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THE MYSTERIOUS MENTOR OF MELBOURNE

Nov. 26, 1956
Nov. 26, 1956

Table of Contents
Nov. 26, 1956

Greatest Show On Earth
Spectacle
Events & Discoveries
The Wonderful World Of Sport
Preview
A Boy's Trophies
Powerboating
Acknowledgments
Maryland Meeting
Horses
The Outdoor Week
  • Edited by Thomas H. Lineaweaver

    In Maine and Ontario it is man over beast while in Washington it is man against duck and no decision. A British naturalist despairs of man, an Idaho mayor pays dearly for elk meat and an African game ranger pushes parched pachyderms to water

  • Neither snow nor ice nor Olympiads will make the cross-country championships close up shop

Franz Stampfl
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Mr. Caper

THE MYSTERIOUS MENTOR OF MELBOURNE

Few people except athletes know Franz Stampfl, the lively and persuasive coach who believes breaking records can be routine

Roger Bannister, a sensitive and articulate athlete, has often observed that athletes, in their hour of trial, are the loneliest men in the world. At that instant when they face the waiting track or the high-jump bar, or heft javelin or discus in their nervous, sweating hands, there is no one who can help them but themselves—no one, that is, in the case of a privileged few, except a mysterious Austrian coach named Franz Stampfl.

This is an article from the Nov. 26, 1956 issue Original Layout

Next week at Melbourne this man Stampfl will be at the starting line with England's four-minute miler, Brian Hewson—and with his opponent, Australia's almost-four-minute miler, Merv Lincoln. If this seems paradoxical, it only lends added interest to a race which will, in effect, find Stampfl pitted against Stampfl, a situation which will arise throughout the Games as members of the Australian team, which Stampfl undertook a year ago to train for these Olympic Games, meet up with Stampfl-trained men from other lands. And with all of these athletes of varying nationalities, as they stand alone, nakedly facing their destiny, will be some small part of Stampfl, the Svengali-like figure who, more than any other coach alive, seems to be able to inject his charges with the conviction that they have within them the power to win.

The decisive moment of supreme trial, when the world watches and waits for success or failure, is the moment for which Stampfl, a lively, brilliant Austrian who by now has grown accustomed to seeing his pupils make history, assiduously prepares those who are fortunate enough to have secured his services for their physical and spiritual care. To Stampfl, the latter is fully as important as the former; though he has preached sheer physical endurance as much as any man, he has never divorced the powers of the spirit from his training. "I sometimes think," he said not long ago, "that my ideal athlete would have the mind of a poet. He would be a man with rich imagination, capable of intensely feeling physical, mental and spiritual emotions."

Beyond question, this close attention to the spiritual, or psychological, aspect of competitive athletics has been a factor of major importance in the extraordinary success of Stampfl as a coach. This week at Melbourne, he will have 16 outstanding athletes in competition, representing three different nations—Australia, England and South Africa. This apparent conflict bothers him not at all: "I am only interested in making good athletes better," he says, a feeling in which Australia, which engaged his services in August of last year, apparently concurs. Stampfl's preoccupation with the mind has produced a unique competitive philosophy: "Effort is really a mental image. I am convinced that the basis of athletic coaching must be to make the state of mind so strong that a world record performance is reduced to the level of instinct."

