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Malcolm Fenton Throws Blog: The Accidental Coach

  • Posted: 10.07.2014
  • Author: Malcolm Fenton (GBR)
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It was never my intention to be a coach, indeed throughout my life as an athlete, I was never formally coached, nor did I come from a sporting background. My father was a speedway, grass-track and stock car racer, who constantly reminded me that throwing things wouldn't earn me a living. I competed on, and still do, having won an English Schools title in the Hammer, to winning the same event in the World Masters Champs. I have over the decades, won 238 titles at county level and above, but whilst being very competitive and training hard, I never made it to full international level. I did however throw the Hammer over 60m over four consecutive decades, first doing so in 1979, then lastly, at age 46, in 2002. Only one other British thrower has achieved this, Olympian Mick Jones, who blew it away by throwing over 70m over four decades.

I had the very good fortune of living, about three good Discus throws away from, the family home of the Tancred's in Ipswich. Father Adrian competed in the Decathlon at the 1948 Olympics, whilst son's Bill and Pete were both Olympians at the Discus and brother Geoff was a Combined Services Hammer champion. So I was able to use their throwing circle, at a factory field, to both watch them training and get tips from Adrian. That year I also trained with Charlie Clover, who had just set a UK age record, then a world age best with the Javelin, as a 17 year old. The next year he would throw 84.92m, to win the 1974 Commonwealth Games and set a World Junior record. So at the start of my throwing career I was able to observe and learn from the very best. It was also a few scant months before I started coaching at age 18.

I sat on the grass banking of a track, watching a female junior international Discus thrower being coached. After a while I was left wondering, why doesn't her coach tell her, what she's doing wrong? It was then that I realised I was seeing something the coach hadn't, which dispelled my belief that coaches knew everything and were almost omnipotent in stature!

Observation is a major facet of coaching; it also fitted in with my career, which would span 35 years, as a Customs Officer. A job that also taught me tenacity and not to believe anything until it could be proved, two other areas that a good coach needs to develop. Initially I coached athletes at my club and, at age 21, began working with Susan King, who happened to be my manager's daughter. She soon set a World age best in the Shot and over the next few years, under both mine, then Geoff Capes' charge, she held all the age and English School's records for the shot, before retiring at age 18.

As an athlete I was part of the National Hammer Squad, on and off, for 10+ years, again learning from our top coaches and throwers. My apprenticeship was well under way and I was a sponge for knowledge and new ideas, which I tested out, usually on myself, before adding them to my coaching toolbox.

By the mid-eighties I was experimenting with video and computer editing. With the visit to Ipswich by double Olympic Hammer champion Yuri Sedykh in 1986 I was able to produce a video of his training and some throws comparisons. 27 years on, I am still being sent requests for copies. In the start of the 1990's, I then worked on producing sequences of athletes on computer, and printing them for the use by the athletes and their coaches. So primitive was the system used, that both the above were produced through an Amiga computer, with 1Mb of processing RAM.

Fortune again struck, when Olympic Discus thrower and the first athlete to win an AAA title at all the age groups, Paul Mardle moved to Ipswich for work. Whilst he settled and looked for a house, he lived with my family for nearly a year, so again I had a highly skilled athlete to observe, question and learn from. Three years later, Mark Proctor returned to the area from overseas. I had known him since he was about 11, and he asked if I could coach him. From 1989 through to 2000, he improved to 20.85m and was the first male Shot Putter in the UK to attend all the current major championships.

Because Mark had been a bobsleigh competitor, and that sport was very interested in how he had developed, I was asked to design some strength programmes for the British Bobsleigh Association. They liked what I produced and I was offered the post of Strength Coach to the British Team, in the lead up to the 1998, Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Then, as now, I had never seen a bobsleigh event live. I had to work from scratch, as there are no books available to help design programmes for this sport. The 4-man team picked up an Olympic Bronze medal and I was dropped from the programme! I moved to the Netherlands Bobsleigh Team, again as Strength Coach, and over two years they improved to 7th in the world, from 23rd. After the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, I had a brief return to the British Team, but ceased any activity with the sport in 2003, very interesting though, and a time of great learning for me. I was proud of the results both teams produced.

All through this time, I was still coaching athletics and finding myself on National Squads, but now as a coach. Because of the work I'd done with Mark Proctor, I was now on the Shot Squads, as well as Hammer. So once again I was expanding my knowledge and stealing every good idea and concept I considered useful. In 1999, I was offered the position of National Coach, for either the Shot or Hammer. I declined, citing I was too heavily involved in Bobsleigh, to do a good job, little knowing I would be dropped by that sport so soon after!

Dropping back into athletics I stayed on a low profile, working locally and accepting some invitations to coach further afield. Over a period of years in this period, I realised, that despite of my position as an athlete and a coach, I had no idea of whom the National Coaches were for the throws, which I considered very disturbing. When I did find out who held the positions, I contacted them and asked if I could attend a National Squad, at my own expense, as an observer, but both refused. I discussed this with fellow competitor and close friend, Rob Earle and we decided, that rather that criticising and sniping from the sides, we would set out to try and cause change to happen. I believed coaches were being stifled by an athlete centred system and that there was no pathway of development for coaches. This seemed wrong, as athletes are transitory, whilst investing in a coach can pay dividends for tens of years.

In the early years of the century, I decided to make a trip to Sutton, in South London, to observe the South East coaching squads. The Hammer coach for that day didn't appear, so after a while I just started helping out. At the end of the session, I was asked if I'd care to take up the position of Hammer Coach for the Squad. I accepted, relishing the chance to work with the other coaches, including Mike Winch and John Hillier, with the days being organised by Mark Chapman. These squads were coach centred, with athletes only being coached through their own coach, which was a system I endorsed. These days became so successful, that we were getting requests to attend from as far afield as Cornwall and Lincolnshire. This work coincided with having been asked to be regional coach for the West Midlands, in the Shot and Hammer and then being made Throws Coach Coordinator for the Eastern Region. Finally I was working in my own neighbourhood.

