Coach Linda Blade with heptathlete Kiera Greenaway (© Dr Linda Blade)
Former elite heptathlete, coach, mother, leader, role model and champion of women’s sport. Canada’s Dr Linda Blade has many talents and a CV bursting with accomplishments, but above all she is a devoted and loyal fan of athletics.
The world’s No.1 sport has been a central part of her life since she was a child and her love for it is abundantly clear. Now in her 50s, Blade is president of the board of Athletics Alberta in Canada and coaches numerous athletes across a variety of sports. I caught up with her to learn more about her lifetime of service in athletics, why there are not more women coaches and her ideas for the future of our sport.
Blade has certainly been there and done it in a variety of roles in athletics. Her athletics journey began as a talented child who excelled in the multi events. She competed in pentathlon, high jump and long jump in Bolivia, where she was born and spent her childhood, setting national records in all three events. Later, she enjoyed an international career as a heptathlete representing Canada. After retiring from competition, Blade became a student of athleticism, studying the growth and development of children over time and how the size, shape, proportion and composition of the human body relates to function, as part of her PhD in kinesiology from Simon Fraser University in Columbia.
Coaching and coach education came next, while Blade was living in Kano in northern Nigeria during the 1990s because of her husband’s work. Determined to put her PhD studies into practice, Blade became a lecturer and coach at Bayero University in Kano.
An extraordinary and fortuitous coincidence then led to the next step in her career. While in Kano, she wrote to the IAAF (now World Athletics) development director requesting official coaching materials that she could use in her own coaching and to teach others how to coach. The reply that soon came was from Bjorn Wangemann, who had coached her as a child in Bolivia during the mid-1970s. He remembered Blade (then Linda Spenst) very well, since she had won the two medals required of him during his contract as the national coach for Bolivia.
Wangemann’s experience in Bolivia led him to develop the IAAF’s coaching curriculum, to ensure that coaches from developed countries spending time in developing countries could leave a sustainable legacy in coaching after they left. He encouraged Blade to take the global governing body’s coaching course at its centre in Nairobi, Kenya. This was not without its difficulties, but she duly took the course and passed. With her experience of living and working in a Muslim environment in Kano, she then travelled to Iran and Bahrain to deliver training to women on how to coach girls. She also delivered coach training for both men and women in Sri Lanka, Guyana, Puerto Rico, Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago.
Motherhood followed and Blade returned to Canada and settled in Edmonton, Alberta. Having lived overseas for most of her life until that point, she was a stranger in Edmonton, but soon launched her own private coaching business. She was quickly head-hunted by the talent ID scouts at one of Canada’s top ice hockey teams, the Edmonton Oilers. They wanted her expertise in how to go about identifying children who could become, in due course, top hockey players. That led to her coaching plyometrics and foundational movement skills to athletes in 17 different sports, including figure skating. Among her charges were Canada’s figure skating pair, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who won gold at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. From there she has never looked back, and her coaching business is thriving.
I asked Blade for her thoughts on why so few women are involved in coaching. The age-old reason of women doing the lion’s share of domestic chores came up immediately.
“Athletics training often happens in the early evening when most women are at home cooking. It is difficult for women and especially mothers to spend time coaching,” she says.
Coaches being paid properly for their skills and expertise is another reason, according to Blade. “People expect coaches to have expertise and qualifications, but they don’t expect to pay them in return. You have to reward professionalism properly. It also makes coaches accountable – if coaches are being paid, they have to produce results,” she explains. “Even if coaches are not paid, their value must be tracked, given credit and recognised in some way.”
Blade also believes we should recognise all the people who help to deliver an athlete to elite level, in a similar way to the credits that recognise every individual who helps to create a film. In particular, the people who help children to develop foundational motor skills must be recognised, because many will be women.
Arguably, they are the most important people in an athlete’s journey from beginner to elite.
“These people are key – they bring on young athletes, keep them safe from injuries and encourage them to stay in the sport,” explains Blade. “Too often, the only person recognised as a coach of a successful athlete is the coach who helped them at the end. But they merely build on the work of others up to that point, many of whom will be women.”
Reflecting on this point in my own career, it was exactly as Blade described: most of my coaches latterly were men, but my school teachers who gave me the foundations for becoming an elite athlete many years later were all women.
There is no doubt that Blade loves athletics and she is very clear that it is the No.1 sport.
“Athletics is the most fundamental sport: run, jump, throw is the core of everything,” she says. She believes the value of athletics as the most fundamental of all sports is under valued. “It is the foundation of learning athleticism, and yet we have no universal, global system for learning athletic skills.”
If she were in a global leadership position in athletics, this is one idea she would implement, along with much greater recognition for coaches.
Her vision for the sport shows how the lack of more women in senior leadership positions means that good ideas like these remain only ideas and are not implemented.
“I owe athletics everything in my life, from competing as an athlete, winning scholarships, and now as a coach,” Blade adds. “The least I can do is give something back. It informs me every day, and reminds me what I need to know.”
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active