Coaching Olympic athletes on the road to Tokyo — it’s a different world
There are three themes that dominate the news cycle ahead of every Olympic Games: politics, pending disaster and the athletes.
If organisers are lucky, the first two fade into the background once the real-life roller-coaster of emotions kick in when athletes start doing what they do best, compete.
Tokyo will be different, though, with the full impact of the 12-month COVID-19 delay still to be revealed.
There is something else, too.
Coaches, and coaching, is not what it used to be.
Eras come and go, methods progress and, as we’ve seen in the five years since Rio 2016, a new standard of integrity and accountability is being demanded.
But this is not a story of abuse and scandal, this is one that shows how in tune today’s coaches have to be to survive in a world where brute force has been replaced with mental wellbeing and where winning is still the aim but the journey has become equally important.
Australian swimming coach Chris Mooney, Australian Opals basketball coach Sandy Brondello and coach of the Socceroos and Olyroos Graham Arnold were all athletes who stepped out of the 1990s and into one of the toughest gigs in sport.
Chris Mooney – National swim coach
At the National Swimming Trials in Adelaide this week it wasn’t unusual for a coach to have three squad members vying for one of only two places open for Olympic selection.
While two might celebrate, the other is forced to confront that five, six, 10, or even more years of effort have counted for little as the single pursuit of becoming an Olympian cruelly slides by.
« It’s an individual sport but it takes a team, » Mooney told The Ticket.
« You’re basically trying to put those athletes up on the line and give them all the best opportunity and then it’s, ‘may the best athlete win’.
« They’ll use training sessions and opportunities each day to push each other and challenge each other.
« It’s a healthy environment, it’s certainly a productive environment. And if you’ve got really accountable athletes, they get it.
« Then, come race day it’s just a matter of individually identifying what makes each individual perform to their best. »
Some swimmers are after world records, others a race win and others perhaps just aim to make the final.
No matter what the goal, not succeeding can be devastating.
« Usually, you’ll find that the athlete who has just missed out will be internalising it but they will find a moment to celebrate with their team-mate, as they have shared those blood, sweat and tears, and early mornings, and the challenges together. »
Mooney says it is what happens after that that is crucial.
« For me, it’s always been ‘less is more’ in that space.
« Just listening to the athlete, that is something that you can use and think about and process, to understand where they’re at emotionally.
« I listen a lot. I really do.
« Time helps everyone, but I certainly like to hot-wash it quite quickly.
« When I say hot-wash, I mean break it down, identify how you’re feeling, allow a little bit more time and then keep revisiting to make sure that the athlete is OK.
« Sometimes those situations aren’t as bad in the long term because it helps the athlete become just that little bit more hungry.
« Everyone’s got one of those stories but at the end of the day it’s not who we are, it’s just what we do. »
Champions often talk of the lessons only losing can give.
This week, 19-year-old Kaylee McKeown set a world record in the 100m backstroke but the elation of being the fastest female ever in the event was mixed with the sort of loss that cannot be overcome.
Her father, Shalto, had brain cancer and held on until August last year — long enough to see his daughter compete at the 2020 Olympic games, had it not been delayed.
Every wave of emotion McKeown has ridden since, her coach was riding with her.
« The hairs on my arms are just standing up on end with you just mentioning that.
« Life sometimes creates some roundabouts and some speed bumps.
« The vogue word in the past has been ‘character’ or ‘resilience’.
« Having the athletes know that every day they come to the pool I may have to wear 10 different hats but I can’t do any of it without them, and I don’t want to do it without them.
Mooney quietly reflects.
« When something goes down like that, it’s like, yeah, I get a chance to step up.
« But, geez, I tell you what, you’d be surprised just who in your program steps up.
« Absolutely it’s an individual sport, I get it, but we’re a team. We haven’t got a big team, but we’ve got an important team. I wouldn’t swap any of them. »
Sandy Brondello – Australian Opals basketball coach
Brondello doesn’t mince words. When it comes to the Tokyo Olympics, she is expecting one thing.
« A gold medal, » she says.
« I think that’s the goal of all the players and all the athletes that go there.
« But look, I think after a difficult 15 or so months, it’s just great we are having an Olympics. »
When the Opals team was named last month, every single player spoke of the joy of playing for Brondello.
It’s a central part of her coaching style.
« The same thing when I was a player — you’re going to learn from everything, and usually you learn from those negative ones.
« You put players in the right situation, when the environment allows them to be themselves but within a team, that is when you have the most success and the most fun. »
Being consistently ranked in the top handful of basketball teams in the world, the Opals are expected to win every time they take to the court.
That expectation doesn’t faze Brondello at all.
« I am a very positive person, I always want the best for each and every one of them so I try and instil that confidence in them so they can go out there and play to the best of their ability. »
Brondello is known for being able to create a team environment where personalities, from introverts to extroverts, can gel.
History is strewn with coaches who have tried and failed.
« Obviously, the team is made of so many different players and I don’t want to put them in a box, » she says.
« They need to be true to what their personality is but understanding [that] when they’re in with that specific team, we have some values that we need to follow. »
Liz Cambage is Australia’s larger than life basketballer – unafraid of controversy, willing to give back what other, less accomplished players serve up on social media, and a vocal campaigner for Black Lives Matter.
Last year, she demanded to know what Basketball Australia had planned to raise awareness in the sport here, as basketballers in the USA were front and centre of the movement.
