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Greg SmaleAn interview by Paul Hammond, aka Clyde, with Greg Smale, past GB Player & Coach of both the GB Men's & Ladies teams and currently chairman of the ICF Canoe Polo Committee. Interview originally conducted over email by Clyde in early 2003.

 

 

 

 

 


 Clyde: You played for St. Albans. When was that and what was your crowning glory in those days?

Greg: I was already 14 years old when I started canoeing as a Scout. Luckily we were associated with St Albans Canoe Club. I was taught to paddle primarily by Ron Vessey (yes Alan’s dad).

I played for St Albans for a couple of years but was approached by Brain Barfoot (GB Coach - retired) and then paddled for Luton Tigers ‘B’ team. We achieved some good results but nothing to shout about. The club was very competitive and when Dave Brown approached me to play for the ‘A’ team I accepted immediately. An argument ensued within the club. This resulted in the ‘A’ team leaving and forming a very small club called Tigers ‘A’. The following years as Tigers ‘A’, not Luton Tigers, were the best years. We repeatedly won the National League and Championship and had great battles with Bere Forest and St Albans who at that time were mainly youth paddlers.

Tigers ‘A’ comprised Pete Keane (PK), Mark Wolkenstein (both ex GB slalom), Pete Osborne (very good water polo player), Dave Brown, Justin Barnes (ex Premier Slalom paddlers), Nick Taylor and myself. At one stage we were all in the GB Squad ! We had a fantastic track record started by the ‘older’ paddlers when still part of Luton. We trained on our own, never had training matches and were very ‘hungry’ for games when the competitions came around.

I was a little ‘out of control’ at times when paddling (ok for those that remember totally out of control) – I hated referees and was always right ha ha. I had and still have a very strong will to win which I believe has helped me coaching. PK kept me in line and taught me a lot about the mental side of the game. Through PK and Dave Brown my game developed. The team had very good individual paddlers and were very strong mentally.

Clyde: You also represented the GB squad. When was that and what were the memorable moments?

Greg: I represented GB for about ten years – mostly in the A team except for one year which I spent in the ‘B’ team having sworn at the coach – oops ! We won in the region of 25 internationals – I’m not exactly sure.

My most memorable moments include playing at the first organised international competition in Duisburg at about eight in the morning. The event was over by breakfast. Also competing in Gottingen and beating what was Rijnland 8-1 playing ‘5 out’ for the first time.

I competed at the Sheffield Europeans and Worlds winning silver and bronze – both a disappointment and I threw both medals away in disgust. You may now see the common thread. Second was in the past nothing to me but a failure. With competition becoming so much closer second is just about acceptable now but third I do not personally consider an achievement. I stress this is a personal point of view and perhaps explains why I have been such a demanding coach.

Clyde: You coach the GB Ladies for a while. When was that and for how long ? What results did you gain with them?

Greg: I retired at Sheffield in ’94 and without ‘gold’ had unfinished business in the sport. The ladies including Jackie Marlow and Ginny Coyles had also failed to achieve their potential. Just before the Rome Europeans Keith Jamieson was helping coach on a temporary basis but two months before Rome I took over formally.

I really enjoyed coaching GB Ladies. I can now compare this with the Men and the mental side especially and styles of coaching are very different. With GB Ladies I tried to put a stop to the moaning about each other and hardened all of the players as far as possible by entering Men’s Classes abroad. I will always remember the team winning the second class in Ieper – the faces on some of the Men that lost ! I coached GB Ladies for 4 major championships and the main achievements were Rome ‘95 (Europeans) – silver, Australia ‘96 (Worlds) – gold, Essen ’97 (Europeans) – gold and Portugal ’98 (Worlds) – silver losing on penalties.

Ginny Coyles was by far the best paddler (not always the case mentally) but for two seasons a girl called Linda White from Scotland represented GB. She was very strong and able to push Ginny which the whole team enjoyed and was very easy to coach. When she retired from internationals it was a loss to the sport. I wonder how good she could have been ?

