For the fourth instalment of our Runners of SOAR Series we sat down and talked at length with Olympian, Commonwealth Games Medallist, Sub-4 minute miler, Team SOAR Coach and The Run Yard founder Matt Yates.
Nowdays Matt’s running kit doesn’t quite get the wear it used to, but, once a runner, always a runner, and Matt is still heavily involved with the sport on a number of levels.
A long time friend of SOAR, and the Head Coach for all of our training programmes, Matt’s been central in developing the community of SOAR Runners to what it is today. And, when he’s not turning his coaching attentions to SOAR groups, he’s focused on creating future Olympians from his own stable of elite middle-distance athletes – The Run Yard.
Hi Matt. Starting by looking back at your career as an athlete first – how did you find athletics, or did it find you? What was the journey like from schoolboy to the world’s highest level?
My dad was a runner and he coached at the local club, he even helped former London Marathon winner Eamonn Martin. So, when I was young, I’d go to the track and stand about watching his athletes train, often messing about in the water jump. Then the big influence was that football became a pariah of a sport due to its violence problems, whilst on TV we had Coe and Ovett breaking world records. These were even being covered on the 9 o’clock news, it was big stuff.
Up until the age of 18 I played all sports, training at the athletics club only on Mondays and Wednesdays, but then I committed and made athletics my main sport. My dad’s ambition was that I play cricket for England, while I wanted run like Coe but also play for West Ham. Given that I am rubbish at football it left one option.
The journey to the elite ranks was rapid after I made athletics my main sport. Within two years I was in the senior England team and going to the Commonwealth Games where I finished 3rd in the 800m, beating one of my heroes Seb Coe in the process. I then made the European 800m final and World 1500m final by the time I was 23. It was a whirlwind of an experience from 20 to 23 years old and I didn’t have a clue what was going on, which led to some huge mistakes.
How would you summarise the training philosophy, or philosophies, you followed as a runner?
I didn’t have one or any, that was the issue. I just ran and didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing or why. Sometimes talent can be a dangerous thing as we have seen in a lot of sports people, and it needs strong guidance, Sir Alex Ferguson shows this. I did pretty much whatever I wanted to do - I would do the training I wanted to do and had a lifestyle that was like that as well.
However, I was lucky to work with great coaches in Alan Story, Bruce Longdon and my dad. My dad went on to be one of the top rugby coaches at the start of professional era of rugby union. It’s taken me a long time to decipher that period between 1989 and 1999 and what I learnt, but now I can see it. Bruce Longdon for example made me question the traditional endurance approach, whilst Alan Story still influences me to this day and we often chat. My Dad was one of the most innovative coaches and way ahead of his time. Sadly, my character then needed a strong person to deal with it - which Dad was - but I still got away with murder.
With the benefit of hindsight, would you have done things differently in your own career – be that training, racing or lifestyle based?
I wouldn’t change anything; I had a great time in the sport, but I realised the truth about the professional level some 4 years into my career. This certainly impacted my enjoyment. That was one reason I packed in early despite the money I was making. I put money before performance and that was also a huge mistake, it should be performance before money. In hindsight I would have liked someone like I am now to have coached me. A person who is a combination of my three coaches - I would have been so much better without any doubt, would’ve had more focus and direction. I was very haphazard at times due to inexperience, and me basically being an idiot.
However, one thing I would certainly change is that I should have stuck with the 800m longer, to say 23 years old, and got down to low 1:44, reaching world level finals. I moved to the 1500m far too soon so that was a bad decision.
What was your favourite race to have run in, and why?
Tough call because I can’t remember many races. In fact I get sent them on YouTube and still can’t remember them! I always wanted to win the New York 5th Avenue Mile, one of the most prestigious races a middle-distance runner can win. It’s a race down Manhattan’s 5thAvenue and starts outside the Met Art Gallery and finishes just before the Famous Plaza Hotel. The first time I ran the 5th I finished 5th funnily enough, against amazing athletes such as Steve Cram, Steve Scott and Peter Elliot. The next year I returned and won which was a standout race for me. I guess the reason it was so great is that it’s in a great city and the New York Road Runners, who put the race on (as well as the NYC Marathon), are just the perfect hosts. They make you feel so welcome, they are an awesome club and I made so many friends from the race who I am still in contact today with.
