Great coaches no doubt differ in their styles as much as great athletes. But the coaches must all have eone thing in common: they are great communicators. It isn't just a question of seeing what the athlete must do, but of persuading the athlete to do it. Anybody who has seen Frank Dick speak on a public platform will bear witness to his skills as communicator to several hundred people: his skill at one-to-one communication also played a crucial role, not only in developing individual world champions, but in revitalising British athletics as a whole.
Today most people remember only the long string of glorious successes during Dick's reign as national coach – the middle-distance triumphs of Coe, Cram and Ovett, the sprinting of Christie and Regis, the decathlons of Daley Thomson, the hurdling of Gunnell and Jackson, the javelin throwing of Whitbread and Backley, and many, many more. At the start, though, the international standing of British athletics was even lower than that of English rugby when Geoff Cooke took charge.
Victory in the European Cup seemed as far away then as the World Cup final did to the rugby players before Cooke unfolded his vision. In an athletics competition, though, the coach has to form a team by blending highly individualistic athletes, who actually compete with each other in their individual events, and only combine for relays. Working with different captains, Dick achieved miracles of communication in the big international competitions: spectators could feel the team spirit that was evoked and which plainly reinforced the athletes' own will to win.
Dick's prowess as coach and communicator has been widely recognised outside athletics. He has worked with such intense competitors as Boris Becker and Gerhard Berger, together with, most recently, a number of rugny players. Dick's years of experience have coalesced into startlingly simple, but far too infrequently applies, principles for coaching others to achieve success. He starts by denying a popular belief – that 'you have a coach or you hire a coach, and that's it for life. It's not like that.'
What is coaching then? Dick's answer comes not from sport, but from a wedding. 'I'd coached a boy who married a girl called Beatrice, the daughter of a titled Cuban family. I went to their wedding, and she said, "Frank. I wish you in life the strength to give your children the only two gifts that you can." Now I've got two daughters, and I thought it's going to be expensive.' Dick asked if Beatrice were talking about a BMW or something: the answer was, 'the only two gifts you must give them are the roots to grow and the wings to fly.'
At a stroke, this young woman had summed up the entire development process. Dick believes that, whether it's a coach working with an athlete, a parent with children, a teached with pupils, managers with their staff, it's the same. 'At the end of the day, when the athlete goes out into the arena, whether it's a Twickenham or Wimbledon, the athlete is making a total statement for himself or herself. It's their statement. The coach cannot be involved at that point. '
To Dick, the 'worst possible thing' is to see athletes looking up into the stand for their coaches, 'because you know they are not concentrating 100%. They should be out there owning the whole problem.' The job of the coach, or the manager, or the parent is to 'get into other people the strength to do the growing.' The mentor spends time on directing and coaching to achieve precisely that – 'the part of the process you've got to get into them.'
The next stage tests the coach as much as the player. 'Once they've started to grow, and they're growing strong, there comes a point when you've not only got to have the skills, but the courage to push them away from you, to let them spread their wings. If you don't, you're hanging on to their wings, and you will hold them down.' Dick makes the analogy with the child learning to walk: 'finally there's a stage where you let them fall and let them pick themselves up.'
Everybody must go through these stages. Dick is adamant that 'you can't have a coach, a manager or whatever who never lets that person fall over.' The motive for holding on may be love, or the mentor's own dependency on the other person's dependency. 'There are parents, coaches, managers who don't really want the person to be able to spread his wings, otherwise they themselves don't feel needed any more.' They feel that their world has collapsed, 'that there's nothing more for you.'
Many managers have challenged Dick on this issue. 'If we make these guys good, what's in it for us for the future?' His answer is that, if their own superiors 'see that you can manufacture two, three or four of you, you're golddust.' Dick's point is that any of the good guys might leave: but the boss won't 'want to lose you, because you can make more of you, and that's critical.' As he says, the work of the coach – in management as in athletics – 'is central to the whole business.'
