- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Roger Bannister, a sensitive and articulate athlete, has often observed that athletes, in their hour of trial, are the loneliest men in the world. At that instant when they face the waiting track or the high-jump bar, or heft javelin or discus in their nervous, sweating hands, there is no one who can help them but themselves—no one, that is, in the case of a privileged few, except a mysterious Austrian coach named Franz Stampfl.
Next week at Melbourne this man Stampfl will be at the starting line with England's four-minute miler, Brian Hewson—and with his opponent, Australia's almost-four-minute miler, Merv Lincoln. If this seems paradoxical, it only lends added interest to a race which will, in effect, find Stampfl pitted against Stampfl, a situation which will arise throughout the Games as members of the Australian team, which Stampfl undertook a year ago to train for these Olympic Games, meet up with Stampfl-trained men from other lands. And with all of these athletes of varying nationalities, as they stand alone, nakedly facing their destiny, will be some small part of Stampfl, the Svengali-like figure who, more than any other coach alive, seems to be able to inject his charges with the conviction that they have within them the power to win.
The decisive moment of supreme trial, when the world watches and waits for success or failure, is the moment for which Stampfl, a lively, brilliant Austrian who by now has grown accustomed to seeing his pupils make history, assiduously prepares those who are fortunate enough to have secured his services for their physical and spiritual care. To Stampfl, the latter is fully as important as the former; though he has preached sheer physical endurance as much as any man, he has never divorced the powers of the spirit from his training. "I sometimes think," he said not long ago, "that my ideal athlete would have the mind of a poet. He would be a man with rich imagination, capable of intensely feeling physical, mental and spiritual emotions."
Beyond question, this close attention to the spiritual, or psychological, aspect of competitive athletics has been a factor of major importance in the extraordinary success of Stampfl as a coach. This week at Melbourne, he will have 16 outstanding athletes in competition, representing three different nations—Australia, England and South Africa. This apparent conflict bothers him not at all: "I am only interested in making good athletes better," he says, a feeling in which Australia, which engaged his services in August of last year, apparently concurs. Stampfl's preoccupation with the mind has produced a unique competitive philosophy: "Effort is really a mental image. I am convinced that the basis of athletic coaching must be to make the state of mind so strong that a world record performance is reduced to the level of instinct."
This conviction Franz Stampfl injects into his athletes with an intensity approaching the hypnotic. Chris Chat-away, who will be carrying Great Britain's colors in the 5,000-meter race, said of him: "When I first met him I realized he had a remarkable understanding of human nature and a devastatingly infectious enthusiasm. I found his approach to athletics an immediate inspiration." (Chataway also recalls that in his unforgettable, record-breaking duel with Russia's machinelike Vladimir Kuts in London two years ago he was physically finished with half a mile to go; that the inspiration of conviction that he could win which Stampfl had conveyed to him before the race drove him on in an effort which was truly superhuman.) Brian Hewson said: "I never realized it was possible to work so hard in training and love every minute of it until I was coached by Franz. He makes running appear like an expression of beauty instead of a tough grind." It is a conviction that was crystallized in Stampfl—the fourth of a family of seven children, who was born in Vienna 43 years ago—during his difficult years in World War II. A skiing instructor and javelin thrower (he once threw 247 feet in an exhibition, five feet over the present Olympic record), he came to England as an art student in 1937, stayed on when Hitler occupied his native land, and was interned when war broke out. In June 1940 he was shipped off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only to be torpedoed in mid-voyage. He drifted in the sea for nine hours before being picked up. Some time later, he was sent off to Australia on a ship which was so drastically overcrowded and under-provisioned that it was later made the subject of a court of inquiry. "If there was ever any wavering doubt in my mind," Stampfl says, "the war convinced me that the mind, body and soul must be cultivated into one dynamic force to achieve sporting greatness. I discovered that physical hardships could be overcome if there was a burning desire from the mind to produce complete mental control. Also, I saw in myself and others the almost frightening powers which could be released under great provocation and stress. A man strongly roused is driven by a force greater than himself."
