Heroes & Sparrows: A Celebration of Running

Heroes & Sparrows: A Celebration of Running

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First published in 1986, 'Heroes & Sparrows' has been hailed by the worldwide running community as a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of the sport. It has been called one of the best running books of all time. This 25th anniversary edition includes introductory essays to each section, where Roger Robinson relates the original chapters to the 21st century running movement. A Postscript keeps this classic of the first running boom as fresh and inspiring as an early morning run. The new 'Heroes & Sparrows' is a real page-turner. Sports books are rarely as interesting, informative and witty as this one. Highly recommended for runners and non-runners alike! 

From: Heroes & Sparrows: A Celebration of Running, by Roger Robinson

'Valet or God: The Coach Past and Present'

The British athletics team to the 1928 Olympic Games took no coaches with them to assist the athletes. But they did take five masseurs, one of them known for his severity as ‘Jack the Rubber’.

The dedication of Japan’s leading marathon runners to their great coach Nakamura, who died in 1985, went beyond their absolute trust in his advice, to a reverence for him as a spiritual leader and ‘Master’: “In the race, we call out the name of sensei (Master) and ask him to guide us,” they said.

The Rubber and the Master: these are the extremes of status in the patchy and variegated history of the sports coach. At one pole, the coach is a menial servant, a mere sort of valet or stablehand for rubbing down the pedigree athlete; at the other, an infallible godlike leader. It is instructive to look at some aspects of the history of the sports coach, both to understand such extremist attitudes and why they arise, and to seek for a more enlightened and balanced view as modern sport finally reaches its maturity, perhaps, in the last years of the 20th century. Here I can take only a few select glimpses, but for me, at least, they throw light on some of the problems and potentialities of coaching, as well as something of the wider significance of sport.

It is proper to begin in Ancient Greece, where coaches were men of esteem in the community – naturally so, as sport itself was such a respected activity for the individual and for society at large. Since Greek athletics was so widespread, popular and long-lasting as a social activity, the coaches were as varied as you would expect in personality and background. Then as now, some had been outstanding performers themselves, such as Melesias, famous as a coach after winning events at the Nemean and Isthmian Games. Others came with no competitive record, notably Lampon of Aegina who coached two of his sons to victories at Isthmia, a kind of BC Peter Coe. The poet Pindar called him ‘the whetstone’, since he gave sharpness and strength to his athletes.

Such coaches were admired in their time and celebrated in literature. The main source of information about them and their training methods is the Gymnastic of Philostratus, who tells us that Greek training was conventionally based on a four-day cycle, known as the ‘tetrad’. Day 1 was for ‘Preparation’, mainly light, brisk exercises; Day 2 was ‘Concentration’, the all-out effort; Day 3, ‘Relaxation’, the recovery day of light exercise; and Day 4, ‘Moderation’, was largely for technique practice. No doubt this structure was varied considerably in actuality, though some coaches could apparently be as rigid and draconian as some of their modern successors. One athlete who suffered was a wrestler called Gerenus who celebrated his title at Olympia by giving a private party after the official end-of-Games dinner, and arrived much the worse for wear to train the next morning. It was Day 2, ‘Concentration’. History does not record whether his coach had been invited to either of the parties, but leaves no doubt that he was furious. He indignantly forced Gerenus through his fiercest training routine, whereupon the poor hung-over wrestler collapsed and died. Let us hope the death was more metaphorical than actual. (See ‘How to Drop Down Dead’.)

An even quicker death was inflicted by another coach, so disappointed by his protegé’s performance at the Games at Olympia that he stabbed and killed him on the spot with a javelin. Nowadays we are more civilised, and merely throw the offenders to the media.

Sport will always produce anecdotes like these, but the points that emerge are that the Greek coaches were powerful and respected, even if rigid in some cases and that training for sport, as I have written above (‘The Balanced Life’), was a highly valued activity for young men of ability and standing, regarded not as a spare-time and temporary diversion but as a valid means of education and fulfilment for the individual, which could be combined perfectly and properly with other forms of growth.

The example of the Greeks could help to win acceptance of the fact that coaches are in the true and original sense academics; and in the modern sense, too, in that they are engaged in a significant area of learning and culture. Such recognition is overdue.

In the modern world the sports coach until a very few years ago was a direct descendant of the ‘trainer’ of the 19th century. Usually an ex-professional, his job was to coach the ‘pros’, in professional sports such as boxing and pedestrianism, and, in the gentleman-amateur field, to assist the gentlemen with their ‘breathings’. Massage was probably their main function in most cases, often with allied menial tasks like maintaining equipment and heating the water. Socially they ranked somewhere below the private servant. English county cricket clubs paid their professional players and coaches on the same scale and from the same funds as the ground and secretarial staff. There were exceptions, such as the Oxford University athletics coach, Clement Jackson, a tutor at Hertford College, whose contributions to sport included the creation of the Iffley Road track and the establishment in 1880 of the Amateur Athletic Association with rules surprisingly liberal for that date.

