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Age proves no hurdle to legendary coach Malcolm Arnold

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Tom Fordyce | 17:49 UK time, Friday, 8 July 2011

Etched on the glass windows which line the 200m indoor track at Bath University's sports village is a three-line quotation: "Winning means you are willing to go longer, work harder and give more than anyone else."

Few have lived up more to that maxim than Malcolm Arnold.

Standing a few feet away, and wearing a red, white and blue Great Britain tracksuit, the white-haired coach watches his latest group of athletes attempt to live up to those exacting standards.

No sign of slowing down, Malcolm Arnold (right) with former British sprinter Jason Gardener. Photo: Getty Images

Arnold is the avuncular hurdles guru who, at the last count, has been responsible for something like 65 major medals over the last 40 years.

Four years ago he was ready to join his proteges - who include multiple world champion Colin Jackson and Olympic gold medallists John Akii-Bua and Jason Gardener - in retirement.

But instead, as he enters his eighth decade, he is working harder and going longer than ever before, inspired by a new bunch of charges who might just be his best group yet: Dai Greene, European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles champion; Jack Green, who may soon match him; outstanding sprint hurdles prospect Lawrence Clarke; Will Sharman, fourth at the Worlds in Berlin two summers ago; Tasha Danvers, Olympic bronze medallist in Beijing; and 19-year-old Andy Pozzi, the fastest junior in UK sprint hurdling history.

"My sole motivation for being in coaching," says Arnold, watching Greene haul a cart of hurdles along a lane, "is that I enjoy working with talented young people. And I seem to have a surfeit of them at the moment."

Greene, lean of face and serious in disposition, is the atypical alpha male of the group.

Level-headed despite a rapid rise to the top of his sport, undemonstrative regardless of the recent wins that have made him a very real medal prospect for next month's World Championships, he sets the mood for the morning's training session.

"We're not gimmicky down here," he says, peeling off his tracksuit. "A lot of our confidence comes from knowing that we put the hard work in.

"In my discipline it's the person who puts the hard work in who wins. All these months on this cold, wet hill in Bath pay off in the big championships."

Clarke is going through a trail-leg drill in the adjacent lane. "There's a hierarchy in our group that is entirely performance-based," he whispers, as Sharman and Pozzi settle on their blocks for a series of race-specific drills.

"Dai doesn't swagger around like he's God, even though he pretty much is at the moment. He has as much confidence as anyone, but it's not arrogance - that's what makes him such a good athlete.

"He's where everyone here wants to be - winning big championships, winning Diamond Leagues."

For a group containing so many sharp young bucks, it is remarkably quiet and studious. There is no shouting from Arnold, no parping of whistles or squawking of megaphones.

"My coaching style is a quiet one - I'm not one to jump up and down and shout, because it's a waste of energy at my age," he deadpans.

I ask him if he has shelf atop shelf of folders in an office somewhere, packed with the training schedules and knowledge he has accumulated down the years, or a bank of hard drives humming away in a study.

The coach taps his forehead. "It's all up here," he says, with a smile.

"Malcolm listens to what I say - it's not a dictatorship, and I like that," says Greene, who will compete in the big Diamond League meeting in Birmingham on Sunday. "But he doesn't blow smoke up my backside either, which I appreciate.

"I don't have to be spoon-fed my training - I'm here because I want to improve and get better. That makes Malcolm's job easier, but he keeps me on the straight and narrow, makes sure I don't do too much in sessions and keeps my ego in check as well."

Green clearly buys into the Arnold and Greene's philosophy of never cutting corners.

"If you were to ask, what is it we do here that no-one else does, I'd say that we work hard. Everyone is here to do a job."

Clarke, an Old Etonian, is aware that his background makes him appear the direct descendant of Lord Burghley, the aristocratic hurdler who won Olympic gold in 1928 and was later portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire (albeit as 'Lord Lindsay', and by Nigel Havers) as practising over hurdles with flutes of champagne balanced on top of them.

