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It’s all in the communication
Posted by: Steve Trew
Posted on: Wednesday 7th March 2007


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I’ve been coaching now for around forty years – oh my god! That long! Triathlon coaching for around 20, maybe a couple more. And to me, when you coach to certain level, coaching is all about communication. If we assume knowledge, then how we put it across to athletes is the bit that matters. I hope this doesn’t sound too strange, but in many ways teaching and coaching, writing, and commentating are actually quite similar. You’re on a stage and people are expecting you to deliver, they want something from you.

It really is all about communication skills. Which is really a quite convoluted method of introducing what I wanted to chat about this time; people who’ve made an impression on me, not necessarily by what they’ve done, but how they’ve talked and communicated

Memories

I have some amazing memories of the characters and occasions over the years: Spencer (Smith) winning in Manchester was fantastic; Spencer’s raw power on the bike set him apart there, and then when he repeated the victory down in Wellington the following year, after a disappointing race year… maybe even better.

But before all that, there was that first impression that Spencer made on me. It was a race in Portsmouth on September 1st 1991 and the night before Great Britain had won the men’s 4 x 400 metres relay in the World Athletic Championships. It was around the time of Todd Bennett, Kris Akabusi and Roger Black, all South Coast boys in the 4 x 400m squad, so the general buzz around the triathlon that morning was fantastic.

And Spencer, well he was 18 years old and he looked the part. The race was to be a big learning experience for him, competing against the best in Europe (and I recollect that Mike Pigg was over from the USA as well, complete with those Pigg Power wheels!) Even then, the colour pink was predominant on Spencer’s race wear, Tinley brand I recall. Except that Spencer didn’t follow the planned script. By the time the athletes were into the final 5k, there were just two left in contention, the young Spencer Smith and the experienced Belgian, Didier Volckaert. And Spencer outsprinted the more experienced athlete. It was this race that for me, rather than any of the higher profile ones, signaled Spencer’s coming of age and of what we could expect for the future.

So, to the presentations. I was standing with John Williams, late of both Triathlete and 220 magazines, at the back of the stage. Spencer came up to accept his award and was invited to say a few words. And that, as they say, was that. How can you expect an 18 year old to speak, unrehearsed, to a couple of thousand people. But he did, and he was fantastic. First he did what we all expected, thanked the organizers, thanked his competitors, thanked all the spectators for their support. And then he continued, “And there’s one more person I’d like to thank…” – we all waited – “…I’d like to thank my dad. Without my dad, I wouldn’t be here; without my dad, I wouldn’t be at the training sessions; without my dad, I wouldn’t be at the races; without my dad…” I caught John Williams’ eye, we both looked away because we knew that if we kept eye contact, we’d start crying. How Spencer could have the emotional maturity at 18 years old to talk like that, to publicly thank his dad when most 18 year olds would have mumbled platitudes and taken the applause, I really don’t know. He was magnificent.

Fast forward to 1994 and the World Champs in Wellington, New Zealand. I was working for TV for the first time in 1994 and having the opportunity to do the commentary on Spencer’s victory –and indeed, Emma Carney who had come out of nowhere, really made me realize how privileged I was.

A couple of days before the race, there was the traditional GB team age groupers meal. That morning Spencer quietly came over and asked if he could say a few words to the team.

No answer to that one, is there!?

Again, he was superb. First he congratulated everyone on making the GB team – the best in the World, he said. (And how does that make you feel, coming from the current World Champion?) Then he talked about the race, what the athletes could expect. Then he talked about how everyone might be feeling, particularly if it was their first Worlds. He talked about the worries and the fears, the self-doubts that might appear, how to deal with them; that he felt exactly the same and that there was nothing to worry about from being scared. He talked about how to turn it to advantage. And every athlete left that evening thinking that, yes, they would give everything in the race, that, yes, GB was indeed to best team in the World, and that, yes, wasn’t it good to have Spencer Smith, current World Champion, as your very own team-mate.

 You can’t mention Spencer without mentioning the big man, dad Bill. A character without equal, so many stories; Bill got himself into all sorts of trouble at Bath in 1995 when Spencer was dueling with Simon (Lessing). There were one or two, erh, how shall I put this? ‘unfortunate words’ directed at Simon that unfortunately got broadcast on television. When I caught up with Bill some time later in Cancun, his response was, “Steve, I hold my hands up, I was wrong… but he’s my boy!” And then he bought me a drink. Or two… or was it three?

My happy/sad memory of Bill is from European Champs in Finland in ’97 (and what an awesome race Spencer had against Stephan Vuockovic there!) You may have gathered that Bill liked a drink… but rarely suffered any aftermath from it; but in Finland, he was complaining of headaches in the mornings. As you can imagine, there as a total lack of sympathy towards him, but of course, this was the first signs of the illness which took him. We miss you, Bill.

I met Dave Scott in Cambridge, Sarah Springman had managed to persuade him to come over; it was almost like the second coming. You have to remember Dave’s total domination of Hawaii in those days. Dave has that amazing ability to remember people’s names; great communicator, see. His weekend training camp, lectures and stories was simply inspirational. Legend personified.

