Brussels effectively closed out a very interesting 2011 season – a season that for me opened up as many questions as it provided answers. So there are lots of things I want to discuss and look at over the course of the down time between now and the indoor season. I want to start by following up on a comment I made last week – that I don’t think that twenty five medals is the best that the U.S. can do in a major, that out potential is greater than that. I feel that I need to start there because many of my comments and observations of the season that just ended, and looking forward to London, are interrelated to our potential.
So, Last week I said we are not realizing our potential as an international team – and I stand by that. As a matter of fact after watching Brussels, I’m even more sure. It’s not a slam against our athletes. It’s actually a compliment because I think we have the best talent base in the world. It’s not a slam against our coaches either, because I think we have some of the best coaches in the world. So what’s the problem? The problem in my opinion lies in our organization – or lack thereof.
You see, when you have the best talent base in the world AND many of the world’s best coaches, but you rely on chance and happenchance to create the right combinations of the two you are seriously lacking in organization! And watching the end of the season in Zurich and Brussels, I’m more convinced than ever that our issues lie in organization more than anything else, because we have athletes with the talent of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Sally Pearson, and Anna Chicherova, but they are not getting the attention and assistance they need from USATF.
Because in my opinion the one thing that hasn’t improved as this sport has moved from amateur to professional is our organization. During the evolution from AAU, to TAC, to USATF we have yet to develop real coordination among all the training factions that actually make up our “National” teams. The athletes have lots of “physical” tools – tracks, shoes, masseurs, and coaches. But we lack coordination. You may have your own coach, and he/she may be good at one aspect of your event, but perhaps there are others that have better expertise in other aspects. You as the athlete however,only have access to your own coach. Training “camps” don’t come together. So while we have some of the best coaches and minds in the world, they are not accessible to all. I watch Walter Dix sprint and I see all the things that are missing in his race that are present in Tyson Gay’s – and I sorely want to see them on the track working together if only for a couple of weeks – sharing training tips and technical expertise between athletes and coaches. So I look at how we can be better coordinated.
The models of organization in this sport were the old Cold War East Germany and Soviet Union. They took sport seriously – some might even say a bit too seriously. Yes, they had their faults – primarily their state operated doping programs, so let’s get this out of the way off the top. I’m in NO way suggesting that we emulate THAT part of their program – because I’m sure someone will say that I am. What I am saying is that doping aside, they were the model for identifying talent (athletic and coaching) and seeing that talent was matched with coaching, and that potential was maximized.
And THAT is something that we currently have no program/system in place to handle – which in my humble opinion is a big reason why we have run in place for so long, and why the rest of the world has “caught up”.
So where do we start? Well we can start by hiring a leader – a CEO – to run things. That should be PRIORITY ONE for 2012. It won’t be in time to impact London, but it could be for things going forward. And that expensive, fancy, full of verbiage, job description aside, what the organization really needs is someone with vision; able to hire competent people capable of carrying out the vision; and able to delegate without micromanaging so that things can actually get done.
Next, should be a move to separate the “professional” part of the sport from the “amateur” part of the sport. Either by actually splitting them into two distinct organizations, or by moving the “professional” half of the sport into its own self sufficient Division with a “President” at the helm reporting directly to the CEO – replete with separate budgets, funding sources, Mission Statement, goals and objectives, operating guidelines, etc. in order to actualize our potential internationally, I believe there needs to be more focus in this country on our professional/international programs and athletes, because as I said last week, twenty five medals WITHOUT a real program in place says that so much more is possible.
We have a great “farm system” with the youth/amateur side of the sport. Thousands upon thousands of kids are out there running jumping and throwing in both club and school programs (middle and high school) – and are among the best in the world at what they do for their ages. It’s that transition somewhere between high school and college, and after, where we drop the ball organizationally – where it then becomes a matter of happenchance and the singular influence of shoe companies that determines the fates of our national teams. This is where we need USATF to step up to the plate. This is where we need more “professional” focus.
Without sitting down and trying to put a business plan into a post there are several things that I think could be done towards that end. The primary focus of which should be the development of talent across the country. Because the key to the success of East Germany and the Soviet Union was twofold: the identification of talent, and the referral of that talent to coaches that could properly develop it.
So for starters we need to identify our top coaches with the goal of developing two things: a Mentor/Shadow program for developing coaches, and a referral network for athletes – in some cases in conjunction with their “personal” coaches.
