SCOTTISH Athletics’ head coach Stephen Maguire insists his impending departure will not derail the nation’s push for Commonwealth glory this summer.
The Northern Irishman has been appointed to a senior coaching role within British Athletics, taking charge of sprints, sprint hurdles and relays. He will take up that position directly after this summer’s showpiece occasion in Glasgow, but – for now – his full focus is on boosting Scotland’s medal tally.
Maguire said: “When I took the job back in 2012, I spoke about the need to improve upon our showing on the big stage. That hasn’t changed. Naturally I’m delighted that British Athletics have seen something in my work, but I’m really not looking beyond the summer. Our intention here remains the same – to ensure the Scottish athletes have the support and technical structures in place to help them deliver in Glasgow.”
Maguire’s early track and field career began in long jump, before injury curtailed his own personal ambitions. But the knowledge he accrued in those formative years laid the foundations for a successful coaching career. “The two disciplines (long jump and sprints) do have similarities,” he explains. “Physical power is important, but the start is absolutely crucial. If you take a block start, for example. That’s a skill that can be taught and can be learned, by just making small, gradual adjustments over a period of time.”
Maguire initially came to prominence as coach of Irish Paralympic star Jason Smyth, and was appointed as Director of Coaching to Irish Athletics in 2006. Maintaining his ties with the young Derry athlete, the pair travelled to the United States in 2009 to seek new ways to develop and improve ahead of London 2012. This was little over a year after Smyth bagged two gold medals in Beijing.
Having established a connection with Lance Brauman (coach of legendary Olympic gold medallists such as the USA’s Tyson Gay, Trinidad’s Keston Bledman and Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown) on the international athletics circuit, the pair were invited over to Florida. What began as a watch and learn brief soon morphed into something different. “It started off really by accident. I was coaching Jason as we were pretty isolated in Ireland. I had become friendly with Lance and he invited us across. It was just a case of coming over to train. And then we both decided – me as a coach and Jason as an athlete – to integrate with the group, so I was able to be there to help Lance.”
By “help” he means Brauman made him second in command at the National Training Centre at Clermont, Florida. “It was a really good time, I learned a lot just from being in that high performance environment. Being surrounded by world-class athletes, guys who have run sub 10 and 20 seconds for the 100 meters and the 200 metres, and realising that you fit in was much more important than anything. They were asking my advice and responding to my suggestions. I feel very privileged to have been there and to be involved with athletes of that calibre.
“The interesting fact is the work ethic. It’s their attention to detail. They aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just incredibly hard workers who look after themselves and take a lot of personal responsibility for what they need to do as athletes.”
That focus on hard work – even if it only results in small, incremental improvement in the initial stages – is a theme Maguire returns to time and again. Jessica Ennis’s coach, Toni Minichiello, would be a disciple of that school of thought, and Maguire is delighted that he has agreed to share some of his expertise at the upcoming National Coach Development weekend, which gets underway in Glasgow on Saturday 22 March.
“The opportunity to have the coach who took Jessica Ennis from a young champion to an Olympic athlete is fantastic for us. It’s unique, in the sense that he has been with her the whole way. So he’s going to be very interesting to listen to. It hasn’t been this straight line of progression that people might think. It’s been hard work for him, he’s had to change and adapt as much as she has, in many respects.”
Fast forward to this summer and Maguire is bullish about Scotland’s chances of success at the Games. Soon after taking the job in 2012, he spoke about seven to eight athletes in the Scotland squad having podium potential. He now believes the number to be closer to ten or 12. Chris O’Hare, Eilidh Child, Laura Muir, Lynsey Sharp and Eilish McColgan should be names already familiar to observers with even a passing interest in Scottish athletics. To that quintet, Maguire would also add high jumpers Stephen and Allan Smith, plus Jayne Nisbet and Emma Nuttall. “They are reaching heights that will put them in the reckoning for a medal and they have to be considered serious candidates,” he said. Hammer throwers Mark Dry and Andy Frost will also come into contention. “They are both ranked top four in the Commonwealth, so you can’t disregard what they are doing either. They have a great chance. If you look at the Paralympic end, Libby Clegg is currently ranked No 1 in the Commonwealth.”
Factor in home advantage and it’s clear to see why Maguire is in such upbeat mood.
“We had a wee taste of what it could be like at the recent Indoor International meet at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow,” he explains. “Those 5,000 home fans really got behind our athletes and Laura Muir, Chris O’Hare and Guy Learmonth stepped up in a big way. It is a host games, it’s on our own doorstep and we’ll have the legendary ‘Hampden Roar’ with 40-50,000 Scottish fans behind us. We’re ready.”