Clyde: Did you have any coaching qualifications before you started with the National teams?

Greg: No.

Clyde: What do you do professionally ? They seem to be very understanding for the amount of time off required while coaching.

Greg: Work very hard but I’d rather not say what I do. ALL my time for training, internationals and European/World Championships I take from my annual leave entitlement.

Clyde: How much of your time did a squad weekend take up as a National Team Coach?

Greg: Many hours of thought followed plus two evenings. One on the phone and the other writing down the programme which does often change slightly as the weekend progresses. Luckily within GB we can travel far easier than say France or Australia.

Clyde: How often do the GB Squads train/play together each year?

Greg: After each major championship the squads have a break for 3 or 4 months and then hold GB Training Weekends roughly every 5 weeks and also ideally two weeks before an International. We have always held a training camp before the Europeans and Worlds. The training weekends have to date been very hard work with roughly 4 water sessions each day.

Clyde: How many players are there in Britain and how many players attend the first round of selection for a National Squad training session?

Greg: I don’t know the total number of players but there are I think there are currently 80 National League teams and several Regional Leagues. Only Division 1 is totally national – the others are split North and South. While this sounds great the actual ‘pool’ of players to pick from to compete at International level is very small and very few new players have emerged up the National Leagues.

Selection for the National Squads has varied greatly over the years from personal letters in brown envelopes to completely open selection and more recently to invites based on personal knowledge. If names have arisen who we don’t know we have at times invited them to the first weekend. We have increasingly invited paddlers already paddling at Under 21 level.

Clyde: What is the proportion of players in the GB squads from around Great Britain. Do you think everyone gets a fair trial?

Greg: Since I represented GB the proportion has changed. In recent years the bulk of the players have been from the Derby and Liverpool areas although with the exception of Stuart Moffitt the ‘top’ players have been from around London and Glasgow.

From the Germany Worlds GB Senior Men comprised:

Stuart Moffitt and Danny Spike – Liverpool
Alan Vessey, Neil Parker, Dave Sanders, Darren Ling – London Area
Ramsey Bayne – Glasgow
Andy Petrie - Derby
Neil Edmunds – Stratford-on-Avon

Fair trial - Yes – people moan until they’ve been to selection and some just moan to have a hobby.

Clyde: It’s easy to see who scores the most goals, but what makes a top player?

Greg: A very difficult and emotive subject to talk about - it actually depends what a specific coach wants to achieve with a team. It’s probably easier to try and stick with present day players !

In my time coaching I have wanted at the right moments to play an expansive attacking game via quick breaks and 5-out pressure tactics but part of this involves inviting the opposition into the zone in order to break. Accordingly the very top players are multi-skilled, they can influence the game from any position, and can change tactics when told without hesitating and without having to substitute.

Top players are also those who ‘talk candidly’ with reasoning off the water and don’t just say what they think the coach wants to hear. BUT the difference between a good and top player is that once a team tactic has been decided upon they ‘get on with it’ to the best of their ability rather than mutter that it’s not their strongest game and so on. There has to be a trust in the tactic and top players ‘getting on with it’ influence the team a great deal. While coaching there have been numerous injuries at training weekends and it has always been interesting that once watching, the player often sees the point the coaches have been trying to make and that surprise, surprise the coaches haven’t been shouting just to exercise their vocal cords.

My personal vision of top players being able to influence the game from any position excludes many very good players that are ‘great’ but not at the very top. The great but not top players tend to be very good in specific skill areas. Those at the very top continue to shine while their team-mates change over the years. They remain motivated and continue their training irrespective of changes over the years. How many players reading this have said to themselves I will retire when they do etc rather than motivating themselves to be the best they can possibly be. Less experienced players are quick to talk about retirement before they have really got going ! The very top players tend not to talk about their achievements !

