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Rob McCracken: 10 years on GB

Rob McCracken
Rob McCracken is the GB performance director and coach of pro heavyweight Anthony Joshua
This November marks Rob McCracken’s 10th year at the helm of the British Olympic team. He speaks to BN about his decade as GB Boxing performance director

SINCE November 2009 Rob McCracken has led the GB Boxing programme. In that time famously Anthony Joshua, Luke Campbell and Nicola Adams have won four Olympic gold medals between them. Britons won eight medals in total in the last two Olympic boxing tournaments (as many medals as the UK won in Olympic Games since 1980 combined). Historically it has also been notoriously hard to medal at major tournaments, that is the World and European championships as well as the Olympics. But over the last 10 years GB boxers have won a remarkable 81 medals from 25 majors, an unprecedented run of success.

HAS your time at GB gone quickly?

It’s gone fast but it’s been really enjoyable. Some really positive people and superb achievements from the boxers so it’s been a really good 10 years.

When you became a trainer did you imagine you’d become the GB performance director?

Not originally. You start doing a bit of coaching and see what happens, see where it goes.

Derek Mapp was the chairman at GB Boxing and he gave me a call. I went and met Derek, he had some great ideas and things he wanted to do at GB and that was the start of it for me. Derek was really influential in what happened with GB moving forward.

Were you surprised that they approached you in particular?

Yeah, that’s the way life is, you’re not sure what’s around the corner. You get opportunities and things that you want to do. I boxed for England many years ago. I was at Crystal Palace where it was in them days and I really enjoyed my time on the programme. You always think if I was a coach I’d do this and do that, see changes here and keep things the same in other areas. You always think about it… You get the opportunity and you jump at it because it’s a great thing to be a part of.

Were there things from your background in pro boxing that helped in the job as well?

I worked with great coaches, amateur and pro. My amateur coach Frank O’Sullivan was a great amateur coach. He taught me the fundamentals of boxing.

I worked with Paddy and Tommy Lynch, who were great trainers. I worked with Thell Torrence in the States as well. He was a top and very experienced professional coach. I was quite lucky. I was always coached by very knowledgeable coaches and talented coaches so I’ve learned a lot about the sport, through my amateur career, boxing around the world and then boxing professionally.

Was there anything that surprised you about the Olympic sport system?

The expertise of the coaches that you’d need and the expertise of the support staff that you’d need, in trying to support the boxers on the programme. It was still early days at GB, we didn’t have the staff that we have now. A small amount of coaches and a small amount of support staff. As we’ve moved on and as the team’s achieved things we’ve been able to add more support in various areas.

The calendar’s tough and tournaments change. To win decisions at major tournaments at the highest level, it’s pretty tough. It’s complex.

Every area’s got its complications and difficulties but the overriding thing is it’s a really positive thing to be involved in and the people that you’re working with make it something you want to be a part of.

And how has your role evolved?

The full-time coaches at GB Boxing have gathered vast experience, especially in the 10 years. Some are going into their third Olympic Games now.

We’ve got real, vast experience and talent in the coaches that we’ve got at GB and the boxers can buy into that and believe in the plans and strategies that we create on their behalf and the coaching that’s going to prepare them, coach them and then obviously be in their corner throughout the tournaments.

It’s a big job [performance director but] there are a lot of people working hard on the boxer’s behalf. You need the boxers to have the talent first and foremost, and obviously want to listen and want to get on with it, and the culture that’s been created by the people at GB over the last 10 years is something we’re lucky to have and is a part of our strength I feel.

What’s your sense of the impact the programme’s had on British boxing over the last 10 years, with not just the Olympic medallists but with former GB boxers, like Josh Taylor, like Callum Smith, doing really well?

You’ve got numerous world champions who spent years at GB Boxing who’ve gone on to become world champions as professionals and boxed at the very top in professional boxing.

You’ve got to be pretty robust and resilient as well as being a very good boxer [to do well with GB]. They were both very good boxers on the programme. They’ve gone on to do really well, and hopefully their time on the programme has helped prepare them for the professional journey that they’re on now, along with many others.

I think that the ability of the coaches and the support team and then the talent of the boxer and the good work that was done when they arrived by their club coach, and the home nations, when you work with talented boxers and construct a dedicated training plan and programme for that boxer, they can achieve Olympic podium and World podium.

