Flicking through the usual selection of films on the long-haul flight back from Australia this week, I came across Coach Carter. Some people may know it already. Even though it’s been around since 2005, it’s one I hadn’t watched before.
Coach Carter is based on the true story of a high school basketball coach, Ken Carter, played brilliantly stern by Samuel L Jackson. In it, he strives to earn the respect and commitment of the student athletes in the classroom and on the basketball court.
Part of his mantra is that the discipline you need in practice and in competition also needs to be a part of your daily life. In that way, these trails and qualities become so ingrained that it all comes naturally.
It’s centred around Richmond High school in California, where basketball is the most positive activity in the school community. Only the team is on a losing streak. Enter the new coach, a former player at the school, and straight away he starts raising the bar all around.
[ Sonia O’Sullivan: Welcome to the NCAAs, where winning is all that matters ]
To be that better player, Carter preaches, you need to be that better person in all aspects of life. Your presentation, commitment to academics and in the trust and respect for the coaches and teachers. The players in the school are also expected to sign a contract to abide by rules set out by the coach, including the wearing of a shirt and tie when they arrived on game day, plus improved grades in the classroom. This punctuality, presentation and commitment is all part of their process.
To be a better athlete, you had to be the best person you could be. If you missed a class, or dropped a grade, you are dropped from the team. You then have to work to earn back the respect from your team-mates and the coach. Punishments were also in the form of extra fitness training, a benefit that wasn’t always obvious at the time.
It’s also about communication. That got me thinking again about what makes any good coach on the sidelines, after arriving in Teddington, in southwest London, a stop-off on the way back for the annual Cobh 10-mile road race, named in my honour.
[ Sonia O’Sullivan: Finding the best foot race of them all Down Under ]
It’s happening on Sunday, April 2nd, and I’m always grateful to Ballymore Cobh AC for all the work that goes on behind the scenes and on the ground to deliver the event each year. When you look at what goes into pulling off any successful event, you can easily compare it with what goes into coaching a successful result in a major sporting event.
Whether that’s the women’s football team qualifying to the World Cup in Australia or the Ireland rugby team winning only their fourth Grand Slam and maintaining their dominance and momentum throughout this World Cup year.
As Andy Farrell said after the Ireland victory last weekend, there is a team of players and a team of coaches. The key factors involved in both are belief and attitude; both need to be adhered to every day at training and in competition.
The more you practice, the more you believe, the more natural it becomes. That’s the same with any sport. Even as the stages of competition increase and the goals are elevated.
As a coach, or being part of a coaching team, you put that plan in place and stick closely to it. To be successful, you have to enjoy each other’s company. Everyone believing 100 per cent in the message you are delivering and the actions you are taking to achieve the best possible results. Just acknowledging how important the communication is can also lead to a better performance.
Farrell is the perfect example, able to maintain the trust of the players when Joe Schmidt departed. Initially, it was as if the public questioned would the team be as strong, yet they appear stronger and more committed to each other, no doubt also helped by the force of Paul O’Connell also on the coaching staff.
As a coach you are also looking for positive feedback, to see that the work being put in is delivering an accountable and measurable result, that shows progression and knowledge that everyone is working together.
When an athlete is in good form, training consistently and excited to race, there is very little you need to do except to be there and listen
It’s much more than the numbers and statistics and specific training sessions. Sometimes the coach can get so bogged down in the details that they forget it’s the methods of communication and deliverance is where the seeds to success are planted.
I was in Australia for the World Athletics Cross Country Championships last month and early season track races, in my role as assistant coach at the Nike Union athletics club. One of our athletes, Jessica Hull, who was part of the Australian silver-medal-winning relay team, also won the 1,500m at the Maurie Plant Melbourne track meeting, then set a new Australian record over 3,000m at the Sydney track meeting.
When an athlete is in good form, training consistently and excited to race, there is very little you need to do except to be there and listen. Once the athlete takes ownership of their destiny, you just need to be the reassurance they need when visualising the race. You are the confidante and the wall they bounce their thoughts off before the final race preparations.
[ Sonia O’Sullivan: Still running for pleasure while training through the pain ]
The elation and joy is greater on the track when the athlete is across the finish line or on the field at the final whistle; the coach in the stands or on the sidelines is left with a feeling of content and satisfied that things played out as you hoped they would.
It’s not quite the same exhilaration as being in that field of play, but this is what you are working for, already planning and looking ahead to what’s next.
It’s a little different in a team sport, when athletes are all in it together, fighting for a starting spot on the team. There’s internal competition in every training session. In athletics, that dynamic is sometimes less. Still, the standards are the same, to trust and respect and believe in the process that will take you to the start line ready to achieve.
Once you work out that very specific dynamic, it only gets easier to repeat the process, over and over again. It goes back to the basics of respect and confidence and belief instilled by the coach, and absorbed by the athlete, Coach Carter style.