Talking about each country would take forever and I don’t want to offend anyone in the Ladies or Men’s game however in the Men’s game, now I’ve retired, I can say Alan Vessey and Ginny Coyles both from GB would quite comfortably sit at the top of my list. Alan was the ‘new’ boy in the team as I was retiring. Stuart Moffitt is catching Alan and has been the best Captain I’ve worked with and Neil Parker is coming up very fast although Neil has to improve his defending skills and mental side of his game.

I hear the shouts of he’s biased – he’s from GB – probably true but while the Dutch Men’s team are very good and incorporate several ‘great’ players like Erwin Roos and the German Ladies – Anne Reimers, it will be interesting to see what happens as the team changes. The Dutch Men above all others to date do certainly give the impression they will reach the very top – time will tell.

Some of the French and Italian players have fantastic individual skills but have yet to prove themselves outside Europe. I remember briefly speaking to the French Men’s captain after the Germany Worlds who in my opinion behind Stuart Moffitt is the best captain on the water I’ve seen. While the timing could obviously have been better he didn’t seem to appreciate how good he really is/can be – perhaps that’s the difference.

Before closing on this topic I must just mention Graham Bayne (ex GB and currently Australia). He was one of the easiest players to coach. Mike Moffitt and I gave him one really hard season where many paddlers would have walked away. This in my personal opinion moved Graham into an area between the ‘great’ and the very ‘top’.

It is very easy to criticise the very ‘top’ players and coaches for that matter and certainly in the Men’s game the difference between 1st and 6th is very close, but once there see if you can stay there as long, and achieve the results Alan, Ginny, Duncan and Carolyn Cochrane, Mike Moffitt, Jacque Webber and I have when competing or coaching at World level.

Further discussion on this topic is currently taking place on the canoepolo.com website.

Clyde: Do you think it’s easier coaching on your own or with a partner?

Greg: With a partner, preferably from a different area, who speaks their mind and gives alternative viewpoints – a more balanced thought through approach results. It is not good to have two people who are such good friends that they never want to upset the other by disagreeing.

Clyde: What’s been your sweetest victory while you’ve been coaching for each of the National teams?

Greg: GB Ladies – World Gold in Australia against Australia.

GB Men – World Gold in Brazil against Netherlands.

Clyde: Try to sum up the feeling you had when winning the World Champs each time.

Greg: Australia ’96 – All the planning and hard work had been worth it and finally Great Britain had won a World Canoe Polo Gold medal for the first time. It made up a little for the disappointment of not winning as a player and was all the better as it was a big trip and we had won on Australia’s home ground as they had in ’94. We made a conscious effort not to rub it in as much though ! The players deserved it and had jumped over that very big hurdle of silver to gold that gives a great deal of self-belief to players. Being very adventurous with tactics Curly, the players and I had pulled it off – 5 out for 20 minutes in a World Final had never been done before or since. While I had remained very determined I also felt I had proved a few people very wrong who felt I was too aggressive in my style of coaching.

Brazil 2000 – Wow, I can’t quite believe this ! I’ve managed to coach teams to World Gold in both Ladies and Men’s classes. With Mike Moffitt we always felt from about May that year we could really open up the tactics and surprise the World. Across the board the team had the best overall standard. While we lost one game in the early rounds to the Dutch and had to make some difficult team decisions but the way GB won that year was excellent. As coaches we were able to change tactics as required. It was a shame that it rained for the final and so few members of the public were watching. Phil Berry retired after Brazil and this affected the team we were able to field in Poland.

Germany ’02 – Stunned really that we had won but having reflected probably the best play ever at times by GB. The 2002 season was frankly terrible which prompted players, Mike and I into much sole searching and discussion, which resulted in major team changes right before the Worlds training camp. Though it does not feel it Germany is probably the best result to date. The goal difference was very good, out tactics were just right and as opposed to Brazil we did not lose a game and the team atmosphere was very good. It was an incredible turn around in such a short space of time. I think the result has steadily sunk in to both players and coaches. To me it felt like we had been written off and had managed to steal the Gold and leave before anybody had realised – a great way to retire.

