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UKA Coach Building A Better Coaching Environment

Focus on Futures: Robbie Grabarz

Robbie Grabarz says he’s always enjoyed taking things apart and putting things back together again; “it’s a challenge,” he says. “I had an old Beetle and I did it all up – I’d buy an old car and work on it to keep it on the road.”

The concept of starting from scratch runs a distinct parallel with his track and field career. Under the tutelage of Carol Jackson in Bedford, he burst onto the high jump scene as a 17-year-old with a 2.22m clearance in the summer of 2005. He bettered that to 2.27m three years later, but in 2010 - a move to Loughborough and two coaches later – and after a consistent season of 2.20m-plus clearances and periodic moments of great promise, he at last achieved a lifetime best of 2.28m. 

“It was my last competition of the year so I had nothing to lose,” he says of his win in the McCain UK Challenge Final. “I’ve been jumping so high all season but not always clearing the high bars. I was so inconsistent last year and the year before, but this year I think my top 15 jumps have all been over 2.20m, so in terms of consistency, I can’t really complain.” 

Grabarz is still progressing in his event and, contrary to some reports, he certainly shouldn’t fall into the category of ‘nearly-man’. Quite the opposite, in fact, because what many have failed to appreciate is that he’s still only 23. 

“People definitely don’t take into account my age,” he explains. “That 2.22m five years ago put me second in the senior rankings at the time. There were a lot of guys jumping at the time, but there weren’t a lot of good jumpers, so I was winning and I stood out.” 

“I was only training twice a week but I was really confident at that age,” he continues. “I was trying too hard to better myself though. I’ve always been powerful and strong but I was never technically all that good.”

Following his breakthrough in the summer of 2005, Grabarz, a keen BMX-biker and County-level hockey player, moved north to Loughborough. “I moved first and foremost for athletics and to train with Terry (Terry Lomax, former UKA Performance Coach). I didn’t really want to study,” he admits, “I wanted to go into a trade if anything, but I wouldn’t have been able to train if I’d done that. I had funding support, albeit at a low level, and I was happy to live on the breadline if I could train and compete full time, that’s what it’s about really.”

But while his commitment was never in doubt, his progress stalled; “Terry really just built on what I was good at already – my strength and power – so I didn’t really improve during that period. I obviously believed in him whole heartedly because you have to believe 100% in what your coach does, but now, with Fuzz (UKA’s National Event Coach Fuzz Ahmed), the majority of things we do are high jump specific.” 

Grabarz linked up with Ahmed when his former coach moved back to his native New Zealand to take up a position as Performance Co-ordinator. One year on and he’s made substantial progress, outwardly disguised as a one centimetre PB and a moderate growth spurt (“I’ve grown an inch in the last year because I’m not squatting so much!”), but more importantly reinforcing his love of the sport.

“This is my first full year with him and it’s hard to believe that even last year I’d considered quitting,” he admits. “I’d lost my passion for the high jump and if you don’t love what you’re doing then there’s no point. I’d had a lot of injuries since I’d moved up to Loughborough. I was competing throughout the summer but I wasn’t really doing any technical training.”

Ironically, having been picked up by the UKA Futures Programme in 2009 and therefore eligible to access the medical support he required, Grabarz has actually enjoyed his first significant period of injury-free high jump which has given him a new found confidence. While Futures is primarily a coach and athlete support package for athletes in the 17 – 20 age range, his invitation as an ‘exceptional case for support’ 12 months ago has been clearly justified and demonstrates the the advantage of such a flexible initiative.

He’s also benefiting from a high quality training group which points to an overall increase in standard. “The competition in this event is great; we’re all chasing one another because in the high jump nobody is on top for long,” he says. “The guys out at the Commonwealth Games are being chased hard and no one is out of reach. We go into each competition knowing any one of us could win.

“I was really disappointed not to get selected for the Commonwealth Games myself because I’d jumped the qualifying so many times. I was hoping to get selected, but at the same time I don’t think I expected it. It’s frustrating, but my season already felt long and I finished on a high – that’s been very rare!”

He does have a vested interest in the goings-on in Delhi, however, because his girlfriend Hen Paxton will compete for Scotland in the pole vault. “I’d always said I didn’t want to go out with an athlete but it works really well,” he laughs. “We’re both quite busy and we train at different times, but we do work together as dinner ‘ladies’ at Holywell Primary School in Loughborough...”

Food for thought without doubt, but they’re similar in more ways than one, both athletes focusing their attentions on two of the most technically challenging events in track and field.

Ultimately, Grabarz credits his consistency and progress to his coach and the athletes he trains with; “definitely...a lot of that has been to do with Fuzz and linked to the training group,” he says. “We have a lot of fun, but we’re all really competitive; everyone has different strengths.

And going forward, the only way, literally, is up. “I want to break the British record and I think I can,” he concludes. “I want to have a good winter, go to the European Indoors and then the Worlds next summer...I’m not a junior anymore and I’ve got to step up. You’ve got to go for it; you can’t mess around. I’ve been there or thereabouts over the past few years and I’ve missed out, but it’s kept me on my toes and I hope I can use that to my advantage now.”

The UKA Futures Programme underpins the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) and was borne out of the restructure of UKA’s WCPP and the drive towards more targeted support for athletes and their coaches.

The Programme targets young athletes with the potential to deliver global medals for Britain in the future, typically in the 17 to 20 age range but with flexibility towards athletes who have come late to the sport, are in late developing events of are deemed an exceptional case for support.

Athletes and their coaches will be supported in their individual development plans allowing for more flexibility and individual discretion around distribution of resources. 42 coach-athlete pairs have been included in the 2010 Futures Programme.

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