OF the 541 members of Team GB at last year’s London Olympics, none was under as much pressure as Jessica Ennis. The poster girl for the Games was our biggest medal hope in the biggest Olympic sport, and her image could be seen everywhere in the city in the run-up to the event.
Competing at home has its pitfalls as well as its positive points, and for Ennis’s coaching team, led by Toni Minichiello, dealing with those pitfalls was a crucial part of their preparations. And as the countdown continues to next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, coaches in all of the 17 sports will have to develop their own strategies.
Minichiello was in Dunblane this week to share his thinking on that and related subjects with some of the country’s leading coaches at the annual Sport Scotland Institute of Sport High Performance conference. After chairing his workshop, he explained to The Scotsman that, when it came to preparing for a home Games, there could not be one solution for every athlete. For example, while Ennis was hot favourite for the heptathlon and had to carry the weight of expectation, younger competitors of whom little was expected might find the home-Games factor to be wholly positive.
“What I’d say to any 18-year-old going in is try and enjoy it, soak it up,” Minichiello said. “And I’m not being funny, if you’re an 18-year-old, Scottish, in Glasgow, you’re going to be loved by everybody in every chair. You’re not walking into an ominous environment.
“Take Jess’s first Commonwealth Games in Melbourne [in 2006]. I looked at where she was ranked and she should have finished about sixth. But that was close enough, and I said ‘Right, there’s one or two people in there who tend to mess up at championships, and as long as you just keep doing what you’re supposed to do, there’s no expectation, you might be able to sneak a medal’.
“As it turned out, she was in the silver-medal position before the 800, and ended up in bronze. So she did take her opportunity.
“If you’re preparing as a youngster for an event like that, there is no pressure on you. There is no massive expectation. It is a learning curve, it’s your first Games, enjoy it – soak it in and go out there and just be yourself and perform.”
In the week before the two-day heptathlon event began, there were self-appointed experts aplenty in London who insisted that Ennis had done too much media and commercial work to the detriment of her training. Minichiello could understand why they might arrive at that conclusion – because they had not seen the whole picture.
“She had done most of her commercial work pre-Christmas. What you were seeing was the evidence of it afterwards – which suddenly meant she was everywhere. Well, if she’s on your billboard there, she’s not actually physically behind the goddamn billboard. She’s at home training.
“Those pictures and images were done months and months ago, but everybody puts it out at the most pertinent time from a marketing point of view. So it [the allegation of overexposure] was unfounded. Irritating, but you know it’s not the truth, so who cares?”
Having avoided Delhi in 2010, Ennis has so far only competed in the Commonwealth Games once. But Glasgow is on the schedule for next year, according to Minichiello, even if that does make for a very congested timetable.
“The Commonwealth Games is in,” he said. “The only drawback is exactly where the heptathlon sits in the Commonwealth and European Championships schedules. But you adjust to it the best you can.
“I’m looking forward to Glasgow – the thing is, the passion for athletics in Scotland is very high. You get a very vocal crowd, a very supportive and knowledgeable crowd.”