Alison O’Riordan is a British Athletics Level 3 and an Athletics Australia Level 5 (Master) coach with a background in biomechanics and education. Having worked in Australia in a number of coaching positions including a?High Performance Throws Coach for the?Australian Institute of Sport?(AIS), National Performance Manager for Throws and Coach Education Co-ordinator with the Athletics Australia Paralympic Preparation Program?(AA-PPP) and a former member of the?Athletics Australia Coach Advisory Commission, Alison is now back on the UK working with a variety of Paralympic and Disabled athletes.
During the London 2012 Olympic Games, Alison coached two athletes to GB Paralympic success and was also part of the Channel 4 (UK TV Channel) commentary team. ?Since then, she has gone on to become the Head Coach for the British team at the Invictus Games in 2014 and coached another athlete (Vanessa Daobry) onto the GB squad for the Rio Olympic Games.
We chatted with Alison about her career and her thoughts on the state of track & field in the UK…
I wondered if you could tell us about Vanessa. How you got involved with coaching her and your experience working with other Paralympians at previous Games?
I met Vanessa (Nessa) about 3 years ago. She came to a seated throws workshop I was delivering at Lee Valley (an athletics centre in the UK). She was working as an England Athletics ?Run Activator` at the time, and was also a wheelchair racing coach. She came along just for a learning opportunity. During the workshop she had a go on a throwing frame throwing the shot and I saw immediately that she was getting into good throwing positions. I asked if she wanted to try out at a coaching session but unfortunately she was due to have surgery so that put an end to that.
However, about 18 months ago, I was wondering what Nessa was up to. I tweeted a photo of her throwing from the workshop along with the message ? ?Hey Nessa, when are you going to come & try throwing? Clearly a natural!? She replied quickly asking when I was training as she would come along to say hello and took to shot put very quickly. She was 37 years old at the time and had no competitive sports experience whatsoever.
Nessa has a condition that is very debilitating. Fatigue is a massive issue, and she also has hypermobile joints, so we have to be really careful to manage these. She has applied herself well and did everything I asked her to do, which is exactly what you want in an athlete. It has been pretty life-changing for her. She got back from Rio a couple of days ago (where she came 5th – an amazing achievement) and never imagined this was going to happen.
Nessa?s main target now is the London 2017 World Athletics Championships and I’m confident she will want to carry on until Tokyo 2020 [Paralympics].
I work at the elite level and often identify athletes myself, turning them ?around? quite quickly if they have athletic attributes. I have successfully coached dozens of athletes, ten of whom went on to compete at 4 Paralympic Games, winning 6 medals along with 3 world records.
It was easier in the early days (when I was an employed coach in Australia) as I had a full sports medicine & science team working with me. Since I’ve returned to the UK it has been much more difficult. For instance, all the athletes I have coached onto the ParalympicsGB team have been relative newcomers and non-funded. Consequently, we do not have a team of support practitioners to work with the athletes, so rely on professionals willing to work for little or no money.
As a personal coach to selected athletes, did you find it disappointing not to be chosen to go the Rio Paralympics with the rest of the team staff?
It is difficult but something I’m getting used to. There were 54 athletes on the athletics team [GB] each having their own personal coach so involvement for all is unlikely. Being involved with the Australian team [in previous years], I was at every games and without a doubt having your own personal coach there is to the advantage of the athlete. It is very difficult because you want to be there to support your athlete right up to the last moment so you can get the very best out of them.
Having said that, I really enjoyed watching the Rio Paralympics on television. I also enjoyed watching a lot of the other sports, which is not usually possible when you are a team coach, due to lack of time.
Was this the first time you hadn’t gone out with the team?
I wasn?t a team coach for the ParalympicsGB athletics team in London 2012, but was part of the Channel 4 [UK TV] commentary team, so was there for the whole time. I was able to access and work with my athletes in the lead up, and was easier because it was a home Games. So yes, Rio 2016 was the first Paralympic Games in 16 years I have not attended.
I did discuss with Nessa about supporting her at the holding camp, but it proved to be too difficult and expensive to organize, and I was concerned about being a single female in Brazil, a country I have no experience of. That?s the main reason why I didn?t go, but we kept in contact daily because it was all new to Nessa. I tried to support her as best I could that way.
During the field events in athletics, an athlete is usually able to look over at their coach and get some advice before they have another throw, or another jump, so how were you able to support Vanessa in this way without being there?
All athletes have an allocated team coach who is there to facilitate them with their training up until and during the competition, so Nessa did have a team coach with her. I tried to empower Nessa so that she could take control of her own training plan whilst at the holding camp, and leading into competition. She’s an adult and a very proactive athlete, but still very much a beginner. At one point she sent some videos to me of her throwing in training, and I noticed that her technique had changed. I asked her why and her reply was “Oh, God! I didn’t realise!”
We haven’t debriefed yet so I’m not sure why this happened. Possibly the team coach gave a technical cue which changed something in Nessa’s technique. It is of some concern that Nessa and the team coach did not notice the change.
What are your thoughts on the low numbers of female coaches involved at the elite levels of athletics and the low numbers who have gone out to Rio with the national teams?
There were 39 different (personal) coaches involved with the 54 athletes selected for the Paralympics GB athletics team for Rio, only 5 of whom were female (12% of all coaches). Similarly, there were 10 team and 4 personal coaches in Rio, and only 2 of them were female (14%), not including the Head Coach (Paula Dunn). They are very low numbers. I do not know the selection criteria for the team or personal coaches.
To be involved full-time at the elite level could be difficult for female coaches. When I was working (employed) in Australia as a performance coach, I could be away for 6-8 weeks at a time. That could be challenging for all coaches but particularly so for female coaches if they have a young family.
