07/06/2012 11:33 | By Matthew Syed

The winning formula: how coaches make champions of the future

It is not just at the grassroots level that coaches make a difference. Behind every great professional athlete there is a great coach. Often lost in the shadows of the champions they create, coaches rarely receive adulation or fame.

Matthew Syed (© Joe Giddens-EMPICS Sport)

However their ability to motivate, inspire, develop, support and challenge the talented athletes with whom they work can provide the critical difference between the creation of a good athlete and the creation of a great one.

Matthew Syed, a former three-time Commonwealth table tennis champion and an award-winning columnist and feature writer for The Times newspaper, explored the development of sporting champions in his book, Bounce: How Champions Are Made.

Here, he explains the vital role played by great coaches in making the champions of the future.

The winning formula

If you bumped into him on the street, you wouldn't take a second look. Now in his 70s, greying, reserved, somewhat anonymous, he has rarely featured in newspapers or on television. But he is, arguably, one of the most extraordinary individuals in British sport.

His name is Peter Charters and, for a period in the 1980s, he ran one of the most astonishing sports clubs on the planet. It was a table tennis club, a pre-fabricated shack in suburban Reading, with just one table and with plants growing through the ceiling.

But here's the thing: for just under a decade, the Omega Club contained around 80% of the top players in the nation. Indeed, one street - Silverdale Road, where Charters taught as a school teacher - boasted champions in almost every second house. It was a phenomenon. And it was entirely due to Charters.

We often talk about great sporting performance emerging from rare talent, focusing on the individuals who have made it to the top, and mythologising their virtues. It is an understandable tendency, but a dangerous one. It misses out too much. It misses out the importance of culture, of training environment, of the application of cutting-edge science. In short, it misses out the defining importance of great coaching.

The power of coaching can be seen not just in the astonishing success of Silverdale Road, but in the dominance of the British Cycling track team, of FC Barcelona, and of the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, which produced more top 20 female players during the 1990s than the whole of the United States.

Barcelona players celebrate with former coach Pep Guardiola (© AP Photo-Manu Fernandez)

These concentrations of success hint at how great coaching can elevate tiny areas - with no obvious preponderance of local talent - into positions of global dominance. As Charters once put it, lapsing into a rare episode of self-aggrandisement: "give me any postcode in the country, and I will be able to create world beaters".

The science of success

So, how does he - and other great coaches - do it? What is the underlying science and why does it matter? One of the most important things to consider when contemplating the secrets of great coaching is the phenomenon of brain transformation. As we work hard - in anything from mathematics to football - the grey matter in our skulls begins to adapt and grow. It is called brain plasticity and it has been revealed by dozens of pioneering experiments.

Consider, for example, that the area of the brain governing spatial navigation in taxi drivers is bigger than for the rest of us. But they were not born with this; it grew in direct proportion to years on the job. Similarly, the area of the brain governing finger movement in virtuoso pianists is bigger than for the rest of us - and grows in proportion to years of practice.

This hints at the power of great coaching, for two reasons. Firstly, great coaches are able to motivate their pupils, inspiring them to train with intensity over years, thus enabling them to mould their brains and bodies around the contours of a particular realm of expertise. After all, nobody is born with the brain or body of a champion; these things emerge through thousands of hours of practice.

But, secondly, consider that great coaching accelerates the process of brain transformation. Top coaches are able to design training sessions so that for any given hour of practice, the young performer expands and develops more effectively. It is often in this aspect of coaching that sporting greatness is alchemised.

Stretching for glory

How is this done? Consider the following paradox: world class ice dancers fall over more often in practice than intermediate ice dancers. This sounds rather odd: after all, why would top ice dancers fall over more often than those who are less accomplished? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Ice dancer Brian Joubert hits the deck (© AP Photo-Francois Mori)

But the reason for the paradox is both simple and revelatory. World-class dancers are always attempting jumps in practice that are just outside their current abilities; they are stretching themselves, pushing the envelope. And when they master a fiendish jump, they immediately move on to an even more fiendish one. It is relentless. But it is also transformative.

Intermediate ice dancers, on the other hand, are always attempting jumps that they can already do very easily. That is why they don't fall over. But - and this is the key point - it is also why they are not world-class. They are not being stretched. And it is when you are stretched - physically or, for that matter, intellectually - that you are gradually transformed.

Charters had a genius for creating training environments where his players were stretched, hour after hour, day after day. Sessions were beautifully and efficiently calibrated to exert just the right quantity of stress. Players were not overwhelmed by the practice, but were always tested. Drills were designed that made us move, think, operate at our upper limits.

To take a different example, consider John Amaechi, Britain's greatest ever basketball player. When he trained at Penn State University nobody on the team was a match for him. So his coach recruited a 'walk on', someone who joined the practice as a volunteer.

Every time Amaechi's team went on offence, the 'walk on' would jump onto the court and play defence so that Amaechi was double-marked. He had to create time and space that scarcely seemed to exist. "It pushed me past my limits, forcing me to think faster, sharper, deeper and with far greater creativity" he said. "In turn, my limits just kept expanding."

British cycling coach Dave Brailsford (© David Davies-PA Wire)

David Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling, has talked of the importance of "designing training so that improvement is speeded up". Jurgen Grobler, the head coach of British Rowing, has made similar comments.

Great coaching is about institutionalising "stretch" in the system and culture, and inspiring the players to respond.
Sometimes learning can be accelerated by something as simple as training with superior players.

As Mia Hamm, one of the greatest female soccer players, put it: "All my life I've been playing up, meaning I've challenged myself with players older, bigger, more skilful, more experience - in short better than me." But often the most effective means to create a stretch environment is far more complex. And it is the greatest coaches who are always thinking the most innovatively about how to deliver it. As Charters put it: "I never stopped pushing myself in my ambition to push my players."

Gillette recognises the importance of coaching for the future of sport in the UK. In partnership with 'sports coach UK' they are sponsoring a significant number of coaching qualifications by awarding 'Great Start' grants in 2012. The grants will be available to both existing and new coaches who are starting out, with applications made via www.facebook.com/GilletteUK

08/06/2012 17:49

We've had 44 mins so far & already we've had 3 crap decisions by a clearly inexperienced ref who thinks it's a non-contact sport. Disgraceful. If the Euros continue like this I won't be watching any of it. This ref needs to be told they've NOT come to see him.


When he sees it on tv later he's going to feel a right prat.

21/06/2012 07:49
Excellent article, the coaching manual should be treated as a base line, however, one size does not fit all. Coaches should always adapt to the individual and be innovative to stretch him or her to maximise their potential. 
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