And then what was your proudest achievement as an athlete and why?
Difficult question because I don’t think I ever achieved what I could if I was coaching myself today. I think it was probably winning the Essex Schools 3,000m, because it was then I realised I could be a decent athlete, but I still wasn’t selected by Essex to go to the English Schools Championships. That disappointment drove me on over the years to get to the elite senior level.
There was a sizeable gap between the end of your competitive days and your move to coaching – what was it that led you to take an extended break from involvement with the sport? And how did the exposure to new ideas and businesses in this period help reshape your attitudes?
By the time I left in 1999 I didn’t believe in the elite sport and had zero interest in it basically. My disdain for the type of people who run the sport, and who have mismanaged it, is no secret.
I always wanted to do things away from the sport and get a career, so I went back to college to study and moved away from athletics completely. I didn’t watch the sport live again until 2012 when I was invited to the London Olympics to watch the men’s 100m and 1500m, and I still didn’t miss it.
Then I was lucky enough to be involved with doing some running coaching at academy football level at my beloved West Ham United. I also had lots of friends involved in professional sport and sports medicine who taught me so much and exposed me to new ideas in coaching. Additionally, in my working life I was fortunate to work in some great companies with amazing leaders and colleagues – this also helped shape some of my ideas. I strongly believe that it takes maturity, experience, attitude and a certain type to be a top coach – similarly to achieving success in business. I also have a view that great coaches in sport are as unique and special as the sports stars we watch.
I count myself as very fortunate to have been surrounded by so many great people, I have always wanted to be challenged to perform in any work environment be that athletics or in the office, and I don’t treat coaching as a fun pastime, I am very serious about it.
Then how did you eventually get into coaching?
Sliding doors, I guess. I went to a corporate relay in Cambridge in 2014 to run a leg - very slowly - and I remember seeing this kid, who was overweight, covered in tattoos and wearing the wrong size racing flats. I thought “who is this fella?”. Later I met said fella in the post event bar, he was Dale Clutterbuck, fresh from raving in Ibiza and recently retired from athletics. Dale is from the same area as I was brought up in and I put two and two together - realising who he was from reading the local newspaper when I went home to see my mum. I said to him “if you want to give athletics another go, give me a call”. He called me a month later, and so I started the coaching journey, 8 months further on and Dale was 3rd in the UK 1500m Championships and a sub-4 miler.
You’ve had a lot of success with the young athletes you coach, what do you put this down to?
First of all, it’s a continuous two-way learning process between athlete and coach. Constantly pushing, challenging and learning from each other.
I am not the same coach as when I started out in 2014, the majority of my learning and evolution has come from interpreting the mistakes I made as an athlete. In many cases it’s actually the 15 years away from the sport that has allowed me to truly decipher them.
All I ask of an athlete is they bring to the group 100% commitment and 100% motivation, any less won’t work in the coaching set up we have, - we always give 100% back to the athlete in return.
The training group you have created is called The Run Yard, TRY for short, what are the origins of this name and your fox logo?
The name came about purely by chance after Chris Rainsford (2:21 marathoner and England International) started calling the group The Yard, because he said the group is like a top horse racing yard. I guess it is in a way and the name stuck.
As for the fox logo, they say the fox spirit usually comes to you when you are about to undergo a period of change, especially one that is tough and unpredictable, which athletics can be. The fox spirit urges you to act swiftly but be guided by your wisdom and intuition, teaching you to be resourceful and flexible if you want to emerge victorious. So, the fox kind of sums the philosophy of TRY in a badge.
TRY isn’t just you but is a number of coaches and support staff, how has the coaching team grown?
As more athletes joined the group I realised I needed help, I’m not a precious coach, so I asked Barry Elwell, who I had known since I started running to join. Barry is a walking encyclopaedia of athletics and he brings a great balance to the group with his experience and advice. He is a big part of the group.
