Why Mel Marshall Tops Swimming World’s International Coach Of The Year Chart

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They've climbed mountains together - Mel Marshall and her charge Adam Peaty on high at a different camp earlier in the year - Photo Courtesy: Mel Marshall and Adam Peaty

International Swimming Coach Of 2019: Mel Marshall

There’s the 56.88, of course. No getting round it. Project 56. Nailed by Adam Peaty with a stroke-transcending sledgehammer. Certainly a moment to celebrate not only the swimmer and the swim but the coach, too. Mel Marshall, twitter handle massivemel. Indeed she is.

First, let’s consider the speed: it made breaststroke as fast as the pioneering pace of Roland Matthes (obituary; wonderful tribute from John Naber) on backstroke in 1970; it was not far shy of the pace of Mark Spitz for his first world 100 ‘fly record in 1967; faster than Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller” ever swam on freestyle; quicker than the first six of 10 global standards set by Kornelia Ender on freestyle at the dawn of State Plan 14:25 and all the harm that has flowed down the decades.

Take a trawl through the history of women’s 100m backstroke world records and the men’s 100m breaststroke standards and we find a game of cat and mouse, the women’s mark often a touch faster than the men’s mark but the two records have been very close to each other most of the time for several decades now.

Peaty’s 56.88, even taking into account Regan Smith‘s tremendous 57.57 world record seven days later in Gwangju at the World Championships back in July, has given men’s 100m breaststroke a standout edge on the clock. Peaty has transformed the stroke, set a high bar well over a second ahead of next best and two seconds and more up on the best pace of the men who make the biggest finals alongside him. Two laps. Worth watching in any language, like Swedish, for example:

All of that noted, Marshall is about much more than that.

Learning. Forever learning, soaking up knowledge and experience, feet on the ground, the transfer to athlete of all that’s being added to her tool kit a daily habit. Mel Marshall’s goals are both seen and unseen, among the seen this:

“Life’s about experiences and we grow through experiences and my job as a coach is to help him mature in a rounded way. If I don’t help him [Peaty] in his life and help him to grow as a person, that’s not what I do coaching for… my job is to produce results but also to help to develop rounded people. That’s very, very important to me.”

In the past few years, Marshall has embraced a culture of learning, the UK Sports Mentoring program including her choice to interview some of the biggest leaders in coaching and performance sport. On her list were former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Rugby guru Eddie Jones, head of UK Sport Baroness Sue Campbell (a Baroness who today is made a Dame in the Queen’s New Year Honours list), rowing great turned leader Katherine Grainger and Marshall’s former team leader Bill Sweetenham, a man who revolutionised British Swimming between 2000 and 2007 in a way still being felt to this day (see our ‘other candidates’ for International Coach of the Year).

To understand where Peaty fits in the stratosphere of British sports greats in a league of their own, think Lewis Hamilton, Sir Steve Redgrave, a Ferguson-led Manchester United. The status of swimming in that league may let Peaty down (he was not shortlisted among athletes of lesser achievement for BBC Sports Personality of the year despite three World titles, a second 50-100m  breaststroke double at World Championships and that 56.88 stunner that rocked the pantheon as it thudded into the history book) but his swimming together with his leadership Athlete Voice transcended the choice of so-called ‘experts’.

Sir Alex cut an impressive figure as one of 24 leaders interviewed by Marshall as part of a UK Sports mentoring project. Her mission was to learn more about “how we make the impossible possible”.

Raw material is a good starting point. Peaty’s power rests, says Marshall, in his ability to “work harder, stay longer, give more and go beyond like no other athlete I’ve known … that’s what singles him out.”

Even when the seven miles a day in water a day with gym and weights on top gets too much and Peaty needs time out from routine, Marshall finds “lots of different things for him to do.

“Last winter, I went running with him, the physiologist went cycling with him…”. There’s much more to it than that, she says, recalling with pride (here’s the full version off the aforementioned quote):

“This is not just from a point of view of swimming but also in the last 11 years we’ve cycled across Africa together (in aid of a charity for women and vulnerable children in Lusaka that embraces sport as a way of building lives), we’ve put beds into orphanages with our own hands, we’ve done 50 hours of sport program, been petrol-bombed together as a part of ‘Character test’ and camped in the middle of the woods as unit.”

