

TALK­ING IT OVER: Kata­rina John­son-Thom­son in dis­cus­sions with long-time coach Mike Holmes.

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