This conviction Franz Stampfl injects into his athletes with an intensity approaching the hypnotic. Chris Chat-away, who will be carrying Great Britain's colors in the 5,000-meter race, said of him: "When I first met him I realized he had a remarkable understanding of human nature and a devastatingly infectious enthusiasm. I found his approach to athletics an immediate inspiration." (Chataway also recalls that in his unforgettable, record-breaking duel with Russia's machinelike Vladimir Kuts in London two years ago he was physically finished with half a mile to go; that the inspiration of conviction that he could win which Stampfl had conveyed to him before the race drove him on in an effort which was truly superhuman.) Brian Hewson said: "I never realized it was possible to work so hard in training and love every minute of it until I was coached by Franz. He makes running appear like an expression of beauty instead of a tough grind." It is a conviction that was crystallized in Stampfl—the fourth of a family of seven children, who was born in Vienna 43 years ago—during his difficult years in World War II. A skiing instructor and javelin thrower (he once threw 247 feet in an exhibition, five feet over the present Olympic record), he came to England as an art student in 1937, stayed on when Hitler occupied his native land, and was interned when war broke out. In June 1940 he was shipped off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only to be torpedoed in mid-voyage. He drifted in the sea for nine hours before being picked up. Some time later, he was sent off to Australia on a ship which was so drastically overcrowded and under-provisioned that it was later made the subject of a court of inquiry. "If there was ever any wavering doubt in my mind," Stampfl says, "the war convinced me that the mind, body and soul must be cultivated into one dynamic force to achieve sporting greatness. I discovered that physical hardships could be overcome if there was a burning desire from the mind to produce complete mental control. Also, I saw in myself and others the almost frightening powers which could be released under great provocation and stress. A man strongly roused is driven by a force greater than himself."

Since the essence of conviction is to convince, it would follow that Stampfl probably does more persuasive talking to his athletes than most other coaches think is necessary, and this is indeed the case. His powers of persuasion are not limited only to the spoken word. Among others, he coached Fred Dwyer, the plucky little U.S. miler, by letter over a period of years; and latterly, from Australia, he has been coaching a number of athletes he left behind in England by tape recorder. To judge by results, the power of his spoken voice emerging from the speaker is almost as strong as his personal presence. Last March, when Chataway drifted into a period of lassitude following Stampfl's departure for Australia, a tape received from Australia outlining training schedules jerked him right back into line again, with resulting immediate improvements in performance. Stampfl's recorded messages are so loaded with passion that they are almost impossible to ignore. Technical statistics on proposed lap times and repetitions pour forth in a swift, fluent and seemingly endless stream of slightly accented English. "Five times 880 yards repetition two minutes six each; rest at most 10 minutes between each," the recorder will proclaim. "Try to cut it to eight minutes if you can. Then next day try 10 times 440 yards interval running from 60 to 61 seconds with a recovery lap of 2½ minutes, then next three times a three-quarter mile each in three minutes 15 seconds, but this time you can have 15 minutes between. Do nothing on the day before the race. Let me know how you get on and I'll send you more." The athlete, it seems, can scarcely help himself, such is the galvanism of Stampfl's exhortations. "He is the only coach," said Chris Brasher, one of Britain's fine trio of steeplechasers, recently, "who makes you feel an utter heel if you don't complete his schedules."

A START IN LONDON

Many of Stampfl's critics accuse him, even today, of excessive verbosity, but Stampfl, who has adhered to his methods through the good and bad times of an up-and-down career, pays no attention to such comments. In fact, he never has; his whole attention has always been concentrated on the athlete. When he first came to London as a free-lancer his problem, of course, was to find athletes to concentrate on. A virtual unknown, with only some experience as a small-time track and skiing coach in Austria behind him, he did not even have suitable premises on which to start a training school. Unlike America, where a would-be coach would look for a job at a school, college or university, the British system offered no such security: Stampfl was a man with a mission competing against many others for the attention of individual athletes or sports clubs. He finally got a start in London, where an army colonel sympathetic to his views gave him the use of an army hall and track. Stampfl used his own meager capital to buy the necessary equipment, and then, hanging out his shingle, so to speak, waited for customers. His fee was a shilling per head per day, and to the individual athlete it still is.

