Monday, January 14, 2008

World Coaching Education Meetings, January 2 – 5, 2008; Dakar, Senegal

I spent New Year’s Eve in Dakar, Senegal in preparation for the four-day 2008 Coaching Education and Certification System (CECS) Finalization Meeting for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).

Coaching Education has always been a passion of mine. The only way for a coach to leave a long lasting legacy is to share unabashedly the cumulative knowledge and experiences of an entire career to the next generation of coaches. To that end, I have tried to remain as active as my schedule permits to help fast-track coaches to mastery and excellence.

I remember being part of the first Coaching Congress formed by The Athletics Congress in Long Beach, California in December of 1983, which served as the springboard for the USA Track and Field’s Coaching Education System. Even today I continue to teach at one or two Level One Courses per year because I believe young coaches should start out right.

Last week’s meetings brought together the editors and international experts who have been working on the development of the Level III and Level IV curricula. Ralph Mouchbahani (Germany, now Special Consultant in Singapore) with me represented Sprints and Hurdles. Wolfgang Ritzdorf (Germany and a professor at the Deutsche Sporthochschule) is the coordinator for the jumps. Debbie Strange (New Zealand) attended for the Throws. Peter Thompson (UK, now working with the IAAF in Monaco) chaired the meeting and is the current editor in the endurance events. Antonio La Torre (Italy, and professor at the Institute of Physical Exercises, Sports Activities and Health at the University of Milan) has developed the walks curriculum and Alain Smail (France, a senior coach on the staff at the IAAF High Performance Training Center in Dakar) is putting together the Combined Events. Joining the event group editors was Oscar Gadea (Uruguay) who serves as international consultant to the IAAF.

The meeting schedule was packed during the mornings. Peter Thompson kept our collective noses to the grindstone. Afternoons were dedicated to individual event group meetings.

Even though the schedule and workload was daunting, it didn’t stop Ralph and I from paying a visit to Alain’s training group at the stadium. We spent almost four hours watching athletes train. Alain explained that Wednesday is the day when many of the aspiring young talents from the schools travel across Dakar and come to train at the National Stadium. Throngs of little boys and little girls mostly ran barefoot, jogging and exercising around the track for warm-up. They set up on the home straight to do their drills and sprint before their coaches. It was fantastic to watch sport at its most basic.

Alain’s group was joined on this day by Amadou Dia Ba, the Senegalese legend, who won silver in the 400-meter Hurdles in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul in one of the most closely contested 400-meter Hurdle finals in Olympic history. The medalists were only separated by 0.37 seconds with Kevin Young, the reigning world record holder finishing fourth.

It was great listening to Amadou interact with the young hopefuls and emerging under-23s in Alain’s group. He graciously accepted Alain’s good natured teasing, as he did the hurdle walk-overs using the women’s hurdle height. Even though out of his high performance years, you could see that he was truly a special athlete.

The best times for interchange and sharing of what is the newest and latest breaking in the world of training was over breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Hotel Fana. Though breakfast was in the French mode of bread and croissant with confiture (jam) and a café au lait, the Senegalese cuisine was fantastic; although something retired me for a couple days with an uncharacteristic bout of food poisoning. Invariably a pearl of wisdom was gleaned from every meal. The farewell dinner was held at Pointe Almadies, the most western tip of the African continent. Goodbyes were said as half the group raced off to the airport. The rest of us retired to the hotel for later departures.

My only free Sunday before returning home was spent solo on a ferry ride of 25 minutes to Isle de Gorée. Isle de Gorée was the epicenter of slave trade from the African continent spanning the mid fifteenth century through the 1800’s. I listened to the guides’ impassioned presentation in both French and later in German. 20 million African men, women and children were marched through the dark, dank and narrow slit in the wall, “La Porte du Voyage sans Retour”. This final day in Africa puts thing so well into perspective. What we do collectively as performance coaches is teach athletes how to become faster and improve their athleticism. Given the history of Isle de Gorée, what we do seems so insignificant.

However, given that centuries of oppression and subjugation, which have come before us and continue in some countries today, often the only chance to bridge people of different beliefs and values is through the international language and understanding provided by sport, and that offers hope. Let’s keep doing what we do with excellence, but especially with love, compassion and understanding and to continue to make a difference in the lives we touch so they can, in turn, make the real difference.