Building the foundations II
In the second part of our interview, Tony Lester talks relays, rugby and Louis Persent's progress...
By Sam Drury - Follow on Twitter. Last Updated: 31/01/14 11:02am
Tony Lester: head of Sky Academy Sports Scholarships
Having coached numerous athletes to Olympic medals it is fair to say that Tony Lester knows better than most what it takes to get to the very top of their sport.
Since taking over as Head of the Sky Academy Sports Scholarships programme he has been putting that knowledge to use as he helps to ensure that 12 of Britain and Ireland's top young athletes get the support they need to succeed.
In this second part of our interview, we discuss his work within rugby union, relays and the progress of Sky Academy Scholar Louis Persent.
As well as the athletics, you worked with Harlequins for a while. How did that come about?
"On a running track you stand alone, whether you're in lanes or it's an endurance race. You're running against other people, if you lose, you fail. It's as simple as that. Only you can put the effort in."
We had our training base down at Eton College and Harlequins would always come down to do their pre-season testing and, based on that, I got quite friendly with Dan Luger, who at the time was obviously a key England player. Dan's strength coach, a guy called Paul Pook, asked if I'd be interested in coming down to Quins because I'd done a bit of work with Dan privately, just on speed.
We had a nice connection, we got on really well and so when Paul saw what I'd done with Dan and another guy called Paul Sampson, who was at Wasps at the time, I got offered the chance to go to Quins and be their speed coach twice a week. So, basically every Tuesday and Thursday morning I'd go down to Aldershot, as their training base was the Army Stadium at the time.
I'd work with those guys twice a week and there were the likes of Will Greenwood and Jason Leonard there, Ugo Monye was just coming through. It was great fun and the key thing was they all needed to be quicker. Rugby is a power game, it's a speed game so ultimately if you can make these guys two or three metres faster, job done.
Dan Luger: Was part of England World Cup winning squad of 2003
You've worked with top athletes in athletics and rugby. What is the biggest difference between coaching team sports and individual events?
That is the difference. On a running track you stand alone, whether you're in lanes or it's an endurance race. You're running against other people, if you lose, you fail. It's as simple as that. Only you can put the effort in.
In a team you can rely on your colleagues to pull it together. Both come with the same types of pressures because if you're having a bad game and you let the team down, there looking at you and it's flagged up. But then if you have a great day you can inspire your colleagues. Whereas in a 400m race you stand alone for a quarter-of-a-mile and you've got to gauge how to run that race - do I chase or do I get chased? Do I set the pace? How do I do it? You have to do that mental rehearsal time and time again to really get what you need to do.
You mention that athletics is an individual sport. The one exception is perhaps the relay. Since 2004 when the men won the Olympic gold, it's fair to say that it hasn't gone to plan for Great Britain. Do you think that it is now a mental problem, knowing that it has gone wrong in the past?
I think it's a lot of things. I've been involved in the relay with the British team for quite a few years and the biggest thing that I see is that in British sport there is always a blame culture. They have to blame somebody. Either blame the coach, blame the athlete, blame the governing body, blame somebody.
Ultimately, though, what it comes down to is taking ownership of what you do. No coach can actually take ownership of a situation that they can't control. Once the athletes are out on the track you can only rely on their professionalism and their control and mind-set to get the job done.
Equally, I'd never be scathing about any athlete because, believe you me, for all the armchair critics, you trying running a relay where you've got to pass the baton and you've got literally a 20m zone to hand that baton over to someone at speed.
You've got to gauge when to give it, you're taking it blind and you've also got to take it inside the box. Yes, you can practice it and rehearse it so there is a degree of fault there to the people who are trying to execute, but equally the pressure of the situation is colossal.
Not one athlete goes out there to fail. So, therefore, being that coach that has been involved with some of those athletes I take umbrage when people start making scathing remarks about the athletes and the coaches because until you're in that arena and you've experience that pressure situation, you have no idea what it takes. People say 'oh they get paid for it' and yes, that's true, but what they get paid is nothing compared to the agro they get when it fails.
Tony Lester: In his time with Team GB
There has been a lot of talk about drugs in sport of late with the case of the Jamaican athletes the most recent high-profile incident. Why is it do you think athletes get drawn into it, especially when they see so many people getting caught?
