A few weeks ago I hooked up for a chat with British Track and BMX cycling star Jamie Staff to find out how the World and Olympic champion is settling in to his new life and routine over in the States as USA’s Director of Sprint, and to discuss his other projects and thoughts on his old team back in the UK. It’s 9am California time and Jamie’s just finished clearing away breakfast. He settles himself down for what ends up being a rather long chat.
So tell me about your new role as Director of Sprint.
We [the family] moved over here last year, as you say. My title is Director of Sprint, which basically means I’m the coach for the sprint team but I also have creative control. I have a lot of control over how I go ahead with the programme. I’ve got a few things that I’m trying to do. When I stepped into this role over here there was basically nothing in place: no sprint programme, structure or anything. There had been in the past but they just pulled the plug on it after the Beijing Olympics.
What was the reason for that?
They just didn’t really have the right coach. They’d had a long line of coaches that I don’t think were suited to what the programme needs. I know some of the coaches that had worked with the US before, and it is a somewhat daunting task. It’s a lot to do, but I’ve come in with a lot of energy and know-how and already seen improvements in the short time I’ve been in. The mens team sprint, they’ve set a new US record twice now, and they did set a new Pan-American best time, but that got beaten in the finals in Columbia, but y’know it’s baby steps. For me it’s just about riders’ improvement, as long as we keep riders improving we’ll get where we need to be, we’re not looking at beating world records by any means at the moment. From day one I stated, “look don’t expect any major results [short-term].” Even if we get to London basically it will be an achievement, even if we get on the plane we definitely won’t be competitive in terms of shooting for medals, there’s just no way.
So are you looking further ahead to 2016 in Rio as a realistic goal?
Yeah, that’s my target, and even then I don’t know if we’ll be in gold medal position. I mean you’ve got the likes of Team GB, France and Germany which have had great programmes for many years. So I’m quietly confident in my abilities but at the end of the day it’s down to the riders, you can only guide them and give them so much, the rest is up to them.
Does the track team in the US have a different attitude to the British team?
Erm… It has been in the past but I’m trying to change it [he chuckles at this]. The US mentality was just about trying to beat the other best American, it was about being the best in the country. It was very short-sighted, so I’ve really worked hard with that in saying, “that’s not good enough and that’s not gonna work with me and if that’s your attitude…”
Americans are very good at setting goals in sport, for example in athletics they compete at the top of the world rankings, is it an ethic that’s just not been built into the track sprint team?
I think it’s just because it all boils down to the support they’ve had in the past. If you’ve had a poorly run programme, with a coach that doesn’t really truly believe in his athletes then you’re going to get a very moderate outcome. So I’ve come in, and I’d say I’m multidimensional in my coaching philosophy: it’s not just what you get the riders to do on a daily basis, it’s instilling many other things in them, trying to change their philosophy, goals and beliefs. Basically it’s getting them to believe in themselves and believe that they can be the best in the world, and just raising the bar. That’s what I’ve worked hard at, and I’ve already seen the results from that, so, it’s been very rewarding from my point of view so far. We’ve definitely got a long way to go, but I’d definitely say we’re ahead of where I thought we would be after this short period of time.
You’ve been in America now for nearly a year, and coaching is very different from getting out on the track yourself. Did you find it difficult settling in to a different lifestyle and routine?
Oh yes, for sure. I mean I’ve lived here on and off for ten years with BMX, my wife is from the US, my kids were born here too, and we were living here for a couple of years before we came back to the UK. So I mean in terms of just everyday life… and I know the riders well, I know the track well, I used to train here, I know a lot of the management around the track, so it wasn’t like a foreign country where you don’t know anyone or don’t speak the language. So from that point of view it was very easy.
Coaching is very different to being an athlete, and not every great athlete would make a great coach. I was very fortunate to be part of the British Coaching Programme. I did their education programme, and I even worked writing some of the literature that they produce for their coaches, so I had quite a bit of involvement. I did work with the British BMX team for a little bit as a coach on a part time basis, but that’s basically how I ended up in the job. I never really thought I’d be a teacher or a coach, or anything like that, it didn’t really appeal to me, but as I started doing it I found it very rewarding and enjoyable.
