Frank Dick was coach to stars like Daley Thompson when British athletes ruled
Interview: Frank Dick, Chair of Scottish Athletics
By Stuart Bathgate
04 December 2010
FRANK Dick presided over the golden age of British athletics. From the Moscow Olympics of 1980 to the Barcelona Games a dozen years later and beyond, he was head coach to a national team which was a global power. Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Daley Thompson, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson all rose to fame under the Scot's tutelage, and for a time it seemed the conveyor belt of talent was never-ending
Then, in 1994, Dick quit in protest after his coaching budged was halved. Since when, notwithstanding the odd triumph, things have never been the same. He has gone on record to say that the decline had begun before he left, but there are few who would now dispute that his departure was a serious blow to the sport.
At the time there were those who said it was not athletics' loss, but Dick's. That, having cut himself adrift from track and field, he had lost his purpose. The charge quickly lost credibility as he became one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the world, enthusing audiences well beyond sport with his insistence that, given the right conditions, we are all capable of doing so much more.
He maintains that career to this day, but more recently has also made a partial return to the sport in which he made his name, having agreed to become chair of Scottish Athletics. It is an honorary post, officially requiring a commitment of no more than a day a month. To be done properly, however, he thinks it needs several hours a day, and that has meant a partial return to his homeland for a man who was born and raised in North Berwick but for decades has lived just outside London.
A recent journey north of the Border brought him to St Andrews, where he delivered the keynote speech at UK Sport's annual World Class Performance conference, a gathering of hundreds of the country's leading coaches from scores of different sports. From being in charge of just one Olympic sport, Dick now, by addressing coaches directly at such conferences, has an influence on nearly all of them.
One of his main messages is carried on his business card. It reads: "There are two kinds of people in this world. Mountain people and valley people." In other words, some are willing to climb, to explore new territory, to put their heads above the parapet: others, less adventurous, prefer to remain sheltered. But, as a confirmed optimist, and a believer in people's ability to change dramatically, Dick does not think those two groups - mountain people and valley people - are static.
And one of his central messages to coaches is that they must encourage their athletes not only to climb with them, but then to travel beyond them. It is a message which he likes to illustrate with another saying, this time from the poet Khalil Gibran:
'The parent is to the child as the bow is to the arrow.'
"That's what we do, as parents, as coaches," he explains. "The idea is to let your child or your athlete go. You empower them, you give them a sense of direction, but you must let them go. Come the Olympic Games, it's the athlete who walks into the arena, not you. And if the athlete is still very dependent on you at that time, there will be doubts when they go out to compete. You must prepare them to take personal ownership of every moment in the arena."
As well as urging coaches to take that responsibility, Dick acknowledges that officials in positions such as his own also have a duty to provide the right environment for athletes to flourish. In the case of Scottish track and field, he is convinced that environment is in place - and wishes that more athletes would accept that fact instead of deciding to leave Scotland for England or further afield.
"We have to make it exciting and right to enrich the lives of other people here at home. It does not fill me with joy that 50 per cent of our Commonwealth track-and-field athletes are not in Scotland any more.
"I really want athletes to want to stay here to grow. And I want coaches to do the same thing. The question is why would they leave? 'Well, we don't have the right facilities?' There are quite a few nice facilities. I don't think facilities would be the reason people left.
"'We don't have enough good coaches'? I'd like to think we could change that. Anything else? 'We wouldn't have the support to do it. If you go to study in Loughborough you'll be able to live on the campus and so on.' You couldn't do that in Scotland? That's not a reason for leaving.
"Sooner or later we've got to round off all of those things. If you need to go elsewhere to do some training for climatic reasons, fine. But we're still based here and we still grow and learn here. To me, the biggest negative out of all this transfer out of Scotland is you don't have a chance to learn here. Come home so we have a chance to build this thing."
By 'this thing' he means a successful sporting culture, and not just in athletics. Proud of the great coaches Scotland has produced in the past - above all in football - he is convinced the Scottish psyche still, by and large, is conducive to the production of 'mountain' rather than 'valley' people.
"I want us to start refocusing on what we really are very good at, which is coaching and learning and teaching. Our impact on the world of education, and thinking and learning, has been huge.
"More specifically, in the world of coaching just think of the legends out there. People like Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Alex Ferguson.
"We have had a serious impact on the world of coaching and I'd like us to remember that heritage and rebuild it. Let's create a renaissance of coaching here and make it grow.
"I am optimistic. I think it's in the nature of Scottish people to have a curiosity, to want to learn, to want to be better. Where there's a negative in what we do is we sometimes resent another person's ability to learn more quickly than we do, and instead of getting into the competition ourselves, we may sometimes be a little quick to criticise what other people are doing.
"We're a funny crowd, we Scots. If you and I were having an argument about a point of principle in a car that was going at a wall at 90mph, we'd want to finish our argument before we thought about putting the brakes on.
"Maybe that's the strength of the Scottish mind. It will see things through and get to the bottom of things, and maybe that helps you when you want to educate people - you will persist until you get the point through."
Having seen only five women enter the 100 metres at this year's national championships, Dick has no illusions about how much persistence will be required to sort Scottish athletics out. But he is more than willing to make the effort, and is not afraid to ruffle some well-placed feathers if necessary.
"There's a little war going on between UK Athletics and ourselves now at the moment," he explains. "I don't want us to continue with age groups that are under-20, under-17, under-15 and so on.
"At world level it's under-20, under-18, under-16. People might say it's only a year's difference, but it's an important transition. When you're 16 or 17, why would you want to compete with somebody who is almost three years older than you?
"It's a disincentive and it's the wrong time to give somebody that kind of challenge. So in Scotland we're going to go under-20, under-18, under-16 at national championships and make under-14 a district matter.
"We'll have to look at every single thing that could help us get better. There's no point in saying it's always been under-17. We've got to give it a shake.
"Don't look at the UK, look at the international arena. European performance is regressing compared with the rest of the world.
"If your focus in life is beating your domestic opposition, that's as far as you'll aspire to.
"These are very tricky years, 16 to 20. You can get more improvement and greater influence in these years than in all the others. There's your focus."
The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will be a major focus for many Scots athletes, and Dick is sure the time between now and then can be used to transform the sport.
The examples he uses to show how much can be done in four years are French and American, but he is confident that, come 2014, he will be able to illustrate his argument with Scottish names.
"Somebody said to me you can't turn things round in four years.
Four years ago, Christophe Lemaitre was sitting in a classroom in Paris as a spotty-faced adolescent with kind of an interest in sprinting - now he's got three gold medals from the European Championships. Four years before her first Olympic medal, Alyson Felix was 14 years of age sitting in a classroom in California.
"It's there. We have the time provided you really squeeze it. In these four years we want to create a model that will make people want to stay in Scotland from now on. We'll have everything right from the grass roots, through to the top, and the links between the schools and the clubs."
In Dick's ideal world, there would be a transformation in far more than just one sport. Never mind a handful of individuals here and there becoming ‘mountain people' - he would like all of us to take to the hills.
"I want everybody in the sport - maybe everyone in Scotland - to think ‘Our sport, my responsibility'. You can make a difference."