The Mentor/Shadow program should be obvious – in a country this large we need to develop as many top level coaches in every discipline that we can across the nation. I would even look to develop Regional Coaches Directories, along with Regional Coaching Development Programs that put coaches like John Smith, Alberto Salazar, Bobby Kersee, and Dick Booth together with their peers to exchange information/techniques. This should be mandatory for all coaches who want to work on international programs – because we want to replicate their success, we want as many athletes as possible benefiting from their knowledge. Similarly the Athlete Referral program would take elite athletes and put them in touch with coaches that can help shore up their weaknesses. For example, while a Walter Dix has his own coach, he (and his coach) could be referred to Jon Drummond for analysis and tweaking of his start mechanics. Again, without disrespect to their personal coaches, acceptance of referrals should almost be a mandatory component of competing on international teams. As we want those athletes competing in the Red, White and Blue competing at their absolute maximum potential.
Having a program in place to better utilize our best coaches, we then need to focus on identifying our athletic talent and funneling athletes to coaches that can best help them develop. I know that in this age of shoe companies, agents and the like that this will not be as easy as it could be – which is why a CEO will need to be able to either interface with those various factions to assist in facilitating this process, or be able to find individuals who can. But matching up athletes with coaches is key to our achieving our potential as an international program. Because in watching our athletes perform in Daegu (and elsewhere) we have far too many “elite” athletes with glaring technical flaws. And for our athletic population base, we have far too m any athletes that plateau and stagnate at too young an age. I look at an athlete like a Ryan Bailey – with the physical attributes of Usain Bolt – who was 9.88/20.10 last year in spite of major technical flaws, who literally disappeared this year. Then contrast him with Yohan Blake who was 9.89/19.78 last year and ended up as World Champion in Daegu and the star of Brussels. I see a disconnect in both organization and philosophy. Because I guarantee that in nearly any other country this Ryan Bailey would be nurtured as a near athletic national treasure. But here we treat him as disposable because we have so many others that we feel will come through when we need them! Yet at the end of the day we showed up to Daegu with only one viable sprinter – Walter Dix – a story that was repeated in several events at Worlds. So perhaps our athletes are not quite as disposable as it seems – and as an organization we need to nurture as many as we can get our hands on.
Moving on, in addition to coaching and referral programs, I think that USATF could benefit from the addition of two other specialty divisions. One is a Nutritional Division where athletes are able to go to get nutritional analyses performed. Part of this should be a vitamin/supplement analysis – both of those that they are using as well as those they may need to add. I understand that “lists” are available to athletes so that they know what they can and cannot take as far was what is on the “banned” list But this is a critical area where USATF should be more involved in my opinion. We should not exit our Trials with anyone testing positive for anything – let alone because of something “inadvertent”. We should be well beyond that by now and should be leading the way globally in this area. Project Believe is a start, but should be broadened and I believe a Nutritional Division work help a large portion of our athletes. And not just with respect to vitamins and supplements. The other focus should be a true nutritional analysis based on their diets – as there is a direct link between diet and performance. Staff dieticians could be a great asset in assisting athletes in developing proper diets to go with their training and performance schedules. As well as helping our athletes with meal planning when attending majors on foreign soil.
The other division that I think needs to be added is a Facilities Division that would be charged with securing adequate training facilities/usage for elite level athletes and programs. Too often our top athletes find themselves in a position of training wherever they can. There is no reason why a coach the level of John Smith, for example, should be precluded at training at facilities such as those at UCLA – where they have been prohibited from training. Smith, Carmelita Jeter, Jason Richardson and the rest of their training group should be welcome at any facility in the United States. If not, USATF should be there to negotiate on their behalf. So, in the short term the head of the Facilities Division would be charged with working out operational agreements at facilities such as those at UCLA and other top level colleges to ensure that our best athletes have access to the best facilities possible. In the long term that division would have the responsibility to develop and put into place a program to develop regional facilities specifically for the use of America’s elite track and field athletes and programs.
Now, I know I’ve put a lot out there – but there is much that needs to be done. After all, realizing one’s potential takes a lot of work. It may not be the only blueprint to success, but areas that I believe we can do much better in. Besides, when it comes to our elite athletes it seems to me, looking from the outside in, that we are near ground zero right now. So, on the positive side, we can make it what we want it to be.
With that, time to take a closer look at the season just ended.