The war years interrupted his coaching career, which was furthered only slightly by some coaching he was able to do while studying for a bachelor of arts degree at Melbourne University. But in 1946 he was back in the United Kingdom again, setting up shop in Belfast, where his reputation began to pick up as a result of his work with Thelma Hopkins, still Britain's best woman high jumper, and Victor Milligan, who developed into a four-minute five-second miler and went to Purdue. Within three years he became one. of the most successful coaches in Europe. He moved to London, where his services were immediately retained by an assortment of clubs such as the Belgrave Harriers, the Blackheath Harriers and the South London Harriers. Oxford University paid him a small retainer of around £300 yearly to train the Oxford team, a duty which involved a 60-mile journey to the university some 40 times a year. In between, he held court at Battersea Park's London County Council track, where a hundred or more athletes would pay their shilling fee for his ringing, make-or-break advice.

This advice centers on two things: the importance of mind over matter (in this case, the athlete's body), and the hardening of the body to the point where the utmost demands can be made of it. Stampfl's effort, as he starts out to develop an athlete, is to capture his imagination and stimulate his interest, holding both through the long grind of training as the body is brought to ever greater endurance in preparation for the peak effort. As Stampfl himself puts it: "Before everything else I have to attain a complete understanding with the athletes with whom I work. Sometimes I know more about them than they themselves, which helps me to free latent powers still dormant. After training sessions in England I often accompanied my athletes to a cafe, where we would discuss anything which came to mind so as to stimulate new interests apart from track and field. Sometimes I told stories of bohemians I met here in Chelsea, where I lived. To many young pupils it was like lifting the veil on an unknown world, and a relief from the ordeal of training. Maybe they thought me just a silly Austrian. Some might have believed I was a great man. I don't know. It didn't matter to me as long as they were interested, because only then could I bring the best out of them.

"This sort of thing was important because it helped me to gain an entrance to my athletes' minds through another medium. A coach must be interested in everything—music, art, ballet, racing cars, mountaineering, skiing, religion. Should an athlete show a liking for a subject I do not know, I make a point of studying it. Only with complete understanding can we reach the true partnership needed. Chataway, for instance, is an admirer of Lawrence of Arabia. Whatever he has suffered in training or running is cast against the background of a man who, he believes, gave much more. This well-spring of inspiration is important in a civilized world where a man is seldom asked to tax himself to the limits of his powers."

Part and parcel of this mental side of his training program is Stampfl's firm conviction that the athlete must be master of himself, not just the willing slave of his coach. "During my first interview with the Amateur Athletic Association, when I was seeking an opportunity to coach," he recalls, "a moment of indignation forced me to crystallize a policy to which I have always adhered. 'I am not a German coach,' I told them then, 'and I do not force anyone to do anything. There are no laws to control athletes.' I was very young in those days—only 27—but I was already certain that coaching was intuitive rather than a scientific thing. From my early days in Vienna as a skier and a javelin thrower I have always thought of sport as an art rather than something to be reduced to the blackboard level. In training I always ask my athletes what they want to do. Brian Hewson was so amazed by this technique when he first came to me that he hesitated to accept it. 'You're the boss,' he said. 'You tell me.' His answer shocked me, because it was a reflection of a man not willing to take responsibility. Once, a little later, he came for training after being out until the early hours of the morning. He was sheepish, and expected me to be angry. Instead I said 'It doesn't really matter, but you cannot expect to do a hard workout because your body is not sufficiently recovered.' I tried by my attitude to impress on him that the responsibility was his, not mine. I never use the schoolmaster approach, because if I do, boys will always be boys. And from that day on, Hewson began to take charge of himself."

A CHALLENGE FROM CHATAWAY

Chataway's reaction to Stampfl was as challenging in a different way. A strong individualist, he was prejudiced against coaches, harboring an objection to regimentation often found in English university men. Stampfl's way of dealing with this was deceptively easy. Regimentation, the strict, undeviating routine of any kind of training, was unavoidable. "But," says Stampfl, "fortunately, my methods have always been to influence the athlete's mind to make him believe the ideas are his own. Once, for instance, before the Kuts race, Chataway arrived for training and did not think he could do the four separate mile time trials in four minutes 20 seconds as arranged. I knew he could not afford to miss the training, but I did not show my feelings. 'Don't worry,' I said, 'just run a mile in 4:40.' He did 4:32. During the recovery interval we talked and joked and he revived, showing his usual spirit for training. In the end he did the last three miles as planned and said it was terrifically easy. He thought it was a great workout.

