Ian O’Riordan: You can’t put in what God left out (and other coaching secrets)

Everyone knows the secret to great coaching is finding a great athlete – or vice versa

Ireland’s Cian McPhillips after finishing second in the Men’s 800 metres heats at the 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland on Friday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland’s Cian McPhillips after finishing second in the Men’s 800 metres heats at the 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland on Friday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Chose Your Parents Wisely. Channel Your Inner Self. You Can’t Put In What God Left Out. I’ll Do the Asking, Thank You.

Any of which could be the perfect title for a coaching manual on success in middle -distance running, and all of which would be irrelevant anyway because everyone knows the secret behind a great coach is finding a great athlete. Or should that be the other way around?

There is a scene in Chariots of Fire (don’t listen to the others – it’s the best ever film about running) where Harold Abrahams travels to watch a Scotland versus France athletics meeting in order to witness firsthand just how good this Eric Liddell lad might be. There, sitting alone in the stands, Abrahams first spots Sam Mussabini, the British coach of Italian extraction and Arab descent and whose reputation for bringing out the best in runners clearly precedes him.

By then, the year before the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Mussabini had already coached South African sprinter Reggie Walker to the 100 metres gold medal at the 1908 Olympics in London, and he moved into the middle distances too, coaching Albert Hill, a 31-year-old first World War veteran, to an 800 metres/1,500 metres double at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

In Chariots of Fire Abrahams first approaches Mussabini (magnificently played by Ian Holm, who died last summer aged 88) essentially in order to get the better of Liddell, who in that same scene was knocked off the track in the first bend of the 400 metres, promptly got back on his feet, and still won (the Vangelis Eric’s Theme playing as the backdrop).

Only think of two things: the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other

“Be careful with that lad,” Mussabini tells the Scottish entourage around Liddell. “If you drop him you’ll never find another one.”

In the next scene Abrahams and Mussabini are in a pub, where the athlete tells his potential coach about the challenge of Liddell. “He unnerves me,” he tells him.

With that, like the bride before the groom, Mussabini tells him: “I’ll watch you, and observe you, and if I think I can help, if I can see the big prize hanging there, believe me, I won’t waste any time. When we meet again, I’ll be the one who does the begging, and if you’re good enough, I’ll take you apart piece by bloody piece.”

“Thank you,” says Abrahams.

Lasting advice

Mussabini died three years after Abrahams won the gold medal in those 1924 Olympics, and perhaps lasting coaching advice is in the sentence: “Only think of two things: the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other.”

He also said of Liddell: “Yeah, he’s fast. But he won’t go any faster; not in the dash, anyway. He’s a gut runner, all heart, digs deep. But a short sprint is run on nerves. It’s tailor-made for neurotics.”

All a sort of mind game, perhaps, which is of course irrelevant, when the secret behind every great coach is finding a great athlete.

It must be two years – it is two years – since Gjert Ingebrigtsen spent much of the weekend standing around the mixed zone at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow as his three sons passed through after their respective races.

By that Sunday night, they’d won a complete set of medals for Norway: gold for Jakob in the 3,000 metres, then silver in the 1,500 metres, plus bronze for older brother Henrik, also in the 3,000 metres. The middle brother Filip might well have added another medal in the 1,500 metres if he hadn’t got himself disqualified (he later posted a video of himself banging his head off a boxing bag).

Norwegian middle-distance runners Henrik Ingebrigtsen, Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Filip Ingebrigtsen during a press conference in Oslo in June 2020. Photograph: Fredrik Varfjell/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
Norwegian middle-distance runners Henrik Ingebrigtsen, Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Filip Ingebrigtsen during a press conference in Oslo in June 2020. Photograph: Fredrik Varfjell/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Either way, it was another super impressive weekend for the incredible Ingebrigtsens. Impossible, incredible, insane, super impressive... By now well used to such high praise, and still leaving some of us wondering about what exactly is the secret behind their success.

Before Glasgow, Norway had never won gold in the previous 34 editions of the European Indoors; by then, the Ingebrigtsen family had delivered the perfect sweep. That Jacob was once again the Kingebrigtsen was of little surprise. Ingebrilliant. Ingecredible, Ingesane... we’d already run out of words to describe the youngest of the three brothers when, at just 17, he won a European outdoor double over 1,500 metres/5,000 metres in Berlin in 2018 – a feat no other man, woman or boy could manage in the 84-year history of European Championship distance running.

Now, still only 20 (he doesn’t turn 21 until September), Jakob may have fallen just short of completing a similar double in Glasgow, but is back in Torun, Poland seeking that same goal, and whether he achieves it or not is irrelevant for the youngest of the Ingebrigtsen distance-running brothers, also known as Team Ingebrigtsen; he is the best middle-distance runner in the world right now.

Hard-work ethic

For Gjert, who is father, coach and team leader depending on the exact time of day, that status was further recognised when he was named Norwegian sports coach of the year for 2018. What also sets him apart as a coach is his openness to discussing the secret behind the success of his three sons, beginning, he says, with the sort of hard-work ethic that’s a part of Irish distance-running tradition as it is anywhere else.

“Of course, it’s in our DNA, we’re of similar stock,” he said, when asked if the Ingebrigtsen model of success might somehow be replicated here. That’s not saying it’s going to be easy. Asked what kind of mileage Jakob runs in training – 120km? 130km? – Gjert immediately raised the stakes. The 55-year-old from Sandnes, a father of seven, has no time for short cuts.

And now, watching 18-year-old Cian McPhillips from Longford qualify with considerable ease and confidence for his semi-final of the 800 metres in Torun, in his first senior championships, comes another reminder that behind every great athlete is a great coach.

Cian has won juvenile all-Irelands at every age, while the training has always been very, very light, so he always stood out as an athlete with a lot of talent and potential

The Leaving Cert student from Longford AC came to Torun with an Irish junior and under-23 record of 1:46.13, along with John Fitzsimons from Kildare AC, the 22-year-old who clocked a best of 1:47.80 last month. Both McPhillips and Fitzsimons are being carefully nurtured by Joe Ryan, endurance running coach at Mullingar Harriers for the best part of 20 years already, who sees particularly unique potential in the two rising names.

“Cian has won juvenile all-Irelands at every age, while the training has always been very, very light, so he always stood out as an athlete with a lot of talent and potential,” Ryan told me. The former race walk international, now also a primary school teacher in Rhode, Co Offaly, has coached McPhillips since he was 12.

“His is only experience before is the European Youths, where he actually lost his shoe early in the race, so it’s obviously a big step up from domestic racing to European Indoors. It’s about the experience, taking the opportunity to learn from that and bring it forward to the future. But look, running 1:46 was a huge breakthrough for Cian, phenomenal running really for an 18-year-old, to produce that in his Leaving Cert year.”

Indeed, he hadn’t broken 1:50 for 800 metres before, making it one of the biggest breakthroughs for any junior Irish athlete in recent years. His 1:46.13 is also the second-fastest run indoors by an 18-year-old in European athletics history, second only to 2004 Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia. What exactly McPhillips achieves in Torun is irrelevant, because behind every great athlete...

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