How athletics coaches have adjusted to Covid-19 lockdown

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 00:00 |
Ethiopia’s long-distance great Kenenisa Bekele with his coach Mersha Asrat.

Moscow, Monday 

It is not only the athletes who have been forced to adjust during the Covid-19 pandemic but also their coaches. 

For Patrick Sang, coach to world marathon record-holder Eliud Kipchoge and world half-marathon record-holder Geoffrey Kamworor, “delegating greater authority” to his athletes following training restrictions created by the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge he has faced.

Sang coaches a large group of athletes based out of a training group in Kaptagat, but government restrictions around group gatherings put in place in March meant athletes had to head home to their families and train alone.

Breaking down his athletes into smaller groups of track and marathon athletes the initial challenge was communication but having alleviated this issue thanks to WhatsApp and other methods, it has been his lack of a “coach’s eye” on the progress of his athletes which has proved the biggest obstacle.

“Our coaching is very much one-on-one and the ‘coach’s eye’ is an instrument we use to see how the individual athletes are responding to the workload at any given time.

The activation of the coach’s eye in these circumstances is not possible. You are relying on the feedback of the athletes,” Sang told World Athletics at the weekend. 

Sang insists the athlete manager, Valentijn Trouw, has played a pivotal role in maintaining the information flow to runners to help them maintain a positive stance in challenging times.

And positivity is the keen message Sang likes to emit at all times.

“We’ve experienced calamities before and normally they don’t last forever,” explains Sang, adding: “We have a time scale and a race plan (for later in the year) we are looking at and our energies are focused on the remaining part of the season.”

Som’s ‘circle of influence’

Dutch-based Bram Som, coach to a group of athletes led by 2017 World 1,500m champion Faith Kipyegon, says it is important to stay focused on the “circle of influence” and not the “circle of concern” during the Covid-19 crisis.

“One of the biggest challenges is that you no longer look an athlete in the eye to see how he or she is behaving,” explains Som, a former European 800m champion. 

He added: “To counter this, you have to improve your conversation skills, ask the right questions and listen carefully.”

Som insists the middle-distance athletes he coaches have largely been able to carry out long runs, interval and hill sessions as normal but he has also introduced solo time trials to keep the athletes focused. Flexibility, he insists, is key.

“I have watched many online sessions with athletes doing their workout routines,” he says.

“I saw many new exercises and I have found out that chopping wood is a perfect alternative weight session for the upper body, for example.”

Asrat’s ‘survival’ tactics 

Mersha Asrat, coach to three-time Olympic track champion Kenenisa Bekele, believes his role in the these challenging times is to put a plan in place to “survive the storm.”

With both the opportunity to race—in the foreseeable future—and group training taken away from athletes, he believes this has impacted on motivation. Yet as a coach, Asrat insists he has to remain positive.

“All my athletes need to be strong, a role model for others with their behaviour. As a coach, I have to tell them that this will pass,” he says. 

With no events on the immediate horizon, he has advised his athletes to rein back on the training, and he has recommended combining a mixture of endurance running and strength training.

“There are no races happening for some time so this is a time when they can run three time a week alternating with workouts.

I’ve given them all individual workouts with a meaning. This is an opportunity to work on their strength exercises, to improve and even become masters of the workout.” -World Athletics

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