HE is the former long jumper who is in it for the long haul. The sprint coach who is ready for a marathon effort.
Stephen Maguire, Scottish Athletics’ new director of coaching, knows that the Glasgow Commonwealth Games will be the focus of attention for the sport from now until 2014, and he will not shirk the challenge of making significant improvements by then. But, at the same time, he is convinced that track and field in this country will need far longer to realise its potential: six to eight years, in fact.
In a sense, this may come as no surprise. You do not get senior appointees in any sport who claim everything will come good in a matter of weeks – if they did, they would be talking themselves out of a job. In the context of Scottish Athletics, however, the Irishman’s approach comes as a welcome change. Neither of his immediate predecessors, Laurier Primeau and Steve Rippon, stayed in their post for long, so in fact a bit of stability is overdue.
A bit of fine tuning is required, too; hence Maguire’s title. Convinced that more, not less, co-operation is needed, he is not here to be head coach, someone who can and will over-rule others. Instead, he sees his role as a more collegiate one.
“There will be areas where my role crosses into coaching and giving advice,” the 49-year-old said yesterday. “With the experience I’ve got you can’t leave it at the door and say you’re not going to offer anything. But as director of coaching you need to have a very strategic view of where you need to get to. To me the job is a long-term project, but obviously with the Commonwealth Games in 2014 I also have to focus on short-term goals as well. Those goals are to put in place the best performance structure that I can to help the athletes and coaches achieve for 2014.”
The euphoria which surrounded Team GB’s performance at the London Olympics, and the success in other sports of Chris Hoy, Katherine Grainger and Andy Murray, helped take the spotlight off the very modest contribution from Scots in track and field. Come July 2014, however, there will be no hiding place. And the expectations will certainly be for a greater return than our athletes managed in either of the last two Commonwealth Games, when each time they came back with just two medals.
Maguire is sure that if he gets things right, the improvement he seeks will be evident in two years’ time. “In the last two Games Scotland have won two medals, and we need to win more than two medals. The athletes we need to represent Scotland are the athletes who are going to turn up on the day and deliver their best performance.
“I wouldn’t be brave enough or smart enough [to make an exact prediction]. There’s a realism. Look at the Commonwealth rankings – we have nobody in the top three. Probably seven or eight with podium potential, and I would like to stretch that out to 12-14 before 2014. If you go there with that potential anything can happen with the roar of the Hampden crowd behind you.”
The status of athletics as the blue-riband sport of the Games means more pressure for our competitors than their team-mates in, say, bowls or boxing, but Maguire sees no reason to complain about that. “You have to live with it. That’s the reality. I’m not going to get stressed about it, because I know if we get things right we’ll deliver a good performance for Scottish athletics and for the Scottish public. If we can get all the athletes that we have targeted into PB shape at that given time then we’ll be OK. It’s double-edged. First of all it’s very exciting I’m coming into a position where Scotland are hosting a Commonwealth Games. It must be amazing to be an athlete knowing they’re going to run out at Hampden Park with 50,000 people there and with the buzz of the whole nation.
“That can work two ways. You can either get totally inspired or totally frightened. It’s up to us to make sure they’re inspired. I’ll be looking for us to get as many people into finals as we possibly can, and that means hitting targets in 2013. You want any Scottish athlete to be there as a performance athlete, not as a tourist.”
While accepting that he will be judged in the short term by how the team fares in 2014, Maguire knows that his job description entails a far bigger task.
“The bigger end of the thing means that I really want to deliver and develop a world-class performance system,” he added. “And you can’t turn that around in a couple of years. But it’s work in progress. I’ve committed myself for six to eight years. I don’t intend to be jumping ship after the Commonwealth Games.”
STEPHEN Maguire may not be a household name in this country yet, but the achievements of the athletes he has worked with as a coach testify to his ability. Before agreeing to become Scottish Athletics’ director of coaching, for example, he had spent three years in Florida as assistant coach to a group of sprinters including three-time world champion Tyson Gay. His longest connection has been with fellow-Irishman Jason Smyth, winner of the sprint double in the T13 classification at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics.
Although, as a coach, he has been most closely associated with sprinters, the 49-year-old was a long jumper and triple jumper – with no particular ambition to coach. Indeed, after injury forced an end to his jumping career, he spent a long time outside of the sport.
“I picked up a lot of injuries when I was young,” he said. “Then I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. That knocked me out of things for a long time. I had eight or nine years away from the sport.
“Then Shauna Carlin, an athlete whose coach had died, found out I used to be a good long jumper, knocked on the door one day and asked me to coach her. Then Irish Athletics got me involved with their jumps programme.
“I was working as a coach mentor, in business, then the coaching director of Irish Athletics got ill, so I was asked to stand in. That’s how it all really started.”
By his own admission, Maguire learned from his own mistakes. “I was too small. I thought I could win the Olympic title. I bought books on what the Russians and East Germans were doing and decided to follow everything. It was all propaganda. Working my backside off without any rhyme or reason. Pounding the life out of myself.
“As I’ve got older I’ve wised up a wee bit, but at that age I was seriously competitive. I actually wasn’t good enough as an athlete, but I didn’t know that at the time.
“I made every mistake that anybody could make both as an athlete and as a coach. But I’ve learned to be extremely well planned and that’s what I’ll be looking for from the athletes and coaches here.”