But that would be a grossly unfair piece of stereotyping. Clarke is as professional and ultra-competitive a 21-year-old as Arnold has ever come across. "His mother phoned me up and asked if I would coach him, so I said I'd give him a week's trial. I knew within 30 seconds of seeing him that he had what it takes."

"I feel extremely lucky to be here," says Clarke, who served notice of his talent with a Commonwealth bronze last year in his first big senior championship. "There is no other hurdles coach in the world who commands such respect.

"You watch him. He doesn't say much, but when he does say something it really matters.
"The best thing about Malcolm is that he doesn't compliment you on every run; when he does say well done, he really means it. When I won the European Juniors, that was all he said: well done."

After watching Greene storm to European gold in Barcelona last summer, I sat down with Colin Jackson to get to the bottom of the special relationship Arnold has with his athletes.

"Malcolm's got a lot of history, and he knows how people can win," he told me. "One of his key strategies is the amount of time he makes you spend on your conditioning.

"He also likes his athletes to be very vocal with him, both in training and competition. It's not the coach saying 'this is what you do, I don't want to hear anything else'. It's 'how do you feel, what do you think you can do to improve, what makes you feel sharp, is this working for you technically, do you feel more confident working this way...' And it seems to work."

As the session comes to an end, the athletes come over to Arnold one by one to tell him how they feel, what they intend to do that weekend, when they will be heading off around Europe to their various races.

Arnold listens, part affectionate elder relative, part benevolent headmaster.

He watches the athletes pull on leggings and trainers and slope off to the gym or physio's room.

"The killer thing that not everyone understands is that an athlete, to really succeed, must have a good competitive ability," he says.

"All the guys you've seen this morning can compete well. You see some athletes who work hard in training but, when it comes to racing, go down a level. The really good guys who succeed sometimes go up not one notch but two.

"That's the final piece in the jigsaw."


  • Comment number 1.

    Dont know much about this man, but he seems to have done the business over a long time and that deserves a lot of respect. As someone who enjoys competitive sport his attitude is definitely A1, and that is one of the biggest attributes to be able to pass onto a new generation.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Tom,

    Interested to know what the mix in the session was between technical drills and pure fitness conditioning?

    I recall a couple of seasons ago Colin Jackson started to coach Tim Benjamin, but just a few weeks in, TB decided CJ's methods "weren't for him". Shorthand for being too much like hard work.

    Was this evident in the session you saw? Sounds like Arnold was a bit softer than CJ has suggested at the time?

  • Comment number 3.

    have nothing to say about this thread. cos there is no 606 anymore have no outlet.
    So - stupid rubbish BBC journo's on their "brilliant new live sport update" have stated 'Hampshire lose there first game in the T20 tournament'.

    As an Essex fan, and a Southee fan, I cant let this pass. Idiot BBC journalists. Idiots. Idiots. I demand some of my TV license fee back. If you cant report properly, stop it.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi everythingbutthegoal

    I'm not sure what your specific complaint is as we reported both the Hants and Essex games last night but the best way to send a complaint about BBC coverage is via our feedback form:

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Tom, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this article & your recent series on the athletics anti-doping whereabouts system. As an amateur athlete (specifically a hurdler) I can't help feeling that the general public really don't know what it takes to be an elite, global standard athlete - the sacrificies made, the effort put in and the inconveniences suffered.

    On Malcolm Arnold, I was fortunate to meet him a few times when I was a student at Bath Uni. This was back in the 1990's when they were setting up the sports village (they built the track & pool in my 3rd year). He was a nice guy, happy to talk to you about athletics & he even gave me some useful advice (coupled with some comments about how I should have been running mch faster times than I actually was!). How he is not more widely known is a mystery to me, considering how much success his athletes have achieved. Probably due to him not courting the limelight.

    He might not seem a hard task master, but I am led to believe the training his athletes do is some of the most comprehensive & probably some of the hardest around.


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