A surreal look into the life of the ‘unloved’ coach

A ’chat’ that made you salute the courage of those who came forward to expose the coaches who wrecked or attempted to wreck their lives

There were quite a few surreal moments in Dalton Grant’s 34-minute chat on his YouTube channel with Toni Minichiello this week, in itself his decision to interview Minichiello at all more than a little odd. If he had opted to be challenging, to ask a few tough questions, then it might have been fine, but … well, it’s hard to know where to start.

It was only last August, after all, that UK Athletics banned Minichiello for life from coaching after their investigation into him which had been prompted by complaints from “multiple female athletes and coaches”. They found that he had engaged in “sexually inappropriate behaviour, emotional abuse and bullying” during his coaching career.

Minichiello’s best known charge was heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill who won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games, an achievement that subsequently saw him given the BBC Sports Personality of the Year coach award.

While insisting that she was “never on the receiving end of any sexual behaviour”, she described the allegations as “shocking and upsetting”, but Minichiello vehemently denied them. “I have been a coach for over 30 years and while I have been robust and demanding, I have not behaved inappropriately towards any of my athletes, as very many of them would confirm,” he said.


He is, he told Grant this week, intent on challenging UK Athletics’ findings and his ban, describing their investigation as “one-sided” and “unfair”.

Among the allegations made against him, the details of which you will be spared, were the “inappropriate touching of athletes”, the “making of inappropriate sexual references and gestures” towards them and “engaging in inappropriate and sometimes aggressive behaviour, bullying and emotional abuse”. An example of the latter was him making an athlete sit with a cone on her head “to mimic a dunce’s cap”.

His habit, meanwhile, of referring to a particular part of his anatomy as his “spicy Italian sausage” probably tells us a little more about his personality, and his levels of maturity, than we really wanted to know.

So, for Grant –- a former British high jumper of note and now a coach, mentor and “motivational speaker” – to invite Minichiello on his YouTube show was, to say the least, strange. Kelly Sotherton, another successful former British heptathlete, went a little stronger: “Disgraceful.”

As hard a watch as it was, not least the parts where Minichiello portrayed himself as the victim in all of this, and received a sympathetic ear from Grant, it was revealing too. And gave an even greater understanding of why it must be so hard for sports people to come forward with the kind of allegations that were made against him.

Take this exchange. (And you have to remind yourself that it’s not just a chat between two random blokes on the internet, it’s between one of the leading coaches in British athletics over the last three decades, and one of Britain’s top athletes during his day who was a captain of the British team, a board director for the London 2012 Olympic bid team and who is now a coach).

Minichiello: “Athletes will use you, they will accuse you, and they’ll abuse you. They want success, they want your knowledge, they want you to make them better ... and then eventually, they’ll just abuse you because that is human nature.”

Grant: “Yeah, definitely... do you think there’s a jealousy because of how you are and the way you coach?”

Minichiello: “Athletics is like life, there are elements of jealousy….”.

Grant: “Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy!”

Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy.

And then this.

Grant: “Is there anything you could have done differently to protect yourself …. because, you know, some people might be tactile or whatever. You must look back and say, ‘hey, this has happened me, but why?’”

Tactile or whatever.

Minichiello didn’t think so because, he said, “society has changed massively …. with Twitter and things like that”.

“It is a very, very different world out there – certainly in the last five years it has changed phenomenally. A lot of the accusations about me are nothing to do with the modern era, they’re historical stuff. The difficulty we will find in life is that I’m going to judge you by today’s standards … it’s impossible to defend yourself because the standards [now] are so vastly different.”

By that logic the behaviour he was accused of was A okay back in the day. It was just “robust and demanding”. And if it wasn’t for “Twitter and things like that” his career would have remained uninterrupted.

A slip by him was revealing too when he talked about his own situation after the 2012 London Games. “In 2012, having won the Olympic gold medal .... having coached the Olympic gold medal…..”

Granted, a top-class coach makes no small contribution to an athlete’s success, but that slip suggested he claimed ownership of that medal, much like he appeared to claim ownership of the lives of the people he coached.

One of the charges he was found guilty of by UK Athletics: “Failing to respect the athletes’ right to a private life by making intrusive inquiries and comments about their personal lives…”

Read up on any of the depressingly large number of coaches, across every sport, who have been found guilty of similar charges in recent years, including a host of them in women’s football in America of late, and you’ll see much the same charges. That they felt so empowered, they believed they had the right to intrude on, and claim ownership of, every aspect of their charges’ lives.

Along with that came the belief that if an athlete was resistant to their efforts to control them then the coach would opt to try and break them like they were horses, and then rebuild them with the expectation of dependency and gratitude. Make them sit with a cone on their head to mimic a dunce’s cap, leave them so humiliated they’ll never want to “fail” you again. Or, if they chose to walk away from their sport, so be it, that meant they were weak and never worth the effort. And if that left them feeling crushed as human beings, with knock-on issues, no matter.

“It was great to get that insight to see what the coach goes through,” Grant concluded, Minichiello having invited “coaches out there” who wanted the benefit of his wisdom to contact him. “Because helping coaches is the way I can help the coach to help the athlete,” he said.

Surreal? Certainly. Revealing? Enormously. All you could do was further salute the courage of those who come forward to expose the coaches who wrecked, or at least attempted to, their lives. Not to mention their apologists.

Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy? Good grief.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times