AS HE prepares to leave his present post as Scottish Athletics’ director of coaching for a new job south of the Border, Stephen Maguire can look back on his brief time at the helm with a fair degree of satisfaction.
After three successive Commonwealth Games in which they won just two medals each time, Scotland’s track-and-field team have emerged from Glasgow 2014 with four medals: gold for Libby Clegg, silver for Eilidh Child and Lynsey Sharp, and bronze for Mark Dry.
That is just one measure of the improvement which Maguire has helped bring about since arriving in his current job in September 2012, even though he prefers to praise the athletes and their coaches rather than draw attention to his own contribution. More broadly, there has been a clear improvement in the morale within the sport, something Maguire’s successor will inherit after the Northern Irishman moves on to his new job with British Athletics as head of power – sprints, sprint hurdles and relays.
“We’ve contributed medals, and the performances of all the athletes have made a contribution to Team Scotland,” Maguire said. “The big thing we’ve done is create a great environment for them to perform. The fact that 30 of our athletes are under 23 has added energy and dynamism to Team Scotland as a whole.
“I’m disappointed to be leaving, although I’m delighted to be going where I’m going. We’ve started something very, very good. We’ve got athletes who can perform where it counts. So it’s an attractive position for whoever comes next.
“I think a lot of athletes have grown up here. They’ve grasped it. I would like to see them being absolutely willing to give everything to the sport.
“I want younger athletes to learn from people like Eilidh, who is the consummate professional. Every athlete should be asking how they can get better.
“But we’re not anywhere near where we want to be – we’re still underperforming, in my opinion.
“There are lots and lots of areas where we can get better. And the good thing is that we’ve grown up, so we can admit that there are areas in need of improvement.
“Endurance is healthy, but the sprints annoys me, being a sprint coach. People think we have sprinters. We don’t have any. The sprinters we have are not good enough.”
Maguire had a bit of catching up to do when he first arrived in Scotland as he found that some of his perceptions were out of date. Once he got a true picture of the state of the sport, he set about transforming it to what it should be.
“My impression of Scottish athletics before I came in here was that it was full of really tough coaches and really tough athletes. I think there are still tough athletes, still tough coaches. But not generally.
“But it’s an amazing place with a lot of talent, a lot of young talent. Those young athletes, you don’t throw money at them because that doesn’t move anything. Just have real conversations with them about what they have to do now. You want athletes to be hungry and to grasp the opportunity. Lynsey did that.” Having been with Sharp the night before the 800m final, when she was vomiting outside her room in the athletes’ village, Maguire knows first-hand how close she was to having that opportunity taken away from her. Yet, even when it was decided she had to be taken to the polyclinic in the village and put on a drip, he did not give up hope of her being on the start line.
“I had a chat with her after the semi-final, when she called to say she was having severe cramps,” he recalled. “She saw the doctor and I sat with her until about half one, when she started to fall asleep.
“I got a phone call at half two, from [Sharp’s room-mate] Steph Twell, to say that Lynsey was violently chucking up. I went down and rescued her again – sat with her for half an hour and, when it didn’t stabilise, I got her across to the polyclinic in the village. I think I got to bed at quarter to six or something. The doctors were superb.
“Did I think her chance had gone? No, because I never think that about her. All night, I kept telling her that she was going to win a medal. Because I knew that, if she got on the start line, she would be as good as anybody in the race.
“And she proved it. The girl is amazing. She didn’t have the right to win a medal – but she absolutely grabbed it. That’s the kind of example we want. I hope the others are looking at her as how they should and could be. They need to look at her, even going back to being in the hospital in April, and recognise that she has the toughness you need.
“Every medal out here is hard won. Eilidh’s was hard won because of the intensity, being the poster girl. Those are the role models. Best in Scotland isn’t enough. That’s a comfort zone. Best in the UK is a comfort zone. They need to be aiming higher than that.
“The nice thing is there is a pathway – Scotland, UK, Europeans and then beyond. The energy is there. And the Games will hopefully be an impetus for the sport moving forward.”
Maguire is aware that, if the sport is to keep moving forward after he heads south, families and coaches need to be involved as well as athletes – and, for all the need for discipline, those athletes need to be cut a bit of slack from time to time.
“Mums and dads are invited to sessions for young athletes at our youth academy. Coaches are invited, because they need to come on board. They all have to recognise how tough elite sport is, how driven you have to be.
“There needs to be a balance. We’re not saying you need to be monks. I don’t mind anyone having a social life, trying other sports – they need a balance or they’ll go totally stale.”
Scottish Athletics under Maguire has been anything but stale. Whoever succeeds him has a hard example to follow.