Interview With Neil Black, Performance Director At British Athletics

Neil Black walks us through the importance of performance at British Athletics


As Mo Farah crossed the finishing line at the 2012 London Olympics and raised his hands above his head, it was a sum of more than just the race he had raced. It was in fact more than the training he had done leading up to that point. It had taken many years and many coaches to get him to that point, leading him in the right direction and giving him effective advice to get him, with arms raised, breaking the ribbon at the end of straight.

One of the people involved in this now iconic moment of olympic history was Neil Black.

Neil is the Performance Director at British Athletics and has worked with some of the most famous olympians in his 20 years working at the organization. These include Kelly Holmes, Roger Black and Jessica Ennis, to name just a few.

At the recent Sports Performance & Tech Summit in Manchester, we caught up with Neil to discuss his thoughts on the use of technology and data in elite athletics today.

With his experience having worked with some of the world’s top athletics was simple, but something that many coaches and athletes struggle with. What is the best way to discuss data with athletes?

“Keep it incredibly simple, use language that they understand and make sure they understand that it is for their benefit”

It is a simple method, but one that requires an immense amount of skill.

The ability to recognize a trend in an athletes data, then relay it in a way that can be understood requires analytical skills combined with strong communications. It is a skill combination that sets the best coaches apart and one that many need to strive for.

It is also important for the data and advice to ‘have a clear and direct effect on their performance’ according to Neil. The ability to communicate a finding or making a suggestion will only be properly digested if the end results are positive and memorable.

This means that not only does your data need to be correctly communicated, but the legitimacy also needs to be considered. If it is going to have a large effect on an athletes performance, then the data needs to be accurate and the analysis needs to be strong.

One of the ways that Neil believes this should be done is through a wider knowledge of data. Being able to see where the world’s best are, then comparing an athlete to that, is one of the best ways to not only convey the information to the athlete, but also to demonstrate the effectiveness of the data. “The words objectivity and measurable, these are the kind of things that are the most significant”, according to Neil these objective measurement that relate to the data are going to be the most important when moving forward and comparing against the best in the world.

“If you can demonstrate a deficit or a comparison with the world’s best, people can relate to that. If you can then say ‘this is where you’re at now, and this is what the best in the world do, then you can perhaps understand why you are not the best in the world’”. Neil clearly has a firm vision of how these kind of comparisons will have a profound effect on the way that coaches interact with their athletes and how athletes can compare themselves with the people they should be competing against.

With data and target setting appearing to have an increasing prominence in the way that athletes are training, I wanted Neil’s perspective on whether or not coaches needed to have a data driven mindset. “They don’t absolutely 100% need to, but the majority of the best coaches, athletes and sports teams in the world are beginning to work with coaches who have a data driven mindset. It is very difficult looking into the future, not having that”.

Getting the data is no longer an easy task though, something that Neil is aware of. He is of the belief that new technologies will play a big part in how athletes gather and use their data in the future. This new technology has played a part in allowing coaches and athletes to utilise the data more. As Neil says, “Gradually, coaches and sports performers are beginning to be receptive to objective data. They’re beginning to increase their knowledge, and if you put receptiveness and knowledge together, you begin to get the potential to utilise the data.”

Technology is at the start of the process at the moment, we are likely to see bigger changes in the future, but there are still significant gains being made today. Neil believes that “It is beginning to have a dramatic effect on performance” which shows that despite his 20 years working within elite athletics, that we are now at an exciting time for this kind of work. In fact he believes that we are at a stage where we will see it having “a dramatic and hugely positive effect in the future”.

Neil’s work has spanned two decades and has brought him to the top of the athletic world whilst working with some of the most talented athletes in the world whilst leading up to this point. His embracing of new coaching technologies and appreciation of the need to adapt to data is a great demonstration of how
coaching needs to be looked
at in the future.


Read next:

Sports Performance & Tech, Issue 12