“Life’s about experiences and we grow through experiences and my job as a coach is to help him mature in a rounded way,” she says. “If I don’t help him in his life and help him to grow as a person, that’s not what I do coaching for… my job is to produce results but also to help to develop rounded people. That’s very, very important to me.”

Awards Galore

For the third time in as many weeks, Marshall, whose successes this year included Luke Greenbank (bronze in the 200m backstroke and gold in the 4x100m medley at World Championships) was honoured for her work at various ceremonies last month and this.

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Melanie Marshall – Photo Courtesy: Action Woman Twitter

The Action Woman Awards this month celebrated what the title suggests. Marshall collected the Lifetime Achievement Award, the oddness in the accolade for a 37-year-old not escaping the notice of Clare Balding, BBC presenter and Mistress of Ceremonies as she handed over the prize.

“Mel, you’re very young to be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award… you’re only, what, 37 or something like that,” said Balding before adding “But …it’s because you’ve done so much in such a short period of time.”

Or so it may seem for those who haven’t lived it. Gracious words of acceptance from Coach Marshall were followed by these gems:

“In sport you can spent a lot of days in the dark for a few really specials days in the light and so, today’s one of those days where you’re in the light, so it’s just a real honour – and thanks very much.”

Balding nailed the obvious when she notes that Marshall’s relationship with her swimmers is “based on trust”, two-way trust. Says the winner of six medals for England at the 2006 Commonwealth Games:

“It’s like a marriage. We spent a lot of time together and a lot of time disliking each other… I say it’s like climbing Everest. Some days you need an oxygen mask, some days you need a tent, some days you need support and some days you just need somebody to listen to you. And we work through this challenges every single day and I’m incredibly lucky.

“When I left swimming in 2008, I wanted to work at the highest level with the best possible athletes and I really, honestly, get to live my dream every single day. They are a true privilege – and they have their moments, don’t get me wrong, but most of the time we’re all striving for the same thing and that’s a really special place to work.”

Balding raised the matter of motivating Peaty to strive for better when his best is so far ahead of the rest and Project 56 has been nailed, Tokyo defence and gold just around the corner.

Marshall, who this year lifted the UK Coaching Performance Coach of the Year Award and, for the forth time, the British Swimming Coach of the Year Award, hoped so but scratched her ear in search of the inner voice that then delivered what she really wanted to say:

“But, for me it’s in the sense of… a lot of performers don’t see their best performance because once the money comes, the car comes, all that kind of stuff, they just kind of get lost in that. But he [Peaty] hasn’t uncovered his best performance yet and he hasn’t found then best version of himself as a performer of a human being yet.

“Every single day we try to get that little but better as a person and get that little bit better as an athlete. And that’s what we’re going to try to uncover: the best version of him [Peaty].”

Marshall The Mentor Mindset

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Mel Marshall in praise of her Pride in the London Roar Pro Team – Courtesy: Eurosport freeze-frame

Peaty has benefitted from Marshall’s experience as an elite athlete and the learning curve she has harnessed herself to since ever since she took up coaching as her racing days drew to an end.

UK Sport runs an elite mentoring program in which elite coaches form many sports share knowledge in a cross-fertilisation of ideas, methods, approaches, mindsets and more.

Marshall, head coach to London Roar, runner-up to Energy at theFinal Match of the International Swimming League in Las Vegas just before Christmas, provided insight into the value of that program when this author asked her earlier this year to talk about the challenges that success brings.

She recalled the moment Gareth Southgate, the England football manager and part of the mentoring group Marshall works with, said to her that “success has enemies”. Marshall explained:

“The hardest thing to deal with for us is opinions. There is a real pressure to be perfect all the time – but we’re not. We make mistakes. The scrutiny we come under for that is something that all sports stars come under: people assume because you have success and because people have money somehow they deserve to lose that gold or whatever.”

Southgate knows it x1000 and more in the realm of a professional sport where much greater financial rewards and recognition also come with many a downside, including having his players face racist taunts from the stands, constant criticism for “failing” and much else from the many who have “more opinion than knowledge and understanding”.

