Meet Stacey Taurima: the unconventional coach building better athletes

Wednesday 1 July 2015
  • Stacey Taurima, Head of Athletics
    Stacey Taurima, Head of Athletics

For the last eighteen months, athletics at UQ Sport has been led by Head of Athletics Stacey Taurima. Big in stature and even bigger on innovation, Stacey’s hard work with his athletes is starting to pay dividends – in a big way.

Never one to blindly follow the status-quo, Stacey is relentless in his thirst for new knowledge and approaches to training. He’s regularly deep in research and workshops with the World Athletics Centre, where he’s mentored by some of the best coaches and sport scientists on the planet.

Stacey believes there’s a reason why Australia is struggling to produce track and field stars, and it’s because we’re doing things wrong. He thinks coaches haven’t changed the way they coach for the last 20 years, and he might have a point.

He’s highly regarded as a coach by his peers and his athletes, and very in demand…he’s also a really hard man to catch up with! But we did grab him for 15 minutes and as always, he had some interesting insights for us.

Give us a snapshot of your career as an athlete…

“I started in Little Athletics when I was six. I made the state team at under 12s level, and I did alright – I went to the nationals and won the triple jump. So that success really kept me in the sport.

I was a real late bloomer in terms of growth, at the end of high school I was only 5’9”. But then between my eighteenth and nineteenth birthdays, I shot up really quickly to 6’5”. It was incredibly fast, I remember literally being able to feel myself grow!

So with this massive growth spurt, my athletics improved immensely and I went from jumping 6.08m in long jump at seventeen and a half years old, to 7.79m just 12 months later. That meant I’d gone from being an average club athlete to being top three in the world and national champion for my age.

After that, I started training with a coach called Gary Bourne, and I was with Gary for seven years along with my brother Jai (Jai Taurima won the silver medal in the men’s long jump at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, with a jump of 8.49m). But when Gary retired there really weren’t any other coaches in Queensland so I more or less learned to coach myself.”

How did you find the transition from athlete to coach, and what do you enjoy most about coaching?

“In a word, hard. It’s taken me a good 12-15 years to debunk the myths of what I did as an athlete to what I now execute as a coach. If I had the mindset I have now when I was an athlete, I’d have been a much better athlete.

My coaching is nothing like how I was coached – the sport’s evolved, science has evolved, program design has evolved. But in spite of how much things have changed, we unfortunately still see a lot of ex-athletes move into coaching when they retire and simply coach the way they were coached.

When I decided coaching was for me, I thought to myself that there’s a massive amount of things that have to change. As I’ve got older I’ve worked with a lot of really great coaches around the world who’ve evolved their training practices and they’ve been excellent mentors for me."

Your squads have had some amazing results this year – what’s the secret to this success?

“Athletes follow success. If you can create a successful environment, the athletes will follow. A lot of the talent that we see though, is broken – either emotionally or physically. However we’ve been able to get really good results with our athletes, and in a really short amount of time too – I’m talking weeks, not months. And it’s all because we’ve removed a lot of the dumb stuff other coaches have had them doing!

Our approach is to work on what we call the minimum effective dose – that’s the minimum amount of work we can have an athlete do to get the maximum result. With our approach, we’re saving body tissue, motivation, emotional stress… and because of this, our athletes stay here and it’s a better environment for performance. I really don’t believe in the old saying: ‘leave nothing at the track’.

The athletes that are consistent with their program are the ones who get the results. They’re also the ones who aren’t injured. I don’t believe injuries need to happen, there are so many warning signs that coaches should be able to see. If you monitor these correctly in a training program, you shouldn’t have injuries.”

You’re known for being really passionate about your athletes and focussing on them as people, rather than looking only at the end goal of medals and championships. Can you explain your philosophy to us, and why do you think it’s been so successful?

“I think with any sport, especially with kids when they’re developing, you can’t just look at the session they’re with you, you need to look at the bigger picture too. When they come to the track to train, you’re lucky to have them for an hour or so in a day. Now, there’s 24 hours in a day, so what other influences might be having a negative effect on them? Is it sleep, is it study, is it work?

Athletes have the same life pressures as the rest of us, so we’ve got to be very careful about how we train them. If an athlete comes to training completely defeated from a long day at work or school, that’s already throwing up a red flag to me as a coach. I know we can’t do a speed session, because being stressed their cortisol levels will be through the roof and that’s a tissue degredant, so if they come out and run hard, we’re going to tear something.

So whether my athletes are adults, kids, workers, students, I know I have to keep juggling their program to accommodate their lifestyle. This is why I’m famous for nagging my athletes and asking them a thousand questions before a session. I’m trying to gauge whether or not the session is achievable for them.

All my athletes bring unique traits to the sport. Everything that’s happened in their life is brought into their movement, and you have to incorporate that into the structure and design of their program. Once you understand who you’ve got, the hard part is figuring out how to have success with that athlete.

Coaches will often plan a training program spanning an entire year – I can’t figure out how to do one that lasts more than 10 days! Because I don’t know what they’re going to be feeling when they turn up. I’ve got a plan of where we want to go over that time, but the volume and intensity of each session changes massively.”

Not all of your athletes are at the elite level, or even aspire to be. So how do you find the balance between the kids who want to break records and the kids who just want to have fun?

“What’s the definition of elite? I’ve got one young girl who’s now been training with me for a year and half, but she started by simply turning up for a school holiday program. She wasn’t sure what event she wanted to do, she just loved running and jumping, so we worked on movement quality to get her moving effectively and efficiently.

She now trains twice a week and recently picked up a bronze medal in the state titles for long jump. That’s the first medal she’s ever won, and honestly if someone was to ask me what’s my biggest achievement, that’s it. Keeping a 13 or 14 year old girl engaged in the sport to the point where she enjoys it so much that it’s now driving her success.

Another thing that’s helping kids to be their best is the group they’re in. We’ve got some good boys and girls in our squad, and the juniors really look up to the seniors. They all chat and warm up together. The kids can look up to some of my elite seniors, see how they train and also see where the bar is set.

There are times at training when I don’t even need to say much. The culture is really strong and they drive themselves.”

If parents are interested in getting their kids involved in athletics, what are the key things they should look for in a program?

“Parents should really look for quality over quantity in a program – it sounds pretty simple, but there’s real skill in coaches who find that balance. I believe we’ve got that here at UQ Sport and the results would back that up.”

Andrew Doak

Andrew is part of the UQ Sport marketing team. He’s a sport and fitness all-rounder who specialises in blaming the wind for bad tennis shots, sweating too much in badminton, and trying really hard to still look like a guy when working out with the marketing girls.