Saturday, 15 July 2006

Philosopher and Coach

Posted by speedygeoff on Saturday, July 15, 2006 with 2 comments
An Article by Col Davies
The Olympic movement has not been spared … in modern times drug programmed athletes of science have been engaged in never ending warfare with drug free athletes of natural excellence.

The drug controversy surrounding the Sydney Olympics would have angered and saddened legendary Australian athletics coach Percy Cerutty, whose unconventional methods were studied and copied by the best coaches in Europe and America. Fully acquainted with the darkness of the night, Cerutty discovered within the human soul there existed something greater and more powerful than any scientifically produced performance enhancing drugs.

In his best selling book “Beyond Winning: The Timeless Wisdom of Great Philosopher Coaches”, which profiles the lives and achievements of the world's few truly great coaches, American author Gary Walton said of Cerutty: “In the 23 years Cerutty actively coached at Portsea, 30 world record breakers followed his methods and fell victim to the Cerutty virus. Some men thought him a crank, many viewed him skeptically, but all agreed he was unique. A philosopher and a poet, an athlete and coach, and above all an individual, Percy Cerutty was a force in athletics like few others. Cerutty and the Stotans raised horizons and pushed forward our conceptions of human limits. They did it by living and believing in the Stotan Creed."

At the core of Cerutty's romantic philosophy of personal triumph through adversity was “strength through nature”. His Stotan creed, which borrowed much from the ancient Greeks, especially the Spartans, emphasised the values of persistence, self-denial, strength, simplicity, and fearlessness.

Sitting around the flickering camp fire at night in the peaceful salty air, Cerutty would inspire his athletes with stories about those non-conforming individuals whose fearless actions changed the course of human history, and quote from Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Freud … and especially St Francis of Assisi. One of the athletes inspired by Cerutty was a 17-year-old Western Australian schoolboy champion, Herb Elliott, who in 1955 made the long journey across the Nullarbor to Portsea.

What was not readily discernible to those who gazed upon the gladiators of Portsea storming the windswept sand dunes of the rugged coastline was the hidden spiritual message of Cerutty's coaching.

At Melbourne's Olympic Park two years later, Elliott took on Australia's best in a race the media promoted as the ultimate contest between science and nature. The sporting world was shocked when the highly fancied Melbourne University trained runner, Merv Lincoln, was narrowly defeated by the nature hardened Elliott, whose sights now extended far beyond Australian shores.

The following year Elliott travelled to the United States, whose military and economic power dominated world affairs. That dominance had been threatened several months earlier when the Soviet Union became the first nation to put a satellite into outer space. The Soviet satellite sent shock waves through the corridors of power in Washington - and American self-belief was further eroded when Elliott comprehensively beat the best America had to offer.

The Australian champion and his coach were utterly appalled by what they heard and saw: life was focused on the mindless acquisition of material possessions, self-esteem was based on wealth, the pursuit of pleasure had resulted in most Americans being fat and flabby, the pace of life was frenetic, children were pampered and babies as young as six months were being propped in front of television sets.

Both Australians refused to remain silent and their unflattering observations about America's self indulgent life style received widespread coverage in the American press.

Their outspoken comments would make a powerful impact … especially on a youthful American Senator, John F. Kennedy, who would later win the 1960 presidency by asking his fellow Americans to walk beyond the narrow streets of personal self interest and travel together down a higher path of compassionate sacrifice.

Voicing his deep concern about the growing dangers posed by the soft nature of American society, Elliott said: “Money seemed to play far too important a part in the way of life. It appeared to me that the people were forgetting the simpler pleasures of exercise, family life and the observance of nature in their pursuit of material possessions. … A people who so thoroughly mollycoddle themselves must steadily become weaker, physically and spiritually. The Americans are not the only people who are insulating themselves from their environment; the tendency exists even in my own country.” The truth of Herb Elliott's convictions would be tested by his deeds and his ultimate challenge was soon at hand. There have been many great moments in Australian sport but few have rivalled Elliott's performance in the 1500 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics. More than 90,000 spectators watched in sheer amazement as the young Australian powered away in the final lap from the star-studded field. Elliott went on to win by more than twenty metres, and his world record was hailed by experts as the most emphatic in Olympic history.

Soon afterwards, against Cerutty's advice, the 22-year-old Elliott, who remained unbeaten in races over a mile and 1500 metres, announced his retirement.

It was the end of an era and for the next 15 years. Until his death in 1975, Cerutty lived at Portsea where his radical teachings impacted significantly on all major areas of Australian sport, including, swimming, tennis, cycling, and football. Nevertheless, the wisdom of Cerutty would soon be forgotten and speaking about the essential difference between Cerutty and other coaches, Elliott said, “Percy coached the spirit.”

Even more amazing than Cerutty's spectacular success as a coach of sportsmen is the story of Cerutty the person. At the age of 43, while working as a government telephone technician, Cerruty suffered a nervous and physical breakdown. He was unable to drive and it was only with great difficulty that he could walk to the front gate to collect his mail. The smallest physical exertion left him totally exhausted. Doctors gave him but a few months to live. Cerutty refused to accept the medical verdict. As he clung desperately to the last tormented threads of an unfulfilled life of quiet desperation, he knew his only hope was to drastically change the way he lived. This was the defining moment in Cerutty's life … he took himself off all prescribed medication and embarked upon a radical journey of self healing.