"Training," Stampfl continued, "is so vitally important that it presents a problem in itself. It is not enough just to impress on the athlete that without hard work he has no tools for success. Somehow training must be made a rich experience in itself and not just a means to an end. The technical side of it must slip simply into the pattern and not sound like a geometry lesson. When an athlete wants to train, in contrast to being persuaded to do so, then you are on the right road."

The technical side of Stampfl's training—interval running, in the case of the middle-distance and distance runners for whom Stampfl is most famous—is not easy to "slip simply into the picture." Stretched over weeks and months, it is an appalling grind of repeated running, time after time, over a set distance with constantly shortening periods for recovery in between and constantly accelerating speeds. (Tom Courtney, the great American 880 man whom Stampfl once offered to coach, frankly described it as "too tough." "I saw what those European runners had to do," he said. "They practice four hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes they do as much as eight hours of running in a day. I only work out three times a week and for two hours on each occasion.") It is the type of training that makes milers out of three-milers, quarter-milers out of milers, sprint men out of half-milers and quarter-milers. The runner only occasionally runs his true distance; most of his time is spent in running sections of it, meanwhile constantly pushing back the threshold of his endurance. "If a man is to run a three-mile race in world-record time," says Stampfl, "he must be able to get near or under four minutes for the mile. To do this he must be able to run a fast half and a good quarter mile. Sometimes I believe the great distance runners could be produced from strong sprinters. Speed is a basic quality which is never lost by adding stamina."

Stampfl has never had the opportunity to attempt this logical conclusion of the interval running system and he probably never will. Tempting as it is, the challenge of trying to build a supermiler out of a record-breaking sprinter involves tremendous risks; but making sprinters out of milers is a different matter. Relatively speaking, this is what he does, and it has resulted in the astonishing versatility shown by many of his (and other interval system coaches') pupils—men like Chataway, whose real distance is three miles and up, yet who has run an under-four-minute mile; or Brasher, the steeplechaser; or Roger Bannister, who was a worthy competitor at anything from the half mile to a cross-country race. With these and others Stampfl has proved the advantage of encouraging athletes to compete at varying distances. "They are released from the anxiety of always being expected to win," he says. "Also, it gives them terrific scope for experience, new exhilarations and mental relaxation. Then there are the tremendous tactical advantages gained by a distance man competing over the shorter events where a number of quick bursts are often needed to improve positioning."

THE SECRET OF THE GRIND

This, as much as anything, is the secret of how to keep an athlete's imagination and interests stimulated during the long training grind; and the grind itself is the secret to his ultimate success. "Very simply," says Stampfl, "if you possess the natural potential, and are willing to train for the four-minute mile, it can be achieved. It is not difficult, but the approach seems to puzzle some. Take a runner like Wes Santee, who competed indoors and outdoors throughout the season. Such a program must have taken the edge from him, although his performances were spectacular. If only he had prepared for six to eight months, and then gradually conditioned his body for the great effort! What times he might have achieved!

"Bannister, Chataway and Hewson all began their buildup early in the winter, reverting to elementary speeds of quarter-mile laps of 70 seconds. Within seven months this was reduced by 10 seconds, but it was hardly noticed because they were holding back their speed but increasing pace. These milers became so conditioned that they were able to produce the same time whether it was windy, muddy, rainy or cold. By the summer they could run a major race near world-record time every three weeks and produce a good performance weekly. Last year, when Chataway ran the three miles in 13 minutes 23.2 seconds for a new world record, he found it took little out of him. That winter preparation is needed after every season to build up for the new summer battles."

