The best coach you’ve never heard of

Prodigious athletics coach Brother Colm O’ Connell tells Will Slattery the secret to his success.

For many sports fans in Western Europe the dominance of Kenyan middle distance runners has made the sport all too predictable. If that is truly the case, then Brother O’Connell is as banal as they come, because the runners under his tutelage have won 25 world championships and five Olympic gold medals.
O’Connell arrived in the small Kenyan village of Iten back in 1976 as a geography teacher and soon after started coaching athletics. He went from distinguishing between tributaries and streams to moulding world and Olympic champions. As you do.

How does a geography teacher become the world’s most successful athletics coach? Simple really; after the departure of the athletics coach at his school St Patrick’s, O’Connell simply filled the void. It is probably safe to say that if you had told him of his future success that first day, he would have advised you to seek mental help.

“If someone told me 36 years ago that I would have coached 25 world champions and five Olympic champions, I would have thought you were crazy. I started out with a very simple programme that gave young athletes a positive outlook on doing something that they enjoyed. There have been ups and downs and sometimes we don’t hear about the disappointments but over the years it has just grown and grown.”

What started out as a school athletics team gradually became a nationally regarded athletics camp and over the years the success that O’Connell’s runners have enjoyed is breathtaking. A total of 60% of runners that attended his camp have turned pro. Were those statistics coming out of Ireland, we would no doubt try to canonise him.

It was the early 80s when O’Connell realised that not only were his runners competitive on a national stage but that they could be running at world class events.
“When I started there were very little opportunities for Kenyan athletes because they boycotted both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. So it was a down period for Kenya but it was an opportune time for me because initially there were no big expectations. In the early 1980s when there were junior, national and international competitions, I began to realise that these athletes were much better than I expected. After that it really started to click and come together and then in 1988 I had my first Olympic gold medallist.”

There is a certain amount of myth-making that accompanies successful coaches. People want them to look and act a certain way. They expect hair-raising speeches, furrowed brows and tactic covered boards, be they black, white or yellow. But O’Connell does things a different way. He works with athletes in a way that is devoid of ego and is more a facilitator of talent than a nuts and bolts coach.

“I have a very simple approach and attitude towards how my athletes train. I try to be more athlete-orientated rather than programme or system orientated. When a young person comes to me full of interest and enthusiasm, I say ‘what are you bringing to me?’ Sometimes coaches can micromanage athletes and bombard them with information and statistics. I try to do it in reserve. With a new athlete I forget about myself and who I have coached and start as if this is my very first athlete.” said O’Connell.

Many pundits say that middle distance running now belongs to the Kenyans and Ethiopians and that their natural talent will always prevail against other nations. But O’Connell feels that it is the strong work ethic of his runners coupled with their talent that makes them special. “Nowadays you need a lot
more than talent to be an elite sportsman. The person needs to have the discipline, the focus, the commitment and they need to realise the sacrifices that you have to make to your lifestyle.”

Ireland loves a good coach. When a sportsman or a team wins something, we want to know who and how it happened. Jim McGuinness’ system is as famous as any of his Donegal players. It is ironic that while Brother O’Connell’s athletes have been enjoying so much success, Irish athletics has often been quite stagnant. But are O’Connell’s methods the treatment for the malaise in Irish athletics?

“I wouldn’t understand Irish athletics because I developed my system from within Kenya. I didn’t bring technical knowledge from another country into Kenya. I have never been involved in how Irish athletes are trained and prepared. It’s very hard to put a Kenyan solution on an Irish problem.”

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