Since the essence of conviction is to convince, it would follow that Stampfl probably does more persuasive talking to his athletes than most other coaches think is necessary, and this is indeed the case. His powers of persuasion are not limited only to the spoken word. Among others, he coached Fred Dwyer, the plucky little U.S. miler, by letter over a period of years; and latterly, from Australia, he has been coaching a number of athletes he left behind in England by tape recorder. To judge by results, the power of his spoken voice emerging from the speaker is almost as strong as his personal presence. Last March, when Chataway drifted into a period of lassitude following Stampfl's departure for Australia, a tape received from Australia outlining training schedules jerked him right back into line again, with resulting immediate improvements in performance. Stampfl's recorded messages are so loaded with passion that they are almost impossible to ignore. Technical statistics on proposed lap times and repetitions pour forth in a swift, fluent and seemingly endless stream of slightly accented English. "Five times 880 yards repetition two minutes six each; rest at most 10 minutes between each," the recorder will proclaim. "Try to cut it to eight minutes if you can. Then next day try 10 times 440 yards interval running from 60 to 61 seconds with a recovery lap of 2� minutes, then next three times a three-quarter mile each in three minutes 15 seconds, but this time you can have 15 minutes between. Do nothing on the day before the race. Let me know how you get on and I'll send you more." The athlete, it seems, can scarcely help himself, such is the galvanism of Stampfl's exhortations. "He is the only coach," said Chris Brasher, one of Britain's fine trio of steeplechasers, recently, "who makes you feel an utter heel if you don't complete his schedules."
A START IN LONDON
Many of Stampfl's critics accuse him, even today, of excessive verbosity, but Stampfl, who has adhered to his methods through the good and bad times of an up-and-down career, pays no attention to such comments. In fact, he never has; his whole attention has always been concentrated on the athlete. When he first came to London as a free-lancer his problem, of course, was to find athletes to concentrate on. A virtual unknown, with only some experience as a small-time track and skiing coach in Austria behind him, he did not even have suitable premises on which to start a training school. Unlike America, where a would-be coach would look for a job at a school, college or university, the British system offered no such security: Stampfl was a man with a mission competing against many others for the attention of individual athletes or sports clubs. He finally got a start in London, where an army colonel sympathetic to his views gave him the use of an army hall and track. Stampfl used his own meager capital to buy the necessary equipment, and then, hanging out his shingle, so to speak, waited for customers. His fee was a shilling per head per day, and to the individual athlete it still is.
The war years interrupted his coaching career, which was furthered only slightly by some coaching he was able to do while studying for a bachelor of arts degree at Melbourne University. But in 1946 he was back in the United Kingdom again, setting up shop in Belfast, where his reputation began to pick up as a result of his work with Thelma Hopkins, still Britain's best woman high jumper, and Victor Milligan, who developed into a four-minute five-second miler and went to Purdue. Within three years he became one. of the most successful coaches in Europe. He moved to London, where his services were immediately retained by an assortment of clubs such as the Belgrave Harriers, the Blackheath Harriers and the South London Harriers. Oxford University paid him a small retainer of around �300 yearly to train the Oxford team, a duty which involved a 60-mile journey to the university some 40 times a year. In between, he held court at Battersea Park's London County Council track, where a hundred or more athletes would pay their shilling fee for his ringing, make-or-break advice.
This advice centers on two things: the importance of mind over matter (in this case, the athlete's body), and the hardening of the body to the point where the utmost demands can be made of it. Stampfl's effort, as he starts out to develop an athlete, is to capture his imagination and stimulate his interest, holding both through the long grind of training as the body is brought to ever greater endurance in preparation for the peak effort. As Stampfl himself puts it: "Before everything else I have to attain a complete understanding with the athletes with whom I work. Sometimes I know more about them than they themselves, which helps me to free latent powers still dormant. After training sessions in England I often accompanied my athletes to a cafe, where we would discuss anything which came to mind so as to stimulate new interests apart from track and field. Sometimes I told stories of bohemians I met here in Chelsea, where I lived. To many young pupils it was like lifting the veil on an unknown world, and a relief from the ordeal of training. Maybe they thought me just a silly Austrian. Some might have believed I was a great man. I don't know. It didn't matter to me as long as they were interested, because only then could I bring the best out of them.