Then we joined up with Will Davies, a great friend of mine from the days of training at Belgrave Hall and he came on board to work with the athletes specifically on Strength and Conditioning.
We complement this with Dave Richards who is so on the money with his S&C running program, this helps the group and he has added another dimension to the athletes.
We also have a network of the best sports medicine professionals out there, a network we have built up over the decades, that we call on to support the athletes if they are injured or need advice on injury avoidance or nutrition.
Then we have global athletics supremo Spencer Nel, Spencer has had a strong influence on TRY's development in recent times, actively advising our athletes and backing elite TRY group members such as Jamie Webb the UK 800m number 1.
How do the SOAR X TRY training groups differ from other running groups in London?
Firstly, Midnight Runners, Track East, Track Mafia and Run Dem Crew and the original crew creator godfathers Charlie Dark and Cory ‘Beefy’ Walton-Malcom are a huge inspiration to what TRY do with the SOAR X training groups. Without these crews as an inspiration and motivation, I am not sure TRY would be doing its running community programmes with SOAR. The stuff that the London crews do is brilliant but where I do think we are slightly different is that the SOAR X TRY programmes are very performance driven, like SOAR products. We treat all the athletes that join exactly the same as the elite athletes that we work with. We want the SOAR X TRY athletes to go into a process of learning about running, and we want to be a part of, and support that journey en route to a big personal best performance.
And on a personal level what do you get from the SOAR X TRY programmes?
Personally, I get to meet brilliant people and great athletes. The community we have built is highly supportive of each other’s goals and performances. The big gain for me is that I have learnt so much from the programmes and in turn this has without doubt improved me as a coach. For instance, we were noticing that some athletes were developing lower leg problems, we needed to combat this, so we have introduced a basic circuit session, created by Dave Richards, as a base introduction for all athletes that attend a SOAR X TRY program. Also, part of my coaching philosophy is that I want to create tomorrow’s coaches, who in turn introduce the joys of running to more people and develop themselves as coaches. I would like to think we have achieved that with some of the athletes as a result of how we deliver the programmes.
You mention a coaching philosophy; can you expand on what your coaching philosophy is?
Again, it’s developed from experience, age and education. I am from a socialist upbringing and that has influenced me without doubt, even though political views change over time. But my coaching philosophy has been built by education, be that the use of The Socratic Method or the study of great leaders such as Caesar or Castro, then attempting to apply this learning into my coaching - continued development is a key tenet.
However, I may agree with Plato and Socrates' views on democracy if applied to sport.
With the summer track season looking unlikely and the Olympics postponed what are you doing with the group?
It’s been a tough and unprecedented time for everyone, and sport is not that important right now. But what we are doing is adapting and learning new skills, and that goes for coaching too. I think the uncertainty was taking its toll on all athletes, and as coaches we are trying to second guess all the time if we are going to have a track season, or not. Now the Europeans are cancelled we have some direction and it's looking like a Diamond League series in September and October, but even that’s maybe 30/70 to happen.
Right now we’re just adhering to the government guidelines and sending the group two solo session per week. The athletes then fill in the 7-day programme with runs, S&C, walks, bike and rest how they see fit following discussion with the coaches. We also use Strava for session data in the whatsapp group app group, which is also our medium for light hearted chat.
When we will have the next SOAR X TRY training programme?
We are working with Rob and Tim to bring back the SOAR XC team for the Cross Country season. That’s if we are back up and running by then. It will no doubt be a training program for all levels, but limited to 24 athletes, with the chance to wear the now famous diamond SOAR race kit at 3 races that are each over 5 miles of mud, rivers and hills.
You are well regarded for your ability to spot often unknown up and coming athletic talent, who are your picks for us to watch out for in the coming years?
