Jonas Dodoo: The Benefits of Athlete Focused Training Methods

Jonas Dodoo: The Benefits of Athlete Focused Training Methods

Interview by Taya Sweeney & Declan Holt

Jonas Dodoo is the Head Coach of Speed Works, a training program run out of the Lee Valley Athletics Centre in London.

His professional coaching career began within elite rugby working alongside Rugby 7’s and premiership teams including England internationals, Gloucester, London Irish and Bath Rugby Team.

Jonas is best known for his involvement with Olympic long jump champion, Greg Rutherford and Chijindu Ujah who recently ran the 100m in 9.96sec, becoming the third fastest Briton on the all-time rankings.

His coaching philosophy ‘Athlete Centred, Coach Led’ is based on many established methods used within high performance training and his time spent with Elite Coach Dan Pfaff as part of the UK Athletics Apprentice Coach programme for London 2012.

Jonas was injured whilst playing rugby and studying a sports science degree at Hartpury College. Due to his inability to play, he would provide help to his teammates and started coaching the women’s rugby side.

His went on to complete his masters degree focusing his thesis on the decision-making processes within high performance sports, particularly the motives behind Pfaff’s elite coaching program design.

Jonas goal with Speed Works is to create an environment that utilises a holistic approach to support an athlete’s health, efficiency and skill development individually.

When did your love for rugby first come about?

I started school and didn’t know that I would like rugby and within a few weeks realised that actually it was pretty fun. You get a ball, you run as hard as you can, you can hit people and you start again and again. When I realised I was good at it, it was fun and just went from there.

Were you involved in any other sports growing up?

I played a lot of basketball and rugby and I tried cricket, I was no good at it. I’m not good with wearing a helmet but I was good at fielding because I could throw and run, but I was never comfortable with something covering my ears, so wearing a helmet and standing in front of someone pelting a ball at you was something I was never really good at.

I also threw javelin and shot put in athletics and I generally like any sports. I love table tennis, I couldn’t swim so a few of us did gymnastics for PE, and it was a bit of fun. To be honest when I was young and on holidays I would always go to a summer camp or a half term camp. I grew up in a church that was quite new age, after church they would clear all the chairs away and we could play football or netball or anything really. So all sports if they are fast and explosive and require skill, I’ve always enjoyed them.

So you had a lot of support growing up playing sport, did you have any role models that you looked up to at that age?

No, it was just life. It was either you were at school, say primary school when I was under twelve it was either I’m at school or my mum would be at work so I’m at my cousins house, my friends or my neighbours and it was before PlayStations and stuff so when you finished school you went out to play.

When my mum wanted to get me out of the house I went to other kid’s houses and we just played. When I was really young I didn’t really have a role model in sport. I guess as I grew the first person who I looked up to was Jonah Lomu, because as I got into rugby he was a person on the scene, running down people and I’m Jonas and he’s Jona so it was natural to go ‘Oh look I could be like him.’

But essentially my participation in sport was not based upon a role model, it was based on daily life. It’s what we did.

Can you explain Speed Works? How it all began and the success of the program since?

I was an apprentice coach under Dan Pfaff. I learnt a lot and I had a lot of experiences, Olympic games and Paralympic games and world junior championships, so I got exposed to elite sport.

Then UKA, our governing body centralised to Loughborough. The centre I was working at got closed down and was no longer funded by a governing body. By that point my career had been as an apprentice for three years.

An athlete that I had been coaching for two years leading up to the Olympics; Chijindu Ujah had come out of nowhere and started beating all the other boys and was second in the country to Adam Gemili. That meant a lot of talent came over to the squad.

So I found myself at the end of 2012 with a really good squad but without a full-time paid job as coach. I had a few options, I had a few offers from jobs in the states and a few jobs in the UK coaching rugby but my passion for the previous three years was to grow a good squad and I had done that and it felt like a shame. It felt like a waste if I was just going to move on and leave the kids that had come to me.

I’d always had a few private clients in professional rugby and now in professional football also, so I figured that instead of moving I would stay put. I would find a way to fund myself and to support the kids that had come to me and find a way to just continue what we had started without the help of the governing body. That’s how Speed Works really started.