Stampfl is firmly convinced that the world is full of under-four-minute milers, and that the record, in the not-too-distant future, will be brought down to 3:50, eight seconds below John Landy's stunning time at Turku, Finland, two years ago. He has an eight-months training schedule which he would set potential aspirants for the magic distance, and he would make them keep that schedule for that period before ever allowing them to run a mile at all. A sample day would include 10 quarter miles, each run at a set pace (depending on the degree of training already achieved) with three-minute recovery periods between them, and constant physical and physiological checks. Temperature, humidity and the conditions under which the athlete trained would also be checked each day. Pulse checks would be taken at set times each day, and blood pressure constantly kept under surveillance. Performance, says Stampfl, would go up in proportion to the amount of training the athlete did and in direct proportion to the intensity of that training. "It's like building up immunity to some poisons," Stampfl explains. "Give a man a big dose and, poof, he is dead. But gradually step up the doses and he won't die. There's no guesswork to it."

By way of demonstration, Stampfl is likely to cite the case of Mervyn Lincoln, the 22-year-old school teacher who became one of his charges when he arrived in Australia to coach that country's Olympic team. In four months of Stampfl coaching Lincoln's time went from 4:15.8 to 4:00.6, which put him squarely into the Olympic category. In fact, Stampfl, who foresees the equivalent of a 3:55 mile for the Olympic 1,500-meter race next week, feels certain that Lincoln will be among the finalists when that star-studded contest gets under way.

Stampfl, who on Nov. 12 became an Australian citizen, feels that in his adopted country, which he first saw as an enemy alien in the war, he has found his spiritual—and professional—home. In Melbourne he and his Australian-born wife Patsy, whom he met during his war years there, can live modestly but comfortably on the ¬£1,500 he receives annually from Melbourne University, the National Fitness Council, Victoria's Ministry of Education and the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association. He is actually—though not officially—Australia's national coach, and he has great plans to make Australia the leading track and field country in the world. Australia has the material, he says; and it also has the imagination and the drive which he considers essential.

"Men are lifted from their mediocrity by their imagination and the wealth of experience they can portray in their vocation," says Stampfl. "I myself can be inspired by listening to music, by looking at great paintings; or be enraptured by superb dancers. I thrill at the fantastic rhythm of their bodies swaying in perfect harmony, and at the sheer magic of seeing them as lonely men dominating a vast audience. Night after night they must pit their skill against all the odds. When I leave the theater I am like a boy wanting to be a dancer and entrance others as they did me. It is not possible, but the inspiration need not be lost.

"I pass on the experience to my athletes and tell them that one day they will enter an Olympic stadium all alone, with thousands of eyes watching. They must prepare thoroughly for this moment. I teach them independence—they must be complete masters of themselves and resist the overwhelming feeling of loneliness which captures them. I try to make their minds so strong that they are blessed with an inward feeling of complete superiority—for there must be no mental breakdown, or all the physical training will be in vain. I try to lift them above themselves—for immortality may be only a few minutes away."

FIVE PHOTOSLARRY BURROWSSTAMPFL IN ACTION IS A DANCER AT WORK
THE ARTISTRY OF ATHLETICS: STAMPFL SHOWS A HURDLER'S APPROACH (LEFT); A DISCUS THROWER'S WINDUP; TWO MORE PHASES OF HURDLING, AND (RIGHT) BALANCING AT THE LINE AT THE END OF A JAVELIN THROW. HIS WORKOUTS ARE AS INTENSE AS THOSE OF ATHLETES THEMSELVES
PHOTOLARRY BURROWSTHE MAN BEHIND THE MAGIC MILE, Stampfl (in cap) shares victory grin with Roger Bannister and his pacers Brasher (left) and Chataway after Bannister's historic feat.PHOTOLARRY BURROWSAN EARLY STAMPFL CHAMPION, Northern Ireland's Thelma Hopkins, works out under her coach's eye. First woman to clear five feet 8½ inches, she is strong Olympic threat.PHOTOLARRY BURROWSTHAT STAMPFL LOOK, called hypnotic by some, is a mixture of Austrian charm, calculated challenge and boundless confidence, which has inspired some of world's top athletes.