I don't want to get drawn into a drugs soapbox because it's not an area that I'm an expert in. All I will say is that as with everything in life, there is always going to be temptation. 'Maybe, if I did this, how good would I be?' Athletes do experience desperation, they want it so badly.
A lot of the time these guys will take supplements and not realise what they're taking because it's going to take away your body fat, make you a bit leaner, it's going to give you a little bit more energy and, you know, that's just human behaviour thinking 'if I can do this, it might help.' For example, some women take slimming pills whereas as they could try diet and exercise instead, it's really simple.
For an athlete, I can't advocate why they do it but fundamentally I think it's down to that desperate desire to win. Of course, it's cheating. People cheat in exams, it's not right but you're never going to stop it. People plagiarise stuff and get degrees. You can't police people's integrity; you just have to rely on good behaviour and good intentions.
"To compete at that level you need to have a healthy, bulletproof body and if you're body isn't healthy then it's not going to happen."
Finally, I just wanted to ask you about Louis Persent. He's obviously had a difficult time with injury in the past couple of years but have you set him any targets for this year?
I think to set Louis targets now would be a bit impromptu because he's had a really tough time. I've only been coaching Louis for just over a year. He came to me after the Olympic Games with a whole rack of injury problems that he'd experienced with his old situation. All I've done is just haul it back a little bit, taken it back to basics.
To compete at that level you need to have a healthy, bulletproof body and if you're body isn't healthy then it's not going to happen. So with Louis we've just stripped it back and got him to feel confident that his body can hold up. So far, touch wood, week on week he's made some massive improvements. So much so that he's now back to running almost full-time, without any injuries, without any niggles, so the plan for this year is just to get him back to being a competing athlete.
You can't go into the deep with your Commonwealth finals and stuff when you're body isn't ready for it, so we just have to ease him back into that racing groove and into that environment. I mean there are a lot of people out there that I know Louis can beat if he's healthy but rather than put the guy in a place where he's going to fail, we've got to ease him back in week by week, race on race.
The long-term plan for Louis, as far as I'm concerned as his coach, is the World Championships the year after, in Beijing. Ultimately, the long-term plan for Louis is that he wants to go to the Olympic Games, simple as that. So why would I fast track everything now and risk disaster? Once they've put a knife in your body they've weakened the area. He's had double Achilles surgery which means now his Achilles' are vulnerable.
We have to be very careful how much we load him, the frequency of his loading, the appropriate rest period, physiotherapy - everything has got to be in place. You've got to remember that he's the only athlete in the programme that isn't funded by a governing body; he doesn't have that other layer of support. That's why we went to Dallas because I know that the support he got there was better than anything he'd get in the UK.
Tony Lester with Louis Persent on his trip to Dallas to visit MJP
There is stuff we learnt and there is stuff we were already doing because when he went to Dallas all the tests he did, he was already off the charts when he went there. They were saying 'wow, he's in great shape'. For me, it just validated that we'd done the rights things and then anything we could learn from Michael's people was an added benefit.
That's why I made that happen because yes I'm the head of the programme, but I also coach this kid and I saw the benefits. I think personally every scholar in the programme would benefit from going to the place if they're open to the idea.
"No coach can actually take ownership of a situation that they can't control. Once the athletes are out on the track you can only rely on their professionalism and their control and mind-set to get the job done."
That's not for me to be an advocate of Michael Johnson's Performance Centre it's more about how we can help our Scholars to have a broader understanding of what can be done. But that's up to the coaches and the governing bodies and all those people to do that because if we do that then we become the pushy guys who are trying to take over coaching and I don't want to do that.
Every athlete of that level and that ambition you've got to hold back because ultimately he wants to get on the track real quick and do something really special. But we've had those discussions and he knows I've coached three guys under 45 seconds so I know how demanding that event is. You go into that event under-prepared and it'll blow your body up.
So for Louis to go anywhere too soon, we need to make sure that he is completely in the right place. Yes, he wants to crack on, but equally he knows that we need to be very, very careful. Step by step, one day at a time, all those clichés, it's stepping stones.
You can't just jump into the deep otherwise you risk a massive blow up again and another blow up would probably be career damaging for him, even though he's young. Mentally it'd finish him off, so you have to look after him.