WRITTEN FOR THE IAAF MAGAZINE
Mr ‘Athlete Development’
Buzzing away in the South of England at a pace not to dissimilar to that of his athletes in training; a man’s phone rings incessantly: this is a man very much in demand and with such coaching credentials, experience and popularity, this is the man with the Midas touch on middle and long-distance running – this is Mr ‘Athlete Development’.
A UK Athletics Performance Coach and Coach at the prestigious St Mary’s University in London, Mick Woods does not look as if he’s about to retire from the job he also calls his hobby; despite turning sixty earlier this spring. He has a reputation to uphold as the coach who can develop almost any athlete into a national or international-standard athlete, and a job to see through with three of his original female recruits in particular, who are quickly turning into stars on the world running scene.
Steered by his deputy head-teacher to the Aldershot, Farnham and District club in the English county of Hampshire as a fifteen year-old in 1964, Woods had average success as an under17 and under20 athlete and jokes with regards to his protégé - who we shall discuss later; “Steph’s (Twell) 1500m PB is faster than mine!”
With his strength evidently lying with his endurance base, Woods experienced success over the marathon distance; “I was 21st in the very first London marathon in 2:20:12 in 1983 and also achieved 2:20-2:21 seven times.” He admits, however, that sub-2:20 was his aim and this he believes, was not achieved due to being self-coached; “I don’t advocate being self-coached. I’ve always said if I was coached by someone like me now, I would have gone a lot faster.”
Nevertheless, not one for resting on his laurels, Woods soon found himself in a coaching capacity at the AFD club and was soon to realise that desire for attaining great athletic success; albeit with others doing the running for him. Initially setting the training sessions for his group of training companions, it was in 1986 – at the age of thirty-seven – that Woods began coaching around 10 boys and men – still as an active athlete but by his own admission; “my training dropped away a little from then.”
In 1993, he started working with females – the very first female recruit in fact, is still training with him today – and Woods embarked on a school recruitment drive in the local area to bolster the groups’ numbers. Combining his job with British Telecom in the years between 1982 and 2004, Woods gradually progressed his youngsters and occasionally raced himself; running 31:42 for 10km on the track and road at aged forty.
On the men’s side, he achieved success working with current GB representatives; Chris Thompson (current best - 3:41.04/28:45) and Colin McCourt (1:46.73/3:38.51) in their developing years, and today coaches 19 year-old 3:42.29 runner; Simon Horsfield.
In particular though, it has remained that with young women, Woods has achieved the most success; producing a seemingly-never-ending production-line of utterly dominant female athletes. He places his reason for success as being down to providing his athletes enough attention and the factor of success breeding success; “the girls have always had role models at the club so each group of youngsters have always aimed to better the previous years’ girls group and pushed themselves,” he explains. “Females are good at responding and are very focused – they develop faster. Steph (Twell), for example, made the decision at aged14 that she could be really good so she became more switched on and got British records at aged 16/17. Emma (Pallant) and Charlie (Purdue) too have developed with measured progression. These three athletes are very good role models; it’s good I can coach them as mature seniors. The endurance aspect of my training is essential each winter so in the summer we can work towards the higher-intensity stuff for the track.”
Twell; the 19 year-old World junior 1500m Champion, three-time European cross-country Champion and Olympic 1500m semi-finalist; together with Pallant; the 20 year-old World junior 1500m bronze-medallist and Purdue; the 18 year-old European junior cross-country runner-up have been coached by Woods since the ages of ten, nine and eleven, respectively. Twell – who currently sits in eighth in the senior World 1500m rankings, with a superb time of 4:03.62 and studies Strength and Conditioning Science at St Mary’s, “showed her determination at a very young age,” Woods recalls, “she was placed on our ‘B’ team for the national cross-country relays and went onto record the fastest stage of the day.”
From falling into a coaching role to totally monopolising the British endurance scene and developing athletes into world-class runners, Woods explains how he learnt his trade; “My coaching was progressive over the years; an evolvement in my training. At first, I wasn’t sure how far to push the women so we did light sessions. I gained experience from every athlete I produced, and I pushed the boys harder as I was more experienced from my own experiences as an athlete and so I adapted this training, although it was a disadvantage as I’m a male.”
Admitting it was “difficult to get ball rolling” as it “took longer to get athletes into GB teams,” Woods steered his under15 boys to their first national title in 1994 then progress with his female athletes kicked off in the year 2000; “the start of the AFD express,” he recalls.
Woods now coaches twenty athletes at AFD, but can have as many as fifty turn up to train at any of the three club sessions he steers each week; in addition to the work he does at the UK Athletics Performance Centre with world-class development and podium-level athletes at the university.
Naming Peter Coe (double Olympic Champion, Seb Coe’s father) and 1980 800m Olympic Champion; Steve Ovett’s coach; Harry Wilson as coaches he admires Woods explains how a famous quote of Coe’s sticks in his mind; ‘Yes, I’m killing him all the way to the top’ – “A lot of people think the same of me; that I’m trying to kill my athletes with my training but I admired him; I liked the toughness of his training, his attention to detail and how he used science to aid their progression. I’d love to achieve what he did, I believe I can; it’s my ambition to coach and Olympic Champion.”
Woods may yet achieve his ultimate coaching dream, for he has single-mindedly masterminded a potential 2012 domination, courtesy of Twell, Pallant and Purdue, and they certainly seem on-course to achieve on the world’s biggest sporting stage in three years’ time.
Stating Twell and Pallant’s gold and bronze medal-winning display in the 2007 World junior 1500m Championship as a major coaching highlight, Woods describes it as “an amazing performance from both of them and it was great how we all prepared so professionally.” Other performances he is particularly proud of include Twell’s Olympic appearance, her three European junior cross-country victories, with Pallant and Purdue also inside the top five, and getting five of his athletes to the 2008 World cross was also “hugely important for me. I’m always proud of all my athletes who achieve their goals,” explained the England Athletics 2008 Coach of the Year award winner.
Already experiencing significant success in the middle of the summer season, Woods; who has considerable experience at coaching GB junior and under23 teams at international championships; pin-points the performance goals of his three middle-distance protégés; “For Steph, the aim is to get to the World 1500m final in Berlin this August and hopefully to improve on 4:03. Emma will aim to medal in the European under23 1500m final and is close to the Berlin ‘B’ 1500m time and Charlie is aiming for a European under20 5,000m medal.”
Married for thirty-seven years with two adult children, Woods evidently has many more men and women who look to him as a father-figure. “I just enjoy coaching at performance level and I want to see my job through to 2012 and beyond because I believe my girls can make an impact. I want to remain professionally involved in the sport, as the last five years I’ve spent working for UK Athletics at St Mary’s University has helped me develop as a coach massively; through the knowledge I’ve built over the years with other sport professionals, I’ve gained so much and this has benefitted my athletes – no doubt, my job has made me a better coach; St Mary’s is such a great environment to work in; I would never have dreamed I’d be doing my hobby as my job.”
And what a great job Woods is doing.