Athletics coach, Andrew Murphy, who is based at the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) is using science and data to galvanise the lessons he gained from a distinguished career as Australia’s leading triple jumper. However, in an era of breakthrough sports science and cutting edge technology, the three-time Olympian and World Indoor Championships medallist, maintains one aspect that hasn’t changed during in his 30-years of coaching is the importance of humanity.

‘Murph’ took time out from coaching his squadron of highfliers, including NSWIS scholarship athletes Australia’s 100m sprint king Rohan Browning, long jumper Samantha Dale, and triple jumper Connor Murphy, to provide an insight into the roles of balance, realism, psychology and commitment.

NSWIS: What is your philosophy towards coaching and what shaped it?

Andrew Murphy [AM]: I guess one of the big areas is having balance for an athlete. Having balance is important. They need to have their life structures in place, if they don’t have that it makes it hard for them to have success. I would say also once you have that in place it’s a matter of trying to work out where the deficits are for each athlete. [You also need to work out] where they’re currently at in terms of raw data versus technique, mechanics, and comparing to that to someone who is similar to them in a world perspective. It’s no point in taking [Olympic triple jump champion]  Yulimar Rojas – who is 6ft 4 – and Desleigh Owusu who is 5ft 11. They’re different people, so you try to find someone who is similar, and in the world top eight. You compare their indices and then work out where are we going right or wrong . . . what are the deficits? Is it strength? Is it technique? Is it speed? Realise that and then you have a clear understanding how you can map out a training program. Until you get that right you’re effectively coaching blindfolded.

NSWIS: You talk about the balance for an athlete, but how does it work for you as a coach? How many hours a week do you invest in your job and when do you switch off?

AM: It depends on how many people you want to coach. I have an elite group of eight to 10 athletes in the mornings, and then I have  another 20 in the afternoon which is a development group. When I say they are still developing, they’re still national level athletes. It is a case of juggling how much you do. I probably do too much, and some days can take seven hours of coaching six days a week. On top of that you have your admin: programming, data, all of that. Having Emma Millett [NSWIS Senior Sports Biomechanist] and Kirstie Turner [PhD candidate, Movement Science, based at NSWIS] has made  a big difference because it’s minimised some of that data collection and [they] help me look after the team in the morning. Some could say I’m greedy [for having so many athletes] but it’s more a case of there not being huge number of coaches doing what I’m doing. I guess it’s also a case of if someone asks me to coach them, I find it hard to say ‘no.’

NSWIS: You’re coaching your son Connor – an Australian triple jump representative –  is it hard? And do you know when to take the coaches cap off?

AM: It is hard in terms of I need to make sure I’m not too hard on him. Throughout this process of him being a young kid through until now, where he’s a young adult, there’s been stages where I got it wrong. Wrong in terms of what I’ve said to Connor because there’s a different element of emotion that comes into coaching your own child. So, I’ve had to work on that to ensure I’m careful of what I say, and when I say it. It’s not the dad emotional side, it’s the coach and then vice versa for the other setting as a dad. I think, overall, I get it right but like anyone I sometimes do make mistakes.

NSWIS: You were coached by 1984 Los Angeles Olympic bronze medallist, Keith Connor, for a long time. Keith was praised for taking Australian athletics forward, but he also had a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way. What did you learn about coaching in relation to that?

AM: I learnt a few things. A lot of coaches pat their athletes on the back, and that’s good because we want to encourage athletes. But there is a point where you need to tell them the truth, and that’s one thing I learnt from Keith and that’s I’m kind, but I can also be hard when a situation needs for me to be hard. I’m a realist. I like to tell my athletes exactly where they are. That’s why I like to find the gaps and say ‘look, this is the data, the data doesn’t lie, and this is where you’re at.’ Also, you might have a personal best of 10.01, but what can you give me in your average, because the average is so powerful . . . it’s what you should be able to do at an Olympic Games. So, there’s  no point telling me you’re a 10.01 runner, because you’re not really. That’s what you’ve done on your best day, in perfect conditions, nice tail breeze. The stars aligned and you ran that time. I want to know what you can do when you get out of bed and you’re not feeling as good and it’s your average performance. If you can do that, and improve that, I know we’ve got something. So, Keith brought that realism to my coaching, which is important. You’ve got to keep your feet on the ground, and you must be realistic about where you’re at. There’s no point in saying ‘I hope’ because ‘hope’ isn’t going to get medals.

NSWIS: Did you name Connor after Keith?

AM: You could say that. We loved the name, and it was in my face every day because of my coach. It’s a powerful name, and with a surname like Murphy it rings quite nicely being of Irish heritage. I find it’s a strong name – and it suits him!

NSWIS:  You won the bronze medal at the 2001 World Indoor Championships and represented Australia at three Olympic Games, what do you think when you look back at your own career through a coach’s eyes?

AM: Everything evolves, you like to think everything – to a degree – improves. Science  and Science technology has taken a massive step forward in research, and there are more people doing PhD’s, so there is so much more research out there. I look back on my career and go, ‘you know, at the time I think we were doing the right things.’ But when I look back now – 20 years later – I wish we were doing some of the stuff I’m now coaching and prescribing-  but that’s life! You can talk to any athlete over any decade or time period, and they’d probably say the same. There are technological shoes now . . . tracks . . .  there are all sorts of things. I would definitely change my technical model, but that’s just the way it goes.