Within about a year of joining these groups I was offered the post of National Coach for the Hammer. I had come a long way in a short time, but again this was short-lived, as the national coaches were disbanded after a year, being replaced by a coach coordinator and lead coach, who was Lorraine Shaw for the Hammer. Whilst Lorraine dealt with the athletes, I started to bring in coaches on the basis of their potential, rather than just inviting only those coaches with athletes on the squad. So again the idea of a coach pathway was being instigated. I felt that this system worked well and we saw improvements happening, which was down to the work of both Lorraine and myself.

Another reorganisation took place and the old system passed on. I applied for one of the new national coach mentor posts, for the Hammer, but was unsuccessful initially, fifteen months later I was offered the post and over the next two years also took on the role for the Shot and Discus. With this England based programme, the standard of throws coaching has improved and the heavy throws have been the most improving event group in the last few years.

I have now taken on the post of being the Event Group Lead for British Athletics, which brings me right up to date with my career, as the initially, accidental coach.

By the way Dad, they now pay me!

In this post, my remit is coach education and event development. The role straddles both England Athletics and British Athletics. My education role sits with mentoring and event knowledge for coaches. It is not coach qualifications, for which we have specific staff to deal with. The Event Leads will be working closely with that side of things, but will not be involved in the day to day running of it. I still sit in overall control of the National Coach Development Programme (NCDP) for the throw, which is an England initiative, to mentor, help develop and support coaches. This can take many guises, from specific media to international coach and conference exposure.

The team of National Coach Mentors for the throws are now:- David Parker - Javelin; Rob Earle - Hammer; Mark Chapman - Shot & Discus South and Ivan Washington - Shot & Discus North. Neither their job, nor mine is to coach athletes. Athletes and performance still sit

with the Performance Team at British Athletics. This is a very important distinction, as some members of our community believe the Event Group Lead role, is that of a national coach, it is not, it is as spelt out above. Unfortunately we do not yet have a Performance Coach in place for the throws, which leaves us at a disadvantage at the moment.

In as much as the NCDP in an England Programme, I am tasked with assisting the other Home Countries/Celtic Nations in the development of the throws and coaches. Even before the start of this initiative, I had been forging links with our neighbours and inviting some coaches to our events. I look forward to meeting with their coaching staff, progressing the throws in those countries and sharing ideas with them.

Sitting below the mentees on the NCDP, there is the Local Coach Development Plan (LCDP).

The England Athletics Club & Coach Support Officers (CCSO) runs these throughout England. These are reactive posts, which work best when the coach approaches them for help, or with ideas to improve. If they are not contacted such, it makes it very difficult for them to help coaches and clubs in the way that they need. It really is a case of, if you don't ask, you won't get!

My initial aim, which is already well progressed, is to have a direct link to every throws coach/interested party in the UK. I want to be able to communicate with the whole throws community, from grass roots to international, so no coach feels isolated and left out. I already have gathered a mailing list of 300 plus people, so if anyone out there is not getting frequent e-mails from me, you need to contact me and give me an e-mail address.

Contact mfenton@britishathletics.org.uk 

The biggest obstacle to the throws really improving, and the events fulfilling their potential, is the lack of access to throws facilities nowadays. Very few parts of the country have throws facilities that can be used all year round, this is especially so with the Hammer. Unfortunately the infields of tracks are very appealing to ball sports in the winter months and also a good source of income for the facility provider. If a facility is to lose its infield in the winter, then the club must press for an alternative site to be provided for the throws. The sticking point though is, that most clubs are happy to have a track and don't care if the throws areas cannot be accessed. This may sound harsh, but it is the fact of a throwers life. At my own track in Ipswich, it took 21 years to persuade the council to allow throwing all year round. The throwers too have to fight to keep facilities usable. Press your club, your council and your MP over the matter and keep doing it. We may have the talent, the coaches and the knowledge, but without facilities it comes to nothing.

Long term, I want to be judged by how much the throws and the coaches improve, and that they are satisfied with the service they have been given. With, for the first time, a full complement of National Coach Mentors in England, I hope that coaches will get a more personal service than I could offer, when running the entire heavy throws. If coaches want to attend an event we are running as observers, I usually allow this. I never want to turn a coach away as had happened to me. I have no intention to stay in this post too long. Such positions require fresh blood to infuse the sport. Fresh blood I hope, that has passed though the veins of this system and is ready to carry forward the sport.

Kind Regards,

Malcolm Fenton

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Comments (4)

  1. Posted by Nigel Bevan on 13/07/2014 at 06:14 AM

    An excellent article. I think coaches should use this to show what they have done so all can see what they have achieved in terms of what they have put into the sport and also express their coaching philosophy and what they want from the sport in terms of their professional development. I am interested in people’s stories and this provides a great insight into the commitment that people have dedicated to the sport. More of this please!

  2. Posted by Anonymous on 13/07/2014 at 08:31 AM

    Thank you Malcolm.

  3. Posted by Richard Turner on 14/07/2014 at 12:55 PM

    Fascinating biography.
    This demonstrates the problem all the way through British sport - the lack of support for coaching.
    One chink of light is the way the German football team has come through. It is being commented on. “All” we have to do is hammer it into those at the top, somehow.

  4. Posted by Peter Brown on 16/02/2015 at 12:37 AM

    Immensely interesting and things are, very slowly,  starting to change. Another 30 years and we may get to be like t’others and even pay our coaches!

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