Can you explain your ‘Athlete Centred, Coach Led’ philosophy?

Over my apprenticeship I got exposed to many elite coaches and what you tend to see are coaches that have been successful with a particular type of athlete.

For example the energy system or endurance type coach who was really good with athletes who had a good engine, long limbs and were rhythmical.

You had the strength and power type coaches who were successful with athletes that were really strong in a gym and could tolerate high loads and intensities.

And you had coaches that were successful with athletes that had a history and were already developed in the sport and they focused more on keeping the athletes healthy and unloading them.

By the end of looking at all of that I realised people are successful in many different ways, as there are many different ways to run. It made me realise that I didn’t want to be one of those coaches – I wanted to be all of those coaches.

I wanted to be a coach that could coach any athlete to be very successful and I don’t really think you have many of those in the world. The only way you can coach a variety of athletes to be successful, is to instead of imparting your philosophy on them and telling them what you think they need based on your history, it’s to almost turn it around and figure out what they need based on their history.

You also need to wear plenty of different hats and look through different lenses to figure out what they need. And in order to do that you need to be athlete centred and the focus has to be on their goals, on their needs, on their strengths and weaknesses. It has to be all about them and empowering them to take control of their training.

It is a very different approach because it requires humility, patience and education. You really have to educate them to take control because my philosophy is, as coaches and when we’re writing training programs, it is all a guess.

I try to make it the most educated and precise guess as possible but it has to just be a guess until we can see inside the body and truly understand how all of the different systems connect and work with each other.

I don’t have the budget to have all of the monitoring and tools out there and I don’t think it’s viable to constantly be taking bloods and testosterone and to constantly be hooked up to machines to see how the CNS is going.

My philosophy says ‘I’m really guessing and the athletes can feel.’ So I need to have a philosophy that is very open to their feelings and open to their responses.
I might write a program with two weeks on and two weeks off with four high intensity sessions within ten days.

One athlete might deal with it, another may not. In the history of the sport the athlete that can’t is labeled weak and usually breaks and falls out of the sport. People blame the athlete whereas my philosophy is ‘Well maybe its actually the coaches fault, maybe if the coach took a step back and realised the program was breaking his athlete the coach would change.’

So we want athletes to learn and change and evolve but we also have to do that with our programming, planning, and our queuing and technical models. It’s about being able to reflect constantly, be open and empower the athletes.

They don’t write the program, they don’t plan the day, but they have input and they give me their feedback and their reflections and so week one of cycle one should get better and be more precise for the athlete’s needs. That’s really where I’m coming from with ‘Athlete Centred, Coach Led.’

Did you see yourself becoming a professional rugby player from your experience at school before
becoming a coach?

Yes I went to University with the aim to. I was hurt multiple times in my late teens. My ankles and my hip were a bit of an issue so I went to university and I specifically chose a degree that incorporated not just coaching but sports rehabilitation.

My goal of my first year of university was to rehabilitate myself but I got there and I was relatively healthy and got too excited and really threw myself into the rugby.

The rugby program at my university was really good and it pushed me beyond my limits. It hurt me and it put me in a place where I really couldn’t train at a high level.

I could still run in a straight line and direction, I could still train to some degree with the athletes at least in the gym. I found myself staying at university during the summer and doing extra training with other players and ended up helping one or two.

In the second year I ended up helping three or four and I found myself in my third year of coaching the women’s team and then when I did my masters, I found myself doing speed and power with some really good athletes at the time who were in the Gloucester Academy (needs confirmation).

Half of them now are fully-fledged internationals either in sevens or fifteens. At least three of the girls I worked with played for the England under twenties team at the time and are now internationals for the fifteens. I think two of them also went on to win the world cup.

So I went to university with aspirations for myself and found that actually I probably wasn’t selfish enough. People say that athletes are selfish and coaches are selfless. I think I figured out very early on that even though I was hurt and even though I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, I could help others. That was just as rewarding as playing myself.