Did you start the coaching training long before you finished your career on the track?
Yeah, I was doing some BMX coaching in 2006. I helped the BMX programme – it was sort of leaderless and didn’t really have a director in the UK – so I kind of stepped into that role, as well as doing my track training I was coaching the BMX guys. So yeah, I have had some coaching experience, and again just working closely with the Coach Education Programme in the UK, which is a world class programme, I think just gave me some of the fundamental principles. I’ve been very fortunate really. I kind of knew my career was coming to an end, so you do start trying to educate yourself or try and gain experience in other areas and I think that’s how I fell in love with coaching.
When you had your back injury had you already decided you wanted to move on, or was it a case of “Oh no, not another injury, I don’t want to deal with this”?
Most of the injuries I’ve had have been short-term, mainly impact injuries, and it’s simply diagnosed and you just get over it relatively quickly. Back injuries are probably one of the last ones an athlete wants to hear or talk about, I mean I’ve had back problems before but it’s been a simple physio visit and a couple of weeks later you’re back to being one hundred percent. But this one was… well, the physios were quite confident I could get over it, I had some scans and tests, but all these things start piecing together over time and being back in the UK was just a lot of pressure on the family. With the wife being from over here amongst other things, we found that hard. And then age obviously comes into it, you know you’ve got to be realistic about your ability especially as I was heading towards London 2012, so there were quite a few different aspects that came together to make that decision. And I think – as I tell my riders – you’ve got to want it more than anything else in this world, you’ve got to be so hungry for that goal otherwise you’re wasting your time.
So you feel the hunger was waning?
Yes, yes for sure, I’ve always been that sort of person. Once I’ve achieved my goal I’ve always found it hard to maintain that drive and hunger.
And was that the same with BMX?
Yes the same thing really, I’d done everything I could. I wasn’t always the best, I was far from it some years and so, I think that was why I was inspired every year to try to be a better BMXer.
Why did you choose Track over say, Downhill MTB? Having so much explosive power and such a strong upper body?
[He chuckles] In BMX obviously you would probably be closer tied to MTB [Mountain Bike], like you said, or Four-Cross [also known as Mountain Cross] or something. But one of my goals was Olympic medals so I looked for the disciplines that were within that range and practised one of them.
It was just by chance really, in the late 90’s we [some of the BMXer’s] went up to Manchester to do some physiological testing on the watt bikes, I did the test and put out more power than any of their track guys. So they asked the question, “hey do you wanna do track?” and I was like, “well is there any money in it?” and they said, “no,” and I was like, “well, then no I don’t, I’ve had years of travelling around the world, this is great!” And I think if they’d spent a little bit more time explaining about the Olympics and what my potential actually was, then maybe I would have pursued it at an earlier stage. There are actually a lot of similarities, a lot of the behind the scenes work you do is very similar. Yes the bike looks completely different but the gym work is basically exactly the same. It’s all the same basic work, so the only thing I had to do was get used to riding a track bike, which after riding a BMX bike was very easy.
You have to contain your movements a lot more though, you can’t throw yourself around as much?
Yeah right, that takes some learning. But yeah, in BMX I was always the first to the first turn, and I wasn’t always the smoothest jumper or the fastest through the rhythm section, but it was my horsepower that kind of won me the races. And that’s why I think track appealed: no obstacles, just start, finish. Go, get there as quick as you can!
Do you still get out on your BMX since the back injury?
Er… Not really, but my back is fine now, it only really hurts when I put it under extreme stress. So squatting over two times your body weight, and doing repetitive circuits on the track, is when it would hurt. I mean right now I don’t feel that problem at all, and my back feels fine. I actually feel great. You know, as an athlete you’re pounding your body every single day in training and your body’s under constant stress, and so therefore you’re quite sore and irritated all the time. And it’s quite pleasing actually that, now I’ve retired, my body feels a hundred times better than it did when I was training.
So are you still continuing with some sort of training regime?