Southgate told Marshall that handling such things came down to “maintaining your integrity and not fighting with people who are envious of the position you’re in”. Said Marshall:

“Their opinion is often not based on fact, its something formed on the feelings they have about the things they don’t have in their own world.”

Don’t have in their own world. That can include an unusual and specific kind and level of dedication, hard work and habits for long stretches of the year that monks and saints might recognise better than the average man on the omnibus.

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Former Britain teammates James Gibson and Mel Marshall, coaches of Energy Standard and London Roar

UK Sport’s elite coach program is designed to ensure coach leaders are on the cutting edge of their game. Said Marshall:

“You need to be up to scratch: the UK Sport program was fabulous for me because just spending time with Paula Dunn from British Athletics (another on the course with Marshall and Southgate) and others in similar positions.

Marshall likens the mission of any trying to get to where no athlete has been before as the sporting equivalent of “… one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in the sense that behind the showcase moment, the celebrations and fun, the history in the making, there’s extraordinary levels of commitment and dedication. She adds:

“Heaps of challenge. Yes, it’s great fun but you’re telling me that the first time they sent someone to the moon it wasn’t bloody hard work? Absolutely it was. We’re trying to do the same thing: do something no-one ever did before – and we haven’t got the same budget of NASA, if you know what I mean.The biggest challenge is just making sure we save the emotion for when it matters: you have to channel everything that’s made you cross or something you’ve been passionate about and save that emotion and energy and then harness it and fire it out when it matters.

Marshall was awarded an Honorary Degree from her alma mater, the University of Loughborough, in summer last year.  Her degree oration read:

“Melanie Marshall’s extraordinary international career as a British swimmer started over two decades ago, at the 1995 European Youth Olympics in Bath, where she achieved four gold medals aged only 13. In 2000, her journey with us at Loughborough began when she came here to study Applied Sport Science, and has remained part of our fabric ever since.

Melanie’s list of sporting accolades is significant. She is a double Olympian, five-time Olympic finalist, and the second most decorated female at the Commonwealth Games – taking home no less than six medals at the 2006 Melbourne Games alone.

In 2004, she was ranked number one in the world when she broke the British 200m freestyle record, which cemented her place in the Olympic Games in Athens. She has over 20 international medals across the World, European and Commonwealth Games.

Melanie announced her retirement from swimming following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and started her world-leading career as an elite coach. She joined City of Derby Swimming Club as Head Coach, before joining us here in Loughborough as the National Centre Lead Coach for British Swimming, where her swimmers include a name you may recognise – Adam Peaty.

Melanie has coached Adam Peaty to unprecedented success; he holds two world records in both 50 and 100m breaststroke and is one of just three British swimmers to have won gold at all four major national events – the Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth Games.

It is no surprise, then, that Melanie was named British Swim Coach of the Year three times in a row, and in 2014 she was named International Swim Coach of the Year.

Showing the real strength of her character as a coach, in a recent BBC interview she explained that she subscribes to the motto ‘leaders eat last’. Melanie puts her athletes and their performance first, and the results speak entirely for themselves.

In addition to coaching, Melanie invests her time into charity work, where she has raised tens of thousands of pounds, as well as motivational speaking, where she empowers others to reach their own highest levels of success. I would like to share some of Melanie’s own words, which are pertinent to all of those celebrating their achievements today:

“Success is a formula made up of character traits including dedication, determination, resilience, sacrifice, enthusiasm and positivity. Learn how to live by these traits and you will be successful in any walk of life.”

Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you, and to the whole University, Melanie Marshall, for the degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causa.

The rest of a shortlist of nine candidates for International Coach Of The Year

Norimasa Hirai (JPN)

Coach to Daiya Seto. He counts Kosuke Kitajima and Kosuke Hagino on his list of many big hitters down the years, too.

