Controlled van Commenee undaunted by Olympic challenge
For a man in charge of Britain’s most high-profile squad at the country’s biggest ever sporting spectacle, Charles van Commenee cuts a commendably cool figure.
“I’m quite relaxed now,” he says, perched on a stool in the athletes’ lounge at Lee Valley High Performance Centre. “99% of the work is done, so I’m of quite a peaceful mind.”
There are now just 100 days to go until the opening ceremony at the London Olympics. But Van Commenee, head coach at UK Athletics, charismatic martinet, insists there are no sleepless nights.
British Athletics head coach Charles van Commenee has set his Olympics team a target of eight medals at the London Games - double that won at Beijing four years ago. Photo: Getty
“I’m too tired to wake up in the middle of the night,” he tells me, blinking from behind his Buddy Holly black-rimmed spectacles.
“One of the key things in elite sport, and maybe in life, is that you should only bother about the things you can influence, not the things that you can’t.
“I always say to the athletes, you’ll wake up tomorrow and see the Olympic flame. So, are you ready? I’m fully aware that the next three months will go like that.” He clicks his fingers.
I ask him if he has ever felt daunted by the task in front of him. Toni Minichiello, coach to gold medal hope Jess Ennis, told me earlier this year that he sometimes feels like a man spinning plates, constantly running from one to another to keep them all up at the same time.
“I’m surprised to hear that from Toni, because he basically has one plate.”
A rather important plate, no? He nods a concession. “It is an important plate, but there’s only one. I think we’re in control.”
Van Commenee is that 21st century sporting curio, a head coach who doesn’t actually coach any athletes. So what exactly does he do with his time?
“I’ve been in Portland, spending a few days with Mo [Farah] and his coach (Alberto Salazar). Then I was in Los Angeles, where we have 20 athletes. I check with them and the coach that they are still on plan, and doing the things that they are supposed to do. I help out where help is needed.”
So if Mo, Britain's 5,000m world champion, has his own coach, who plans his training, conditioning and racing, isn’t it a little awkward when Van Commenee arrives at the party full of different ideas?
“It can be. But if it was easy, then you could have done the job!” He laughs uproariously and looks immensely pleased with his joke, before shrugging his shoulders in a very Dutch way.
“Of course it’s not easy. Relationships, and building relationships, is important, so that there’s trust, and there’s understanding, and the same goal and direction. I do spend a lot of time with athletes and coaches on these things.
“When you come in as a stranger and you’re going to dictate whether people are going to go to the right instead of the left, very few will follow. You need arguments and reasons. It’s a process.”
Who has the final say? If Van Commenee disagrees with Salazar’s training schedule, can he over-rule?
“In the end, it’s always the athlete. Because the athlete decides whether he’s going to jump on the plane or not. Or get his legs moving.
“With Mo, it’s quite easy, because he’s got a very experienced, skilful set-up. It’s all in place. His race schedule is there. It’s more about to manage everything around the Olympic Games. When to travel in, when to go to altitude, what to do with the family.”
Van Commenee has set a target of eight medals in London – double that won in Beijing four years ago, one more than the British squad brought back from last summer’s World Championships in Daegu. With the biggest moment of his career closing in fast, he’s not about to blink now.
“We have to do much better than in the previous Olympics. But the statistics and the results over the last three years indicate that we should be able to be there.
“We know there will be surprises, but there will also be people who do not deliver. It’s about getting athletes into that medal zone.
“On the day itself they have to deliver. There’s nothing you can do about that, as a coach, as a system, as a federation. The athlete has to do it. But in the build-up you can help athletes get there. That’s what we do.”
Van Commenee has solid reasons for his optimism. Last summer saw 13 outdoor British records set. At last month’s World Indoors in Istanbul, Britain finished an unprecedented second in the final medal table.
There are also cracks not far below the surface. Of 36 individual finals across both men's and women's competition in Daegu, there were British representatives in less than half.
In men's track events, Britain had no representative in the final of any event from 100m up to 1500m; on the women's side, there were no British finalists in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m.
“Our very best athletes did very well; one tier down, they didn’t,” says Van Commenee.
“But it’s always great to have a disappointment, because then you’re triggered to do something about it. Somebody like Jessica Ennis didn’t win, but you go home and know exactly what to address.
“My job is to take luck out of the equation. If you have enough volume in the team, you’ll always have athletes who statistically reach their peak, as well as a few over the hill, and a few not there yet.
“I think overall we’re in a very good place. Not everyone can win, but we’re in a great place, much better than the last 15 years. And hopefully 2013, 2014, it will be even better, because we have even more athletes coming through.”
Denise Lewis, coached by Van Commenee to Olympic heptathlon gold in 2000, once described her old mentor as both incredibly driven and much more sensitive than most people realise.
I ask him if that sounds accurate. “Well, I don’t know what you want in terms of my sensitivity.”
Your public persona is pretty no-nonsense, I tell him. You called Kelly Sotherton a “wimp” for winning Olympic heptathlon bronze rather than silver in 2004. You’re perceived as a demanding, tough, taskmaster.
He shrugs again. “Any successful coach is sensitive, because you have to work with so many different individuals. If it’s only one card that you have to play, and expect people to buy only one idea, one concept, you don’t go very far. It’s one of the mistakes that ex-athletes or ex-footballers often make.
“You have to be sensitive and empathetic, so of course I’m sensitive. Am I more driven? I’m driven, obviously. Otherwise I would be in the wrong business.”