Alex Stewart – who has established himself as one of the world’s leading high jump coaches – boasts an elite squad consisting of NSWIS scholarship holders, including 2022 World Champion Eleanor Patterson, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Brandon Starc, and rising star Erin Shaw.

As his athletes prepared for the National Athletics Championships in Adelaide, Stewart spoke about the influences that shaped his coaching philosophies, the rise and rise of Australian high jumping; the importance of truth; and why all Aussies ought to be excited about the Paris Olympic Games.

NSWIS: How do you teach people to fly?

Alex Stuart [AS]: That’s an open-ended question, and a big one to start with [laughs]. How to teach people to fly? Essentially, a lot of it is down to the talent they’re born with, so let’s just see me as a ‘facilitator of talent!’

NSWIS: In high jump, can incredible determination compensate for a lack of talent?

AS: You go back to your classic quote ‘when talent doesn’t work, hard work beats talent.’ In many cases it can, but when we’re talking about 2.35m or 2.40m for the men’s high jump or two plus metres for women, if the genetics aren’t there, they’re not there! And that’s just the reality of it. There are people who are fantastic jumpers but they’re just too small, or, in terms of the height they can jump above their own head they’re just not tall enough to be competitive. It’s not really a glamorous or profound answer, but . . .

NSWIS: I’ve read where one reason your mentor, Vasily Grishchenkov – a 1982 European Games silver medallist for the Soviet Union – suggested you become a coach was because you didn’t reach the level you aspired to as an athlete, and he thought that might allow you to help them. However, if you could go back in time what would coach Alex tell Alex, the triple jumper?

AS: The reason I didn’t reach the levels I aspired to as an athlete was, maybe, partly due to the reasons we just discussed. I had some OK results, but not much special. Ultimately, I made some choices around my life outside of athletics that probably led to me not being able to achieve the athletic results I wanted . . . one was following a girl who became my wife. I made that choice. Was it the best choice for my athletics at the time? No, it wasn’t. But, knowing everything I know, I’m happy with the choices I made. In terms of life outside of the arena [those choices] gave me some fantastic things. It also led me to where I am now as a coach – and I love everything I’ve done in my career. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.   

NSWIS: What was it about Vasily that resonated with you?

AS: I’d never come across a coach like him before. The way he saw athletics, and the way he saw movement, and the way he saw the event of triple jump hooked me. He had a certain – and he still does – charm and quality about him as a person. I bought into whatever he said, and it wasn’t blind faith, either. Vasily had a fantastic career as an athlete and he was very, very accomplished as a coach so it was evidence-based belief. I felt like he genuinely wanted to coach me, and he genuinely took an interest in me as an individual.

NSWIS: You’ve said publicly the coach you aspire to be like is Brazilian Nelio Moura, what do you see in him that you like?

AS: Again, unbelievably accomplished. We wouldn’t have enough time to go through all his accomplishments. He’s extremely intelligent, and a good guy as well. That makes the process of getting to know somebody and getting to like somebody easier. Within coaching there’s an element [that relates similarly to] why do we like TV shows? Why do we like certain clothes? Why are we friends with the people we’re friends with?  It’s because there’s certain things we gravitate towards as individuals. There’s a connection, and that makes it easier. Something else I like about Nelio is he’s very educated in the science behind Track and Field – jumping especially. However, I wouldn’t describe him as a ‘science-based coach’, he’s more of a ‘feel’ or an ‘artistic’ coach. I sit more on the feel/artistic side. My belief is you need to have an understanding of the science, but we all have our individual styles in terms of how we are as people. There are people who it suits to coach from the science side, and there’s people who coach from the side of feel. It doesn’t matter how well you know the science, if you don’t have the feel – or the ability to interpret or communicate – it’s not going to be effective.

You’ve assembled a world class high jump squad with Eleanor Patterson, Brandon Starc and Erin Shaw. What’s the key to getting the best out of elite athletes to perform at their best. How much of it is you, how much of it is them?

