Everybody in Scotland knows John Anderson, everybody in Britain and many further afield know John Anderson – or knows something about him. John Anderson, along with such as Wilf Paish, Frank Dick and Harry Wilson, is one of the really great British coaches of the twentieth century and probably of all time. Everyone knows about him – coach of athletes who have competed in Commonwealth, European and Olympic Games as well as World championships indoor and out, coach on several GB Olympic teams, fitness trainer and referee on the Gladiators TV programme, coach to famous athletes such as Dave Moorcroft, Judy Livermore, Sheila Carey, John Graham, Liz McColgan, Lynne McDougall and so on. Impossible not to know he is a Scot and a Glaswegian, he is immensely practical, down to earth, immensely knowledgeable and always prepared to share the knowledge with those willing to listen. It was interesting talking to him, reading what I could find and listening to interviews about his career. A brief summary of his career appears in Wikipedia and reads:
“John Anderson (born 28 November 1932 or 1933) is a former British television personality best known as referee and official trainer on the UK TV show, Gladiators. He has previously worked as a teacher and as a coach for Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games athletes, including Commonwealth Games champion and former World Record Holder David Moorcroft. John was National Coach for the Amateur Athletics Association of England and subsequently the first full time National Coach in Scotland. He was coach to an Olympian at every Olympics from 1964 to 2000 and has coached 5 world record holders and 170 GB Internationals in every event.
In 2008, John briefly resumed his role as referee on the newly revived Gladiators before being replaced by John Coyle after just one series. Anderson went on to become mentor and coach for a number of recent international athletes, including Great British athlete William Sharman, who he helped transform from a decathlete to a world class sprint hurdler, and continues to coach at a local and regional level.”
A very brief entry and, important as Gladiators was, in the context of his athletics coaching, it is not the high point. He tells me he was born in 1931. His fascinating career deserves to be looked at in some detail, from his start in athletics to date. (NB: John only did one series after 2008 because he turned down the renewal because he felt it was changing in a way that he did not approve of.)
As a young man, John wanted to teach and was passionate about all kinds of sport. He represented Scotland as a schoolboy footballer. This was in the 1950’s when there was no formal coach education structure available in the country. The only way in to sport as a career was to train as a physical education teacher and there were only two options available to him on that front – Jordanhill College in Scotland or Loughborough in England. Jordanhill College is now of course part of Strathclyde University in Glasgow. John went to Jordanhill and subsequently did a degree at the Open University and went into teaching in Junior Secondary School the east end of Glasgow. Progress as a coach was then down to self study and self motivation – he read voraciously, mainly in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. He was interested in all sports and went on the FA football coaching course at Loughborough. He did so well that he became the first home Scot to gain the prestigious Full FA Coaching Certificate. It should be noted that at that time only 4 were awarded every year and none had ever been awarded to a ‘home Scot.’ When he came back home with the qualification, football clubs didn’t want to know. There was no desire to use his qualification from those in the sport in Scotland where the clubs all seemed content to do what they had always been doing. He went on teaching and covered such sports as gymnastics and swimming as well as football. He reckons that these helped his future coaching of athletes – all experiences are useful and teach the interested coach, it raised his awareness of the coaching process and taught him how to motivate all kinds of people in different sports, and much more.
He had been a pupil at Queen’s Park Secondary School at the same time as Ally MacLeod. They became firm friends and played together for the Scotland Schools team then when John was National Coach, Ally was manager of the Scottish football team. At a personal level, John was best man when Ally was married.
John only came into athletics by purest chance. He was a member of Victoria Park in the West of Glasgow where he trained for the sprints, but says he really wasn’t much of a runner. Nor was there very much coaching going on at the club – like other clubs at the time there was no proper coach but older and senior members advised the others on what they knew about. Then at school one afternoon the principal PE teacher asked him to take the senior girls for relay practice. There were annual sports for the Junior Secondaries in the area (he taught in Calder Street, St Mark’s JS and Dennistoun JS) and their school was always invited into the meeting. (At that time secondary education in Scotland was divided into Junior and Senior Secondary Schools, with the pupils being segregated at the age of 12) To teach relays, he needed a track and he made a rough track on the ash football field for this team of 14/15 year olds. Came the sports, they won the relay and several other medals: they enjoyed it and he did too but he still thought of himself as a football coach. The girls then asked him if they could carry on with athletics when they left school. He looked around and the only option was Maryhill Harriers Athletic Club and he took them there – the only transport being his own small car. After a few weeks, Tom Williamson at the club asked him to help – after all he was a PE teacher! Then Tom and May Williamson set up their own club, Glasgow Western LAC and John was left with the rump of a club, only half a dozen girls who wanted to keep going. And so Maryhill Ladies AC was set up – you can read about the club and its progress at
Many in Scottish athletics have stories about John at this time – for instance Helen Donald tells of the time she was running in the WAAA’s championships at Crystal Palace and, coming off the last bend in third place was encouraged by John, who was there with his Maryhill athletes, roaring her on and wearing his kilt! Anyway, Maryhill Ladies AC took off and his initial goal of ‘best club in Scotland in three years’ was achieved – use the link and see how well they did.