I don’t do too much to be honest, I’m a little bit burn-out on riding a bike, I’m trying to find something else to do. I played some racket sports when I was in my early teens and when I was a youngster, with my dad, so I’m maybe looking at doing something down those lines, something different. I mean I live at the velodrome twelve hours a day, I need to try to get away from that and do something different. I need to find something that will drive me to remain fit and healthy, I don’t want to get on that slippery slope. Just for the stresses of work, as you can imagine now, it is hard, that’s one of the things I’ve learned.
As an athlete I was always looking at family members or friends and saying, “why don’t you just work out? Why don’t you train?” And now, having no physical goals like that I find it so hard to get motivated. I always struggled to comprehend, why don’t people just stay fit? You know, why don’t you go and do something? When you have goals and targets it’s dead easy, but when you don’t it’s so hard. And at the end of a long working day, whatever your job, it’s the last thing you want to do. I’ve been out running a few times but that just bloody hurts so much, I try to find something positive in it, but I need to find something that’s enjoyable and just suits my personality.
You’ve recently become a football or should I say “soccer” coach for your twins’ under six team?
Yeah, I got thrown into that role, but it’s quite fun, I enjoy it, it’s just a local soccer tournament.
Are your twins getting into cycling?
Yeah, my son rode before he was three, my daughter could ride when she was three and a half to four, they’ve both got bikes they’re out all the time. We live in a little cul-de-sac so that’s great for bike riding, they love it.
Would you encourage them to follow a career in cycling?
It’s a tricky one. I mean, I think BMX is a fantastic sport for young kids, it teaches them many skills which they can then take away and apply to other cycling disciplines. It allows you to get into cycling at an early age, as opposed to say mountain biking or road and track, so I wouldn’t stop them from doing it, but I’m really kind of un-forceful. I mean right now my kids are doing soccer but before that my daughter was doing ballet and my son was doing tae-kwon-do, I kind of want them to experience many things, and they need to be the one that figures out what they want to do.
You feel sports is vital for kids development?
Absolutely, I mean I was a shy kid, terribly shy, and through cycling I explored the world and I think I matured as a person, it gave me so many valuable lessons. I think you could do that through any sport, it boosts your confidence tremendously. You’ve got the obvious physical benefits, but it’s the mental ones as well. I’m so lucky I was able to go down that route, and I won’t push but I will definitely express to my children that it’s a great avenue to take. But it’s up to them, I’ll just try to be as supportive as I can, just like my parents were. They were never pushy.
Were your parents into cycling?
No not at all, no one in my family is really sporty at all, the family played squash, badminton and things like that, but no one was at any significant level. It was just something I fell in love with. That is the key thing, trying to find something that you love, and you would do anything to be able to do it. When you have that kind of passion for something that is when you have the potential to be very successful.
I know you had plans a while back to start up a youth academy, is that still something you want to do?
Yes, in the UK. That was the hardest thing for me I think, just walking away from a lot of stuff in the UK. I don’t want to walk away from anything, I’m still trying to put it together. The Cyclo Park [being built in Kent] is a great facility and I’m trying hard to stay involved with that. Literally as we speak I’m putting together just a little bit more detail [in to my academy plans]. Hopefully it will be aimed a bit more at the elite level, y’know with nutrition, psychological, physiological input into riders and helping them with their careers and career planning, season planning and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah I’m still currently working with Kent County Council on that. I’m looking for sponsors right now, I’ve obviously got some good relations in the industry which I’ll be targeting and then there’s some chances of other major sponsors.
The aim is to try to relieve some of the financial responsibility from the actual athletes, because I know how poor cyclists are. I mean it’s very different over here, you can charge an absolute arm and a leg for coaching, but in the UK it’s very, very different, I mean people don’t want to part with ten pounds. If the academy is a success I would love to roll them out all over the UK or maybe even worldwide! You need to grab peoples attention while the sport is on a high to keep the momentum going.
Considering cycling as a sport doesn’t get much national TV and media coverage, certainly compared to the rest of Europe, how come we have such a hotbed of talent and how are kids coming to the sport? Obviously in recent years the profile has risen, but even before that it was always there just under the radar?
