Since becoming Malaysia’s cycling coach in January 2006, John Beasley has transformed the sport and churned out champions such as Olympics silver medallist Azizulhasni Awang. Fifteen years have passed but he has not lost his zeal to produce more Azizuls.
Q: How would you sum up your years as a coach with Malaysia?
A: That is a great question, one I would need a lot more time to reflect on before I could give you the true answer that is worthy of the question, though off the cuff, I would have to say amazing. Every day is a new challenge that has made me think outside of the box, gets me to live outside of my comfort zone. Coaching Malaysia has been the best decision of my life. I won’t lie, I had the help from my wife Vicki who talked me into taking the job, from there I have given my all to help young Malaysians become the best version of themselves, of what they can become. I can honestly say I enjoyed every bit of the journey, though there is still so much to do!
What are the changes you have made over the years to transform the image of Malaysian cycling?
I guess education is the biggest one. Malaysians tend not to have a lot of self-confidence or self-belief, so I started there and slowly took small steps forward. However, the first and biggest challenge was to gain the athletes’ and staff’ respect which takes time. That is always the first step and once you earn their respect, that’s when you can start putting in place careful planning and good processes which are the key to everything. Not forgetting having good team values and to hold each and every one of us accountable to living within those values. I believe that has been the key to the success of the programme, along with finding and educating our great high-performance team. I am just as proud of our team, seeing the growth in their mindset over the journey. Good staff are an essential part of any success and we have a couple of exceptionally dedicated young Malaysian staff members. My right hand is our high-performance manager Mohd Izham Mohamad and my left hand is Chee Lee Ming who is our sports science and sports analyst. Their knowledge of the sport of cycling is second to none, though at the start they were two very raw individuals whom I saw some great potential in, and over time they have blossomed into great critical thinkers and extremely dedicated hard working team members who would do anything to help the athletes and programme move forward. They are part of the legacy plan I would like to leave Malaysia with when I leave or asked to leave.
Azizulhasni has been outstanding under your care, why is he different?
It’s part of his DNA makeup, he is well-mannered and extremely humble, thanks to his great upbringing. Besides his special traits, his passion, commitment and will to achieve are just unbelievable. He is a real student of the sport of cycling and he has a strong self-belief. He has great respect for everyone but is not scared of anyone. He understands that losing is part of the sport. But make no mistake, he doesn’t like losing; when he lines up on the start line against his opponents he believes he can win. That confidence and strong belief come from taking no shortcuts. He doesn’t ever get to the start line thinking negative thoughts as he knows in his mind that if he gets beaten it is either by a better athlete on that day, or he is not at his best because of the stage of the plan.
How to produce more Azizuls? We already have a few - but how to get those at the grassroots to be equally excited?
They just need opportunities, most of the young talented cyclists only get to race a handful of races a year. In Australia, and other major cycling nations around the world you can get to race five to six times a week. That is Malaysia’s greatest challenge. This is why the high-performance training base has been in Melbourne, Australia, though we are bringing the programme back to Malaysia next year. My biggest fear is, how am I going to develop the next generation of champions without any races? If we can build a strong racing culture in Malaysia, the performances on the biggest stage will look after themselves. You can train as much as you like, sure you will get better at what you do, you will become stronger and faster, but if you don’t know how to use that in a race, how are you going to win?
What are the challenges that you foresee in developing more riders like Azizul?
There are many, I think I have been vocal over the years on what needs to happen, though I have learned that I can only control what I am in control of. Our high-performance team are doing their best to get a workable system in place, and we will be presenting our plan within the next few weeks.
First and foremost, we need to host regular races so that our young athletes get to learn the art of racing and executing the right tactical move at the right time. We need regular races for the sport to grow and develop. We don’t have clubs in Malaysia, so how does someone who dreams of becoming an Olympics cyclist become one? Still, to this day, people ask me, John, I have a son or daughter who wants to become a cyclist, where do they go? Or what is the process? I feel so sad because there is no way other than coming through the sports school system. Most kids get chosen to be cyclists, and that might not necessarily be their dream sport. They may be talented, but it takes more than talent to make it to the world level – it takes passion, dedication and commitment.
We must start creating a racing culture where athletes need a licence to start racing. Only then, clubs will start to pop up because we need to have this club-based sporting culture if Malaysia is going to get better at this sport. For example, if you want to learn to swim or take up swimming as a sport, you can join the local club, the same can be said for badminton, football, squash. This is what is needed to turn cycling from good to great.
We have been working on a plan to create a racing model and that is part of the plan for the future but we need help from companies out there to make it a reality. If anyone can help our cause, please contact either Izham or myself and we would be more than happy to run you through our plan.
What is the most memorable outing you have had with Malaysia and Azizul?
There are many over the years and each of them has a special place in my memory. But the most memorable one was witnessing Datuk Azizul win the world keirin championship in Hong Kong in 2017 – that will be etched on my memory forever. Why? Because we had worked so hard for so many years and to finally seeing him become champion is something I will never forget. Being part of that journey and seeing him put together the perfect race was incredible, all the raw emotion that happened afterwards is something only an athlete and coach can experience.
John, you could have coached anywhere and I’m sure there would have been offers from other countries too, but why stick with Malaysia?
I guess there are a few reasons, the first is Malaysia gave me an opportunity to do what I love and I am forever in their debt. I was brought up to have a strong loyalty to people who have supported me, and this is how I’m giving back. I love the people, I love the culture. The locals have taken me into their hearts and so have I. I see myself as half Malaysian, I guess when you have worked here and invested both physically and emotionally over many years you are bound to have an attachment.
Yes, I have had other job offers, but I have not done everything that I have set out to do yet in Malaysia. I will measure my success on what I will leave behind. When I came to work here, I told myself I will put the sport in a better place than it was when I arrived. We have the plan, we just need to find a way to roll it out! If I can get to put in place solid processes and a good system – with the staff and coaches I have mentored over the years – Malaysian cycling will be in a great place for a long time to come, that is how I will measure my success. I have never been a career coach that moves from place to place chasing money, I guess that loyalty is a massive part of my DNA makeup. Also, I could never see myself coaching against Azizul, we have been through so much together, and when he retires I am sure he will help execute the legacy plan.
Lastly, any advice for coaches, who hope to be as successful as you?
Don’t do it because of the income, this is a job that should consume you. Coaching is not a nine-to-five job from Monday to Friday, it is a tough brutal industry that is forever changing and you need to find ways to keep reinventing yourself or you get left behind. Embrace technology and work with it, become a student of the sport. Understand the determinants of what it takes to get your athletes to perform at the highest level, and implement them. Coaching needs to be your passion if you want to be good at it and always remember you are there for the athlete, to help them become the best version of themselves. It’s not about you! Follow those guides and you will be off to a good start.