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Coach Furniss On The Art Of Adlington

Jun 17, 2010  - Craig Lord

In a series of features in The Times, London, that considers the role of coaches in the success of great athletes, Bill Furniss, mentor to double Olympic champion and world 800m free record holder Rebecca Adlington (GBR) at Nottingham in England, rates technique, attitude and grit as the big keys that unlock that elusive alchemy to gold in the race pool.

"She has an awesome technique," Furniss tells this author for the paper, which is running its series alongside a set of fabulous photos by my colleague and chief sports photo man Marc Aspland. Adlington is photographed using a strobe effect to show the detailed movements of her front crawl action. You may be able to see the photo and article in full online as a preview of the newspaper edition of the site, which is now only available to subscribers. Among those featured in the series is Andy Banks, coach to diver Tom Daley and a man who provides fascinating insight into the art of teaching how to get kids over a fear of flight.

Furniss, creator of the SwimSkills Method, a course in teaching the essentials of aquatic propulsion, an art exhibited excellently by his key charge but evident in a fair few of his charges down the years, says: "Everyone talks about the work that swimmers do. And we do have a punishing regime. But we do as much work on technique. The limiting factor is technique. The thing that will make the difference is technique. The thing that will win it is technique."

In analysing the strobe-photo breakdown of Adlington's simulated stroke, Furniss says: "There’s no lateral movement and no movement on the horizontal plain.  She’s offering minimum resistance in water. She loves to feel that, to move through water with minimum drag and turbulence. It’s the very thing that can make it all look so effortless even though the workload is tremendous. The other factor is at the front end of the picture, the front or leading arm: that’s the classic position for the hand and arm to be in before the catch, when water is held for the pull. It’s a ‘long’ arm and is very well placed to cope with the pressure at the start of each stroke cycle. Rebecca’s stroke count is very low and her distance per stroke is so high because she generates so much force from that excellent entry position."

There is talent and there is technique. More is needed to emerge an Olympic champion. "She has a tremendous ability to tolerate physical pain," says Furniss. "It is brutal and she can do that...some can do that a few times but she is consistent, every single session. It’s that steel that she has always had, both physically and psychological. From day one, she had the same traits in place as she shows now: she is a perfectionist, someone who is very willing to pay the price that’s required in terms of physical pain and psychological concentration and the application that’s required. Some swimmers can hurt themselves but they can go walkabout mentally. It’s very hard to concentrate for two hours of hard slog at a time, day after day after day. But that’s in her. She’s always had that."

When the butterflies were so big that Adlington could hardly lift herself off the floor for her first final in Beijing, Furniss stayed calm and told her "that it was just nature’s way of getting her ready for what she’d prepared herself for". 

Adlington never doubted it, conditioned by a relationship, Furniss says, of “absolute trust and faith”. Not of the blind variety. "If I ask her to do something, I need to explain why and in an adult way and that has always been the case. She will always do the best that she can ... I trust her and she knows that I have her best interest at heart. Any difficult times that we have had or may have in future, she knows that I will do my best to get her through it,” says Furniss. “I am not a coach who, if something goes wrong, will start blaming. I know she will always do her best and she knows that goes for me too - and not just for the easy times. I will be there when things get tough - 100%."

Olympic glory may make it easier to lay down the load and rest on laurels but Furniss and Adlington are working for more than the best result for Britain in 100 years of Olympic swimming. No favours asked by the champ, none given. “I treat all the swimmers the same. She wants to be normal and always has. I think that is critical for any athlete, any person because the second you think you’re someone special, that’s the moment you don’t do what you need to do to make you special. People get above themselves and they are history. Its day-in, day-out, hard application that will make you as good as you can be. You can’t do that as a diva.”

That Furniss applies that to coach as much as swimmer is obvious when he says: "Most coaches in the world - and I count myself among them - realise that they have been pretty fortunate to have the chance to work with an outstanding athlete. Lots of coaches work as hard as I do but I stumbled on a gem. But nothing is guaranteed. You have to work with it."

Looking back at boom-time in Beijing, it was "euphoric" for Furniss but not in a self-serving way. "It is a privilege to be able to help someone achieve that pinnacle - world record and Olympic gold. In 30 years I have never coached any swimmer who deserve it as much as she did. It pleased me as a coach but I was more pleased for her as a person for what she’d put in. Rebecca is great to work with. She is very demanding on herself and it can de a bit difficult at times. She expects all around her to have the same application ... most don’t."