Gordon Walker’s coaching journey – Part Two

Gordon Walker earned the prestigious Coach of the Decade prize at the Halberg Awards earlier this year. We chat to the highly successful CRNZ Technical Director about his sporting journey. In the second part of our two-part feature, we focus on Gordy’s time as a CRNZ coach.

Recruited as an intern at CRNZ, Gordy admits he came on board at a time of change for the organisation.

With his first role to coach Erin Taylor in the countdown to the London Olympics he admits he was fortunate to join CRNZ during a period when they were professionalising their approach to high performance.

To aid his personal development, in 2011 he successfully applied to join the HPSNZ Coach Accelerator Programme – a huge opportunity to learn and develop his coaching knowledge alongside the likes of Janine Southby, who would later coach the Silver Ferns, Rowing NZ coach Gary Hay, and hockey coach Darren Smith.

Yet while Gordy’s coaching expertise continued to expand, he faced a steep learning curve at CRNZ.

“It was a challenging environment to walk in to back then” he explains. “Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald were coaching there back then and they’d won nine Olympic medals between them. 

“I hadn’t won an Olympic medal and I was from a multisport background. The technique used to paddle in multisport was frowned upon by those in the canoe sprint community, but I knew I could make some improvements if I applied the principles I’d used in other sports.”

“I focused on structure and, more specifically, re-ordering the weekly training structure. I also looked to introduce a few more sophisticated training tools which were common place in other Olympic sports.  Things like GPS, training zones, HR, speed, stroke rate.  Looking back, we didn’t really have a lot back then.”

Given his extensive experience of coaching a broad range of sports he thought outside the box and astutely drew upon middle-distance running training to aid his kayakers. 

“In some ways training for 800m in athletics and the training requirements for a 500m kayak race are similar,” he says. “The athletes in both sports are competing for around 1:40-1:50, so I took some elements of training for 800m and implemented them for kayaking. Coming from outside kayaking I could offer a fresh approach.”

In 2010 Gordy was also introduced to a young, promising paddler from Ohope Beach named Lisa Carrington and so began one of New Zealand’s most successful ever coach-athlete relationships.

His initial impressions were that she was “good” but thought little beyond that. However, after several months working together it became clear that he was dealing with a very special athlete.

“She is a super responder,” he adds of Lisa’s ability to improve with training. “In the early years she was very responsive, it was meteoric!”

The challenge facing Gordy was Lisa was focused on the K1 200m – a new canoe sprint discipline set to make its Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games.

With no template of past success he had nothing to draw upon. However, on the flip side this also presented opportunities and he opted to adopt an approach to try and “out think” and “out learn” the opposition.

“I had to stay one or more steps ahead,” he explains.

To achieve this he reflected on what had made him a successful multisport athlete. Namely the initiative and flexibility he revealed throughout his time as a self-coached athlete. 

“It was a massive educator,” he adds.

He utilised the organisational skills needed to prepare for a big event and worked hard on developing Lisa’s technique – all of which contributed to her K1 200m gold at the London Olympics.

While fully acknowledging that Lisa’s unique qualities need to be factored into the equation when making any assessment of her success, he adds: “My reflections on London was that I managed to outlearn what I needed to do to help her. But I’m also proud that we learned together and that I didn’t get too ahead of her or her too ahead of me.”

The duo have continued to learn and flourish together. Lisa has gone on to be one of the most successful athletes of her generation. Increasingly dominating the K1 200m (she is unbeaten in more than a decade winning two Olympic and seven world titles over the distance) she has also further expanded her repertoire and skills in a wider range of events.

However, in order to improve and grow has meant both athlete and coach have been forced to adapt. 

Every year Gordy lays down a list of all the variables which go into a successful performance in the K1 200 and K1 500. This can be pretty extensive – up to 10 or so physical variables including bench press, max speed, aerobic power etc.  They work on the principle that if three can be identified as areas to improve or change and the other seven areas remain the same standard then he knows this will equate to improvements 12 months later.