Never a man to stand still and let inertia govern his conduct as so many do, he contacted his colleagues in other schools and asked them to send along any talented girls that they had and, while they were at it, to send along their parents as well! They were all used and the parents who were helping with the coaching and training of the girls, used to attend classes that he held at his Mum’s house on Sundays He always wanted to know more, and attended a summer school at Loughborough College. In an attempt to test himself, he decided to take all the Senior Coach awards that were available. This was a mammoth undertaking and I cannot imagine any coach doing it today: in fact I have only ever heard of John and Wilf attempting it. He did this – as did Wilf Paish – and then when he heard that new post had been created, that of a peripatetic national coach in England and Wales, he applied. He was given the job and travelled the length and breadth of England and Wales coaching and working with coaches. He even collected some athletes who had no access to coaching or who needed help. This was when there was no national TV, no emails, no mobile phones and communication sometimes took a long time. There was in many clubs no scientific basis for what they were doing – they were doing what their predecessors had done for donkey’s years. He didn’t like that idea. So he started reading again – back to the Mitchell Library, and he wrote to people and sometimes there was a long time for a reply because he was dependent on the postal service.
Then he discovered Geoff Dyson’s book, “The Mechanics Of Athletics” with its scientific approach to the body, information that wouldn’t change , that was scientifically and mathematically based. As he says, his coaching went from being hopeful to being scientific. Later he found Tim Noakes and his work was also assimilated into the training process. Already a voracious reader, he continued to be so despite the increasing levels of success that his athletes had. If he was going to coach somebody then he had to have a scientific basis for what he was going to do or he would not do it. That has not changed – all training has to have a scientific underpinning.
It was at this point that he was asked to do some coaching with the Glasgow High Kelvinside RFC by a rugby friend who was also into athletics. John did some work with them but it was mainly sprints and speed development. The sessions are still remembered by some of those who took part – one chap recalls doing pre-season training on the big pitch at Old Anniesland. Rumour hath it that they disagreed over what constituted a warm-up! The sessions were hard work as Kenny Hamilton, now director of rugby at Glasgow Hawks recalls “3!… 2!…. 1! – I remember him well. A fair amount of resistance-running – possibly the first I experienced which used tyres. I seem to remember a conversation about stretching He was very enthusiastic about stretching muscles – a comparatively foreign concept in rugby circles in those days. He was delivering a talk some place and was asked about how long each stretch should be held for ……. “8 seconds he replied” This then became a bit of a standard but he quietly admitted that there was absolutely no science behind it! However, I can confirm that we were all bloody fit that year, except Cammy!” Cammy Little who was a very good rugby player (he was one of Glasgow’s first contracted players and also played for the Barbarians) says he missed the sessions as it was summer and he played cricket: an old tactic that worked a treat!! John says he was not really a rugby man but it’s funny how these things go around: he is now living near Leicester and since the Chief Exec is a friend he goes along to see the Tigers play and in 2012 even went to Twickenhan to see the Scottish match. He also admits that he has done some work with the Leicester Academy boys and focused on sprinting.
Hugh Barrow and Duncan Middleton training with Cameron McNeish in the foreground
The only thing that he reckons might be queried is whether his interpretation of what their (Dyson and company’s) work had been, was fair. In response to that he can only look at the results of his work with various athletes. With 5 world record holders and 170 GB internationals then there can be a fair assumption that his interpretations have been appropriate. He always measures every coach on the basis of their output. Not if they have only ever had one outstanding athlete – anybody might have an outstanding talent simply by chance – but have there been improvements in all of the athletes that they have coached. John always had talented athletes who came to him who were improved further by his insights and methods. Among those in Scotland to benefit from his coaching were Leslie Watson, Moira Kerr, Duncan Middleton, Graeme Grant, Hugh Barrow, Hamish Telfer (a notable coach in his own right), Craig Douglas, Lindy Carruthers, and the sisters Alix and Jinty Jamieson. The set-up in Glasgow at the time was interesting in that coaches co-operated with each other and Tom Williamson and John worked together on some of the same athletes.
