Adam Didyk is a well-connected man in Australian athletics, with an impressive resume.
In his prime, Didyk was an elite runner in South Australia, specialising in the 1500 and 5000-metre events.
After an Achilles injury forced him into early retirement, however, Didyk took up coaching. Needless to say, it’s been a successful transition.
For the past 12 years, Didyk has coached marathoner Jessica (Trengove) Stenson: a two-time Olympian (London 2012, Rio 2016) and two-time Commonwealth Games bronze medallist (Glasgow 2014, Gold Coast 2018).
He has also coached Olympian Madeline Heiner, who ran the 3000-metre steeplechase and 5000m event at the Rio Games, and Olympic race walking champion Jared Tallent.
Coaching for Australia and leading Team Tempo
Adam Didyk has served as a national team coach at various international championships.
In addition, he currently works as the South Australian state performance coach for Athletics Australia, and is the head coach of Team Tempo, an elite running squad based in Adelaide.
RunCreature recently spoke with Didyk for a story about Jessica Stenson, who is making her comeback following the birth of her son in late 2019.
We talked a lot about Stenson’s career, but we also touched on various elements of his coaching philosophy, and why Australians should be excited by the up-and-coming talent we are developing in endurance running.
Adam Didyk had lots of interesting stories, and there were some insightful takeaways, which might be useful to coaches and athletes alike.
Here are 5 takeaways from Team Tempo coach Adam Didyk.
1. Identify a runner’s strengths
This seems blatantly obvious. But for coaches, it’s still an important task. And it’s not always easy to steer athletes towards the events for which they’re most optimally suited.
When Adam Didyk started working with Jessica Stenson, way back in 2008, it was as the head coach of a squad composed mainly of 800 and 1500 metre runners. But this wasn’t her strength.
“She wasn’t the top athlete in the squad by any means,” he recalls. “In the reps, she would get destroyed by some of the other girls.”
While her teammates were getting faster, and recording personal bests, Stenson was plateauing.
Didyk could see she didn’t have the speed to be competitive at the 1500. What she did have, however, was an incredible engine for aerobic running.
Steering athletes to their sweet spot
During training, she would warm-up and cool down with some of the male athletes, joining them on their long runs, says Didyk.
“I got a fairly good idea, quite early on, that her attributes were more toward the aerobic, marathon end,” he says.
Over the first 6 months of their athlete-coach relationship, Didyk encouraged her to start stepping up in distances: to focus on the 5K, and cross country. Improvement and success began coming more readily in these domains.
In 2010, she won Adelaide’s City-Bay fun run, and took home the Australian national cross country championships.
This natural progression eventually led Stenson to the marathon, and she has never looked back.
A timely intervention
It’s possible Stenson might have figured it out on her own, and gravitated towards longer distances.
It’s also possible she might have continued battling at a distance where, constrained by physical limitations, she was never going to improve.
In this scenario, frustration might have led to burnout, and a fantastic marathon career might never have been realised.
Didyk’s intervention helped steer Stenson towards the marathon. Importantly, it got her there sooner than she might have done on her own, allowing her to maximise her prime in the sport.
2. Seek guidance from other coaches and experts
This is arguably the most important takeaway from Adam Didyk. Don’t pretend you know everything, or try to convince your athlete your way is right.
Stenson needed to make the leap to the marathon. It was the next logical step in her career. But Didyk was not a marathon runner nor coach.
He was out of his depth, and he knew it.
So what did he do? He picked-up the telephone and started reaching out to other coaches and marathon greats for advice.
Legends weigh-in and help out
Didyk says he talked to his former coach and Australian Olympian, Shaun Creighton (2:10.22 marathoner), as well as other running legends such as Chris Wardlaw (2:11.55) and Steve Moneghetti (2:08.16).
How should he structure a marathon training program for Jess? Was she ready to run a marathon? Did she need more experience or should she just go for it?
These were some of the questions he was asking. And for Didyk, it wasn’t a matter of swallowing his pride or admitting ignorance, it was a case of being resourceful and doing what was in the best interest of his athlete.