I think British Cycling is doing a brilliant job, especially in recruiting cyclists, whether it’s for leisure or sport. I mean BMX is definitely nowhere near where it was in the 80’s and I don’t know if it ever will be. The participation in cycling as a sport has gone through the roof, so I think British Cycling is doing a good job. I hope it’s not fickle. I think we have to be realistic about London’s results, I think Team GB will be successful in certain terms, but I doubt they’ll replicate what they did in Beijing. That’s just sport and that’s life, that’s the cycle of the athletes. We went through a glory period, and it is gonna be hard for them. You can’t replicate that year after year, it ebbs and flows.
I guess that’s even more the case when everyone discovers your secret formula to success?
Exactly, and I hope that those companies that have come into the sport as sponsors remain for the long term loyal to the sport, and I hope they’re not just in for the short term ride. Cycling has many great elements to it and I think the UK is a fantastic country and is embracing that, with building cycle paths and the general infrastructure, they are making improvements. It’s far better than it is over here in the States. I mean yes we have the great weather over here, but they don’t have the cycling infrastructure at all.
So is it city or rural areas that have the better facilities?
In the city you don’t get anything cycle-related, I mean there’s the odd bike path here and there that follow the contours of the rivers from the overflow of rainfall down from the mountains. The US is far behind the UK in terms of that. In the UK the government’s backing a lot of the programmes whereas over here the government’s not interested so it’s all down to the local cities, councils and private investors to try and get stuff going. You’d be amazed at the lack of input over here from the government, in terms of cycling and funding. USA Cycling is, well it’s good that they are self sufficient and they’ve got a business model that works but they don’t get a penny from the government, not a single one, so all their money comes from private investors and just the everyday business through membership. So that’s how they generate their revenue.
So I guess that’s why Road Cycling is the poster sport for cycling in the USA because it can bring in major sponsors and TV coverage?
Exactly, yes, USA Cycling is definitely not in the position that British Cycling is, but then again that’s all down to the National Lottery, if you pull that funding away then, well it would be interesting to see what happens.
There’s quite a Jamie Staff shaped hole in the British Sprint team for first man at the moment, and as you know, Liam Phillips the BMX rider is trying out on the track for 8 months. And in that time he’s got to try and get near 17.3 seconds in order to match where the French are with Gregory Bauge. Do you think that is a lot to ask of him?
It is, but I’ve known Liam since he was a little kid, I think he’s got potential, I don’t think they need to put all their eggs in one basket, being purely Liam. I mean Jason Kenny could do it, but he doesn’t like being man one, he likes to be in man two position, and he’s the best man two they have, and Chris is the best man three they’ve got, and yeah obviously they’re trying to fill my shoes. But it is an extremely tall ask of Liam, and I think they’ve got their work cut out for sure. I mean they asked me to come back and I laughed, I was like “yeah right!” I mean I don’t know, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t replicate what I did in Beijing. But I think Liam has a shot, but at the same time I think they need to chase other avenues with Ross Edgar and push Ross as much as possible. My choice would be (and obviously I’m not there on a daily basis but I know the riders potential): Jason Kenny, then Ross Edgar then Chris Hoy, that would be my call. I mean going into Beijing, Ross was a little bit slower than Jason at man two but it wasn’t much, and even if we had had Ross in the team on paper we would have won, so I know it’s tricky and certain riders want certain positions.
Jason’s gained a lot of power from training for man one, will that have effected him in any way adversely in other areas?
No, I don’t think so, you just have to look at Gregory Bauge, he’s man one and he’s three times World Sprint Champion but he’s not great at the Keirin. So if I had to call it I think Jason will probably end up man one in terms of the team sprint.
But I think Jason definitely has a chance of taking the sprint position in the GB Team, I think Chris will keep the Keirin role, and as I said I think the team sprint will either be Jason, Ross and Chris or, if Liam can come in, then it would be Liam, Jason and Chris. Liam has definitely got a lot to do. I mean at Liam’s age when I was BMXing, I was in my prime, in my mid twenties, and I only got good at the end because of the help from BC, and it wasn’t that I was peaking at thirty-five, it was that I applied everything that they were throwing at me, and that was learnt, and by pushing myself. So you know Liam does have the potential to do that, he’s coming on well physically, he’s really gained a lot of strength over that past couple of years.