Hirai’s influence extends to several levels. Here’s a story from history that gives a hint of the mindset of Japan’s top coach. In 2003, a few months after Kitajima had become the first sub 2:10 200m breaststroke man, the coach told reporter Hideki Mochizuki: “His strength is that he really has strong ankles.” He likened the ankle snap that he had witnessed as a natural phenomenon in his charge early in his career to a baseball pitcher’s wrist.  “He had it naturally. He originally had this ability, so we put more attention to developing it. When I met him for the first time, I knew a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of his swimming techniques, but I thought the ankle snap was really a strength for him. So I encouraged him to develop the ankle snap instead of finding out his weaknesses. I know gliding is a really important factor to have higher speed, but when I met him and saw his strengths, I knew that the ankle snap could be applied to him. I just put more attention on developing his strengths rather than changing his weaknesses.” Hirai added to that natural building blocks the “strengths” that Hungarian coach Jozsef Nagy had seen in Mike Barrowman (USA): a strong glide from a kick timed with pull to reduce the dead zone inherent in the stroke to a minimum, if not to remove it altogether. Kitajima and Leisel Jones led the class during the 2000s. Hirai estimated that most specialists could be found lapping in 21 to 24 strokes. He got Kitajima down to 18-20.

Stefano Morini (ITA)

Gregorio Paltrinieri did not keep the World 1500m crown but a year out from the defence of the Olympic title he claimed as the first Italian ever to do so and the first non-Soviet European to do so since Arne Borg in 1928, look to the 800m to find the architecture of a work in progress. Coach Morini is a long-term, cycle-and-beyond thinker. Paltrinieri, who claimed bronze in the 1500m, took the World 800m crown in a European record of 7:39.27. The 800m joins the Olympic program next year in Tokyo and that’s where we’ll find Paltrinieri gunning for gold in both longest distance races, just as Florian Wellbrock, of Germany focuses on the 1500m and Marathon. Morini gave Paltrinieri space and time to make it from one Games to the next as a contender yet. There was a season away spent training and loving life Down Under in the company of Australian Mack Horton, the two adding some open water experience and fitness to their Tokyo toolkits. Then Paltrinieri made his way back to Morini, who led Italy to the team trophy at the European short-course Championships this month.

Bernd Berkhahn (GER)

The coach said of his charge Florian Wellbrock after marathon gold and a flop in the 800m: “Florian was too deep in the water. As a trainer you just see that. The overall system of competitive athletes is a sensitive structure. If there are influences that are not positive, it can quickly collapse. It is difficult to analyze the ad hoc. We talked to each other for a long time. The race was obviously not a good one. He didn’t get into the race from the first lap, couldn’t find a rhythm and had to work his way every inch.” Berkhahn then took Wellbrock and, in five days, turned him round and helped him become a double distance champion at 2019 World Championships.

On the way to the 1500m, the coach told Sabrina Knoll: “… winning medals in open water and in the pool is not as easy as you imagine. I have to think about the stimuli (motivation) I am giving him … I will build a key set from which he can benefit physically and come out mentally strengthened. We will consult with the experts, the training scientist and the sports psychologist. Then I’ll form a plan.” The plan worked. Tokyo will be another story and test.

Byron MacDonald (CAN)

Kylie Masse, enrolled at the University of Toronto where she studied Kinesiology, is coached by the experienced Byron MacDonald. “The goal is always not necessarily ever to beat Kathleen [Baker, USA] or Emily Seebohm [AUS) or whoever it is, right? It’s always to do your best,” says MacDonald. As a CBC Sports swim analyst, he explained what that meant:

“The mantra that we have with Kylie is that she’s always trying to improve and get better. If you hold the world record then you’re gonna have to break the world record to get better.”

The World records, 100 and 200m, fell to Regan Smith, USA, at World Championships but the World 100m title was retained by Masse. That made her the first Canadian swimmer ever too retain a global long-course crown – and
Byron MacDonald the first Canadian coach to celebrate that achievement.

Johan Wallberg (SWE)

Wallberg topped the Swimming World poll in 2019. His work with Sarah Sjostrom and cooperation with the Energy program, continues to build on the fruits of coach Carl Jenner’s long tenure as the Swedish ace’s mentor.

In 2019, the 50m butterfly World title was retained atop five solo podium places in Gwangju, including silvers in the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly and bronzes in the 100 and 200m freestyle.

Sjostrom ended the year as the overall International Swimming League Most Value Player, an historic first that adds a shelf in the pantheon of the fastest ‘fly swimmer in history.

James Gibson (GBR)

Gibson not only led Energy Standard to an historic inaugural-season victory in the International Swimming League, he also played a part in 13 solo medals won at the World Championships in gwangju by swimmers from various countries, including titles for Sarah Sjostrom and Evgeny Rylov and podium places for Chad Le Clos.