The process is 'on-going, dynamic, changing, developing.' The philosophy of 'grab them and hold them for good' doesn't work. When presenting to managers, Dick takes a quite different line; he usually tells his audiences that, 'at the end of the day, the greatest compliment you can ever have as a manager, in the words of the Bette Midler song, is that "you're the wind beneath my wings." And that's it.' The manager/coach sees them spread their wings, smiles, and moves on to something else.
To Dick's mind, a good coach always takes his athletes through a definite process. Mistakes will be made along the way, but belief in the process, as well as the outcome, is crucial. How do you nurture the roots and grow the wings? When people first come to a coach, 'they are really pretty excited, because you represent the possiblity of fulfilling their ambitions.' Giving them motivation or confidence therefore isn't that important. Here Dick uses a coaching style that he calls 'directing.'
The communication leaves no room for argument. You set the rules, saying 'this is how you'll train on a Tuesday and Wednesday. I'll expect you to do this and this and this. Here's your programme – off you go. These are the rules that I live by.' The next stage is that motivation goes down. Confidence has started to rise, because of the coaching process, but 'the fact is that no-one in life ever improves as fast as they think they should.' As motivation consequently slackens, the mentor's style shifts from directing to 'coaching'.
This style, says Dick, is 'a little bit softer.' He will give the athlete more help in fitting into the rules: 'I'll put demands on you, and then I'll help you to fit in.' At both the first two stages, though, Dick is in control. But then the athlete crosses a 'magic line' and enters stage three: 'Hey, I can see where I'm going now. I know where I'm going to get up. I've got my ambitions. I want to get there, and I want to get there fast.'
Mentors have to understand the peaks and troughs of this process. 'Motivation pops up and down with successes and not so much motivation.' Performance, says Dick, goes up in steps: 'if you're going to develop people properly, there are going to be periods of stability, acceleration, stability. In much the same way as you have day and night, and you need to sleep and recover and regenerate, you need to push the work in, and you need this balance all the time.' Stage four has arrived.
At this point, the coach gives up the reins: 'you are very much in control, and I support what you are going.' Then comes the dÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©nouement: 'Finally motivation is up, confidence is up, and I am simply there to give advice when you need me.' The coach is now a counsellor, and the four-stage process is complete, with the first two providing the roots and the second two the wings. 'Having spread your wings, you come back to the nest or tree of whetever, whenever you need an expert.'
It takes great strength, as well as humility, for a coach to put so much into his people, and then sit back and allow them to take the glory. But Dick believes that 'the ability to control your ego is crucial in coaching. Ego must be controlled or the coach will never truly 'let go' of his pupils and will thereby stifle their true growth.' The ego problem for the coach arises if he wants to be high profile; then, 'of course, I'll always be looking over your shoulder when you're in the newspapers.'
But 'it can't work like that, because you'll never feel clear of me, and there'll be resentment of me at the end of the day.' That's why it's difficult to work with athletes who are really going to spread their wings – 'rough diamonds', in Dick's phrase. Their athletic resources are very precious (hence the diamond, but 'they want to be mountain people, to get out of the valley, not to be equated with anybody else in life – they want to be different.'
Rough diamonds don't fit into moulds: 'the rough parts don't allow that to happen.' That poses a challenge to the mentor: 'fitting you into a mould is desperately comfortable for me, because I can control you then.' That communicates the wrong message and contravenes the fundamental principles of the coaching process, which is 'not to control you, but to get the best out of you.' So the mould idea has to go. As for the rough parts, they'are fine, provided they don't hurt other people in the team.'
Dick doesn't mind the rough bits hurting him, 'but if they start hurting other people, so that you don't have cohesion at the end of the day, then you had better start chipping off the odd rough edge.' The target is performance: a coach must have the confidence to measure himself on the performance of his charges. The fact that coaches rarely receive the plaudits misses the point. A coach's raison d'ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©tre is to nurture and courage a great performance.