Good question, without doubt Piers Copeland in the 1500m, he should have won the UK 800m indoors this year but was badly held up after a faller in the race, also Tom Keen is worth putting on the next miler radar. Emile Cairess looks to have the right mindset for elite 5k and 10k racing and is improving all the time, whilst Rory Leonard looks one for the 10,000m in Paris 2024. Kelly Hodgkinson is looking like the next 800m star coached by 800m legend Jenny Meadows, Kelly will be giving Jemma Reekie a good 800m race in 2021. Also, from the same group as Reekie comes Eloise Walker, who they think a lot of and has the potential to outshine her training partners. I am expecting Dan Rowden to do something special in the 800m in 2021, as his training has been very special and a privilege to watch this year. The u20 800m sensation Max Burgin will be interesting to watch after another year of development, as will Oliver Dunstin. One uber exciting talent in the long distances is Samantha Harrison, who only recently started running and is coached by a good friend of mine Vince Wilson.
You’re well known as an advocate for modernising the sport of athletics and specifically middle and long distance running. What do you believe is holding it back, and how could stakeholders from across the sport come together to improve things for all?
Is there anything but middle and long distance running in the sport? (only joking). I think it’s changing and with the pandemic lock down we are seeing new talent shine, like the guys that organised the Virtual 12 Stage Relay. Also, Ben Pochee has been a huge influence in changing the world of endurance running with his Night of the 10,000m PBs, what he and his team have assembled with the lane 3 crowd is amazing to the point that it’s the biggest night in UK athletics. Cherry Alexander at UKA has embraced Ben and his team to bring his ideas to the major events, so we are seeing his influence, but we need to see more of it. The British Milers Club (BMC) could do with talking to Ben and the Virtual 12 stage lads and letting them loose on a BMC Grand Prix - that mix could be dynamite and one hell of a night of athletics. All in all, I think we are seeing change in how the sport is presented but it’s coming from independent aficionados of the sport, and we need to get these young people more involved than the federations are presently allowing.
Are there other sports that we should look to as examples when changing or reevaluating how we do things in athletics?
Horse Racing do an amazing job and the classic race meetings and festivals could teach a lot to athletics. From the swing ticket badges to race cards to the presentation of the races. Nic Coward who is the UKA Chairman is from Horse Racing and I hope he can bring some ideas into the sport. US Sports is another world of entertainment and often the go-to for sports looking to learn from an entertainment perspective. World Athletics are looking at new formats for the sport but I have a view that our sport doesn’t need changing too much, rather we need to bring out and promote the personalities, stories and head to head rivalries more.
20 years from now where do you think the sport of athletics and distance running will be – from the elite level to the grass roots and mass participation?
I think parkrun will have a huge influence on running globally and introduce so many new people to running and athletics, acting as a grassroots gateway to the sport. I am not sure if we will have as many athletics clubs in 20 years, I think that only the big clubs will survive, and I think we will have more running crews formed by groups of friends and collectives of various standards of athletes like the guys in Bedford, TRY, Track East and NB Manchester TC. School athletics will always influence the sport’s future and that’s a big question - In 20 years will the education system be promoting athletics or E Sports? The major marathons will always be full and that won’t change due to what the word ‘marathon’ means in society, but a lot depends on how World Athletics embraces the future talent - the likes of Ben and the VR 12 stage team - to engage the planet though new ideas and the ever growing social media platforms. Who needs TV anymore?
And lastly, what do you see as the role for brands and tech innovators in changing the face of running?
Nike and Adidas have a huge influence on the sport and in changing the face of running. The Nike 4% shoe has brought huge interest in the sport, wrongly or rightly, and I fall on the wrongly side of the vote, but it’s had huge influence especially though the artificial sub 2 marathon show. People want innovation be that Strava, Garmin or nutrition supplements, they are looking for an easy ways to improve. Even though you need to train correctly first and foremost, great innovative products help. I guess it’s sexy and a talking point and I am guilty of getting excited about innovation - I was recently very excited when I saw the new G Shock HRM GPS.
We are seeing a tech war between sports brands and it’s worth billions, for example the new Adidas racing shoes are off the scale making the 4% look like a Trabant car. I do have a few issues over all this shoe technology but it’s here to stay now under the rules, so I have to embrace it I guess.
SOAR for example are changing the face of textiles with some of the most innovative heat dispersing, ultra-lightweight race kits, that have the potential to assist performance and could face the scrutiny of World Athletics experts. This tech war and innovation is no bad thing for the running world, as long as some of the money filters back into the sport and its communities