What was it like juggling your study with your increasing coaching commitments?

It was awesome, because I could go from coaching outside to coming inside to a room and learning a bit on coach reflection or learning a bit on psychology or technical information or feedback or strength and conditioning.

I was almost on an internship. I was learning in one room and coming out of it having lunch and then applying my learning straight away. Even with my apprenticeship that’s essentially what it was. I was learning sitting down, learning from Dan Pfaff or learning from the other coaches and then walking out there with the rest of my group and being able to coach.

So I think the reason I’ve taken leaps of logic is because alongside my learning I’ve been doing it at the same time. It was really ideal at the time but I don’t think everyone can juggle that. I think I was unique only because I wasn’t playing as well. If you’ve got an active career you need to be selfish and I think that was the difference. I almost exchanged my athletics career for my coaching career.

Can you describe a time in your career that was particularly hard? Maybe a particularly hard athlete to coach, and what you did to overcome this issue?

I think the beginning, because especially when I first started as an employed coach I was a nobody. The majority of employed coaches that are held to high esteem in the UK and around the world are all ex athletes or ex international athletes and are often in their late thirties to early forties.

They are still considered a young coach, so then there is me turning up at twenty-three; no international address, no one knew me and it probably took four years for people to stop saying I have to pay my dues.

If I was given a good athlete or one came to me it was seen as maybe I didn’t deserve them. So it took a very long time I think almost up until last year for Chijindu to run a sub ten and for Greg to jump 8.50m and to win European and Commonwealth championships before people said ‘Ok he actually does deserve it.’

And that’s eight years into my career. The hardest thing is breaking the dogma, the status quo, breaking into it and people appreciating your skill sets for what they are.

When it comes to the athletes, again I started coaching pretty young. After two or three years of coaching the athletes that I was taking on were typically broken so I had a reputation for fixing athletes.
I would attract the broken ones and early on in your career you don’t attract the good ones that aren’t broken you only attract the ones that are looking for something else.

They were often my age or older so establishing that hierarchy of coach as a teacher or the relationship as a coach and a teacher is far more difficult when you’re on the same level because where there needs to be a clear separation, there isn’t.

It is difficult for someone your age or older than you to really stop and listen and take your instructions especially if what you are trying to tell them is really counter to their own thoughts, philosophies and beliefs.

That is probably the hardest part, being a similar age. The older I get and the younger the athletes are that come to me, the easier it is for sure.

Did you spend a lot of time trying to break down that barrier between people your age? Or was it after a few sessions that the athletes trusted your instruction?

No even after a year. It’s not their belief in you, they’ve come to you so they believe in you, but it’s their belief in what you’re saying as being fundamental for them to change.

So they might believe in your abilities as a coach but if you told them fundamentally their lifestyle is the issue that they are getting re-injured or that they might have a fundamental belief in a specific technical aspect or a way of training.

Once you coach someone to run really fast, they all start to believe but sometimes the need to believe requires them to change their values and changing your values is scary.

Changing one value sometimes requires you to change a few others because they all need to correlate and that is a big change for a person. You have to be mature enough to recognise the need to change and deal with the fear of changing so that’s probably where the hard part is and it wasn’t just them.

That’s what is constantly happening in the coach relationship especially if you get older athletes. When you get young ones you almost establish their values especially regarding training because they are so young they have no other frame of reference.

For any young aspiring coach, do you have any advice or encouragement?

Be a student of the sport and seek advice from multiple perspectives. Find five gurus who train differently and figure out the common denominators across all five of them.

Find five technical models for your event and figure out their common denominators. That’s really the biggest thing for me. Find different perspectives and find expertise in other fields and other sports and again find the commonalities. Reflect and don’t be scared of evolving and changing then you will probably make leaps of logic.

The 10,000 hour rule may become 6,000 hours, that ten year progression that people talk about, maybe you can shorten it, you can bypass it. But there is no shortcut to experience, at least to your understanding and your philosophy.

I guess you can get there quicker, you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can stand next to people who have been there, done that and try to learn from their mistakes, you don’t have to make them yourself.


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