Of the five commonly agreed parameters used to measure an athlete, he feels that Speed is the key. Not who is fastest over 100 metres or whatever, but who has most speed in their event. A marathon runner needs stamina but once he has that then he needs speed for his race distance. This informed everything that he did with his athletes thereafter – if you are in doubt, have a look at some of the sessions noted here and found at the links. If you want to see an example of what John did with John Graham, sub 2:10 marathon man, then look at the profile at http://scottishdistancerunninghistory.co.uk/John%20Graham.htm . Here was a man, John Graham, who had all the stamina required, the move was then to develop the speed necessary to be at the very top of his chosen event. There are also comments on his training methods in the Lynne MacDougall profile at
John’s first big national post was as noted above the National Coach in England and then came the post of National Coach in Scotland which he held from 1965 until 1970. Very active, he covered every aspect of the sport in every part of the country. He was the only National Coach that I knew of who even worked with Scottish Schools squad days (the Scottish Schools tend to have their own event coaches for squad days) and was also the man responsible for organising the Annual National Coaching Convention. This was a superb innovation and brought world class coaches from all over the athletics world to speak and talk with Scottish, and indeed British, coaches on their own turf. Every aspect of the sport was covered – technical aspects, fitness and conditioning, physiological testing – and star athletes were often present too. At the end of the conference, all the papers presented were issued to those in attendance in spiral bound booklet form for further study and for dissemination within the clubs across the land. Wherever he was, he was approachable. The coaches were all on side. He also spoke to other conferences and at one he met the Rangers FC manager Jock Wallace. Many years later when Jock was manager at Leicester City FC and John was in Nuneaton, he asked John to come and work with him as a fitness coach. He was also approached for advice by a young player called Gary Lineker. He turned the job offer down but it is one of these intriguing questions – “But what if he hadn’t/”
Then he had the sessions with athletes. For instance the lunchtime sessions at Glasgow University’s ground at Westerlands were legendary with many of the very best in the country training there. The half milers Mike McLean, Graeme Grant and Dick Hodelet were there as was Hugh Barrow from Victoria Park; distance men such as Lachie Stewart were also attendees at the lunchtime training. Runners really went out of their way to attend. The routine, as described by Hugh Barrow, was:
The Mussabini Medal celebrated “the contribution of coaches of UK performers who have achieved outstanding success on the world stage.” Along with the Mussabini Medal, there also existed The Dyson Award, for “individuals who have made a sustained and significant contribution to the development and management of coaching and individual coaches in the UK”. This award was named after Geoff Dyson, the first chief national athletics coach, who died in 1981.
The Mussabini Medal was introduced in conjunction with the launch of the Coaching Hall of Fame. The medal and associated awards were launched to raise the profile of coaches, and increase the financial backing to enhance the profession, still seen at the time as a largely amateur vocation in spite of Mussabini’s pioneering example. Speaking at the inaugural presentation the patron of the Foundation the Princess Royal stated that “Coaching and the work of individual coaches lies at the heart of sport, Yet all too often the role and contribution of the coach remains unrecognised and unacknowledged.”
Quite an honour.
And the script read: ‘One of the Gladiators 6″ Action Figures to collect from the hit show on Sky1. This pack contains John Anderson 6″ action figure with Whistle and Stopwatch. “Contender READY”, “Gladiator READY” are words that can only be uttered by one man. John Anderson is the man behind the whistle, in charge of keeping the Gladiators and contenders in check as well as preparing them for the challenges they face!’
Manufactured by Character Options
What might a Flying Coach visit involve?While it is expected that the focus of the majority of Flying Coach visits will be the technical development of coaches, clubs are encouraged to address other areas of coach development using the Flying Coach scheme, such as:
- Strength & Conditioning
- Fundamental Movement Skills
- Planning and Periodisation
- Communication Skills
- Sport Psychology
Flying Coach Programme: Disability
Wheelchair Racing: An introduction to basic push technique, chair set up and training programmes.
Seated throws: Advice and guidance on seated throws, including throwing frames, tie downs and fixings.
Coaching blind or visually impaired athletes: Advice and guidance on supporting blind or visually impaired athletes, to include guide running and competition pathways.
Coaching deaf or hearing impaired athletes: Advice and guidance on coaching deaf and hearing impaired athletes. To include information on effective communication, technology, Deaf UK Athletics and competition pathways.
Coaching athletes with a learning disability: Advice and guidance on coaching athletes with a learning disability. To include information on Mencap, Special Olympics and competition pathways.
Other impairment specific visits: Advice and guidance on coaching athletes with a specific impairment (Cerebral Palsy, amputees etc). To include information on National Disability Sports Organisations and competition pathways.
So it is not an easy option to follow for the coach – the last section is interesting with our prior knowledge of his work with blind athletes.
John in Cornwall, 2011
In August 2011 for instance he travelled to Cornwall with Tom McNab and Alan Launder to work with the local Cornwall AC for what seems to have been really successful event. There are links at the Cornwall site to two of John’s PowerPoint presentations. The first is called “Most can run, many can race, few win!” and the second is entitled “Preparation/Rehearsal for Sprints”. While they are incomplete without John’s presentation, the headings are enough to make most people think a bit. You can get them at
– the links are just below the first picture of the three coaches!
As we said above he is still coaching a small number of top class athletes but he is not yet easing himself into retirement as a coach.
Success at the level he has enjoyed didn’t alter the fact that he was a coach who worked with athletes of all abilities. With his personality and ability he would have been a success in any walk of life: we are fortunate that he chose athletics.
There is an excellent article on John on the Playing Pasts website at
Tributes to John are many but I have some on a separate page which you can reach from this link.