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Article from Coaching Edge Spring 2014: Pitch Perfect
Mark Cavendish has always been one to carefully select his words. The fastest man on two wheels has never been prone to unwarranted praise, so his repeated description of Rod Ellingworth as ’the best coach in the world’ carries a certain amount of kudos.
Praise does not sit particularly easily on the shoulders of Ellingworth, who first laid eyes on Cavendish some 12 years ago, the pair’s relationship finally reaching fruition with that famous world title on the streets of Copenhagen in 2011.
It is Ellingworth who took Cavendish under his wing and moulded him into the ferocious sprint talent that he has become, but the 41-year-old Lancastrian denies he saw anything else in the Manxman that others didn’t.
’I just quite like chopsy people,’ says Ellingworth, damning with faint praise. ’In fact, the best people I’ve seen in sport have been a bit quirky and different, slightly odd or bolshy characters. They just have something about them that stands them aside.
’That was Cav, that still is Cav. I actually found him always quite easy to work with. He’s always been very demanding but you want that as a coach. It’s up to riders to tell me what they want and I help them follow that dream.’
For Cavendish, for as long as he can remember, his dream was to be world road race champion. In fact, the first serious conversations regarding that date back to 2004 and with that, Project Rainbow Jersey, which also became the title of Ellingworth’s book, was born.
’I remember him saying he wanted to be world champion and, from then, it was about making that happen,’ says Ellingworth, who first guided Cavendish as the boss of British Cycling’s Academy and is now performance manager with Team Sky.
’So from a coaching point of view, I think Cav winning the worlds has to be my greatest achievement. That was such a long-term goal. He was not the fittest he’d ever been on that start line but he was fit enough, and it was about building the momentum with others to buy into that, which everyone did brilliantly. I don’t think I’ll ever top that.’
Despite having achieved what is, in effect, his career highlight prior to his 40th birthday, as a coach Ellingworth does not want for ambition. Ahead of him is another full season on the road for Team Sky with a third successive Tour de France victory being the overall goal.
But for someone who has achieved so much on the track and road with British Cycling and in the professional ranks with Team Sky, where does the drive still come from?
On that subject, he says: ’I’m not as competitive as Dave Brailsford [the performance director of British Cycling and Team Sky] or Tim Kerrison [the team’s head of performance science].
They’re nutcases! My drive is to feel pride in what I do, to not take any day for granted, see the guys do what they do, achieve their goals and see them live their lives happily with their families. There are so many big races still to win and I love planning for those big races in particular.’
As performance manager for Sky, Ellingworth’s role is multifarious. He still coaches five riders on the team but sees his number one goal as ’making sure that the performance of the team isn’t affected by anything else really’.
While he oversees the team of coaches, he insists he is not a coach of coaches, pointing out that such is the calibre of coaches within British Cycling and Team Sky that they all feed off each other.
’Ok, I line manage the other guys, but we’ve all got our own background and our own strengths, so we’re always taking advice from each other all of the time,’ he explains.
’It’s a bit like in a rugby team where you have an attack coach, a defensive one, someone working on the scrum. We all have our strengths and it’s all a bit like slotting together a big jigsaw.’
One of Ellingworth’s oft-spoken mantras is ’ride your bike, just ride your bike,’ and that is the most basic thing as a coach that he requires of his riders. His role is to take care of everything else.
’I need to make sure I manage their lives off the bike as well so it’s more like I’m a life coach at times,’ he adds. ’My big thing is that if you have an idea or goal, you need to make sure everyone gets on that same bus.
’To be a good coach, if you can’t listen, you fail. You need to really listen to what people are saying to you. Also, you have to remember, you’ll get a lot of feedback so you need to be pretty thick skinned to take that. You need that emotional intelligence to deal with that. More often than not you’ll have an athlete who is not necessarily at the top of his game because of a number of issues and you have to deal with that.’
As for advice for up-and-coming coaches, Ellingworth, who describes himself as lucky to have initially got his first break as British Cycling’s academy coach, says: ’Just don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You don’t want to be too dominant as a coach but don’t be afraid to make your decisions.
’Dave Brailsford doesn’t tell you what to do. He employs people with their own minds to think and decide.
’Sometimes you get it wrong but that’s okay. That’s all part of coaching.’ Ellingworth is so affable in conversation it’s difficult to see the former academy boss with a zero tolerance for indiscipline. But he famously used to get the entire academy squad to clean cars outside the British Cycling velodrome in Manchester if just one of the athletes was a minute late.
He believes that early discipline has been integral to shaping the likes of Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, part of his first intake of academy riders. Intriguingly, he believes there are athletes out there who are uncoachable. ’There are just some people who won’t listen to ideas, thankfully I’ve not faced that,’ he says.
For all his success, Ellingworth is not one to rest on his laurels. Ever looking to expand his coaching prowess, he has recently been liaising with his counterparts in triathlon and taekwondo to swap best practices.
’I love working with people from other sports, I’d like to do more of that,’ he says. ’I also love that people come to us for advice from other sports.
If someone had told me 12 or 13 years ago it’d be like that, I wouldn’t have believed you for a minute. But I enjoy sharing my experiences – that’s the big reason I did the book.’ Ellingworth, himself a former rider, has only ever known cycling from a sporting perspective and has no plans to jump ship to another sport in the foreseeable future, still full of praise for the set-up at Team Sky and British Cycling, last year named the national governing body of the year at the UK Coaching Awards.
’It’s funny, as when you come to the velodrome in Manchester, we call the offices the bunkers as there’s not a great deal of natural light,’ he says.
’There’s nothing flashy, we’re in dungeons if you like, but the energy and work ethic in there is unbelievable. I remember particularly before The London 2012 Olympic Games, it was just a hive of activity. It’s exciting, there’s great people to work with. Me? I’m just a piece of that jigsaw.’
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