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Dublin: 5°C Friday 16 April 2021

Is this man the most underrated coach in Ireland?

Coach to Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls, John Shields is currently a very busy man.

Shields won the Services to Coaching award at last week's GloHealth National Athletic Awards.
Shields won the Services to Coaching award at last week's GloHealth National Athletic Awards.
Image: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

THOMAS BARR MIGHT have been the stand-out name in Irish athletics in 2015 but a man who’s almost escaped the limelight this – and every other year, is John Shields.

Before this week, few outside of athletics would have confessed to knowing who he was but on Wednesday, the Limerick native was recognised for his services to coaching at the Athletics Ireland annual awards.

Now based in Dublin and coaching some of the country’s best athletes, the Clonliffe Harriers man gave us his thoughts on where the sport is now in Ireland as we head into an Olympic year.

“Athletics in this country is as professional as it can be; we have world-class facilities and there’s no reason to leave the country any more to train,” he told The42.

“The last 3 or 4 years have been fantastic and I’m delighted at how the athletes have progressed; every year our goal is to make them the best they can be.

“The crowd I have coming through now are some of the best 18 or 19 year olds we’ve ever had but they need to work harder to make themselves better,” he continued.

If it’s been a good year for the sport here, it’s been an amazing one on a personal note for Shields.

In no particular order he coached a whopping 14 athletes to win medals this year. Two came at the world seniors, three were at the European indoors and four were at the world relays

Some of those he has in his stable are Timmy Crowe, Dara Kervick, Brian Gregan, Harry Purcell, Ciara McCallion, Paul Murphy, Keith Pike and David Donegan.

Gregan is the current 400m Irish outdoor champion and former European U23 silver medallist and Kervick is the reigning 400m indoor champion.

Thomas Barr before the race Irish runner Thomas Barr. Source: Ian MacNicol/INPHO

It’s a hard-yards type of gig and Shields spends seven days a week poring over training sessions, past and present.

Although he confesses to taking Saturdays off, he doesn’t really.

If he did, he wouldn’t be down at the track in Santry eyeing up the stars of the future.

“It’s a tough job at times and you need to be highly organised,” he explains.

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“You need to make sure you know what you’re doing every day and when you’ve maybe 30 athletes it takes some managing.

“We train them in four-week training blocks; 3 hard and one easy to recover.”

Shields and his team of sports scientists, nutritionists, physios, strength and conditioning coaches draw up the plans and make suggestions for how to make their charges better.

That’s their mandate and it’s no easier in November, even when it’s the off-season, kind of.

“This time of the year is all about conditioning and we’re really big into that.

“Our athletes get a really tough time from our strength and conditioning coach John Cleary. He’s the best at what he does and there’s no glory in it at this time. It’s just slogging way, keeping them healthy and fit and making sure they don’t overdo it.

“We push them very hard – close to the limit all the time and see if they are able to handle it.”

One athlete who has handled the workload this year is World University Games 400m hurdles gold medallist, national 400m hurdles record holder and university athlete of the year Thomas Barr.

“Thomas is outstanding and he’s such a nice guy,” lavished Shields. (*Barr is coached by Hayley Harrison)

“He takes it all in his stride and is a really fantastic guy. He was unlucky not to get the final of the World Championships this year but his best years are to come.

“The job for us now is to see these guys mature, because they’re still young.

“As well as that, we need to upskill all our coaches to bring the athletes forward.

“We have the facilities in place, Gary Keegan (Director if the Irish Institute of Sport) has done a fantastic job.

“The national indoor arena in Blanchardstown is an amazing facility and everything that has happened has been brilliant;  it’s now case of getting the coaches to use these new facilities to maximise their – and the athlete’s potential.”

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Brian Canty

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