Welcome the the Parasports World Coaches' Corner where we hear from the top Parasport coaches in the World, and find out about their philosophy, their leadership style and their tips for success. In this article we hear from Arno Mul, the Head Coach of the Dutch Para Athletics Team.
'I always wanted to be a Fighter Pilot'
Everything I did as a kid was geared towards getting my qualifications and getting hold of a fighter jet. It turned out that my eyes weren’t up to the job and once I’d swallowed my disappointment I realised I needed to find a new focus.
Athletics has always been a part of my life. If I’m being generous I’d describe myself as a moderate athlete, but having been around the track since I was 10 I feel comfortable there, I know my way around, if feels familiar.
If felt like a natural step to move into coaching. Although not the best athlete in the world I’d been lucky to have had some great coaches and worked alongside some top level athletes. I didn’t want that to go to waste. Also, let’s be honest, which 17 year old kid doesn’t like the idea of standing in the sun all day?
‘Always be ready to re-educate yourself’
When I moved from mainstream athletics into Parasport I started out thinking I should do what I did when I was training able bodied athletes, but I quickly found out that Wheelchair Racing was very different, especially from a physiological perspective. It is actually closer to rowing, or cycling than running, so I had to re-educate myself. In my opinion it’s something you should never be afraid to do.
I had to start from the beginning. For example, if you do a sprint session with an able bodied athlete and for instance you do 3 x 60 metres then a sprinter can be really exhausted at the end, but if you do the same session with a Wheelchair Racer, they’ll laugh at you. They do that sort of thing before they even warm up.
Some coaches like to have their way of working, let’s call it their style, which never changes, but I’m the opposite. I brought in the Dutch cycling coaches, some of the best in the world and got them to take a look and see how they could help me build a training programme for my athletes. I’m never afraid to ask for help.
‘Knowledge is a two way street’
When I started in Wheelchair Racing I knew nothing, maybe in fact I knew less than nothing because I thought I could bring at least some knowledge from mainstream athletics. I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case. I had to start from scratch and I needed my athletes’ help to build the programme.
This is probably the key misconception in coaching, that knowledge is a one way street, from coach to athlete. This couldn’t be further from the truth, at least in the way I see things. I had to learn this lesson fast when I moved into Wheelchair Racing. I tried to take in all the knowledge I could, from other coaches, from my athletes and put it into some sort of order.
I started with a 3 week programme in South Africa, written by a colleague of mine.
I challenged the athletes to give me input. Red crosses against what won’t work, green against those that will work, and then I asked them to give me 3 of their favourite workouts. It was funny, some only put red crosses in. At least that gives you something to talk about I guess. Some said, I don’t care, you’re the coach, you do it.
Around 2014 I started working with Brent Lakatos and he had a big influence on the programme, he had a totally different perspective to us which really helped. It’s always the way I’ve been, trying to find out why people do things in a certain way, why it works, why it doesn’t, I guess it’s part of who I am.
‘Contribute to the Coaching Community’
The coaching community is different in Parasport. I couldn’t go to a major tournament when I was training mainstream Long Jump and ask them for advice. That’s something Parasport has, the willingness to exchange and learn from one another, it’s an openness you don’t find elsewhere. It’s something mainstream sport can learn from us actually. It’s so valuable to get the opinion from someone outside of your inner circle, they’ll see your bad habits quicker, and won’t mind about telling you either!
When you look at it, we don’t know very much actually. There’s a whole lot of trial and error in Parasport. Take setting up a prosthesis for example, it’s really difficult. We have 2 fantastic guys working on our wheelchairs and prosthesis, but there aren’t so many of those guys around. We’re looking for other people to broaden the pool a bit, bring in other people and discuss about setups for wheelchairs.
Having said that we’re always trying to find a balance. Parasport has a very strong elite competition element now. If my Wheelchair guy gives the Great Britain team some tips on how to setup a Wheelchair on race day during the World Championships, I’m not going to be very happy with him, it’s our competitive advantage. My programme is funded by medals, I need medals! But the general principle of sharing ideas, developing the sport in general, is a very important one.
‘Involve your athlete in the Coaching process’
I like to think I’m a very interactive coach, but it also depends on the level of experience of the athlete. But generally I try to involve them in the process as much as possible. I’ve got one young guy in the group he’s 17, he does as I say! On the other hand, take someone like Kenny van Weeghel, he’s an incredible athlete with so much experience, so I listen very carefully what he says. But after 7 years, I also see where he goes wrong and it’s my job to tell him.
No matter the age of an athlete I always explain why I want them to do something, it’s important they get the reasoning behind. The main difference is that the older guys get more of a say in their training programme, they understand their bodies a little better, they have that feel for things that the younger guys need to develop.
When I get a group of new athletes, like I did in 2017 when I started working with standing athletes for the first time I tell them that we need a year to get to know eachother, to make sure that we’re speaking the same language. It takes that long just to figure out the personality dynamics and to get to a point where you’re on the same page so you can start really making progress.
Part 2 of this article will be available in 2 weeks time. Where we will here from Arno Mul about benchmarking, being realistic with your athletes and how to 'Manage the Spider's Web'.
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