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UKA Coach Building A Better Coaching Environment

Year of the Coach: Simon Duberley

There was a definite sense of déjà vu when Simon Duberley listened to Loren Seagrave for the second time in his life.

The first time he’d heard the sprints coach he made up his mind he wanted to be a coach; the second time, he was one. “I knew I wanted to be a coach in 1993,” admits the aerospace industry technician, who had paid out of his own pocket to listen to the seminar 17 years ago. “I’d been practicing the drills and sessions from his videos, and when I heard what he had to say I was able to link it all together. I also saw a defined link with what I’d learnt in my engineering work and how you can actually mechanically condition an athlete.”

Duberely, who throughout his own competitive career was coached by former international sprinter Madeline Cobb, didn’t start coaching himself until 1998, however, his enquiring, scientifically-focused mind, had been given the opportunity to explore training options, and thanks to Cobb, he was allowed to implement many of his own ideas into her training programme.

“I suppose I was a mediocre club athlete, but as soon as I knew I’d reached a plateau I wanted to learn how to go faster,” he says. “I definitely saw the latter period of my own training as a test bed for my coaching philosophies - Madeline didn’t tell me I was right or wrong, but she let me bring in certain drills and introduce alternative methods and she let me concentrate more on speed throughout the winter.”

The latter consideration was, and continues to be, pivotal in Duberley’s coaching approach. He’s a firm believer that speed in the traditional out-of-season period is key to success in the competition phase. “If you’re training fast you must hit different systems to when you’re training slow,” he explains. Simple, it seems, but not a method with widespread take up or understanding. “There needs to be a radical change in thinking; we need to explain definitions and how the different body systems work,” he continues. “Classically, through the winter into the outdoor season, athletes will build a big aerobic base, but while ours is significant, it’s not comparable to others. My main objective is to condition the athlete skill-wise, strength-wise and speed-wise through the winter then throughout the summer it’s a focus on speed and rest, speed and rest – it’s an approach I learned from Loren Seagrave.”

Duberley’s coaching practices have, he says, been influenced by his job at Martin-Baker, the world’s longest established and most experienced manufacturer of ejection seats.

That he’s the ‘final stage experimental inspector’ for the prototype test seats that are being developed for the Lockhead Martin F-35 Lightening 11, a fifth generation, single-seat, single-engine stealth multirole fighter, is somewhat inconsequential; that he’s subsequently developed a functional database to analyse data from track sessions to evolve the structure of training for his athletes, is more obviously connected. “I also feel that my exposure to design engineering gives me an uncompromised view of mechanical efficiencies based upon the simple understanding of mechanical advantage,” he explains.

In a practical sense, Duberley’s coaching philosophies have paid off. His athletes, including Aviva GB & NI team representatives and international medallists Nigel Levine and Deji Tobais, have enjoyed success in recent years, while Alex Ojo is showing the potential to follow in their footsteps.

For this summer, his aim is “to get two to the World Juniors (Tobais and Ojo),” while Levine – a 2010 World Indoor Championships relay bronze medallist and 2009 European Under-23 Championships 400m silver medallist, has an excellent chance of being selected onto the European Championships senior team for Barcelona.

He’s also a positive example of best practice in the England Athletics Coach Development Programme, having taken a creative approach to his coach mentoring position; indeed, while he contributes to his own knowledge base as a mentee under Tony Hadley, England Athletics National Coach Mentor for 400m and speed, he imparts that knowledge – while continuing to learn himself – by working as a mentor to a local coach, in this instance former GB international Tim Benjamin, only 28 years old, but a veteran of Olympic Games, World Championships, European Championships and Commonwealth Games.

“In truth, I’m actually learning a lot from Tim,” laughs Duberley. “What he brings to my knowledge is his major championships experience; he understands what it’s like to step out on front of 50,000 people and execute an almost perfect race.”

“Tim is also a believer of speed training through the winter and that was the basis for us coming together. I’d seen him coaching a group of his own athletes and over time we talked more and more about our philosophies. The more we did the more I realised that his were the same as mine; I think if you have two mirrored philosophies that are compatible you can really benefit from merging those talents.”

And so the pair began to work together, their mutual appreciation and shared beliefs forming a solid base for progression.

As with Duberley, Benjamin’s career as an athlete perhaps came to a premature conclusion. While the former cited coaching books as a source of information, particularly referencing details of the Canadian Coaching Philosophy during his period of transition, the latter travelled the world as through competition, talking to coaches to learn as much as he could at every opportunity.

“Whenever I was injured I started to look into reasons why that might have happened and tried to understand it,” says Benjamin. “Last year I spent two months with Dan Pfaff at a warm weather training camp in San Diego and I was learning all the time. A lot of what I’ve learnt is definitely from experience but it also comes from having a beer after a meet, you have so many conversations and there’s so much to learn - I’m probably a bit of a geek, actually.”

Benjamin’s father is an anatomy professor which probably goes some way to explaining his natural interest in the science and delivery of the sport, but his philosophies, although developed alone, matched those of Duberley, making it a natural partnership. He also admits that as an athlete he had wanted to see more focus on coaches, and is pleased to see the coach mentor schemes and apprentice coaches now in place in the UK.

So what does he think of the 400m now he’s on the other side of the fence? “I really don’t think that the way we train for the 400m in the UK is sustainable,” he admits. “Look at Roger Black, he had a lot of success, but he had significant periods out injured. If you look at the guys in the States, they’re successful, but they also have long careers. They work on more efficient running mechanisms and there’s less fatigue and stress. I think in the UK we test the lactic system too much and our athletes can’t recover. There’s not enough emphasis on mechanics and the distribution of energy systems through the 400m.”

Duberley, without doubt, got more from the sport as a coach than as an athlete, while Benjamin, although he’d loved athletics throughout his competitive years, was no longer enjoying it when he made the decision to retire. He had the chance to go to the 2009 World Championships in Berlin but opted out, admitting that it would be unfair to take an individual or relay spot from an aspiring 2012 Olympian.

The group of athletes now under their charge at Brunel are exactly that, and both coaches are determined to further their knowledge and share their own experiences to build more solid foundations for success moving forward.

The training philosophies they share may connect to aerospace engineering, design and technology, but the pair will definitely argue the case for simplicity; it’s not rocket science.

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