Take It Easy And Keep It Simple

 Track coach, Arch Jelley, and I were talking on the phone las night. Arch asked if I had seen the news that Arthur Lydiard had received a coaching award from the IAAF. I said, no I had not seen that news. Arch said he would send me the report. A few minutes later I received this news.

Legendary athletics coach, Arthur Lydiard has been honoured with a World Athletics Heritage plaque.

Arthur Lydiard has been posthumously awarded a World Athletics Heritage Plaque in the Legendary category.

The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) president Sebastian Coe announced the award in Doha overnight (NZT).

I am delighted to see Arthur recognised by the IAAF. His work and life certainly deserved no less. It is perhaps the greatest honour of my coaching life that Arthur included a chapter in his autobiography devoted to describing the way we had applied his methods to the sport of swimming. He called the chapter, “The Wright way to swim”.

New Zealand athletics and sport are stunningly fortunate to have two coaches like Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard guide the progress of sport. It got me thinking – what were the most important lessons I learned from these two coaches.

Interestingly both Arch and Arthur independently stressed the same qualities. Take it easy they said and keep it simple. Let’s look at each of these separately.

First – Take it easy. When I began coaching I operated on the idea that what I did MADE the athlete into a champion. I moulded and shaped the raw material into a champion. The athlete’s future was down to me. This led to all sorts of problems. I pushed too hard. I set ridiculous schedules. Nothing was ever far enough. Nothing was fast enough. If running around the Waitakeres in the morning was good, doing it again in the afternoon was even better.

Arch and Arthur changed all that. They made me realise I was not a bulldozer pushing athletes to their goal. I was more of a conduit, facilitating their journey. Key to this was not pushing too hard. When Arch began helping Alison with her running we were living in England. His first letter written on 18/10/1976 included the following thoughts.

Your build-up mileage seems very high for a runner with your background. I think it’s a bit high but on the other hand you may be able to cope.

  The other important factor to watch is to ensure that you alternate your work so that you have a toughish day followed by an easier day. Unless you do this you will not get your bady a chance to consolidate and recover.

When his letter arrived I could not believe it. Here was one of the world’s best coaches, instead of telling me how to make Alison run further and faster was advising me to back off. Clearly I would need to think about all this.

And so it has been in the 43 years since that first letter (almost to the day). Whenever I have called Arch or Arthur with a training problem their normal advice is the back off and take it easy. Several weeks ago, before the National Swimming Championships I was worried about Eyad’s form. I called Arch to see what he thought. “Give him a rest,” he said.

“Okay I’ll give him the afternoon off.” I said.

“No, have a whole week of easy swimming,” Arch said. And he was right. Eyad raced well.

And so facilitate, don’t force, be a conduit, not a bulldozer was my first lesson.

Second – keep it simple. The amazing thing about the truly gifted – and Arch and Arthur are certainly that – is they make the incredibly difficult look amazingly simple. Read Arthur’s books or talk to Arch. You do this and this and this and then you run fast – simple. In swimming I frequently read training schedules that are way beyond my understanding. All sorts of distances muddled up together. All sorts of labelled efforts that mean nothing to the layman. The schedules look like a mathematical formula for splitting the atom. You simply never see the mathematical formula approach in a Lydiard and Jelley schedule. You never see it in my schedules now – thanks to them. Their schedules are a warm-up decided by the athlete, one main set that is obviously anaerobic or speed and a warm-down, also decided by the athlete. And if aerobic fitness is the plan go off for a steady good long run. I swear your average swim coach make their schedules look like a computer program to impress parent’s walking past the squad white board. But to any parent reading this – if you can’t understand what’s written on the squad white board, find another coach. If it says something like this, smile – your swimmer is in good hands.

Warm Up 1500 Your Choice

Main Set 8×400 firm swim, 1×400 firm kick

Warm Down 500 Your Choice

Or maybe a favourite of mine

Swim 100×100 on 1.30

 I’ve been searching for an interview with Peter Snell but can’t find it now. But in the one I’m thinking of Snell stresses the value of tempo running (or swimming). What he is saying is that if you want to run a four minute mile, 60 second 400s must be second nature. You don’t get that from sessions that mix distances and speeds and drills. Simple works best.

And so thank you Arch and Arthur. I owe you both heaps.

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