The starting point for Cerutty was food to energise his sickly body. He made radical changes to his daily diet, which now consisted of boiled fruit and vegetables. Gone were animal fats, red meat, white bread and chemically produced foods. Recognising the long forgotten truth that the quality of our daily food determines the quality of our daily lives, Cerutty wrote: “We believe that the closer to nature our food is, the better it is for us. Closer to nature means, as we find it in nature, out in the gardens, fields, the woods and the sea. That means raw, unadulterated, unrefined, unprocessed. We are not vegetarians, but I say we could be and perhaps should be. We do not rely upon meat of any kind at all for strength … I seem to have read that in countries where the incidence of meat consumption is low, and the incidence of vegetarianism is high, there also the incidence of cancer is low. The high incidence in our country of deaths from cancerous growths is rather significant. I personally prefer to take no chances.”

To re-energise his depressed state of mind, Cerutty methodically devoured more than 200 of the world's great books of wisdom on subjects ranging from philosophy, autobiography, poetry, physiology and religion; to revitalise his broken spirit, Cerutty ventured alone into the bush in search of inner peace and to experience the awe-inspiring power of nature. Finding harmony in nature, the legendary Australian philosopher coach was born and the man who had risen above the limitations of medical science, said: “There are two schools of thought in this world. The first believes that the brain can think up all that is needed; that the brain is all – has superseded nature. … Then there is the other school, the mystical natures and it is to this category that I belong. I learnt early that nature is within us. Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance within the universe. This is one of the factors that allows the athlete to reach new levels of excellence.”

The old energy gradually returned but the anxiety attacks continued and, to overcome his personal fears and paranoia, Cerutty taught himself to dive. Starting on the three-metre board, he methodically edged higher and within two years had mastered his great fear of heights by diving off the high tower at Melbourne's St Kilda's baths. Determined to improve his stamina, he began to run again … seven years after his breakdown, Cerutty became only one of three Australians at that time to run 100 miles in less than 24 hours.

Though it seems incredible, at 55 years of age, Cerutty was now running longer distances and faster times than he had when at his prime in his early twenties.

Running alongside some of Australia's greatest racehorses, Cerutty learned the importance of relaxation and rhythm; from anthropoid apes he discovered the importance of no shoulder or body movement; from the antelope and gazelle he observed the critical importance of running over the ground rather than upon it. And from the leopard, cheetah and tiger, Cerutty learnt the secrets of rapid down-to-earth power and speed.

The natural talent and lightning speed of Australian Aborigines have in recent times been nurtured and developed by several AFL coaches, but 50 years earlier that speed and talent had been a vital source of inspiration and higher learning for Cerutty, who revealed:

“ I teach an original technique based on my own researches, as to primitive man, animals and, above all, our own Australian Aborigines. This race, cut off from all other cultures and civilisations for countless thousands of years, is, as far as I have discovered, the only race of people from whom we can learn how God or nature truly expected us to move over the ground. In a word, they appear to me to be, until contaminated by our civilisation, the only perfect movers, posture, walking and running, in our world. And they move differently to all other people. Put their feet to the ground differently. Hold themselves differently. Carry their arms differently. This is what I teach.”

Challenging his athletes to open their culturally imprisoned minds to higher levels of learning and wisdom, Cerutty would never tire of emphasising: “The power rests within us."

Such was evident to Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, whose research led to the discovery that all human wisdom, past present and future, was contained deep within the human spirit in what he called the supra-conscious mind. Yogi Ramacharaka, the revered Indian philosopher, spoke of the spiritual mind that elevated the human mind above the heartless logic of the physical brain and was the loving source of everything good and noble in human society. Many of today's elite coaches still believe that the secrets of victory are to be found above the shoulders, but the Australian coach whose athletes collectively broke a staggering 50 world records knew differently!

Questioned about this mysterious inner force, Cerutty said: “What is this power within us? Some call it God. Bergson calls it the elan vital. I see it as the life principle and its measure is in the degree of intensity in which it is found within us. … In athletics this spirit will find its outlet in competition and achievement. Commencing with capital we possess, we nevertheless press on. The impossible is reasonable to these people.”

A prophet without honour in his own land, Cerutty fervently believed that everyone had the power deep within to be successful in something, sometime and somewhere. His unquenchable thirst for universal wisdom made him increasingly critical of modern scientific coaching methods, whose 'controloholic' and fear-driven training shackled individual spontaneity and trampled the natural joys of sport.

Individual self reliance was paramount and Cerutty recognised that the will to win could not survive unless the human spirit was constantly nurtured by inner peace and harmony.

Finding inner harmony has many sources and for Cerutty it was acquired in the outer world by listening to the music of Beethoven or Verdi or admiring the great masterpieces of da Vinci or Michelangelo.

In the inner world it was acquired by being at one with all people and all races. But most of important of all it was being at peace with nature. Outlining the cornerstone of his creed, Cerutty said: “My Stotan philosophy is based on communication with nature. This communication takes place when the person sleeps under the stars at night, hears the birds in the morning, feels the sands between his toes, smells the flowers, hears the surf. Nature can bring the mind and body into perfect harmony and balance with the Universe.”

Col Davies is a co-author of "The Three Minute Coach".

I visited the training camp at Portsea many time during my years at High School, and Percy Cerutty's style of coaching led to my 4:32 mile at the age of 16; barefoot on Adelaide Oval.


  1. whoa what an inspiring piece. thank you.

    on another note, bananas are available year-round here :)

  2. I'm a big Cerutty fan. Some of his coaching style has rubbed off on you Geoff!

    P.S. Some great runs from the group today at LBG.