In the second of a two-part interview James Thie and Hannah Irwin discuss Jake Smith, the impact of COVID-19 on young athletes and his hopes for 2021

In the first part of our interview Thie explained the importance of being adaptable in order to guide and support athletes through an incredibly Challenging year. We pick up where we left off with a Team Thie man who has had a stunning year.

Stellar year for Smith

Jake Smith is one of James Thie’s athletes who has had a stellar year. Smith clocked a phenomenal 60:31 at the World Half Marathon Championships in Poland last month, but what are the coaching secrets behind his success?

“Jake has been a relatively logical journey. He came to Cardiff Met (university) having done a lot or unstructured training and he was sort of a maverick looking after himself, so the simple thing from a coaching point of view was giving him structure.

The other thing he lacked was leg turnover. He had a massive engine and the legs just couldn’t keep going. We worked on short hills for his running economy. He was chasing the guys, and getting blown out the back, but he kept coming back.


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In the first year he couldn’t quite work out recovery, everything had to be done hard and if he wasn’t working hard, he felt he could’ve done better. In the first summer he was toast with thee or four races to go and they kept getting progressively worse, so we decided to give him 10 days of absolutely no running.

After one day back, he did the classic, can I do a local 5k next week? He ran a 20 second personal best. It showed him that all that training came into play and rest and recovery became a key smart focus.”

Early step up

“He also made the journey to half marathon relatively early. He ran 64 minutes as a second year, and we just found a distance that he really identified with, and his mechanics/how he runs just clicks.

He ran 62 minutes last November and then 60:30 at the world half this year. His progression has been staged, so the sessions have remained the same but got quicker, the volume has gradually gone up, and structure has been important.

Jake has an amazing pain tolerance and ability to switch off and focus, but he is so innocent when he races. He went through 10k in 28:20, which is phenomenally fast, but he was just enjoying it and willing to see how hard he could go. I just want him to remain as honest and innocent to that type of running as possible.”

King of consistency

Thie says consistency has been a true factor in contributing to Smith’s success. Could the longer period of uninterrupted training over lockdown have been the reason so many athletes are performing well. Here’s what the Cardiff-based coach has to say.

“This is absolutely individual… I could probably put people in both camps and in between. The shape people have got into have been absolutely phenomenal. For some, it meant when racing came back around that we had slightly overcooked it, but it’s hard to get it 100% right when you don’t know when races are.

I have learnt this from the first pandemic, that you just have to be patient. Some had a couple of hits with racing and got PB’s every time, others just weren’t feeling the desire to race when it did come around. For some it went well, but for others it didn’t go to plan.

No athlete is the same, but what did surprise me was how positive a lot of athletes were, and it was actually running that kept people mentally in a good place and got them through lockdown. I’ve had no one quit running from lockdown.”

Impact on youth

For some, this period of long training has meant saying goodbye to key age-group success stories, but could this be a source of inspiration?

“I feel sorry for the younger age groups. You are only a top U17, U20, U23 once, and for some people you only get one chance at that Euro Cross or age group championships, or even English Schools, and some people haven’t had this.

For some of our university students it has been very hit and miss with everything since March, from family life, to academics, to training, and they have had the toughest experience of most, so it is important to create a positive environment for those coming to us.

It was great to see some of them thriving off being in a group on the track again rather than going around the streets on their own. I just feel the longer we aren’t allowed to compete properly, the longer we aren’t able to give people those opportunities they need. This may be the thing that decides whether they keep going or give up on the sport.”

However, this is a learning curve, says Thie, “We have amazing role models, who have had numerous setbacks, so we can learn from them. The pandemic has allowed us to appreciate the finer things in the sport. It is just turning the psychology and not dwelling on things too much, but accepting it is ok to feel drained and a bit helpless at times because of the situation. Everything is out of our control and very frustrating.

If there are dips in training it may not be down to training, it may be mental tiredness. My athletes over Christmas are just going to have a week or so where it is a little less structured, as you don’t want to get run down over Christmas, especially when you are mixing with others. It will be a nice chance to get out, not worry whether there is a track nearby or a good hill. It will give people a chance to get out and run, but be ready to go for 2021, which is still going to be a big year.”

Friends in the sport

We asked James if being international athlete, has given him a level of unteachable knowledge that has allowed him to progress as a coach?

“I was lucky as an athlete as I maximised by experience in the sport, which maybe cost me some of my performance. Others were focused on their own performance, but I made a lot of friends, but that has put me in good stead now as I know people all over the world. They are friends for life, and we link in and learn from each other.

Having been an international athlete it gives me an insight into major championships and training with some of the best athletes and coaches. My last coach was Mark Roland (Oregon TC head coach), so I learnt from some of the best. It was helpful in teaching me that there is no magic wand, there is no short cut, it is all about hard work over long, long periods of time.

Having athletes of all abilities, event groups, genders, distances, has allowed me to learn about volume but also individual quality. Volume is so important for the aerobic base, but thoroughbreds need a good amount of quality work too.

We need those key ingredients, but with individual tweaks. When you get this right as a coach, and you have tweaked it and made it absolutely right, this is when you pat yourself on the back as a coach.”

Privileged relationship

As a coach, a lot of athletes put their sporting futures in your hands and trust you to aid their progression. Thie tells us how important this is to him.

“I feel so privileged when an athlete asks me to coach them. There is a real quality in someone trusting you enough that they believe you can help them, so I am always open to helping those who I think I can. I don’t think there is a much better feeling.

When our sport goes well it is great, but then on the flip side, when it doesn’t go quite so well, when athletes are injured, ill or not performing, those are the ones that keep me up at night. If I can turn that around, that is the biggest satisfaction.

When you bring someone back from injury, or recover their enjoyment for the sport, those are the coaching gems. I love a challenge, but it’s the ones you have helped make and made believe in themselves that I get most satisfaction from, rather than polishing a Rolls Royce as such.”

A busy year ahead

2021 is going to be a year to remember (hopefully), and one where many of us are hoping to make developments. How does the coach of TeamThie hope to progress?

“I never stop learning, and I am doing a taught doctorate in sports coaching. I am two thirds (3 years) into that. So alongside my family, a full time job, coaching, articles, and circuits, that pushes my academic limit. It allows me to have an introspective look at endurance running as a coach, and I would love to publish that and help other coaches who have multiple roles and responsibilities.

I am continuing to learn and develop, so those of my athletes that ever complain about working late into the evening, I am with them there doing the same thing. I am lucky to push myself athletically and mentally, but I enjoy being on that limit and pushing myself in all ways to develop as a coach.”

We know that whatever 2021 brings James, and the athletes he coaches, will be are the forefront of British distance running.

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