Mel Marshall: Improving Adam Peaty, staying grounded and building for Tokyo
Mel Marshall has a new job, fresh surroundings, a smart new title and the world-class facilities she so craved.
But the hunger to succeed remains just as strong as it ever was.
Having landed a dream role as one of British Swimming’s most important coaches, the two-time Olympian fully recognises the need to take a backseat – while still driving her elite group towards Tokyo 2020.
“I read somewhere that leaders eat last and my personality is OK with that,” the National Lead Centre Coach at Loughborough told BBC Sport from her new training base.
“Everybody else comes before you, but you can still steer everyone in the right direction and that is what my role is here.
“Loughborough is the home of performance sport – not just in swimming but across the whole campus. You get a real sense everybody is together and wants sport to do well. And that is supported from the top all the way down.”
The 35-year-old’s enthusiasm is clear. She is having a “brilliant” time and relishing Loughborough’s team ethic and the extra support at her disposal.
“That is the vibe and the really enjoyable thing,” she added. “Everyone is interested in what the very best looks like and how can we find it?
“You have everything you need; a world-class gym, a world-class preparation area, a world-class group of staff, a world-class pool and world-class athletes. There are no complaints.”
Striving for perfection
British Swimming had a glorious time in the pool in Rio, with the tally of six medals the best since the London Games of 1908.
But the sport’s main man, head coach Bill Furniss, told BBC Sport that there was still room for improvement behind the scenes. The national centres in Bath and Loughborough have both been restructured with that in mind.
A national lead coach and lead coach are now in place at both, and those four coaches report to Furniss on all the athletes they work with.
“Straight after Rio, early in the cycle, we wanted to get those changes done as soon as possible to give us a good four-year run into Tokyo,” Furniss explained.
“It’s a bit like a hub so other swimmers on the programmes who we invest in can come in to the centres and effectively have an MOT with their coach.
“We can look at the starts, their turns, their finishes, their strength and conditioning programmes, any training programmes their coaches are doing. We can screen them, so it’s just more joined up.”
Peaking with Peaty
British Swimming’s coach of the year for the third consecutive year Marshall, is seen as the perfect person to help do the joining up after leaving her head coach role at the City of Derby Swimming Club where Adam Peaty trains.
She has become synonymous with Peaty’s remarkable rise from an average 14-year-old club swimmer to World, European, Commonwealth and Olympic Games champion.
So much so, that the perception was often that Marshall’s efforts were devoted purely to being Peaty’s full-time personal coach.
“That is all I am seen as because he is so good,” said Marshall who won more than 20 international medals and remains England’s most decorated female athlete ever at a Commonwealth Games.
“But some of my biggest achievements alongside that were swimmers who were never meant to achieve the things they did.
“That is beautifully satisfying.”
The job at Derby came up because the club were prepared to “take a chance” on a fiercely driven coach. She was a world-class swimmer, but she lacked coaching qualifications.
Derby’s gamble paid off. In a big way.
Hands on and full on
“When I get my teeth into something then that’s it,” she explained. “If I am focused then I will deliver if I can.
“I love that thing where people who think they can – and do, and also when people think they can’t – and do.
“When people are challenged and you find a way through that, and when people are down and you get them through that and help them see things differently – that’s so rewarding.”
Marshall’s passion is obvious. It part explains Peaty’s incredible story. Once his talent was unearthed – it seems inconceivable Marshall would not be constantly on his case to ensure he made the most of it.
And it’s a relationship she wants to continue to develop. She is “very conscious” of not moving away from the things that got her the promotion. First and foremost she is a swimming coach and is determined that moving up the ladder will not mean she – or those around her – lose sight of that.
A special relationship
Boston-born Marshall has 17 athletes under her control at Loughborough, and will work intimately with a group of seven – including 22-year-old Peaty.
“I want to really harness things that are special in that relationship,” she said. “We have got a history and have been through a lot together so I want to keep those elements.
“But I also want us to grow as a relationship; we don’t want to stay still. I hope that will only grow in this environment.”
Marshall feels her grounding at Derby was a wonderful way into coaching. It certainly allowed her to make the most of her workaholic personality.
Whether it was dealing with parental gripes, fighting for pool time or ensuring the club had somewhere to train – the position was all-consuming. Her first swimming coaching role, having retired following the Beijing 2008 Games, saw her involved from top to bottom.
She will miss the day-to day involvement and appreciates the valuable schooling. But the five-time Olympic Games finalist is happy to ditch the associated hassle.
Marshall added: “As a coach, and particularly with the journey I went through with Adam and all the different challenges we faced at Derby with the facilities collapsing around me, what it really taught me was about standing back and making decisions from the balcony.”
She says she fully recognises where to focus her emotion, something she really got to grips with during the latter stages of her time in Derby.
Getting elite swimmers to perform and go better than Rio 2016 is now effectively all that matters.
“I feel really settled because I stuck with my first coaching journey in my foundation years and stuck with my mission,” she added.
“I learned a huge amount at the City of Derby. I already had performance exposure from being there myself. Now I feel like I have married those two together and am very comfortable in my new role.
“I am very aware of, no matter what I need to do behind the scenes the athletes are my priority. I manage my energy to make sure comes first.
“Even if I disappoint on other things my job is results and athletes deliver results. It’s a challenge but I am employed because as I am seen as someone who can handle that.”
Quality and original thinking
Furniss concurs. “Mel is quality and her role as lead coach is to bring her enthusiasm, originality and new ideas, and drive this centre forward,” he said.
“She is responsible not just for Adam but for the culture and behaviours of the centre.
“In British Swimming we are is big on behaviours. If you act world class every day, and believe you are world class, then eventually you will be world class.
“She has already coached a world record holder and Olympic champion. She is a great coach. It’s not just technical knowledge it’s how you deliver that. It’s not what you coach, it’s how you coach.”
British Swimming’s four-year plan is already well under way.
“Year 1 is very much a discovery year – what do we know, what don’t we know, where are the athletes and staff at? Year 2 is about innovation and how do we bring those things alive. Year 3 is about working at it and year 4 is refining it and making it the best it can be.
“There is a great group of people involved. I’m really excited by the momentum. We are just on the start of the journey to go to even higher heights.”