AS: We’re talking unknown percentages. It’s like asking someone who is rehabbing from an injury how much [of their recovery] is the physio responsible? How much is the medication responsible? How much is the rest responsible? We can never know because it’s a melting pot of all those elements and trying to find the correct combination to elicit the response that ultimately is the performance you want. It’s a challenge. Trying to coach athletes at the High Performance level is often much more than coaching at times.

NSWIS: Do you challenge your athletes to help make performing in ‘discomfort’ normal?

AS: People know I make my athletes warm up in long pants and long sleeves, and often in multiple layers. They do that because not only do I believe it’s very functional for their training and performance, but it’s also a nice screening to see who can deal with a little bit of discomfort – and there’s a lot who can’t. Those who can’t . . . it’s not to say they can’t be successful . . . but sometimes the process will take a little bit longer. It’s often those people who go through a personal journey in terms of going through personal discomfort that, ultimately, get to the end of it, and they think ‘you know what, I can actually handle it!’ It’s interesting to observe the ones who don’t baulk, and the ones that do.

NSWIS: How important is truth in coaching?

AS: It’s vital, and, at times, it is an uncomfortable part of coaching. There are times – and you need to be really selective about when those times are – when the truth might get blurred a little bit. Nevertheless, you should ultimately aspire to always be as truthful as possible. A hard truth is much better than a false positive.

NSWIS: Have you ever been overly emotional about a result?

AS: Many times.   One very good occasion was when Eleanor became world champion. I rang my wife Nicole while she was at work in Sydney, and I just started to cry. It was actually a pointless phone call at the time, although she knew the reason why I was crying but there was nothing that was going to be achieved on an international mobile call, so she laughed and said: ‘call me back in five minutes.’ Another time was the 2021 Olympic Games when Brandon finished [fifth] with 2.35m. The first person I saw after the final was Brent Kirkbride, who is Brandon’s longtime physiotherapist, and I cried again. I didn’t cry because I was disappointed in Brandon. No, in only one Olympics ever would that result have not won a medal. I didn’t know what else we could’ve done, and I thought Brandon did almost everything he could have done . . . but we came up short.

NSWIS: Australia has some great high jumpers . . . besides your squad, Nicola Olyslagers is the world indoor champion and there’s vision of 16-year-old Izzy Louison-Roe jumping 190cm. Why is Australia producing these athletes, and how do we build on the successes of Nicola, Eleanor and Brandon Starc to sustain the sport’s future?

AS: That’s the million-dollar question. We’re in unprecedented times, particularly when you think the national women’s high jump record was 1.98m for what seemed to be forever. But now [Patterson and Olyslagers] have obliterated it. On the men’s side we’re doing well with a guy from Victoria named Yual Reath who jumped 2.30 on the weekend which was the equal sixth highest Australian jump of all time. How do we capitalise on that? If we have people like Brandon, Eleanor and Nicola achieving what they are and it’s not a time when young people aren’t inspired to do high jump, then I don’t know what will! [I do note] we have what is essentially an aging coaching population, and we need to ensure there’s sufficient, young coaches who are educated and skilled in how to progress these talented kids to a point where they can coach them or help them reach a stage where they’re able to be passed on to people who can coach world class high jumpers. It’s very important that happens, and a lot of that responsibility falls on me because it is essentially a part of my job. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a necessary process.

NSWIS: Why are you looking forward to the Paris Olympic Games, and why should Australians be excited about our prospects in the high jump?

AS: I’m looking forward to the Olympics on a personal level because I believe I have two people who can win. It’s quite exciting for me, but from an Australian perspective right now we really have the athletes who can achieve results we’ve never seen from Australian athletes [in our lifetime]. We’re talking about achievements that would live on forever in our sporting memory, so what’s not to be excited about?

NSWIS: How important is NSWIS for your athletes?

AS: It’s incredibly important in that it makes them feel recognised. NSWIS makes them feel wanted. Elite sport requires a lot of services for the athletes to be able to sustain a career, so to be able to have a cohesive unit in a closed setting – and with a great culture – is invaluable.

Daniel Lane, NSWIS  

Main photo, Mitchell Soames (NSWIS)

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