Advice from sport's inside edge

By Rebecca Blithe

Talent is a good start. Hard work delivers the good finish, writes Rebecca Blithe

"I've been lucky," says Jack Ralston as he sits quietly sipping coffee, nodding and smiling at athletes, at Murray McCully, at Olympics general secretary Karen Smith, as they acknowledge him on their way through the foyer of the Millenium Institute in Albany.

Ralston is an unassuming character, casually dressed and fluoro-laced into a pair of Nikes sporting the name "Ralston".

"I keep saying, 'There are only two of us, Michael Jordan and me, with our names on our shoes'." He grins, ever loyal to the sporting giant which he helped grow from a small footwear company.

In his career as as a coach and marketing expert he has worked with Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis and Charles Barkley, at the forefront of major marketing campaigns and massive sportswear deals. He's the Springbok-still-on-the-jersey saviour and was a key player in keeping the New Zealand Rugby Union afloat as it adjusted to the professional sphere.

From sports to business and back again, Ralston has always considered his roles analogous.

"It was always about creating relationships." And being genuine. "I think I'm pretty straight up.

Either you like me or you don't. Life's too short to try to be average. You've got to get on and drive life."

The former coach of Hamish Carter, who notes in Ralston's recent book, The Sports Insider, "You become a more capable person working with Jack," has seen a lot of changes to coaching - not necessarily for the better, he says, and changes to the running world, which for him, began when his mother gave him Arthur Lydiard's book on the subject for Christmas one year.

"I turned to the page I thought I should be on and went out and did 24 hundreds round the track with200m jogs in between then came home, flopped down on the bed and went to sleep for the rest of the day, and that was Christmas Day."

As an eager teen, Ralston paced under the guidance of a formidable pack, Murray Halberg, Peter Snell and Arthur Lydiard, the latter who planted the idea of coaching in his protege.

"He recognised the talent I had very early on. Then, at 20 years of age, he said, 'You'll never be an international athlete, but you'll make a great coach'." More than 100 champion athletes later, indeed he did.

"He got me coaching jobs living in Korea. We got the results, gold and silver with two athletes."

Up until then, coaching was a hobby he fitted in around his job as a draftsman at the post office.

"A lot of the training was done in the weekend," he says of the 25-strong set that congregated in the Ralston rumpus room every Sunday morning.

"We used to say it was our Sunday morning church service. Those runners were praying it would end."

Ralston recalls the running events of those early years, before the sport blossomed and they became heavily sponsored affairs.

"It's become big business for people to run those events now. We did it for love. Running hadn't boomed then like it has now. We'd never thought to talk to somebody about traffic management. You might have let the village policeman know and there were no cones; there was somebody that would stand there in normal clothes and try to stop the cars but that was about it. It was the wild west in those days. You could get away with it."

Later, Ralston became somewhat of a pioneer at pushing the bar on events and marketing campaigns, when he took on the role of director of Nike Sports Entertainment.

"It was cool, Nike. It was about pushing change. It was exciting. The wave was coming and we got on it and rode it. Again, it was developing relationships. To see what Brazil did to soccer, that now becomes traditional, all these fire pots going off on the fields, was never done before Nike. We always ambushed everything. We called it guerrilla marketing."

When his time ended with Nike, Ralston took a serendipitous flight that landed him his next role.

"I met Kevin Roberts on the plane. He's always been my business mentor. He told me, 'Stay on the edge Jack, because that's where innovation happens.' He got me into the Rugby Union. He gave you that feeling that you could walk on water," he says of the chief executive worldwide of Saatchi and Saatchi.

"New Zealand rugby, it had just gone pro, they were in a lot of trouble, just to meet the wage bill. We had to build the sponsorship. I always laugh that we went with Adidas, me being the Nike guy. But it paid off."

With 12 athletes still on his books, Ralston says he's as much in love with coaching as he was when he began.

"Coaches develop a relationship with the athlete and it's understanding what makes them tick. It's being brutal when they need it, an arm around the shoulders when they need it. A lot of it's not the technical, it's about understanding the athlete."

But he disagrees with today's coaching systems.

He says the sport should be more athlete-focused, coach-driven and sports bodies supported. "Often, the best coaches are left out in the cold. That is a shame as the sport and athletes need great catalysts to make it to the top."

While he says he'll continue on his coaching track, his next venture is to implement the Rod Dixon Kids' marathon scheme here in New Zealand.

"It involves all the primary school kids in activity, the right nutrition and less screen time. It's so good, New Zealand's behind the eight ball now. President Obama has given it the President's seal of approval. We're trying to get New Zealand corporates to invest $150,000, $200,000 to roll it out across the country."

RALSTON'S OLYMPIC PREDICTIONS

He says we're not looking good for the triathlon, but he sees our biggest hope for a medal in Andrea Hewitt.

"Andrea has a cool head and wise coach in Laurent Vidal of France, who is also in the Olympics. Our men look to be not as 'hot' this time around. Both Bevan and Kris look to be nearing the end of their careers and consequently [are] not as fast as they once were. However, Bevan is one who, on the big occasions, knows how to get onto the podium, I hope he surprises.

"Ryan Sissons is a rookie at this level and will learn so much from London and will acquit himself well."

In athletics, Ralston is expecting gold from Valerie Adams, barring injury, and says, "Nick Willis needs to lift his speed and chance his arm like he did in Beijing, but will be an outside chance of a medal. There are not the riches of old there anymore. I think that is due to athletes and coaches not committing to a big aerobic base work - boring and hard - and rather looking for a shorter, faster fix."

Ralston says the Olympics can be a circus but Kiwi athletes are pretty good at preparing themselves in the lead up to the games.

"They need people who can help keep things in perspective and not let the occasions get too big for them or allow distractions. It really is a big circus at the Olympics, a wonderful occasion but it can destroy some people. The difficult task is to simply soak up the atmosphere and make it part of the motivation to be the best you can be."

- NZ Herald

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