Do you keep in touch with a lot of the guys back home?
Yes, periodically, I mean it’s a small world cycling, even though you might not speak to someone in a year, when you do see them it feels like three weeks. I’m a family friend of Liam’s. And the likes of Chris and Jason, I’ll drop them an email every now and then. And every month I’m on the road and during the world cup season, we catch up. I miss them all tremendously, I really miss the UK, and being part of the team, but life goes on. But I couldn’t be happier in my new role and doing what I do, I’m very fortunate to be doing what I really enjoy.
What are the home comforts that you miss from the UK?
Believe it or not, I miss the rolling green fields of Kent, and obviously when we lived in Manchester the surrounding areas there were also very similar. In Southern California you don’t have the ability to escape, I mean anywhere in the UK you can hop on a train or in a car and within an hour you’re in the middle of nowhere. Whereas here, I could go to the middle of nowhere and it would be a dry desert. You do feel kind of trapped by that sometimes, you can’t always take that big deep breath of fresh country air.
Have you visited the London velodrome yet?
Yeah I went there when it was halfway completed, they were just getting the roof ready to go up, there wasn’t a track or anything in there. I’ve seen the pictures and the video and it does look fantastic. When I come over for the world cup in February we’ll do some touristy stuff with the team, get that out the way, and check everything out. I know the US team was asking if the track would be opened up before for training but I’m pretty sure it won’t be. I’m pretty sure Team GB will keep it to themselves, and only open it up when they have to for the World Cup. So apart from that I think it will be closed doors until after the Olympics.
What are your thoughts on the new rules set out by the Olympic committee on the number of entrants per event?
You can understand it from one point of view, but then I think they often forget why people do it. I have this issue on a daily basis now. When I go to a World Cup I’m only able to take three guys and two girls and I’ve probably got ten guys and four girls. Now for those other riders if they don’t see any chance to compete then they’re going to lose motivation, lose drive and probably end up quitting. You want to have the top echelon of riders at the competition, which I understand, but at the same time you can’t take away the dreams of other people, they need to have the chance to prove themselves. I mean you look at Team GB: they probably have four or five decent sprinters, but only one’s going to the Olympics, and so that fourth or fifth quickest rider right now is probably looking at his age, looking at his options and thinking, “well screw it, I don’t think I’ve got a realistic chance of going, why am I doing this?” On the day of the race ultimately it does all come down to who’s in the best place mentally and physically. Even the very best have bad days on the track.
The same applies to the huge amount of pursuit talent, I just don’t think it’s going in the right direction, I think as a competition the one in Beijing worked fine, it had two athletes in most events which was great and I don’t see anything wrong with that. So what if GB has the best two or three riders, why should they have to pay for that? So I mean I can understand it from one point of view, but I think in the interest and the long term of the sport it’s not doing it any good.
Do you still have your first Raleigh Mag Burner?
[Chuckles] No, I wish I did! I actually question what my parents did with everything, because I don’t have an ounce of stuff. I think my parents just gave everything away, sold it or whatever, just to pay for the other races, so it would just discretely disappear. I mean I have nothing, I have some things in the US from when I used to race for Haro, I have some GB tops and stuff.
So do you have a collection of bikes nowadays?
Nooo, you’d be amazed, if you look around the house you wouldn’t know I was a bike racer. In my office I’ve got a couple of jerseys up on the wall and a few pictures from the Olympics, but that’s it. In the garage I’ve got a mountain bike, one BMX and one road bike. I’m not fanatical like some, I mean I know this one kid, he said he’d got like thirty bikes and I said, “you’re kidding me?!” It’s unbelievable, and we don’t have the room basically and I don’t think my wife would appreciate having twenty bikes in the garage. I think she’s had enough, she’s got her bike, I’ve got mine. I’ve got one for if I want to go off on the road, I’ve got something for playing with the kids on the BMX. At the end of the day if I wanted something I could always get it because I know plenty of people in the industry but I’m not that fussed.
For now British Cycling are staying at Manchester Velodrome do you think the pressure will build for them to relocate to London and the new facilities?