NSWIS: How much of your job is psychology or being a second father figure?

AM: I think it’s a daily thing, really because there are little subtleties that you have in your daily environment. For instance, an athlete turned up to training the other day and they were feeling a bit sore and stiff. They were trying to be too aggressive and trying too hard to get the best out. I said to them just to focus on the technical elements and not to worry about trying to push too hard – and they had one of their best sessions because they just focussed on technique. It’s little things like that that can make a difference. Athletes turn up and  for whatever reason they can be tired . . . stressed . . . you don’t know what’s happening in their life, and that’s the problem. I see them for a snapshot of their life – three or four hours in their day – and I have no idea of what’s happened to them during the previous eight or 10 hours. I don’t know, for instance,  if they had a good sleep, but we use every bit of science to make myself more informed for what we do out there. We can monitor internal loads like Heart Rate Variability because it’s a good indicator of readiness and it tells me how good their sleep was, while the Oura Ring tells you sleep scores. That kind of knowledge might minimise the potential of an injury risk – which is huge.

NSWIS: What are your thoughts on the importance of dads and mums  who are coaching Little Athletics, given that a lot of what they’re doing is good intent and comes from the heart?

AM: One hundred percent they are super important to the sport. The only – and I don’t know if you call them ‘obstacles’ – but the advent of technology means with the tap of their finger a mum or dad can get pretty much obtain the training programs of the best athletes in the world. So, maybe they risk accelerating the athletes a little bit too soon, and  to the detriment of the child. By that I mean they could be doing far too much volume for the child’s age. I’m a big believer you want to do less; less is more because it means you have somewhere to go in the process. There’s a reason for development, it has to be done specifically at certain stages in their growth, otherwise you come into problems because the young athletes could get injured or even suffer from burnout because they’re doing too much work for that age. Mentally, and psychology, children aren’t prepared for that, they can’t cope with it. It might mean they get out of the sport because they’re burnt.

NSWIS: Have you ever found yourself in the situation where you’ve wanted more for an athlete than what they’ve wanted for themselves? And what do you do?

AM: My first fulltime role when I retired from sport was Director of Athletic Development (Track and Field) at Trinity Grammar School, and I pleaded boys to turn up just once a week just to train because I was trying to develop a program and I needed to get some interest. It was a really hard time for me because I’d come from a High Performance program and was all of a sudden dealing with kids who weren’t necessarily overly interested in athletics, BUT they were maybe interested in being fast because they realised being fast could help them in rugby. That’s how, ultimately, I got Rohan Browning. He was training for rugby, running down the field and I liked what I saw. I asked whether he’d like to do some technical work on his sprinting because it’d help his rugby – he’d get more tries. As a result  – BANG – he tried it, loved it and he’s now arguably one of the best sprinters we’ve ever had in this country.

NSWIS: Does the constant talk of Rohan and the 10 second mark drive you crazy?

AM: It’s frustrating. Whenever you put a number on something it becomes a target and becomes very hard. I prefer to focus on the technical components – let’s get the technical aspects right and the time will take care of itself. So, it’s a process, and it’s very hard because sprinting has, traditionally, always been about running sub-10 seconds. There’s not really a lot of people in the spectrum of the world  who have done that. Certainly, in terms of white guys, it’s minute. It’s in the back of the brain, there’s no doubt about that, but it needs to be driven by process, by technique, by implementing the right things we’re trying to work on in training.

We’d worked on what I call the average system* for many years prior to Rohan’s Tokyo 10.01 run. Ironically, Rohan produced a Personal Best in the heat of his first Olympics – not many athletes produce PB’s at a first Olympics. However, the confidence he gained before Tokyo in knowing his ‘average result’ would allow him to make the semifinals is something I’ve found reduces tension and sets the athlete up for success.

[*Murphy’s average system is one where an athlete’s ‘average’ run, or jump, is of a good enough standard it will allow them to go through in major championships. Murphy works on ‘average’ because he knows it’s unrealistic to tell an athlete if they produce their personal best on that day, they’ll make the final of a benchmark event. At best, Murphy says five percent of athletes will do it. In his words: ‘Competition is a pressure cooker, but your average is already possible.’] 

NSWIS: What’s your advice for people about getting the best out of young people? To get them to reach their potential?

AM: One of the important things is they need to be in the sport because they love it. You also want to encourage dreaming, which I suppose is another word for ‘goalsetting’. You want to set the athlete up so they’re not in it for me; they’re not in it . . . well, initially . . . to necessarily become an Olympian. However, you plant a seed and place stepping stones for them along the way and, eventually, what you’d want to see is an athlete does it because they actually love it. You want to see them do it, not because they’re told to do it, not because they have to do it for school sport, but because they want to.  You want it so it’s not compulsory, but it’s driven by the young athlete. Get that and you’ve got a chance.

NSWIS: How do you apply that to the workforce?

AM: Well, it’s like anything. At school I wasn’t necessarily a great academic because I had to do a structured process of subjects. But when I went to university and did something I loved, I became really good at it. I enjoyed it, I did the work. It’s all about the work. People say, ‘I’m smart’ or ‘I’m dumb.’ Well, no one is dumb, it’s just a matter of how much work do you want to put into something. Work at something and you can be unbelievable,  and that’s the same process I try to deliver as a coach – ‘if you want to be really good, you just have to put work into it.’

Words and photo Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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