I do know some female coaches that find the largely male environment quite intimidating. It?s never been something I have particularly thought about, because it?s [coaching] what I?ve always wanted to do. Regardless of my gender, I was going to do it.
If a female coach is adequately skilled and experienced, they should be given as much opportunity to be at that level as any other coach. In the time I’ve been back in the UK, there has never been an opportunity to apply to be a team coach. I’m a firm believer, it should be about the best coach for the position, and is definitely is not about gender. Surely it is impossible to know who’s the best person for a position if there is no transparent application process and the opportunity to apply.
My own personal point of view is I feel underutilized.
By your governing body, British Athletics?
I have spent the last 16 years developing my knowledge & experience specifically in disability & Paralympic athletics. I?m also a biomechanist and world leader in seated throws research. I have written inclusive coaching guidance documents for England Athletics and been involved in a great deal of disability athletics development with them.
I have demonstrated over many Paralympic cycles that I can coach multiple athletes onto Paralympic teams and bring back medals. So yes, I do feel underutilized at the elite (Paralympic) level.
My current coaching environment is quite isolating, which is fine, as I coach because I love it and I’m good at it. It is difficult for the athletes I work with (throwers) to medal at their first Paralympics, so that?s the next challenge. I?m excited for next year as in addition to Nessa, I am working with two talented ambulant throwers and 1-2 new athletes, all of which will be challenging for team selection for London2017 World Champs.
I’m not sure how much longer I will be involved.
You’ve obviously got a lot of skills, and a huge amount of experience, so you’d think that you’d be the ideal candidate really to get chosen for various roles.
I’d like to think so. I’ve been interviewed twice for the position of Head Coach and was appointed on one of these occasions, so if I’ve got the skills & experiences to be interviewed for the lead position.
Do you think the appointment process is quite insular, they tend to stick to choosing the same people for the same roles?
The team coaches for the throws have stayed the same between London and Rio. I am unaware how they were selected, and there has been no opportunity to apply for a team coach position.
I’m happy to be judged on my own performance as a coach. It’s what I’m used to
As well as coaching athletes to the Paralympics, you are also involved with the Invictus Games? How did you get involved with Paralympic and disability sport?
I was living in Australia and applied for a high performance coaching scholarship, which was advertised in a leading national newspaper. Subsequently, I was invited to the Australian Institute of Sport for an interview, and offered the position.
I was perhaps fortunate at the time, as Athletics Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport were actively seeking a female coach (which was quite refreshing), anticipating an influx of young female athletes, and wanting more of a female presence. I guess I ticked all the boxes – right place at the right time.
I then spent 2 years at the Australian Institute of Sport, working within the athletics program, learning from high performance coaches, not just in athletics, but from all sports from all around the world. It was like a dream come true.
After this, I became the Paralympic Program Event Group (Throws) Lead, responsible also for disability-specific coach education.
I have been very fortunate to be involved with the Invictus Games. I was Head Coach (athletics) for the British Armed Forces team in 2014 and 2016.
How does coaching in Australia compare with coaching in the UK?
There were and are so many really good technical coaches at all levels in Australia, and yet the funding is so much less than in the UK. When I came back to the UK, and I became involved with England Athletics [governing body], I couldn’t believe how many people were employed in coach education. There wasn?t this level of coach development in Australia. They don’t have the club system that we have here, because of the distances involved. The geography of the country makes it very difficult and yet the junior and youth level athletes are very good.
If there is funding available for employed positions, it would make sense that this should be going to coaches. Athletes and coaches are the most important in this sport ? without them the sport would not exist. My role in Australia involved mostly coaching, along with admin and associated duties. I was expected to identify and coach at least 5 athletes to Paralympic level (medal winning). I just don’t see that happening here. There’s so much more funding, but they rely too heavily on volunteer coaches coaches that have full-time jobs as well, so coaching has to fit around this.
Elite athletes need to be training in elite environments with their lead coach with them as much as possible. And this cannot happen with volunteer coaches.
With so few women coaching elite athletes in Olympic and Paralympic athletics, do you think British Athletics should be supporting the personal coaches of athletes more rather than just encouraging the athlete to move to a performance centre such as Loughborough, leaving their personal coach behind?
Yes I do. The performance coaches employed by the governing body usually stay in post for one cycle. An athlete might move to a high performance centre to work with an employed coach and then 4 years later, it changes. Quite often after, they go back to where they’ve come from and back to their original coach. It is also be impossible to support all athletes in one location, so home based coaches are essential.
Particularly in Paralympic sport, there is a greater need to support the personal coach in their home environment. It is a specialist area, and if a coach is showing potential by bringing athletes on, they should be supported. This will then allow the athlete to improve as well as the coach. There is only one employed Paralympic coach (wheelchair racing) in the UK.
Logistics are easier if all athletes can be in a centralised position, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Not all disabled athletes can relocate, because their specific support structures aren?t always in place. The athletes I work with tend to be older, some with families and so relocating is not viable (if and when they become funded), especially so as there are no full-time employed throws coaches.
The disabled athletes that do tend to move to Loughborough, for example, tend to be younger with minimal impairment. There could also be conflict of interest around Olympic/Paralympic time as the employed (Olympic) coach will not be available for the Paralympic athletes for many weeks before the Paralympics as they will be away with their Olympic athletes.
I am a pro-active lifelong learner as a coach and take full advantage of the coach development opportunities available in the UK. I have been pushed to be involved in the following coach development programmes over the last few years:
Female Coach Legacy Programme (British Athletics)
Women In High Performance Coaching Programme (SportsCoachUK)
ParaCoach2Rio Programme (UK Sport)
National Coach Development Programme (England Athletics).