No, Manchester has too much of an interest in British Cycling and the upheaval of all the staff would be too much. I’m sure there will be divisions of it potentially that will move down there, maybe one element of it, you know like education or Go Ride. They may extend down there, and obviously there’s such a catchment area, it would be silly not to do something with it. So I’m sure it will be a fantastic velodrome that’ll be extremely busy but the nuts and bolts of British Cycling will definitely stay in Manchester in my opinion.
What advice would you give to young riders that want to get their talent noticed?
To get their talent noticed it’s basically going to be racing. I think it’s far harder these days. When I was a kid, because the sport was in it’s infancy, everyone was at the same level. Now for a junior or young kid coming into the sport where even the young kids are extremely talented, it’s got to be very off-putting and nerve racking and they basically just see it’s near enough impossible for them to get better within that sport. So I think you’ve just got to focus on yourself and make sure that you improve, and over time you can do it. It doesn’t take long for a young kid to get into BMX – you’re still talking a number of years, maybe three or four years before they’re really good – but in the scheme of things that’s not very long at all. So just don’t be put off by the talent above, don’t let that deter you.
So it’s very important they join a club?
Yeah yeah, definitely, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes cyclists seem very closed with information, but I think once you start talking to parents or club officials or whoever, they’ll open up and tell you quite a bit. So just talk, ask questions and people will be forthcoming with information and help guide you. And then obviously in today’s modern world with the media it makes that so much easier.
Do you think you’ll come back to the UK at any point and do some coaching?
Hopefully yeah, I mean, like I said, my plan with the academy in the UK is that I come there every three months and do a two or three day seminar, that’s the goal. The premise of the academy is to basically educate people on their upcoming quarter, so we’ll break a season down into four parts. So prior to that next part I will come and educate you on the things that you need to be thinking of and the processes you need to go through.
So for instance: you’ve just finished your race season and now you’ve got to deal with some time off, so I’ll tackle that. A lot of people don’t take any time off and it’s all about having other interests and hobbies so you don’t get burnt out, because I think many kids are just too intense for too long, you’ve got to have balance in your life. So I’ll just deal with different issues at different parts of the year. I’ll also cover bike skills and winter riding, and I want to get some
companies involved with parts, equipment and bikes, and help educate people on clothing, tyre choice and even get some pro riders to help inspire them.
I feel there is such a lack of information out there, it’s just ridiculous. I’m just trying to open up the knowledge that I received from British Cycling and obviously what I’ve learnt myself. I want to open it more to the general public, and get some of that information out there because I do feel it is somewhat closed off. I mean there are no real secrets but you would think there was. It’s just careful planning and hard work basically, that’s what it comes down to, there’s no magic helmet you’re just gonna put on, no magic shoes, it’s just bloody hard work at the end of the day, and I think people need to hear that.
Jamie’s major career results include:
- 1996 World BMX Champion
- 2002 Bronze Kilo (England), Commonwealth Games, Manchester
- 2002 Silver Team Sprint (England), Commonwealth Games, Manchester
- 2002 Gold Team Sprint, UCI World Championships, Ballerup
- 2003 Silver Sprint, National Championships
- 2003 Silver Sprint, UCI World Cup, Mexico
- 2003 Gold Kilometre, UCI World Cup, Mexico
- 2003 Gold Team Sprint, UCI World Cup, South Africa
- 2004 Gold Keirin, UCI Track World Championships, Melbourne
- 2004 Bronze Team Sprint, UCI World Championships, Melbourne
- 2005 Gold Team Sprint, UCI World Championships, Los Angeles
- 2006 Silver Team Sprint, Commonwealth Games, Melbourne
- 2006 Silver Team Sprint UCI Track World Championship, Bordeaux
- 2007 Bronze Kilometre UCI Track World Championship, Palma De Mallorca
- 2008 Silver Team Sprint UCI Track World Championships, Manchester
- 2008 Gold Team Sprint, Olympic Games, Beijing
- 2009 Silver UCI Track World Championships Team Sprint
My thanks to Jamie and all the photographers.
©Copyright 2011 Anna Magrath @ Cycling Shorts. Please do not reproduce any content without permission from myself or the photographers.