The noble business of athletics coaching
| May 10th 2012
By JOHN KARIUKI
Have you ever wondered how Kenyan athletes manage to win long-distance races time and again? The answer lies in the coaches they have. Among these are Robert Kioni and Francis Kamau aka Master, who are ranked among best athletics coaches in Kenya.
Both men have a sporting background from their days in the army. And between them, they have trained many athletes and sometimes the same people at different times.
The two coaches say that the secret of athletics training is in spotting talent early. The next think is to impart a winning attitude into one’s pupils. The two coaches run training camps in Nyahururu, and work closely with the Athletics Kenya to ensure that all rules of sports training are followed within their camps.
Both say that coaching is not a job for the impatient who want to see immediate results, because it takes anything between three to four years to produce a fine athlete. According to them, a coach’s greatest moment is to see his or her athletes shine on the world stage, and come back to help their people and country.
“In fact, it is a celebration when the athletes you have trained finish among the first ten in any race in the selection of the Kenya national team,” says Master.
He adds that with Kenya’s renowned athletics record, the selection of a national team, say, for the 10,000 meters race, is stiffer that the actual finals in the real event in a world competitions.
How did the two begin the path to being coaches?
Kioni served in the army for 28 years before retiring in 1998. He used to coach football, athletics, volleyball and hockey in the various barracks that he served. He would occasionally be appointed coach for the combined armed forces teams in various sports.
The army, then, was a cradle of Kenya’s track champions and Kioni would nurture household names like Douglas Wakiihuri (marathon), John Ngugi (5000 m), Julius Kariuki (3,000m steeple chase), John Koech (3,000m steeple chase) and the legendary Henry Rono.
After retirement, Kioni spent his pension putting up a high altitude athletics training camp in Nyahururu, and going into coaching full time. Today it is common to see Kioni is training with his runners.
|Francis Kamau aka Master, was an athlete while in the army and participated in many local and international events before retiring to start a training camp in 1998. [JOHN KARIUKI/Standard]|
Kioni’s pupils are strewn all over in Nyandarua and Laikipia counties in both primary and secondary school, and he develops training programmes with their respective games teachers.
“When they are on school holiday, I take them to my camp for intensive training so that they remain in competitive form,” he says.
Kioni tracks his athletes through school and fixes them in all local junior championships.
“I work closely with their parents and school administrators so that I can fit them in the Athletics Kenya’s calendar of events without unduly disrupting their studies,” he says.
Kioni points out that the process of coaching often sees one get immersed into the lives of his pupils.
“After secondary school, I often persuade some institutions of higher learning to sponsor those who have done well solely on their athletics credentials,” says Kioni.
And he is happy that several public universities and other institutions frequently waive fees for his students. And when the armed forces are recruiting servicemen, Kioni says they often pick his pupils because of their physical fitness and sporting talent.
Kioni has also partnered with the Sendai Ikui Gakueni High School in Japan, which takes some of his pupils for further sports training.
“This international school trains pupils in many sports in addition to offering them the normal high school education,” says Kioni.
After high school in Japan, some students can choose to proceed to university or seek employment there, adds Kioni. Among those that Kioni has facilitated to go to Japan include Simon Maina, Lucy Kabuu, and Evelyne Wambui.
But to have an impact on his students, Kioni must embody the skills that he wants his pupils to adopt.
“A good coach illustrates what he or she wants to be done,” he says. And so it’s not unusual for him to join his pupils on the morning run, field workouts and all stamina building events.
“We are one large family and we share all our pains and successes,” he says.
He also says that a coach should never give up on any athlete. “A coach is the moral and emotional bastion of the team and he or he should have a lot of optimism, regardless of the situation,” he says. Taking triumph and defeat graciously is the epitome of coaching, he adds.
“Often my mature athletes take me as their father and several times I have had to go for bridal negotiations on their behalf,” he says.
But even then, he insists that he has no particular favourite. Instead, he sees each of his athletes in his or her merit.
“Henry Rono stands out for being the world record holder in 1500m, 3000m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m and all in one year in 1982,” he says.
On his part, Master was an athlete while in the army and participated in many local and international events before retiring to start a training camp in 1998. His first training camp was in Njambini in Kinangop, but he later relocated to Nyahururu. He says coaching is a calling and one cannot succeed in it if he or she is fixated on making money.
His journey to coaching was not smooth. In the early days, he had to split his time between Kenya and the US, since he had athletics missions to oversee. The shuffling took its toll on him, and at one point he developed stomach ulcers.
“Once I got totally overwhelmed by this enormous responsibility while in the US and confided in a friend in church compound. I told him that I would ditch my coaching job and save my life,” says Master.
Act as a bridge
But the friend asked him what consider what would happen to the poor athletes if the bridge between them and their destiny disappeared,
“The ulcers healed and I saw my coaching job in a new perspective and I now consider myself as a bridge, linking talented youths to their dreams,” says Master.
This coach says that he was driven into coaching by the sheer hardship that he underwent before making it in the big league athletics.
“So much talent is lost out there in hopeless youths who would have made a name for themselves and turn their families lives around,” he says. And towards this end, Master says that he is happy to have contributed his bit.
Even then, Master is unhappy with the youth enterprise fund, which often allocated funds to dead-end projects instead of sports training.
“If two million shillings are spent on scouting talent and training only ten athletes, the returns can be a hundred fold in a mere five years,” he says. “
At least four out of the ten athletes are bound to reach the international stage, earn hefty prizes and product endorsement fees and invest locally, paying taxes and creating jobs,” he says.
He is now calling on political leaders to create policies through which the vast sports industry can be exploited.
Master also recounts a personal story of how hopelessness can kill all talent in youths who would otherwise break world records. He recalls how he encountered some council Askaris chasing street children away from Nyahururu stadium in 2004.
“One girl caught my attention and I engaged her in small talk,” he says. Master sympathised with her plight and his intuition warned him not to dismiss her as just another street child.
Instead he persuaded her to take up athletic training with him once per week.
“She was a natural runner from her stride and she kept up with all my appointments,” he says. He took her to his camp and back to school,besides offering her shelter and food and counseling on character change.
Within six months, the girl had won a race in a district athletics championship held at Nyahururu.
“Suddenly everybody wanted to train her,” says master.
Within a few years, this girl made a debut in an international race and Master was able to vouch for her to be employed in the armed forces after she completed her schooling.
“I have just finished doing a documentary of her moving story with one film producer,” says Master.
Among the athletes that Master has developed include Gilbert Okari, Shadrack Koskei, Joyce Wanjiku, Ronald Mucheru, Martha Komu and Alice Wambui.
Both coaches, who had stints training Charles Kamathi, concede that he has a special place in their hearts for upsetting Haile Gebrselassie’s record in the 10,000 meters race. And again, both coaches pay glowing tribute to the late Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, whom they separately trained at various points in his illustrious athletics journey.
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