“It the aggregation of marginal gains that David Brailsford (the General Manager of Team Sky) talks about,” adds Gordy. “He gave it a name but many successful people have been doing that for a long time and this approach certainly resonates with the work I do.” 

With a raft of titles, medal and accolades already behind her – the Tokyo Olympic Games and her commitment to contest four events (K1 200m, K1 500m, K2 500m and K4 500m) is her most ambitious bid yet.

But has her level of success and dominance surprised Gordy?

“I knew from our early days working together that she could be better than she was and way better than what she thought she could be. But there is no way I would have thought we would be here at this point. To be at the level she is at is unimaginable. To win a World Championship (for the K1 200m) in a 40-second race by two seconds, is just extraordinary. But what keeps us motivated is knowing she can be better in the future.”

In more recent times, Gordon has taken on a different role of coaching a group of athletes to perform in K1, K2 and K4 boats. The talent within the New Zealand set up is hugely exciting but managing to maintain unity when crews also have to race each other in the K1 boat is not an easy task.

“There is a big difference between coaching a team and an individual,” explains Gordy, who emphasises he has previously coached multiple individuals at the same time. 

“We are now coaching a team and developing a team structure and trying to grow that success at the same time as opposed to a group of people enjoying success which might be individualised. It is a big task to fill the K1, K2 and K4 boats with the same squad of paddlers. Two of these people will be racing against each other in the K1 – that is not an easy equation to figure out.”

Gordy understood in order to properly deliver this ambition he needed the help of an assistant coach and he wisely brought on board the experienced Canadian coach Nathan Luce to fulfil the role.  

Acknowledging that trusting and giving those around him greater responsibility has been challenging he could not be happier with how his support team has evolved – he describes them as “the best in the business.”

He not only identifies Nathan and fellow coach Jasper Bats for the role they have played but also cites HPSNZ Performance and Technique analyst Paul McAlpine as the best in the world in his field and he acknowledges the support he has received from coaching consultant Tristan Collins, HPSNZ Performance Planner David Slyfield and Coaching Accelerator Programme Leader Christian Penney.

“Nathan coming on board, assimilating well and finding how we can work together has been a huge thing,” adds Gordy. “We have an amazing team of support staff. Unbelievable. Then when we factor in Polly Powrie as Performance Manager, Tom Ashley as CEO we are so lucky. It has been a ten-year journey, but we have gone from rags to riches as a sport.”

Leading into the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics hopes are high the New Zealand squad can enjoy a highly successful regatta but while Gordy has earned plenty of plaudits for his Coach of the Decade honour at the Halberg Awards he is quick to acknowledge the role the athletes have played.

“I try not to attach too much of my success to their work,” he explains. “It is the athletes who paddle the races not me. I was given the award based on the results of my athletes not on my coaching. You can be a great coach with no results or a terrible coach with heaps of results. I have been very, very fortunate to have coached Lisa.” 

Citing Lisa’s K1 500m gold medal at the 2019 World Championships as his personal highlight because the “new version of Lisa would have beaten the old version” which triumphed in the K1 500m four years earlier – he has a rich vault of memories to draw upon.

But has he ever stopped for a minute to think about why he coaches?

“I was speaking once in front of a room full of 500 lawyers from top law firms all earning far more money than I ever will,” he explains. “I said to them, ‘I know you are all very good at what you do but it is pretty likely you are not the best at what you do in New Zealand, and if you are not the best in the New Zealand you are definitely not the best in the world.’ 

“The people I work with train every day for zero pay in an effort to be the best in the world and win a gold medal on one day every four years. To me, that is an interesting challenge, that brings pressure. Every single day you are trying to be the best that you can be. That is cool.

“Coaching is in some ways like parenting in that really want the best for the people you coach and to set a path for them to give them the best journey possible. To genuinely be able to help people is a really enjoyable part of the job.”