Charles Van Commenee - Creating a no excuses culture in British athletics
Charles van Commenee is one of the most respected athletics coaches in the world. Dubbed the ‘’Volcano’’ for his sometimes explosive temper, the disciplinarian Dutchman pushes his athletes to the limit and makes a habit of exceeding targets. Fear, it seems, is a great motivator and you only need to ask Britain's medal-laden athletes to prove it. Since taking over British Athletics after an abject performance at Beijing 2008 that included a solitary gold medal, Van Commenee was installed to bring a new level of toughness to the team and his methods resulted in an overhaul of the British Athletics culture, culminating in the historical success of Super Saturday at London 2012.
Meticulous preparation, world-class training and fiery outbursts all play a part of ‘CVC’s’ philosophy in driving GB's renaissance on the world stage. Within months of his arrival, he had sacked several long-serving British coaches, brought in his own key lieutenants and set about dismantling what he perceived to be the soft “excuse culture” holding back Britain’s athletes. Those who blamed their failures on injuries or illness he branded “w------ and pussies”. It was time, he said, for athletes to take responsibility for their performances. Excuse-making would no longer be tolerated.
His abrasive, some might saying bullying, management style was not to everyone’s taste, creating enemies and admirers in equal measure. His very public fallout with Phillips Idowu was probably the worst example, creating a breakdown in communication with the triple-jumper that did not reflect well on his leadership. But his no-nonsense approach certainly produced results. By 2010, Britain was celebrating its biggest medal haul in history at the European Championships in Barcelona, and by the following year the team was enjoying its best World Championship performance since 1993. Van Commenee describes the drivers of this success in the following terms: ‘Everybody wants to win, but ultimately it is about creating a winning culture within your team to see results and hit the targets set. Identifying a clear culture and ensuring this is consistent gives you a far better chance of winning’.
• High Expectations - you must make the high expectations you have of your sales teams clear, after all it is the opposition (competitors) that forces you to - by giving 100% you and your team can expect 100% back.
• Resilience - getting back on your feet when the going gets tough - It won’t be simple all of the time, but resilience is key to success.
• ‘Can do’ Mentality - ‘optimism is a moral duty’
The six athletics medals won at the London Olympics may have been two below Van Commenee’s personal target, but the four golds represented Britain’s biggest haul since Tokyo 1964. Having pledged to quit if he failed to hit his medal target, Van Commenee remained true to his principles by departing at the end of the Games. He certainly left British athletics in a better place than when he arrived.
Asked to sum up his coaching philosophy, Van Commenee replied: “High expectations and no excuses, high performances and a successful climate.” Judged by his own values, he always led by example. He said ‘I have been very clear throughout my four years about what targets mean and the difference between a target and an expectation and a prediction and an ambition. Then the question came all the time, ‘What happens if you don’t hit the target?’ So I said, ‘I will leave.’ “I could easily have answered all the time, ‘If it doesn’t happen, we will look into the reasons why we didn’t hit the target. Then we will make changes and adjustments.’ Which is fair. That’s what happens 99 out of 100 times. But I wanted to make a clear statement about these things because it helped – and still helps - the new culture of no excuses and sanctions. In other words accountability is important, and I wanted to put my credibility and my destiny on the line – saying, ‘Guys, this is a serious business. We need to change here. And I will lead.’
“The leader has to lead by example. And I wanted to make this a big thing during these four years. Now, I have to take the consequences too, because if I don’t I’ll set the wrong example – by saying that there is an excuse. That’s exactly the message I don’t want to give. At the moment a number of staff are in the process of losing their jobs and it would be almost impossible for me if I would have stayed in my position despite missing the target. Working in athletics, in high performance environment, is not a comfortable thing. If you want to have a comfortable life you probably have to work in your own garden or in a library. But when it is high performance you have to beat others, with the whole world watching.
“That’s a very uncomfortable place to be. And British athletics has been comfortable for many decades. That has changed. It is clear that there is a high degree of accountability in British athletics. I think the cynicism has gone. People have high expectations. The athletes understand there is no place for excuse.”
Being comfortable with discomfort is arguably Van Commenee’s greatest legacy and will remain a driving force in British Athletics for years to come.