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Utesch shares coaching acumen with Pakistani athletes

Matt Utesch coaches Pakistani athletes.

Matt Utesch, Lehigh’s track and field coach, has always dreamed of being a part of something bigger than just track. Utesch was able to fulfill his dream by participating in a coaching exchange program in Pakistan that allowed him to rise above social, political and ethnic barriers.

“The thing that has always astounded me is how sport and politics often seem so opposed to each other,” Utesch says. “So to travel to Pakistan and to have sport transcend terrorism and fear for me was my chance to be part of the Olympic movement that’s really just about the human spirit and so much more than just winning a gold medal or being at the Olympics.”

Utesch spent 10 days in June in Lahore, Pakistan as a part of the Systematic Coaches Training Program. The program, sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee in partnership with the Pakistan and Asian Olympic Committees, paired Pakistani coaches and athletes with some of the most talented U.S. coaches in track and field, volleyball and Taekwondo.

After landing in Pakistan, Utesch was anxious to start his role in the Olympic movement. But after his first day of training, he quickly learned that these athletes and coaches were far from amateurs.

“Basically, I found out that they were very well-educated in the biomechanics of the events. Some of them were maybe even more advanced than me,” Utesch says. “At one point on the first day I thought ‘If you guys know this, why am I here?’”

After training with the coaches and athletes, Utesch soon realized that while they understood biomechanics, they didn’t understand how to make changes to their training regimen to fix problems.

“I discovered what I could teach them and that was quite a relief for me,” Utesch says. “They can look at a long jump from a world-class athlete and say, ‘These are the things that they did wrong.’ But there was a disconnect between doing drills and teaching how to fix that one specific little thing that they were doing wrong.”

Finding a common language

Utesch spots a Pakistani pole vaulter.

Over the next seven days, Utesch broke down the events piece by piece. Armed with hundreds of drills, Utesch fine-tuned the athletes’ techniques and also passed along his knowledge to the coaches.

“They were quite attentive. They definitely wanted to know about the drills, why we did certain drills and how they can specifically help with each thing the athletes were struggling with,” Utesch says. “I have actually had e-mails since then saying, ‘The drills that you gave us are excellent and we’re using them with our kids and it’s already making an impact.’”

While most of the coaches spoke English, many of the athletes spoke Urdu, leaving Utesch struggling to communicate.

“I think all coaches take for granted our ability to communicate,” Utesch says. “Communication is a really complex thing and I think that when you have to speak in broken English to communicate, it really makes you think about what you want to say differently.”

Although they couldn’t always understand each other, track and field became their uniting force and communication tool. Utesch hopes this athletic cohesion can serve as a blueprint for future exchange projects.

“I want to see where this program goes. I would be excited to go to other developing countries and do the same kind of thing I just did,” Utesch says.

Utesch also hopes his trip can serve to educate others about the people of Pakistan.

“I think the biggest message that I would want to send out is that the people of Pakistan are just like us,” Utesch says. “They’re living their lives and doing their things. Their pole vaulters want to be better pole vaulters and that’s just like the kids at Lehigh. They just want to be better pole vaulters or better long jumpers and that’s what they’re concerned about—making themselves better.”

To read Matt Utesch's detailed, first-person account of his trip to Pakistan, click here.

--Maddy King

Posted on Friday, July 27, 2007

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