As is Greg Welch. Greg has this amazing ability to see humour in absolutely everything. I recall him telling me about his open heart surgery and laughing so much he was crying, Greg also does a fair imitation of an ‘on fire Mexican hat dance’. I had great fun working on race commentary with Greg at two World Championships, he is able to bring such an insight into how the race is developing.

There are legends, and there are legends, and then there is Patrick Barnes. The bike named ‘Beelzebub’ with the shopping basket, the race in Perth where he shared the finish with Emma Carney… Another quick story about Patrick… I was present at a weekend training camp for newcomers to the sport, many years back now, and one of the coaches was talking about focusing on effort, and never backing off when racing. The coach said that when she raced she had the word ‘GUTS’ printed on a small piece of paper and taped to her handlebars to remind her to keep pushing all the time; a tentative hand rose from a seat near the back and when acknowledged, Patrick stood up and said that he had the word ‘CAT’ taped to his handlebars….. “Why?” he was asked.

“To remind me to get some food for the cat after the race”. Collapse of group into hysterical laughter and somewhat humbled group speaker!

And now I want to talk about one of my heroes. When you get older, OK then, OLD! You’re not supposed to have heroes who are younger than you. But sometimes, you just can’t help it. So let me tell you about my hero Paula Craig. (Oops, Paula Craig MBE of course!)

Paula Craig is awesome! I'm told off a bit about using that particular word on some of the race commentaries but certainly for Paula, the word is absolutely correct. Paula’s story is well known to the triathlon community; she was hit and paralysed almost six years ago while out bike training. On the 27th May 2001 she was hit in the back by an 84 year old car driver.She knew immediately that she was paralysed. She also had, apart from the spinal injuries, broken her wrist, shoulder blade, a rib, torn the tricep away from her arm and she'd also broken her leg -- but didn't realise that one straight away!

Paula ism’t shy… She has had the guts to talk about her accident and her injuries and how she deals with life. And, you know what, she deals with life very well. Paula has been a great friend and she’s been willing to come down to some of our training camps and just talk to athletes. I hesitate to say that it’s a motivational talk, because it’s so much more than that, so, so much more.

Paula talks about the twenty one weeks in hospital, but then straight back to training. Very different now, training in a wheelchair. She attended a goal setting meeting with the doctors, physics and health workers at the hospital and was asked her immediate goal, "I'm going to do the London Marathon", she replied.

There was a stunned silence... then, "We were thinking about maybe setting the goal of putting your own socks on..." came the reply. But of course, she did do the marathon, and the World Champs triathlon and... and... and..... just about everything that she set herself.

No, wrong. Not just about everything, absolutely everything

She did the swim training session with us, of course. Despite just having had yet another operation to free the muscles in her legs.

Paula is a truly astonishing person, a truly astonishing athlete. Her hour plus talk was filled with jokes, with laughter, what it most definitely wasn't filled with was any vestige of self-pity, not one tiny piece.

She talked about doing Pembroke; the guys out there who've done it know about the hills on the bike. Now imagine doing those hills in a wheelchair. Imagine doing transitions where you’ve got to transfer from one racing (bike) chair to another racing (run) chair. Imagine getting out of the water and hoping that someone’s going to be there to pull you out. Imagine hearing when you’re in the water "The start’s going to be delayed for 10 minutes, sorry about that!" and knowing that you’ve got to stay in that cold water and just suffer it because there isn’t enough time to get you out and get you back in again.

She told us about the operations, and she laughed while she told us, and she made us laugh with her.

She told us, and I quote, "I am so lucky". She said to us, "It happens, you may as well get on with it". She told us about trying for Athens on the marathon. The Paralympic Association had set a target standard of 2 hours 15 minutes, Paula had done 2 hours 6 minutes... But the British paras had set a target standard of 1 hour 54 minutes.

Paula told us about getting up for her 1st training session of the day at 5.15am, rollers in the garage of course, she told us about training again after work... oh yeah, Paula has a full time job, detective inspector in the Met Police on the murder squad...

She told us everything, she answered all the questions. All the personal, intrusive questions. And she kept smiling and laughing and talking.

I said the word was "awesome". Paula is, she really is awesome. We felt humble, we felt very lucky to have been able to listen to her, we felt very lucky to be able to get up out of our chairs afterwards and walk over to talk to her. We felt very, very humbled. Paula Craig is an absolute inspiration.

Paula came and gave a talk to all the kids in my son’s primary school, Walker School in Enfield. And she answered all those intrusive questions that kids ask, all those embarrassing questions when you cringe. And then Paula let them have a go in her race chair, one by one scooting around the school hall.

I just wanted to share with you guys out there how lucky we are. And I wanted to let you know how fantastic Paula Craig is.

And now the philosophy bit…

Was it Theroux who said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation”? I believe that you choose your life and your lifestyle; there are always reasons NOT to do what you want, always reasons why you can’t leave your steady income, steady job, why you can’t take a chance. But, and it’s a big but, if you really want to do, then there are a million reasons why you should take your chances.


Steve Trew About the Author

Steve Trew has decided that it is OK to play the “IF” game in one particular area; that of age. However, everyone knows that triathletes are like good wine; the older the better. Steve can be reached for coaching and for training camps on trew@personalbest.demon.co.uk He is still taking his chances, still coaching, still writing and still commentating. We think it’s about time he got a real job.


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