Coaches need to help each other
In his experience, Didyk says coaches he has approached have always been happy to offer support and feedback.
“We all, as coaches, need to make sure that we support each other,” he says. “That type of mentoring cannot be undervalued.”
“I don’t think I’d still be coaching Jess if I took the stance, ‘No no, I know what to do, I know what’s best,’ and not lean on the people and the resources I had around me to make sure it worked well for her.
“Because it’s her running career… irrespective of how I want to interact with it and be viewed as a coach, at the end of the day, my responsibility is to help her make the most of her running career.”
3. Don’t let idealistic time frames constrain athletes
Sometimes you might not feel ready, but you need to take a punt.
When Jessica Stenson debuted at the Nagoya Marathon in early 2012 she was just 24-years-old, and still pretty new to long-distance road running.
In a perfect world, Didyk says she would have waited another year or two to make the leap to the marathon.
But their so-called launch date came forward. The rationale: give Stenson a chance to make the London Olympics.
Elite athletes have to chase elite competitions
Didyk wasn’t sure if this was the right call. But something said by Olympian (1976, 1980) and former Australian track and field head coach (Sydney Olympics), Chris Wardlaw, gave him confidence.
It went like this: ‘You don’t get to plan your running career exactly as you want, you sometimes have to respond to what’s available.’
Stenson might have been ahead of schedule, but on race day she delivered. She ran a 2:31.02, a minute inside the A-qualifying standard, and booked her ticket to the 2012 Olympics.
It remains the fastest marathon debut by an Australian female athlete.
4. Make sure athletes are racing for the right reasons
Jessica Stenson won a bronze medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April 2018. This was an incredible accomplishment.
But Adam Didyk is honest: his athlete wanted gold. And there was a lingering sense of frustration and disappointment at coming up short.
Stenson, who didn’t get to showcase her peak fitness due to the hot and humid conditions on the day, wanted to race again. And soon.
She and Didyk set their sights on the Gold Coast Marathon in early July.
Prize money or personal best?
There was an attractive reason for doing so: a A$40,000 time bonus for the first Australian female to run sub 2:28. (Equal prize money was up for grabs for the first Aussie male to go sub-2:10).
Didyk says Stenson was physically ready to go. She recovered well after two weeks of rest and got straight back into marathon-specific training.
He wasn’t concerned about her body. He was, however, concerned about her head space, and the emotional toll of the Commonwealth Games.
Clarifying the motive for racing
Didyk remembers having a long, heart-to-heart talk with Stenson in advance of the race.
“I needed to see that she wasn’t doing this, or wanting to do it… purely for the money, or a chance at redemption… to appease her frustration of not winning gold at Comm Games,” he says.
After their talk, Didyk was satisfied that his athlete had emotionally processed her frustration and were on the same page. The prime motivator was not the money, but rather, speed and targeting a personal best.
“Afterwards I could see, she had a clear purpose and intention about why she wanted to run, and what the race meant to her. And that’s important for Jess. That’s what drives her.”
She was certainly driven: Stenson ran her (then) fastest marathon (2:26.31), finishing in 2nd place. And as the fastest Aussie in the field, she also collected the payday: a welcome bonus!
5. Encourage athletes to ask questions about their training
Since becoming a mum, Stenson has had to become smarter and more efficient about how she trains.
Therefore, she’s asking more specific questions about her program, and the purpose and function of workouts, says Didyk.
“She wants to understand the paces in her workouts, what they’ll give her, and how that influences things going forward,” the coach says.
“Whereas in the past, if I said threshold run or tempo run… she would just run hard for time, at a certain pace.
A sign of maturity
Now, she’s asking questions about the target heart rate, says Didyk. “She’s realising, she doesn’t need to kill herself in every session to get benefit.”
Didyk sees this as a sign of maturity, and says Stenson now understands the “specific attributes that are being trained at a given point in time”.
This newfound attention to detail is exciting: “When an athlete is dictated to by their coach, they’re limited,” he says.
“This puts Jess in the driver’s seat with her training, which is how it should be.”
To find out more about Adam Didyk and his squad follow Team Tempo on Instagram.
Check out more RunCreature interviews.