Its achievement provides immense satisfaction to the mentor who has been a key contributor to the success. 'It's how you measure yourself – that's the critical thing. You look in the mirror – you're only accountable to one person, and that's you, the guy in the mirror. Was it your best shot?' Dick was extremely upset in 1987 when the press 'had done a bad number on me because of Linford Christie and Daley Thompson.' The decathlon hadn't gone Thompson's way: 'he was injured when he went into it, and the view was that he should not have competed.'
The major press onslaught, however, centred on Dick having fallen out with Christie. 'I came back home, and my head had gone down.' He remembered a quote, though – that 'it's not the critic who counts.' Dick's philosophy is that you must communicate honestly with yourself, asking 'did I give this my best shot? Would I have done it another way? Did I stand by my right set of principles? Did I put my ego in the way?' If the answers confirm that it truly was your best shot, well, 'there's nothing more you can do about it after that.'
Dick won't deny that he has 'an ego like anyone else', or that this raises difficulties. 'To start with, you think of coaching as a job, and because you see other people getting a spin-off from the work that you put in, I suppose it's tempting to think, "come on, let me got onto the front of the pitch". And I was spoiled really because, being the chief coach for Great Britain, I was going to get a better profile, anyway.' Vitally, though, what counts is 'where your ego fits in, and how you adjust to the position – what's right for the athlete or the team, as opposed to what's right for you.'
It helps, of course, to work with extremely talented athletes like Thompson, though, in fact, Dick wouldn't count the latter among the greatest talents he's met. Nor would he call talent the greatest constutent of success. Rather, success hinges of talent plus a mix of motivation and confidence. Too much talent can actually be a disadvantage, because everything comes too easily. You never learn to cope with failure, or what it feels like, because in your evolving years, everything is a success.
When Dick began his athletics career, he recalls, 70% of the gold medallists from the All England Schools' Championship had left the sport within three years. The cream of the crop gave up shortly after entering the harsh world of adult athletics. The outstanding, talented athlete who has won throughout his schooling comes up against the athlete with adequate talent, who has fought hard, won races, but also lost races, and probably has a healthier, more realistic experience of sport. Which has the better prospects?
The answer is obvious to Dick, but possibly not, he believes, to enough coaches – or enough athletes. All the great champions of Dick's time, like Thompson, Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett, had to fight their way through to the top. A great coach should look, not just for talent, but for motivation and passion. The desire and hunger within an athlete govern the ability to bounce back and fight on, and spur the willingness to learn. You can always compensate for lack of talent: you cannot compensate for lack of desire or dedication.
The key is to create 'the right motivational climate.' Too many people, Dick believes, think of motivation, not as climate, but as weather: you deal with rain or snow – specific situations – instead of creating the climate, the framework, within which your athlete can operate. As an example, Dick found when working with Gerhard Berger that his athlete hated running, and communicated his hatred only too clearly. Like all athletes, though, he needed a high level of endurance to compete successfully. Dick had to find an alternative.
Berger turned out to love playing squash, which became the hub of his endurance training – no more miles upon miles of road-running. It's a neat example of how effective two-way communication between coach and player achieves winning results. Since Berger enjoyed squash, why make training a hated burden when it didn't have to be? Too often, coaches and managers think pedantically and predictably. Rather than seeking solutions to a problem, they tend to bulldoze through with a lack of uncommunicative sensitivity that negates Dick's simple but eminently logical approach:
It centres round building on people's strengths, what they are good at – and 'everybody is good at something.' people enjoy what they are good at, and do it competently. That's the foundation for good coaching: build a positive profile made up of strengths, and never do the opposite – concentrate on what people do badly. This flatly contradicts the common outcome of performance reviews in large organisations, which love to provide development programmes to cover the incompetencies revealed by the appraisal.
'They never think of giving you a development programme for what you're good at.' Focusing on weaknesses gives the wrong message, providing negative motivation, while focusing on strengths is highly positive and recognises a basic truth: that people achieve in life through what they do well, not badly. Of course, weaknesses should be corrected, but not at the price of ignoring strengths. The mentor's role, using every means of communication in his or her power, is to create a positive, stimulating environment, where success is continually recognised and reinforced, and where weaknesses are quietly strengthened.