From training with the Wolverine – aka Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman – earning his PhD, representing the Sydney Roosters rugby league team, paddling for Australia, and coaching world champions . . . Jake Michael’s unique journey has helped him appreciate the meaning of true grit, drive and determination.

NSWIS: Jake, you have a PhD for Biomechanics at Sydney University; you worked at NSWIS as a sports scientist, so how and why did you decide to become a coach?

Jake Michael (JM): Coaching wasn’t really on my radar. I did my PhD for Biomechanics, [received] the vice-chancellor award for sport at Sydney University, and then, whilst I was working biomechanics and prepping the kayaking and rowing program heading into Rio, the coach of the kayaking program resigned. I was working with the group as a ‘bio mech’ and having, myself, paddled to a reasonable level, a multiple Olympic gold medallist [who was among the group] asked for me to apply for the role because they saw potential for me to step into it. Up until that point I had no drive to be a coach.

NSWIS: Does your scholastic background give you advantages as a coach?

JM: I believe so! Being able to analyse data in a different light and being able to apply that is a huge advantage over not knowing what you’re looking at, or not knowing what to do with the information. It’s second nature for me to look at the data and work closely with our sports scientist – it was Stephen Hughes, but now we have Georgia Byrne – and after looking at the data of a particular athlete we’ll discuss what we could work on to make them better.

NSWIS: Modern coaching seems to revolve a lot around technology and data, but there must also need to still be a strong emphasis on the human element. Coaches have always been a part time psychologist, mentor, someone who sets examples, and in some cases, they are almost a second father or mother. How important is that connection to you?

JM: It’s very important. What I wanted to do as soon as I got into this space, I wanted to make a strong sense of belonging and create a culture where everyone feels a part of what we are doing. I wanted everyone to drive towards shared success even though the guys are working individually and racing against each other for spots in Australia’s national teams. We have five under-18 guys, and only two of them will make it. That means, technically, they are fighting against one another, but on a day by day basis we are working as a collective team – a group – with the understanding that no one is better than anyone else and that they’re there to share the journey. As you said, a coach is a parttime psychologist, a parttime everything when you work with athletes. How you talk to one athlete is different to how you might talk to another because of their situation. Speaking to a rookie may be different to how you speak to a veteran.

NSWIS: Do you sometimes feel as though you want success more for your athletes than – seemingly – they do?

JM:  When I started in the NSWIS role we had the podium program which meant we had gold medallists; multiple Olympians. But when Paddling Australia initiated its National Centre of Excellence on the Gold Coast, we lost six of our top female athletes and a couple of males when they relocated to Queensland. Now we’re working with a younger . . . more of an emerging development group . . . which is a different challenge. For instance, when we had the Podium athletes it was a clear discussion about what we were going to do; this is why, and we’re going to go forward. As a group we’d get it done because they’d turn up, I’d turn up and it’d be done. With the younger group there are different situations – university, exams, work, and occasionally a weekend away with the mates. Sometimes it can feel as though you’re banging your head against the wall. I haven’t changed my standards – my standards and drive are always extremely high – but I have changed my perception of what is needed for the athletes to get to that level . . .  particularly with the athletes being 18. I realise that sometimes they need a break to continue their passion in sport. That could mean giving someone a morning off, or extra time to study for exams. I am passionate about that process about helping coach them to success because I want to ensure an athlete comes through this program well because, whether it’s at the back end of their career or 20 years after they’ve retired, I want them to look back on their time and feel as though being a part of the group, being a part of the NSWIS program, was a fulfilling time which built character and helped them to become  better people. I tell the group I don’t coach kayakers; I teach people – and that is an important aspect of it. They are all people, but they’re people who kayak.

NSWIS: One of your athletes – Para world champion Dylan Littlehales – certainly doesn’t lack direction or drive. Pending his selection, I understand you’ll be working with him at the Paris Paralympics. What does that mean to you?