Clyde: How long before a game do you talk to the team and how long do you talk to them?

Greg: At World or European Championships about 75 minutes. For big games we talk several hours beforehand but the game build up comprises about 15-20 talk, dry warm up about 20 minutes and water warm up 20 minutes.

Clyde: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make while coaching?

Greg: Dropping Nick Archer from 2002 World Championship team at very last minute.

Clyde: Have you ever had your authority challenged while coaching?

Greg: Authority - not directly but some quite ‘lively discussions’ did make me question why I carried on two occasions. Coaching is a thankless position albeit Ladies Squads are generally more appreciative than Men’s.

Clyde: What are you doing next?

Greg: At the end of the Germany Worlds I was appointed to the ICF Canoe Polo Committee. Frits Jager has indicated he would like me to develop coaching especially in Asia. As a result of this together with Dominique LeBellour and one other I shall be travelling to Malaysia at the end of January to deliver a three day coaching course ahead of a sprint regatta and formal ICF CPC meeting. While we are coaching the remainder of the committee are checking the progress towards the Japan Worlds in ’04. Hopefully my efforts will continue to develop the sport ahead of the Japan Worlds. If other classes can get as close as the Senior Men the entire sport has a very exciting future. There are further courses anticipated in Sweden and America later on.

A concern I have is that as with coaching there is a lot of criticism levelled at a small group of volunteers on the Committee and some of the complaints are even made in fairly amateur language. The present ‘seeding petition’ using the word ‘disgrace’ is one such example. While criticism may be justified the language used is not.

As a fresh face I would remind those who complain that the sport has grown substantially since I was competing and that Canoe Polo has presumably not got into the World Games by magic – somebody has put a great deal of effort into achieving this big step forward. Much of the work is invisible but things do not happen by chance. The ‘knockers’ should continue but perhaps remember that at the moment the sport is amateur as is the administration – when this changes and the sport or administration becomes professional more can be expected.

Clyde: How does coaching World Class players differ from coaching less experienced players?

Greg: While World Class players can be encouraged as much as possible if they are not up to it they can be dropped replaced by someone else. At club level this is no the case.

Clyde: What do you think of the U21 class for Men and Women?

Greg: The U21 Men is already a good competitive class and it will be interesting to see if the stronger players are able to jump the gap into the senior game.

The U21 Women were included for the first time in Germany. Being very busy at the Worlds I did not see many games however those I saw were not great to watch. Being a strong supporter of the ladies game I do wonder if countries are trying to stretch their limited budgets too far. Countries that can afford to enter will benefit in the future but personally I’m undecided if this class should be included as yet. The Polish Ladies Team had good potential.

I do think the finals for the Under 21 classes should be the day before the Senior Classes. This would ease the congestion in the programme and make the whole weekend more exciting for spectators. It would also stop the U21 classes being so overshadowed by the Senior’s.

Clyde: Who do you think will win each class for the next Worlds?

Greg: With the development of the game thankfully this is almost impossible to predict. As mentioned earlier the difference between 1st and 6th in the Senior Men’s Class in Germany was very little and this will make the sport more attractive to spectators. There is a far stronger mutual respect between the top Men’s teams than there used to be – everyone knows it will be close ! Also it does depend on retirements and the current season has not commenced so I can only ‘guess’ in no particular order !

Senior Men - Netherlands/Germany/GB - possibly Italy.

France and Australia depend on changes and Spain will continue to become even stronger. They will be very good when Madrid comes around !

Chinese Tapei have potential to overtake Australia in the next two to four years.

Senior Women - Germany/Netherlands/France – possibly Italy with outsiders GB.

U21 Men - Italy/France/Netherlands – possibly GB and it will be interesting to see the standard of the Asian U21 teams.

U21 Women - No idea.

 

Interview originally published on Clyde's Polo Page


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