Lessons from Altis

Recently I spent a week in the company of some greats of track and field athletics coaching at AltisWorld. A few weeks on I reflect on the key lessons and points of difference I observed at this important independent initiative.

AltisWorld is the new name for the World Athletics Center following a recent re-brand. The organisation was founded by CEO John Godina and the project has come a long way since its original inception as the World Throws Center. The name Altis was taken from the site in Ancient Greece: the grove of Olympia, sanctuary of the gods, and location of the original Olympic Games.

Such references to the origins of the Olympic movement are well chosen. The project represents an endeavour by some of the greats of track and field coaching to reclaim the original ethos of track and field athletics, independent of the politics of national federations and meddling from commercial interests that have blighted similar projects. 

AltisWorld is run by coaches for the good of athletes and the sport of track and field athletics. One of the most striking features of the organisation is that there are no layers of management and administration. These responsibilities are shared between the staff; however with few exceptions each member of the staff is a coach (or practitioner) first and foremost. There is no legion of management and administration staff that you find with equivalent sized concerns (in terms of athlete numbers) such as national governing bodies and national sport institutes.

This is not only refreshing, but more importantly proves that such cumbersome machinery and layers of staff that suck up precious resources and funding yet rarely come into direct contact with coaches and athletes are clearly not essential for an elite organisation to function. Moreover, it may be that the lack of dilution and clouding of purpose when such non essential staff are absent are part of what makes an organisation truly elite.

Another cornerstone of the Altis approach is the presence of therapists on track-side every day. Performance therapy is a key pillar of the model - this is described as the Coach-Athlete-Therapist 'triad'. The emphasis on performance therapy is strongly reinforced by the coaches, many of whom are trained therapists and so play an active role in treating the athletes in their respective groups. This aspect of the organisation has been led by pioneers in the field, notably Gerry Ramogida, in concert with Dan Pfaff who as Head Coach and Education Director is a central figure who has shaped the culture and ethos of Altis.

The culture embodied by the staff and athletes at Altis is another major point of difference. This is a truly coach led system but each athlete is actively involved in the process, so that autonomy and accountability are promoted. 

Equally, the ready availability of therapy on track-side does not mean that athletes become passive recipients of treatment as might occur elsewhere. Accountability is a strict part of the mantra - if the coach observes that the athlete is not taking responsibility for managing themselves they will be called on it and not allowed to take advantage of the support that is on offer to compensate for their own lack of due diligence.

Uniquely the culture is led by the athletes themselves. This is unforced (there are no motivational posters or culture plans), spontaneous and the overriding positive mood observed at training each day is entirely genuine. There are no cliques and there is none of the spitefulness that seems to plague the sport in other parts of the world where I have coached. 

This does not happen entirely by accident however. Athlete recruitment is in the hands of sprints and hurdles coach Andreas Behm, and he carefully screens the growing numbers of athletes applying to join the Altis set up. If any red flags arise during this screening process they do not take on the athlete, regardless of their previous performances or profile. Maintaining the integrity of the group and squad environment is paramount.

Originally, most often it was the broken and the lost who found their way to Altis. However as a result of the growing profile and successes of the project, notably the success of Altis athletes (representing various countries) at the recent World Championships, increasingly Altis is attracting athletes in their prime. Star US sprint hurdler Queen Harrison joined the sprint hurdles squad for the 2016 season, and in the past week it was announced that 22-year old sprint uber talent, Pan Am Games champion, and World Champs medallist Andre De Grasse has just joined the sprint squad coached by Stuart McMillan.

Finally, the aspect that is unique to Altis is the spirit of sharing and genuine willingness to help educate and improve the practice of visiting coaches and practitioners. The Apprentice Coach Programme ('ACP') is a cornerstone of the project. The ACP is a 5-day coaching clinic hosted at regular intervals where visiting coaches are given full access to observe and interact with coaches, therapists and athletes themselves. In the afternoon invited speakers present on different topics (I was honoured to be invited to present at the December ACP), and this is followed by the now legendary 'pool-side' chat which is a relatively unstructured Q&A with the key coaching staff, so that attending coaches can ask questions on anything they observed that day.

Once more this spirit of sharing and educating is led by Dan Pfaff. Dan is not only a legendary coach (Rio 2016 will be his 10th Oympic Games), but more than that he is an extraordinary human. A coach and a teacher in all things, he is motivated by the genuine and sincere wish to make coaches better at what they do, for the good of athletes and the embattled sport of track and field as a whole.

Any coach or educator would find it hard not to support an initiative borne of such altruism. What I was delighted to see is that the project is proving viable. The recent star recruits and the potential for more prominent performances in the Olympic year ahead look set to cement the future and continued growth of Altis. Moreover, Altis alongside a growing number of other independent initiatives are pioneering a future path for track and field athletics that is independent of federations. As such, Altis is a beacon for the sport and for athletes and coaches who wish to reclaim their sport.