The World championships, look at the medals the boxers, male and female, have won over the last few years, European championships as well and obviously in the last two Olympic Games the men and women have done really well as well. A lot goes into it. There’s a lot of hard work in the background. It keeps evolving and the sport keeps changing. The levels keep getting harder and harder, the physicality and the technique. I think we’re pretty experienced in developing boxers at the highest level if they’ve got the talent.

It’s never ending, it’s continuous, but it’s something that it’s great to be a part of and it’s a privilege to do my role. I do the best that I can for the team and the programme and I work alongside the CEO who runs the organisation, Matt Holt.

Me and him have worked together for 10 years. He’s been really supportive in my relationship with him over the 10 years for what the programme needs. Also, with the funding from UK Sport, and we’ve got a really good chairman, Simon Esom, who’s in his second Olympic cycle now, and we’ve had real good backing from our board over the years.

Primarily the main aim is to give them the chance to become Olympic boxers and successful ones as well at that level. [On the GB programme] you’re looking at fighting the world’s best, who in no time in the pros are world champions as well. But we try and instil confidence in the boxers and their team-mates are good role models in creating belief they can go to the top levels of Olympic boxing.

Josh Taylor pound-for-pound
Josh Taylor is one of the GB success stories (Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

To prepare them for that are you tough on them in the gym?

You’ve got the boxers who are new to the programme and they’re in their infancy. You’re trying to ease them in. You create for them coaching and an understanding for what’s ahead, what type of competitions they’ll go to, who they’ve got to face and the levels… Then you have your number ones who are on a slightly different journey and have been there a lot longer. Most of these, male and female, are robust and very resilient boxers as well as being talented.

It’s a journey but it’s an individual journey once they come to GB. We try to box them at the right times and don’t try to aim for the stars too quickly. It’s very difficult and it’s a very physical sport at the moment.

The more time spent on the programme the more the boxers gather the experience that puts them in a good position where they can box anywhere in the world against anybody.

What have been the highlights for you as performance director?

I think the best moments is seeing what’s been created and the success the boxers achieved. Because it’s their talent. They come from their clubs and with our help and our guidance they’re able to achieve things at World Championships and obviously Europeans and hopefully Olympics.

To see the staff go over and above to help them and support them, in whatever is their discipline and expertise, and then to see the lengths that the coaches go to on the boxers’ behalf. Dave Alloway and Lee Pullen were at both men’s and women’s World championships this year in Russia, with only a five day visit home in between both tournaments. They headed it up on floor for men and women, got great results and will be looking at their third Olympics in Tokyo, and also at the men’s Worlds worked alongside the very experienced coaches in Gary Hale and Bob Dillon on behalf of GB Boxing. Also we have tremendous coaching back in Sheffield that all play their part in the performances of the team. They are world class coaches.

You see them living it… It’s a difficult job but it’s massively rewarding when it goes right. We’ve got a picture of Bob Dillon jumping on Dave Alloway in the corner when Pat [McCormack] won the [World championship] semi against the Uzbek and it’s absolutely brilliant. That’s what it’s all about for me.

When the boxers believe in themselves, then fulfil their potential and achieve massive things.

One thing that sticks out for me was how tough it was at the last Worlds, certainly for the men and getting tougher for the women also. Not only is there more strength in depth with the women’s boxing now, there’s more with the men’s with lots of countries having really good boxers. Probably the toughest men’s Worlds that I’ve been to in my 10 years, through a variety of reasons, physically and technically, just the physicality of the tournament and them having to go five times and boxing against the world’s best who are all full time athletes and have been for a long time. It’s very difficult.

They’ve got to be totally dedicated to make it to that level in the sport… But our boxers are showing they can compete with them and on any given day they can match them.

What have been the lowest moments in the last 10 years?

You can look at some decisions and think, ‘Should have been a World champion’ or ‘should have been an Olympic champion’ and it’s gone the other way. It’s part of the sport; it’s difficult, it’s three rounds, its close and subjective. But I think two or three decisions that would have made boxers Olympic champions or World champions, they’re the ones that probably sit with you a little bit. You get on with it and the team pushes on but you feel for the boxer.

That’s what takes the wind out of your sales a little bit.

[But] there’s always another tournament, there’s always another target to aim for. Boxing’s booming, I feel. England, Scotland and Wales are producing better and better boxers, the clubs and the home nations, and I think that hopefully we can develop them to Olympic level and get some more results like we’ve had in the last few years.

Anthony Joshua trainer
McCracken balances GB work with coaching Anthony Joshua (Action Images/Andrew Couldridge)

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