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Excellent Coaching – the Pathway to Gold

By John Driscoll: Executive Director, sports coach UK

I’m at the edge of a crowd watching a film of Watkins and Grainger winning gold at London 2012. The room is quiet – we all know the outcome - but the film brings back all the tension of the moment. As I wipe away a tear, I sense the tall woman standing next to me tremble with emotion. She’s seen the same clip many times, but it still has that effect.

She calmly walks to the stage and shares the long journey which culminated in that moment at Dorney Lake. Coaches have played a critical role in the success of Katherine Grainger, the only British female athlete to have won medals at four successive Olympic Games. In this closing keynote at the 2013 UK Coaching Summit, Katherine gives her perspective of the skills of excellent coaching, including the ability to inspire, exceptional analysis and debriefing, absolute clarity of purpose, self-development and knowing when to let go.

Rowing was not Katherine’s first love. At school, she excelled in karate and progressed through the sport’s highly structured programme to gain her black belt. Moving to university, Katherine attended the karate club but was put off by insensitive coaching and soon looked elsewhere. Karate’s loss was to be rowing’s gain.

One of the lasting lessons from her university coach Hamish Burrell was the need to balance the Venn diagram of sport, studies and family life. Although one of these might dominate for a while, the others must not be forgotten. This holistic approach worked for Katherine; under Hamish’s coaching, she progressed from university rowing to winning gold for Britain in the U23 World Championship. Hamish also knew when it was time for her to move on to another coach – the skill of letting go.

In the run-up to the 2000 Games, Head Coach Mike Spracken excelled in clarity of purpose. He set a challenging programme for the team because he had a vision of what was possible – often exceeding their own beliefs.  That paid off when, in a final burst of energy, the women’s quad sculls took silver by mere hundredths of a second.

That silver was the first medal of any colour for British women rowers and it changed the expectations of the whole team. Four years later, now under Paul Thompson’s coaching, every woman in the British team won a medal at Athens. Summing up Paul’s approach to her second silver, Katherine believes that an excellent coach is also coaching himself all the time, finding new and better ways of doing things.

Preparing for Beijing in 2008, expectations were even higher and the team were targeting the top end of the medal table. When it really mattered, the British women couldn’t match the Chinese, and Katherine saw her third Olympic silver as a massive failure. Undaunted, Paul encouraged her to switch boats, first to a single scull and then in 2010 to the double scull with Anna Watkins. That pairing continued until London 2012, where the years of Paul’s exceptionally detailed analysis and debriefing skills finally paid off.

What’s next for Katherine? In the Venn diagram of her life over the past 12 years, her studies have often taken second place to rowing. That’s now changed and after a season out of the sport, she has her PhD as well as her gold medal. Mind you, she almost left that behind when departing from the Summit and had to dash back to retrieve it. Perhaps she’ll go to Rio for a spare one.


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