You can read more on Gibson in this file on How the ISL Took Flight.

Dean Boxall (AUS)

Ariarne Titmus faced a poorly Katie Ledecky. Even so, the 400m free World title marked a significant moment in the Australian’s career and ended the American’s winning streak in big waters. Boxall coaches Titmus – and here he is with his charge:

Christian Minotti (ITA)

Since 2007, Minotti has coached the youth team of the Aniene Rowing Club. Simona Quadarella walked into his pool before she became a teenager and by the summer of 2014 was a 15-year-old force to reckon with in distance freestyle, taking the 800m Olympic Youth title in 8:35.39. She made finals in the 800 and 1500 free at 2016 European Championships in London and then, in 2017 took bronze in the 1500m freestyle at the World Championships in Budapest for her first international senior podium.

A year on, it was triple gold at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow, the 400, 800, and 1500m free crowns in the bag. That earned Minotti Italian Coach of the Year honours. This year, Quadarella stepped up to gold in a 1500m final that went without Katie Ledecky and then silver over 800m behind a Ledecky recovered well enough from illness to return to the fray in Gwangju.

The 800m is joined by the 1500m for women in Olympic waters next year. Quadarella is a medal contender in both events.

Ben Titley (CAN)

Trawl through the list of Canadian medal winners at World titles and achievers in waters beyond, including the ISL, this year past and we find Penny Oleksiak, Taylor Ruck, Kayla Sanchez, Rebecca Smith and Kierra Smith all listed next to the name Ben Titley. A Brit, he once coached two others on this list of top coaches: Mel Marshall and James Gibson – and was tipped more than a decade ago as “one of the most exciting coaching prospects in swimming … a young amen with potential to be great”. That tip came from the man at the helm of the last entry on our list, while here is the tribute to Canadian coaches paid by another who worked with Bill Sweetenham in Britain and is now at the helm in Canada, John Atkinson.

The Chapeau due to coach mentors, development coaches and those speaking out for victims and the betterment of swimming and abuse-free sport

Bill Sweetenham gave fair warning of the pain inherent in any revolution when he arrived in Britain in late 2000, the country mourning it first medaless Olympic outing in the pool since 1948. Sweetenham spoke in Biblical terms when he said: “Some will be able to go with it, adapt, get through it and rise, others won’t and there will be casualties. Whichever applies, everyone will feel the pain one way or another. One of my main jobs here is to coach the coaches to coach excellence because without that we might as well all go home.”

By the mid-term of his tenure, Ben Titley (above) on the coaching staff and athletes Mel Marshall and James Gibson achievers in the pool on their way to taking their own experiences into coaching, Sweetenham noted: “We have a group of athletes now who can stand in the ready room, look their rivals in the eye and say ‘I’m here to beat you, you’re not here to beat me’. The train has left the station. Some will get on that train, a train now heading full speed down the right track. That train was on the wrong track. I had to change that and I badgered and harassed everybody. The swimmers accepted new philosophies really well, while some coaches found it very difficult and still do – but they’re doing it. I’ve provided a system and a pathway to success but lasting success will only come if everyone gets on that train and works to the same end.”

Sweetenham believed that all programs and having “highly educated and skilled” coaches at all levels of the program were essential to making sure Britain gave itself the best shot it had of delivering when it most counted: the Olympic Games. While he insisted that the “great work” of local coaches in the birthing pool of talent be recognised (bios and some start sheets listed the current coach and the development and feeder coaches in the background of a swimmer’s career), he also called on those coaches to encourage swimmers to move on if their circumstances (geography, travel, family, access to facilities) were not conducive to ideal outcome for the athletes identified as outstanding prospects.

All of that kind of work, including that of club, high school and college coaches in the USA and similar in Australia, is often overlooked in the focus on what draws the eye and gets the coverage for obvious reasons, including soaring achievement in the real of world-class performance and, from another angle, the taint of abusers who have, sadly and in some cases tragically, seen swimming as a place of rich pickings for their perversion. This entry is also dedicated to those coaches who press not just for abuse-free sport and good coaching and governance culture but the proper processes, professional and judicial, required to ensure the protection of victims as well as those falsely accused.

 

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