By Scott Gullan
April 20, 2011
MATT Beckenham grew up in the amateur ranks, was part of the AIS program in Canberra and represented Australia in the 400m hurdles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
He had never paid much attention to professional running until his career was cut short because of injury and he started to shift his focus to coaching. One trip to Stawell changed all that.
"I came along with a mate and I was like, 'You're kidding me, I'm never going anywhere else for Easter'," Beckenham said.
"Just the drama of it, I instantly fell in love with the event and the whole reasoning behind professional running."
The seed was planted and six years on Beckenham coached a Gift winner, Tom Burbidge, who took out Australia's famous footrace last year off 8.75m.
At last weekend's national championships, the MattyB Dept, which his coaching business is called, trained both national 400m hurdles champions - Lauren Boden and Brendan Cole - and 100m silver medallist Melissa Breen.
He is now on the Athletics Australia payroll helping to run the national 400m hurdles centre in Canberra, and went to last year's Commonwealth Games as a team coach.
But the backbone to his whole coaching philosophy is the professionals.
"The way I look at it is, you can either rock up to an interclub and everyone starts off on a level playing field and everyone knows who is going to win or you can go to a professional Gift run," Beckenham said.
"For our squad, one of the big things is the social interaction. It's the getting away as a group, travelling to a small country town for a Gift, spending the night there and just hanging out.
"That's just so important in terms of athletes surviving in the sport and getting something out of it because not all of them are going to be Olympic champions.
"Not all of them are going to make an Australian team but they train hard and are just as committed as a Sally Pearson or anyone else in terms of how they have jobs as well as training three or four times a week."
He believes the handicap system gives everyone a chance to taste success, which is important to keep runners interested in the game.
"The opportunity is there to try to level the playing field just like every Joe Blog punter who plays handicap golf on a Saturday," Beckenham said.
"It's the same thing. You are always striving to be the best person and be the one to walk into the pub and be the man because you've won the monthly medal. You're the one with the beer mug for the month and the free beers.
"That feeling of success is so important, particularly for the developing athletes that I have in terms of giving them some type of incentive and then an opportunity to get the feeling of success, which is just so important to the future of keeping people in the sport."
This year, Beckenham is bringing 19 runners to Stawell with 11 entered in the Gift. Burbidge is back but he's had an injury-interrupted preparation while Cole, who is off 6m, is the early favourite.
Breen is taking on the men in the Gift off 11m but it's not a gimmick with her coach using the exercise as part of the 20-year-old's development looking ahead to the London Olympics.
"We had to take stock of the fact she didn't run great at the Commonwealth Games last year," Beckenham said.
"This is about how she is dealing with the pressure of bigger events, dealing with those types of situations and getting her to run better under pressure. So what better type of pressure than running in a professional Gift?"