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Author: Ben Oakley

Learning from coaching stories

Updated Wednesday, 7th May 2014
What can we learn from the coaching of champions like Mo Farah, the Arsenal football team and Roger Federer? Ben Oakley finds out.

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Myths about coaching abound. Here we tell some little-known stories about the coaching of champions as we briefly helicopter into the worlds of Mo Farah, the Arsenal football team and Roger Federer to see what we can learn.

Each story addresses a different theme. We start in the United States.

Alberto Salazar: from near death to Olympic redemption

Mo Farah and Alberto Salazar Double Olympic and World 5/10,000 metres champion, Mo Farah switched his coach, his location and his training regime under the guidance of Alberto Salazar. Salazar’s approach is a great example of coaching leadership and, in particular, a focus on change and innovation.

Alberto Salazar was a leading marathon runner in the USA in the 1980s but he suffered due to almost obsessively overtraining. He now focuses on ensuring that his athletes – funded by and based alongside the Nike headquarters in Oregon – don’t make the same mistakes as he did. His overriding philosophy is to train smartly in terms of effective use of the athletes’ time but also effective use of emerging technologies to avoid injury.

Another focus of his coaching comes from the 14 minutes Salazar was declared clinically dead when he collapsed with a heart attack in 2007. Following this event, Salazar wanted to make a difference to his athlete’s lives, not just their running.

One aspect of training that Salazar focuses on with Farah is economy, efficiency and injury prevention: the mechanics of movement. Salazar has become an expert in running biomechanics, as he understands that even the smallest increases in running efficiency make a big difference over long distances. Salazar’s myth-busting approach advocates a great deal of strength training in the gym, which is unusual for endurance athletes.

Staying injury-free is a key focus. Salazar’s relationship with his athletes means that their open honest communication with him, for example reporting slight muscular or tendon soreness, means that their training is immediately adapted to a reduced weight-bearing regime: sometimes to water-based work and/or an Anti-Gravity Treadmill (AlterG) originally developed for use by NASA astronauts. Salazar was an early adopter of this AlterG technology, which uses differential air pressure to adjust weight-bearing loads, and it is now a commonplace training and rehabilitation tool. Due to these adaptive training methods, Farah only missed eight days of ‘normal’ training (due to slight soreness) in the year preceding his Olympic victory. Research suggests that 36% of elite athletes across all sports will get at least one injury per season, with each causing on average 15 days lost to training.

Salazar is an example of a coach’s vision leading to change, often against the received norms in his discipline.

Arsene Wenger gets personal

Frenchman Arsene Wenger is the longest serving football manager in the English Premier League, having joined Arsenal Football Club in 1996. His intellectual ‘Le Professeur’ media tag has stuck as has his love of a multicultural squad. Two comments Wenger has made are particularly relevant here:

… in football you do need special talent, but when a player passes the age of 20, what is in the mind is more important than the rest and that’s what makes a career. [my emphasis]

For me being a football manager is being a guide. A guide is someone who leads people somewhere … he has to identify what he wants … convince everybody else and try to get the best out of each individual.

Arsene Wenger  He has to convince every player of the importance of team solidarity: the emotional bond of going through something together can give individuals far more than just concentrating on themselves. Wenger describes the crucial age for young professionals when they are 19–22 years old as

a period in your life when your ego is massive … the world turns around you – and that’s a normal development thing for a person. But at that age [he believes] that a leader has a big part to play to give this understanding that, OK, you are important but all together we are even more important.

The leadership expert Mike Carson, who interviewed Wenger for his book The Manager says that a leader who can create belonging and fulfilment in the work of his squad will influence them at the deepest level. Leaders should strive to create a sense of belonging that is purposeful, intimate, lasting and fulfilling.

This is easier said than done in football, since a number of practices work against it. The need to create belonging is therefore even more important. Wenger identifies

one of the difficulties in [a coach’s] job is that [you] have 25 people who fight to play on Saturday and on Friday night [you] have 14 who are unemployed and [you] tell them on Monday, let’s start again you have another chance.

Those who don’t play feel useless and vulnerable every week and often start asking themselves and maybe the management how they might fit into the team. As a result their sense of belonging is threatened with every team selection. This highlights the importance of how a squad’s culture needs to give a sense of belonging, respect and credit to athletes and players who, in this situation, are not able to demonstrate how good they are.

Squad culture can also be the glue that helps bind people together, but the underpinning values and behaviour boundaries also need to be crystal clear. At Arsenal, Wenger had athletes in the squad from 18 different countries, which provides a different challenge:

For example, being on time isn’t the same for a Japanese man as it is for a Frenchman. When a Frenchman arrives five minutes late, he still thinks he is on time. In Japan when it’s five minutes before the set time he thinks he is too late.

That means you have to create a new culture and identify how we all want to behave and create a company culture. That way, when someone steps out of line, we can say: ‘Look, my friend, that’s not what we said.’ So it’s important to have clear rules and everyone knows and agrees with it.

After almost two decades in the job you can see that Wenger has a particular clarity in how he operates.

Moving on from the complexity of guiding football squads to the individualism of tennis (quite a jump!) emotion is the common theme.

Roger Federer learns to be ice cool

Roger Federer Consider the performance cost of temperamentally going over the edge and losing it in competition. From ‘red-mist’ antics causing lost points or even dismissal from the field, biting opponents and resultant bans (Mike Tyson in boxing and Mario Balotelli in football) to simply getting wildly annoyed (e.g. numerous tennis players).

It seems difficult to believe that Roger Federer had a problem with his temperament now that he is known as a supreme champion of such poise. Yet in his developing years he would often curse and toss his racket around, causing his then coach to intervene. Federer explains the depth of the problem:

It was bad. My parents were embarrassed and they told me to stop it or they wouldn’t come along with me to my tournaments anymore. I had to calm down but that was an extremely long process. I believe I was looking for perfection too early.

His biographer claims that a turning point came at the US Open, aged 17, when he demolished a racket on court and his coach at the time had to make him realise he should be more patient in his strategy rather than taking glamorous high risk shots. Federer also started working with a sports psychologist for a few years to help him improve his game:

Back then I wanted to show everybody what I was capable of, the difficult strokes I had mastered.

When he started to maintain control he mused: ‘I don’t know if this has something to do with the big stadiums. Perhaps I’m more ashamed when I lose control there’. These days a smashed Federer racket is the tennis equivalent of a unicorn sighting. The last known instance of Federer racket abuse can be found on YouTube from Miami 2009 – needless to say he lost 6–3 in the third set.

Final thoughts

Top coaches’ experiences highlight their contribution to shaping champions. The extent to which a coach adapts to change and new ideas is important. I was struck how Salazar’s mission was to pursue quality rather than quantity in his training.

Champion coaches know that creating a sense of belonging and squad solidarity is vital. The team is paramount in Wenger’s Arsenal squad, but in an individual sport like athletics Salazar’s training group seem to be purposeful, and he has created something lasting and something fulfilling. And finally, a coach who coaches the whole person is likely to focus on guiding the temperament and self-control of those he works with in positive ways.

Successful coaches do best when they can respond to individual differences among athletes.


  • BBC Radio 5 interview Track and Field: ‘US Super Coaches’, 18 December 2012.
  • Carson, M., The Manager: Inside the Mind of Football’s Leaders (Bloomsbury, 2013) p. 80.
  • Stauffer, R. (2006) Roger Federer, p. 11.

This article is abridged from Ben Oakley’s book Podium: what shapes a sporting champion.


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