Disability Coaching: My Journey
By Keith Antoine
How did I get into disability athletics?
In the late 80’s I was asked to coach on some training weekends for British Blind Sport and got hooked from there. A couple of the athletes actually liked my brand of pain and joined my group. While national coach on the able-bodied programme, I was invited onto the team for the 1990 Disability World Championships, the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics and 1993 IBSA European Championships. At first I thought I would never figure out all the different classifications and additions/adjustments to the IAAF rules and regulations.
I stopped all team duties in 1995 returning in 2000 as the National Disability Sprints Coach.
What was my philosophy?
I relied on my knowledge of coaching sprinters, and trusted myself to learn what I needed to learn about the various disabilities involved.
My view was a sprinter is a sprinter, and needs to do what sprinters do! I remember some surreal early conversations, e.g. about weight training, being told athletes with CP don’t/can’t/shouldn’t lift free weights. It was necessary to seriously challenge the prevailing attitude to coaching disability sprinters if we were not going to get left behind internationally.
Thankfully it’s very different now. With sound technical knowledge, the ability to design and execute an effective training programme, and a splash of common sense, it is possible to enjoy the rewards of working with disabled athletes. They improve, and break, for the same reasons as their able-bodied counterparts.
Probably the most noticeable difference in disability athletics coaching in the last 10-15 years is in the focus on disability versus event specific knowledge. Back then the focus was on knowledge of the disability, now it is knowledge of the specific.
How has disability coaching helped me?
I’d like to think I’ve improved as a coach because of my involvement with disabled athletes. Working on the Paralympic side, you strive to get as close as possible to the ‘ideal’ technical model, as is the case with able-bodied athletes, however the additional challenge is to bring a level of creativity to work out how to negate the disability affecting the athlete.
Paralympic athletics is still in its infancy compared to Olympic, which means we are at the sharp end of something that is still developing. Every year athletes come onto the scene and redefine what is capable within one class or another. World records get broken at every major championship as Paralympic athletics continues to surge from participation sport to serious elite sport.
Most athletes on the team from this year’s World Championships in Lyon train alongside able-bodied athletes, which in my opinion is how it should be. Disabled athletes need and want to be challenged, stretched and developed just like any able-bodied athlete.
So what’s the bottom line? For me, if you’re a quality athletics coach, you can coach athletes with a disability. And if you’re not, you shouldn’t.
Keith was Great Britain national coach for various sprint & relay events from 1990-95, as well as being personal coach to many international athletes, including Helen Frost, Katherine Merry and Darren Campbell. Keith also spent six years from 2000 as the National Disability Sprints Coach through the Sydney & Athens Paralympics, and was recalled in 2009 to assist with preparations for the London 2012 Paralympics. He was part of the coaching staff in London, and personal coach to athletes that won gold (Richard Whitehead) and silver medals (Libby Clegg & Stefanie Reid) all with lifetime best performances. The 2013 World Championships were just as lucrative with Richard again taking gold and Libby taking two silver medals. He is joined this winter by the 2011 World Champs 200m bronze medallist Sally Brown.