For the most part the trainer or coach was a humble, often rather dowdy figure whom many can still remember. I have seen him as the cricket ‘pro’ at English private schools, coaching in the nets, oiling the bats and never gaining equal standing with the teaching staff; or filling the old tin baths at one or two of London’s oldest athletic clubs; or, of course, at horse racing; or running onto the soccer field with a bucket and sponge to attend to an injured player. What benefit the bucket and sponge could bring to a twisted knee now eludes me, but the trainer’s urgent figure was vivid in my youthful mind.

The five masseurs accompanying the 1928 Olympic team were typical of the kind of assistance which was deemed appropriate. There had been a brief period when British athletics had a fulltime coaching adviser, the colourful ex-pro Walter Knox before the First World War, but it took until 1947 for coaching to begin to be taken seriously (and then against considerable resistance) with the appointment of Britain’s first permanent national coach, Geoff Dyson, who later travelled to Canada to add to his achievements there.

Subsequent progress has been uneven and often still uneasy, as all coaches know, but the new era has certainly made progress. The bucket-and-sponge man, the degraded kind of groom or valet for gentleman-racers, has almost disappeared. Sports coaching has erected a few of its own gods – Cerutty, Lydiard, Bowerman, Nakamura. So what, to return to my opening question, is the best balance between these two extremes?

It lies, I think, partly in the training of the coach, partly in the definition of the coach’s role. The ‘old pro’ could teach only by repetition of his own skills as a practitioner and by requiring imitation. The new coach is a person trained not only as an expert in the skills and knowledge of the event, but in the skills of communicating that knowledge. This is an academic training, and gives to coaching the academic responsibilities of mastering a discipline and an area of knowledge, and of fostering these and passing them on.

To define the coach’s role, I should like to be drily academic for a moment and define the word itself. Kotcz is a small place in Hungary, between Raab and Buda, which gave its name back in the 14th century to a special kind of vehicle, a ‘kotczi-wagon’ or ‘kotczi-car’, used for passengers on the rugged local roads. The term passed across to England after a hundred years or so, and by 1556 was anglicised as ‘coach’. “Come, my coach,” calls Ophelia in Hamlet, and she was a lady who could certainly have used help with her swimming. In fact, the word began to take on the modern meaning of an instructor only in 19th-century Oxford and Cambridge universities, where by 1849 to ‘coach’ a pupil meant to ‘prepare in special subjects’, to carry the student along, as it were, like a coach and horses, to the destination. Soon, sporting ‘coaches’ appeared, first of all in rowing, the social leader of Victorian sports. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “…coaching from Mr Price’s steamboat”. Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) keeps the sense of conveying passengers when he describes Mr Crisparkle, Minor Canon of the Cathedral and previously a private tutor in Latin and Greek, as “lately ‘Coach’ upon the chief Pagan high roads”.

So a coach is someone with whom you travel, who is the means of conveying the student or athlete along a rough road to a difficult destination. There is a moral in the dry dust of the dictionary. If we think of coaching as a means of travel, we may perceive more clearly both the importance and the limits of the coach’s role. The coach has indispensable functions: to instruct, to motivate and to inculcate strategy, especially that long-term strategy which no young competitor can know by instinct. The coach should also observe clearly defined limits: not to intrude into the ultimate aloneness of the competitor nor to diminish the essentially individual satisfaction of sporting achievement. The coach’s achievement and satisfaction are equally real, equally valid, but different. The means of travel is not the traveller. I am made uneasy by coaches who speak always of “we”, as if athlete and coach were a composite being.

Arthur Lydiard recently told the story of a question-and-answer session with a group of middle-aged joggers in Chicago. Arthur asked “What is occurring today that will benefit U.S. runners generally?” Someone answered “Most of the older coaches are retiring.” He meant that the satisfaction of running would be enhanced by the end of the old rigid interval training and excessive inter-college competition which caused many American coaches to subjugate the athlete to their own domination and to the success-record of the team, usually the College team. It is a relief to see their day passing. Even the antiquated British bucket-and-sponge method left more space for fulfilment for the individual who was actually competing.

As coaches gain more confidence in their status, and as more weight is given to individual fulfilment as against the team’s, or worse, the coach’s success, so we may hope that the proper role of the coach will be acknowledged. As a vehicle, as the essential means of transport along the high road, both for the growth of the individual engaged in sport and for the development of the body of knowledge associated with the event, the coach has a vital and satisfying role.

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Tags: Biography, Memoir