An interesting question that came up last week. Well, working in the field of elite sports performance for almost 40 years, one can see changes from then till now.
So what are the major differences between working with elite athletes at that time and now?
I am not looking at natural improvement of performances or the increased use of technology.
1. 40 Years ago coaching was mainly a one-man’s job .The coach had a close relationship with his athlete or athletes. Nowadays athletes are supported by teams of advisors or specialists, in which the coach has the role of manager or coordinator with less focus on coaching, but more on adequate delegation of specific tasks to the other team members.
2. One cannot deny the role of the internet as a dominant source of information for coaches. 40 Years ago one relied on books, articles, seminars or personal contact with colleagues. My personal opinion is that the quality of information is replaced by quantity of information. Often young coaches ask me: “but isn’t writing on the internet the same as writing a book or article, what is the difference?” My answer is: just try to write a book or article instead of a Facebook post and you’ll know. On the internet every “brainfart” is fired into the internet within a minute, without any filter, reflexion or self-criticism. I said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet is the biggest garbage can that exists. I’ll give you an example: last week I gave presentation about running technique and put a picture of Mo Farah in there. I wanted to know his height and weight and some more about his running. So I googled different sources. Wikipedia gave me 1.71 m and 60 kg, and somebody stated that he supposedly had a leg length difference of 1 inch. Purely by coincidence I ran into Mo Farah here in Amsterdam two days later and decided to ask him personally. His height is 1.68, his weight 55 kg and no, he has no leg length difference! So far for the reliability of information on the internet. For speed, cost and quantity, yes, for quality, and reliability, no.
3. Information sources, e.g. about training, came from within the sport with a slow influx of information from sport-related sources. Nowadays a large part of information, ideas and concepts comes from:
• the fitness industry, not at all aimed at increasing elite performance, but mainly to look good, feel good and create general overall fitness and get average people to the gym and keeping them happy.
• rehabilitation and therapies, again, not aimed at increasing high performance, but at bringing injured, weak and elderly people back to a normal average level of fitness, not to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
• marketing of products, technical or nutritional: one can find and app or a pill that helps for everything one can imagine. It might take a few weeks or months before reality slaps you in the face, but in the end you will discover that 99.9% of the claims are exaggerations, based on sloppy science or good marketing, on hope or naivety only.
4. coaches were more independent and (self-critical) thinkers, showed creativity, and weren’t overly concerned with status, their likes on Facebook or job titles like high-performance coach or speed specialist.
5. At that time coaches were real students of their sport, they knew the history, knew the milestones of the past and knew the „greats“ in their field. The time horizon of the modern coach seems to be more limited in these aspects. They sometimes have no clue about anything that happened in their sport more than 5 years ago. But also their view of the future seems to be limited to the short-term, next competition, next month or next year. Just ask them where they and their athletes will be in 5 or 10 years from now.
So you might ask: “were things better in those days?”. No, definitely not, most things were much worse as matter of fact. Think about the sports materials, the foot wear, the equipment, the facilities, or the technology. But in scarcity or in limitations are the opportunities. One had to use one’s own brain and find creative solutions for problems that now no longer exist. These days many young coaches think they can solve a complex problem by simply downloading an app.