JM: It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with the national team again. I’ll have the same role as I did in Tokyo as the team manager/coach. It’s a tremendous opportunity to work with Dylan and continue the process we’ve been working on for the last five years. Post Tokyo – where he finished fourth – Dylan set a goal to not be in that space again. He wants to push through and finish on the podium – at the top of it, at best. His winning last year’s world championships was definitely a step in the right direction. And Dylan has said it before, the top four [at major events] are separated by a fraction of a second, so that means winning the world champs last year doesn’t guarantee a medal this year. That gold [world champs] medal is a push in the right direction, but he still has things to work on and that’s something I’m doing with Dylan [and Anna Wood, the Para coach] with even though he’s based on the Gold Coast.

NSWIS: And last week was great reason to celebrate with the selections of NSWIS pair Ella Beere and Riley Fitzsimmons [photographed below] for the Australian Olympic Team. What does that mean to you?

JM: A lot! Ella started training with me six or seven years ago. She joined us as a young, fresh-faced surf athlete with no real thought or idea of what kayaking would be like. She made an instant impression. When Ella turned up, she’d never done gym work in her life, but she did chin ups with a 20 kilo weight tied around her waist! It was clear she was going to be something special, and I’m so proud of what she’s achieved. Olympic selection is something she has worked very, very hard for. For Riley, well, this is his third Olympics and, again, I couldn’t be prouder of him. I also respect the way in which he holds himself and does everything he does. He is someone who gives back. Every Christmas he comes to Sydney to help with the young paddlers. It shows he isn’t one to just put his hand out, he’s someone who helps . . .  gives back. He is a special athlete, particularly for NSWIS.

NSWIS: Mate, I have to ask. There’s a photo of you and Luke training with Hugh Jackman when he was filming Wolverine back in 2012. How did that come about?

JM: Hugh is a member of our surf club and when he’s in Sydney he trains with our group. And in terms of training, he’s an animal . . . a beast.  One of his good mates is also one of our good mates so my brother and I get to train with him when he is about.

NSWIS:   I read in  an interview you did while you were competing that your favourite saying was: ‘Quitters never win, winners never quit.’ Is that still your guiding light?

JM:  That was more for when I was an athlete. It helped give me the drive to get through the tough times and it helped ensure I had what it takes. I have had a lot more learning in that space, and I’m sure most coaches would understand when I say these days I’m more looking forward and at ‘what’s next’ to keep the standard ‘up there’, for growth and change. However, that quote is something I still obviously push forward because I am adamant focus and drive are things you need for this sport. We’re on the water at 5.30am, so we all have to get up early. In my case I leave home at 4.10am to get to work and if you didn’t have that focus . . .  that determined mindset to get things done to get to where you need to . . . you wouldn’t survive in this sport.

NSWIS: You and your twin brother, Luke, were members of the Sydney Roosters NRL club’s junior program but discovered paddling because you incorporated it in your pre-season training. Why did you leave footy?

JM: I was in the Sydney Roosters Development Squad from age 13 and then played in their Harold Matthews, SG Ball and Jersey Flegg teams – you played Flegg [the under-20s team] before going into first grade. We won the premiership in 2004, and we had a good squad . . . Jamie Soward and Ben Hannett were teammates. Luke and I jumped into the kayaks that year and we won the K2 title at Nationals; we made the Australian Kayak team, and the drive to make it to the Olympics was strong. I’d watched the Olympics but had never thought about competing at them because football was my life. But after having a taste of it – and the thought of what could be – that was it.

NSWIS: Who were the coaches you were exposed to at the Roosters, and who made an impression on you?

JM: Ricky Stuart was one of the big ones, and we also had Phil ‘Gus’ Goud there for a little while. Shane Flanagan, who is now the coach at St George-Illawarra, coached my team in my last year. They all had their points of difference, but all had great drive. I recently spent a week with Craig Fitzgibbon, the former Sydney Roosters player who is now coach at Cronulla Sharks, and it was awesome to reconnect with him and to also see where he’s at in his coaching space.

NSWIS: How much of a role did Luke play in pushing you?

JM: Big time! We both lived together at home, and shared a car when we started kayaking. We relied on each other to wake the other up to get to early morning training. One would drive and the other would sleep. It was really motivating and great to share [the journey]. We enjoyed some success together by winning a World Cup event in 2006 [in China]. Doing something like that with your brother was very special. 

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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