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UK Coaching Team
Talent and Performance Rapport Building and Communicating

Donna Fraser Pays Tribute to her ‘Amazing’ Coach: I Wouldn’t be Person I Am Today Without Him

The four-time Olympian presents an intimate insight into her memorable journey with long-time coach Ayo Falola. “Coaches do not get the recognition they deserve,” says Fraser, who lauds the phenomenal impact Falola had on her career and her wider life. Blake Richardson reviews her 2020 UK Coaching Applied Research Conference keynote presentation

The British public do not appreciate the significant influence and lasting impact coaches can have on the lives of others.

Athletes may put their coaches on a pedestal, but because coaches work behind the scenes, the immense contribution they make often goes unnoticed by the general population.

Our #GreatCoaching stories aim to shine a light on our hidden heroes and heroines and raise the profile of coaching in the UK, so that more people begin to recognise the true worth of our coaching workforce.

With three million active coaches operating in the UK, the truth is, you simply can’t put a price on their value to society.

There is a popular quote by John Wooden that coach educators should never tire of repeating: “A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.”

Donna Fraser buys into that maxim 100 per cent. Because she had a great coach. And he changed her life.

In her keynote presentation at the 2020 UK Coaching Applied Research Conference, Donna provided an insightful personal recollection of her long-time coach, and ran through the key attributes that set him apart from some of his peers. 

The anecdotes she told serve as a shining example of what it takes for a coach to transcend the moniker of ‘good coach’ and warrant inclusion in the ‘great’ bracket. 

Ever-present and ever helpful


She began by showing delegates three pictures. One is from her fourth-place finish in the Sydney Olympics 400m final, one from her time working for EDF Energy (which she did for 19 years – straddling careers for a time by juggling her training as a professional athlete with her role as Health and Leisure Events Specialist – and one from the Marks and Spencer breast cancer awareness campaign she proudly featured in (Donna is a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in 2009).

“One thing that resonates through all of those photos was my coach. Yes, I did have a support network throughout my entire career and my life, however my coach was by my side through each one of those experiences. 

“He was with me at the Olympics and was with me every step of the way after my cancer diagnosis. He was an amazing individual.”

Describing the moment she found out she had cancer, Donna recalled in an interview with Comicus

Everything else went blank. I went into a bubble, a zone. I was on a different planet. I was there on my own because until then I had not told my family anything. I had told my coach, Ayo Falola, and he was what I needed at that time.” 

Their paths converged in an elite training group. Donna was a member at Croydon Harriers and Ayo ran for Woodford Green Athletics Club in Essex. He was a talented athlete in his own right, boasting personal bests of 10.2 in the 100 metres and 20.93 in the 200 metres. 

Not a session went by that he didn’t have some personal tips and advice to pass on, explains Donna. To the extent that she urged him to consider crossing the not so great divide from athlete to coach (or great divide, depending on your viewpoint) and transfer the knowledge and experience he had in abundance into a career in coaching. 

As Donna put it to him in a jolly, but also jolly serious, manner: “Put your money where your mouth is Ayo.”

She soon became, what Donna herself describes as, “his guinea pig”, and Ayo enjoyed nothing more than “experimenting furiously” in the duo’s drive to maximise her potential. 

But this was no pet project, and there was certainly nothing cute and cuddly about his tactics and training methods. They were on a mission, fuelled by the motto he had adopted from Adidas: ‘Impossible is nothing.’


The building blocks of success

Like all the great coach-athlete relationships that last the distance, the path to success was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a walk in the park.

“There were peaks and troughs, arguments here, there and everywhere. We were more like a husband and wife to begin with. But he was developing himself,” says Donna.

The public don’t get to see the ups and downs, the fears, the turmoil, the tears, the arguments. But that whole relationship is the catalyst to success.”

The performance gains she made on the track were matched by the personal gains Donna made off the track, as a direct result of Ayo’s influence and support.

Reflecting on the attributes he instilled in her, Donna says Ayo gave her the “building blocks” she needed to succeed as an athlete at the pinnacle of her sport. But, much, much more than that, he also infused in her the fundamental and transferable life-skills of resilience, fortitude, courage, mental strength and self-belief that have helped her make great strides in the corporate world, and particularly in the field of equality and diversity, since her retirement from competitive athletics in 2009.

In fact, her impact in the boardroom has been every bit as effective and impressive as the indelible mark her running spikes left on the British sprinting scene.

She has held the positions of president of the South of England Athletics Association, Chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network at EDF Energy and vice president of UK Athletics' Members Council, and is currently UK Athletics’ Equality, Diversity & Engagement Lead and Vice Chair of the British Athletes Commission. Add to that vibrant mix a whole host of current and former ambassador, trustee and patron roles.

Donna will always owe her long-time coach, friend, confidant and her number one supporter a debt of gratitude. She recognises that her life would be very different today if it wasn’t for him. 

Sadly, Ayo passed away in 2015 after his own battle with cancer, at the age of 47, but his legacy lives on.

Compelling qualities of a great coach

Well-versed in the type of questions aspirational coaches ask her, and accustomed to being interviewed by the media from her days as a professional athlete, Donna was prepared for the inevitable delegate question: “What key words would you use to describe your coach?”

She pre-empted that by making it a feature of her keynote. Only, she found it impossible to stick at two or three. Indeed, she had to force herself to stop at 11. 

Here are the principal characteristics she came up with that represented Ayo.


She didn’t have time to dwell on each, so elaborated on just a few.

“Resourceful. He would engage with other coaches from all over the world, not just the UK. He would watch and learn and picked up so much.

“Honesty was absolutely key. He did not mince his words after a poor race. But he would always say: ‘what did you learn from that race; how could we move forward?’ He would tell me, ‘I know the answers, but I want you to work out the answers for yourself’.”

Talking of honesty, Donna adds, as an aside, that she can “honestly say, hand on heart” that Ayo knew her better than she knew herself. It is imperative, she says, emphasising her words, to get to know the person you coach on a deep level, to earn their trust and build rapport, if you are to help that person thrive.

“Motivator. He motivated me to get into the world of work away from athletics. He told me that athletics would not last forever.

“When I went through my breast cancer journey, he was there. He thought I was crazy for wanting to carry on training but we were on the same level, and three weeks after my first operation I was back out there. He got me a 100-metre race. I was on the line. No-one else knew what I was going through except for him. He kept my spirits up.

Experimentation: In the winter of 1999 building up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, I was introduced to Danny Crates. And this is when Ayo broke the mould of many athletics coaches, having a para-athlete training with a non-disabled training group.”

With a background in rugby, other coaches were unsure of the value he would add to the group. But Ayo spotted his potential and offered him a way in.

“Ayo was quite selective of who he invited and accepted into the group, but to Ayo your work ethic mattered more than anything else. He told Danny [an 800 metre runner] to come back when he could run 50.8 for 400 metres. At the time that was my personal best. He wanted someone who was more or less on par with me, with a little bit more strength and endurance. And that’s what made it such a great partnership, with Danny helping me immensely in my training.”

And the feeling no doubt is mutual, with the reciprocal relationship they struck up on the training track also helping Danny, who would go on to win gold in the 800 metres at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games – thanks in no small part to the foresight of Ayo.

The final word

The 11 words Donna chose may not appear all that special when they are written down on a page or read off a PowerPoint slide. But they were given considerable weight by Donna in her intimate account of what makes a great coach. And collectively, these 11 words exerted a powerful and positive influence on her life. 

The moral of her story, meanwhile, is best summed up in just five words: great coaches build great people.

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