James Marchington meets Ian Coley, head coach for Britain’s Olympic clay shooting hopefuls
I have a mental image of an Olympic coach: tracksuit and trainers, whistle and stopwatch around his neck, doing everything at the double, exhorting his charges in drill-sergeant tones to go faster, higher, better.
Ian Coley is the exact opposite. British Shooting’s clay target head coach is quiet, thoughtful and softly-spoken – more like a kindly uncle than my image of a sports coach. He is, perhaps, a very British style of coach.
I suggest this and he laughs, correcting me in a soft, Gloucestershire drawl: “That’s the way coaching has tended to move in recent years. Certainly the more liberal countries are less authoritarian in the way they treat their athletes, and they don’t win any fewer medals. And of course shooting is by nature more relaxed than some of the other sports.”
Ian has been coaching at the top level for long enough to get that sort of perspective. London 2012 will be his sixth Olympic Games as clay shooting coach; he’s been to Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing.
He’s been involved in shooting a lot longer than that. Leaving school at 15 he went straight into a job as a trainee gamekeeper, and later went to work at a gunshop in Cheltenham. He opened his own shop in 1970, and the following year shot for England for the first time, at Sporting and DTL. Since then, he calculates, he has represented England or Great Britain, as a shooter, coach or manager, well over 250 times.
Today, as well as being an Olympic coach, Ian owns and runs a thriving business that incorporates a shooting ground, gunshop and sporting agency. “I enjoy it enormously, and being involved in the Olympic Games is a great privilege, but it is a total lifestyle, and it’s meant sacrifices,” he says. “Thank goodness I have a lot of support from my family.”
So, down to business: who are our best hopes for Olympic medals, and how are they coming along? I quickly realise that years of working with sport’s governing bodies have made him politically astute. He chooses his words carefully, and won’t be drawn on which shooters are likely to be picked to represent GB at the Olympics.
“Right now, no-one has been ‘picked’ for the Olympic Games, and no-one is guaranteed a place. You have to understand there’s an official procedure,” he explains. “It’s all on the British Shooting website. At the moment, we have our full quota of places for London 2012, bar one – that’s two in DT, two in men’s Skeet, one in ladies’ Skeet, one in ladies’ Trap, and one in men’s Trap. We could still win a second place in men’s Trap, then that’s our limit.
“As for who fills those places, that will be decided according to the official procedure. Just because someone won a quota place, they don’t automatically fill that place on the day. As head coach I get to express an opinion. British Shooting will choose the shooters to put forward, based on their assessment of medal-winning potential. The ultimate decision is made by the British Olympic Association, and will be announced on 3 May next year.
“Just because we have an Olympic place, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily be filled. BOA will only choose athletes who they believe are up to Olympic standard. If they feel no-one reaches that standard, no-one will be picked.”
As head coach, Ian is funded by the World Class programme. Currently on that programme there are five shotgun shooters: Peter Wilson and Steve Scott in DT, Elena Allen in ladies’ Skeet, and Charlotte Kerwood and Aaron Heading in OT. Ian comments that others may be picked to join the World Class programme, on the basis of “medal winning potential” but won’t hint at who or when.
Ian doubles as the national coach for DT. The other national coach is Kevin Gill, who looks after the OT shooters. Currently there isn’t a national coach for OS, but Ian regularly talks to Elena Allen’s husband, himself a coach, and her coach Joe Neville.
That’s typical of Ian’s work as head coach – much of it is about liaising with individual shooters’ coaches and mentors. Where funding is provided through the World Class programme, there are training schedules to be drawn up and agreed. The job involves a lot more paperwork than ‘coaching’ in the normal sense of the word.
There’s clearly more – a loosely defined role of advising, guiding and mentoring that’s hard to pin down. I get the feeling that’s the nub of it: a quiet word of support in the right ear at the right moment could make the difference between winning a medal and being an also-ran. But that doesn’t lend itself to being written down in a job spec.
This is all very well, but it won’t make gripping reading, so I try a different tack. Taking a leaf from The Sun I jump in with: “So Ian, do you advise your shooters to abstain from sex before a big competition, or can it improve your performance?”
He giggles. “Well, I could tell you a story about that,” he says, then thinks better of it. The guard comes back up: “We don’t get into that level of detail with the shooters.”
All right, so you don’t tell them when to have sex, but do you tell them how many targets to shoot a week, what to eat, or how many hours sleep they should have?
“My job is to make sure that the people who do go to the Olympic Games are trained to the best possible standard,” he says. “That’s not just on the technical side, but every aspect of their training, including planning, fitness, nutrition and everything else that affects their performance on the day.” Apart from sex, I suppose. But that’s a yes to advice on food then?
“The nutritional plan is by agreement with the athlete. Some want to do it, some don’t. Some eat bloody awful diets, some eat better diets. I encourage them to eat a consistent diet. Shooting is a sport where you don’t have to be super-fit, but you do have to be fit for purpose. Some shooters choose to follow a fitness regime at the gym, others don’t – it’s an individual choice.”
Each shooter has an individual training plan, designed to build towards a peak of performance on the day of the Olympic Games. “It’s very difficult to train for that in shooting, but that’s what we have to aim for,” Ian says. “Shooting with a shotgun isn’t like other sports. You do get ‘off days’ and we have to accept that it happens. There are also outside factors that you can’t control, like the wind. Luck comes into it too, you can get hard or soft targets that don’t break like you’d want them to.
“Of course the more consistent shots win more often, but even they have bad days. The way to minimise the effects of ‘off days’ and luck is with good training, good routines and good technique. Routine is terribly important. I’m not talking about the routine when you’re shooting, but the routine of your entire life – when you get up in the morning, when you go to the loo…”
Aha! I think I’ve discovered the point where the line is drawn. Ian won’t tell his shooters when to have sex, but he will tell them when to go to the toilet. I let it pass, he’s on a roll: “The psychological factor is important too. Most of the top shots will start to think about a big shoot long before they get there. They won’t all tell you this, but most of them do it. They will visualise themselves shooting and winning. They will also visualise the things that might go wrong – a gun breakdown for instance – so they’re prepared if it happens. It’s part of my job to remind them that this sort of thing is important.”
There’s one other point Ian wants to make before he rushes off to meet a client: “We mustn’t overlook the time and dedication, not just of the shooters themselves but also their families and the people around them. They make huge sacrifices, and that isn’t acknowledged enough. They aren’t even paid a living wage, but they’ve put their entire lives and careers on hold, before they even know if they’ll be picked to shoot at the Olympics.”
It’s a good point, and one that Ian knows from personal experience – although looking around his shooting school I reflect that this gamekeeper’s lad has done alright for himself.