Focus on the Process
Dr Matt Long provides an overview of a presentation delivered by Dave Sunderland on the subject of athlete preparation.
World-class coach, coach educator, and mentor Dave Sunderland recently addressed an audience of coaches as part of the England Athletics mentoring program. The veteran of every major championship was keen to elaborate on what he referred to as When, What, and Why's of training and had much to say about the methods behind the greatest rivalry in British athletics history - namely that of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett.
What is the potential?
SUNDERLAND asserted that the basic task of the coach is to differentiate between what one can affect in terms of athlete performance and what is a given in terms of genetics. As well as facilitating physiological developments, his message was that the development of mental toughness is paramount. "Most athletes are inevitably going to lose far more races than they win" he stated realistically. "We are then getting into the realms of enthusiasm and dedication."
Long-term athlete development
In terms of LTAD, Sunderland confirmed the trend that, "Early developers tend not to come through, so we as coaches have to work on retaining them." In alluding to peak height velocity as an indicator of biological maturation, he emphasised that coaching 'knowledge' of all aspects of a young athlete's exercise program, including cross-training, was vital to effect progressive overload of volume and intensity. Additionally, he pointed to the need for coaches to draw upon support networks available to them which may include physiological testing of their athletes and masseurs.
The process rather than the outcome can be the key according to Sunderland who recounted the tale of the late great Peter Coe telling his son to "run as hard as you can for as long as you can" before the 1978 European 800m final in Prague. A young Sebastian was crestfallen in taking 'only' a bronze having come unstuck in the final 100m after a barnstorming 49-second first 400m. Despite his loss to the East German, Olaf Beyer, and compatriot Steve Ovett, Sunderland maintains that Coe senior was spot on in setting his young charge a process goal. This would reap dividends in terms of a two-lap world record in Oslo a year later because they had worked on what was required to maintain form over the last 100m of the race.
Stressing the need for a solid endurance base, Sunderland pointed to Coe's bemoaning of the lack of participation in cross-country races by many endurance athletes. "It's one of the reasons for his great aerobic base, and along with his conditioning which enabled Coe to run seven races in a handful of days in Los Angeles and retain his 1500m title with one of his fastest ever times."
As well as event-specific training for race pace simulation, the man who was a national coach for no less than 15 years stressed the necessity for coach and athlete to disaggregate the notion of 'speed endurance' in the following ways:
Diversity was the key message in terms of:
In pointing to the former world 1500m and mile record holder, he stressed that "Everybody knew that Steve Ovett was going to kick with 200m to go. He was that explosive he got 10m on them and didn't need to pull away more. That was because he worked diligently on acceleration runs indoors at Crystal Palace in the 1970s."
Strength endurance and power
Recounting his twice-yearly visits to Merthyr Mawr in South Wales with the late Harry Wilson who guided Ovett to Moscow Olympic 800m gold, Sunderland remembers: "We always took the thigh circumference of athletes and equated them to their time up the legendary Big Dipper. Steve came out tops on both lists, which were an indicator of his power. Both he and Coe used hill running because it's one of the best all-around ways to get fit and stay fit. To develop his power further, Coe also did bounding and depth-jumping, but only after years of conditioning, as this type of training should only be done with a maturely experienced athlete."
The National Coach Mentor encouraged coaches to think of the above notion much more broadly than its automatic association with training and altitude. For him 'acclimatisation training' is about breeding familiarity with race-specific conditions. He adds: "I had Lynsey Sharp doing BUCS last May so that she would get the feel of the Olympic stadium and the procedures involved. It's incredible how many athletes get to championships with no specific training plan for when they get there!"
In terms of tactics, Sunderland says: "The 800m is more difficult than the 1500m because if you make one mistake over two laps, you are dead. Coaches have to engender greater tactical awareness among younger athletes. A young Coe learned how to win by running both from the front and by 'sitting in' and kicking." Sunderland feels that championship level competition offers a specific challenge in terms of negotiating a way through the rounds. Drawing upon decades of experience in managing Staffordshire schools' teams notes that, "Lots of fastest losers in English schools heats and semi's get it right by going on to gain a medal in the final. At the world-class level, tactical running through the rounds was displayed by East Germany's Jurgen Straub in the heats of the Moscow Olympic 1500m. He ran Ovett close deliberately in their first-round heat forcing the Brighton man to exert himself to extend his unbeaten run at the distance. As a result, Ovett was tired by the day of the final, and Straub ended up grabbing an unexpected silver medal, pushing Steve himself back into third place".
Like many other coaches of note, Sunderland professed to an eclectic approach of "taking bits from everybody" but noted the influence of Australian Percy Cerutty whose 'Stotan' philosophies blended Stoic and Spartan principles and produced his all-time favourite middle-distance athlete Herb Elliott.
Challenging African dominance
He concluded with optimism by asserting that, "We can produce athletes who can challenge for medals on the global stage. Look at Fermin Cacho who took Olympic 1500m gold in Barcelona (1992) and still holds the European record at 3min 28.95sec. If you go into a global final knowing you can run around 3min 30sec, and you get it right tactically, then you have a chance against the Africans. Opportunities to grab medals exist, particularly in the women's events."
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long is a volunteer endurance coach with Birmingham University AC and British Athletics Coach Education Tutor. England Athletics Area Coach Mentor Geoff James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for future workshop bookings.