« Liz is one of the best players in the world, » Brondello says.
« To win gold medals, to win championships, you need those real quality players, but they can’t do it on their own so it’s all about the teamwork. »
Brondello has no shame in declaring the only goal is victory.
« These are professional athletes, if you don’t have the will to win, where do you find that fight to do those little 1-per-centers? Losing has got to hurt at this level. »
But learning to let go is key.
« If you hold on to too many negative energies, that’s what’s going to lead you into that next game.
« At this level, you have to have that will to win, the competitive nature, because otherwise you wouldn’t be playing for the Opals, or in an Olympic games.
« It is about that mental preparation and because I’ve experienced so many highs as a player, and some lows, I understand where they’re coming from.
« I think that experience has enabled me to have some more empathy, to help them get through those tight times. »
Like Mooney coaching his swimmers, Brondello says it is equally as important to know what’s happening in their athletes’ lives.
« We have so many roles, we’re not just a coach now, you have to help them in so many other areas, » she says.
« I’ve always been like that to be quite honest, but I think it’s been raised a little bit more during COVID because it was difficult for a lot of players. »
While COVID is no longer the central focus for athletes, the challenge of it remains ahead of what will be a most unique Olympic games.
« Hopefully, I can put them in the right mind frame so when we get to the Games we’re ready to go and we’ve discussed anything that needs to be discussed. Sometimes, you have to have those hard conversations and you’ve got to deal with it.
« That’s the way you can move forward and grow as a team. »
Brondello’s journey of growth saw her play in the national team for 17 years. She’s hoping that longevity has followed her into the coaching ranks.
Graham Arnold – Socceroos and Olyroos coach
Graham Arnold has spent more time out of the country than in it this year, a situation he didn’t imagine.
Two weeks of quarantine after every national tour was unrealistic, sometimes meaning he’d be out of quarantine for less than a week before having to fly out again.
So, the national coach now resides overseas, temporarily.
« It’s been quite tough I’ll be honest, I’ve been doing things over the last year to 18 months which is not what I enjoy.
But he says COVID has changed the approach to coaching.
« In the old days, you pick a player and you wouldn’t even talk to him, you sent a letter.
« If a player said, ‘I don’t want to come,’ you basically retired him, you’d say, ‘well, OK, I’m not going to pick you again’.
« But with COVID I’ve probably spoken to over 60 players before I selected this squad [the Socceroos] as well as probably 50 Olyroos boys.
« If for any certain reason they can’t do it, or they don’t want to do it, well you can’t retire them in this, it’s a pandemic, it’s a worldwide crisis, it’s not their fault. »
The sporting environment has certainly changed but has the COVID experience changed Arnold as a coach?
« One hundred per cent, » he says.
« I probably did that in the early 2000s, and I really believe now is the best way. »
Choosing players for their technical and tactical skill, as well as their physical fitness, is no longer good enough.
« For me, it’s all the mental side and the caring side, that’s so important.
« If you don’t communicate with players, staff, people these days, you don’t know what you can get out of them. »
It’s about coaching not just the player but also the man, according to Arnold.
« Everyone has two lives – one is a personal life, one is a professional life.
« If professionally things aren’t going well, then that will pull down the family or personal side of things.
« I’m not saying that parents don’t understand, they do, 100 per cent on the family side, but even parents don’t understand a lot of what elite athletes have to go through. »
Arnold says there is no comparison between the pressure athletes used to bear compared to modern-day players.
He says he reflects on « the old days » quite a bit.
« These days I believe they are entertainers, in the old days you had maybe five opinions, these days you have millions of opinions.
« I would say, honestly, we probably have half a dozen players here that don’t like doing the media, but I don’t force them to do it. »
As a player, Arnold never had a conversation with any of his coaches about wellbeing.
A coach today ignores that at his or her peril.
« You can have the best technique in the world but if you don’t wake up and want to do it and want to go on the pitch and enjoy it, then you won’t have the best technique.
« So that for me is the biggest thing.
« In my day, we wouldn’t even talk about mental health, it was just, ‘I had a bad day’. »
Now, by coaching, he sees the cycle of life and is giving back what the game gave him.
« For me, it’s about helping with the Olyroos, I am so excited to help the under-23 boys take their life on a new journey.
« Over the years I’ve been very, very fortunate to have had the life I’ve had.
« If I can make my time here with the national team — to do that with 30 more kids, then I’ll be a very happy man. »
It’s all about creating a family environment, Arnold says.
« My attention to detail and planning is very important in this role because at club football you’re working with, say, 23 players and you see them every day and its one club.
« Here there are the Olyroos, the Socceroos, I am probably working with 50-60 clubs and 60 players in different parts of the world, so when you bring them all together, what I work hard at is to create a family environment.
« I hadn’t seen some players and some staff members for 18 months and if you have a culture of dictatorship and fear, players are never going to connect properly.
« Then, when you’re on the pitch playing together you’re not playing with strangers, you’re playing with mates, you’re playing with brothers.
- The Football competition is the first event at the Tokyo Olympics with games beginning on Wednesday, July 21, two days before the Opening Ceremony
- The gold medal game will be played on Saturday, August 7
- Basketball starts on Sunday, July 25 and continues through to Sunday, August 8
- Swimming starts on Saturday, July 24 and finishes on Sunday, August 1