Does hiring a Korean coach work?
The French archery team has gone all-in ahead of a home Olympics.
Nearly 30 years on from the country’s last Olympic Champion – Seb Flute, winner at Barcelona 1992 – France has hired former Korean head coach Oh Seok Tek to lead the squad towards and during Paris 2024.
The 61-year-old has an impeccable pedigree. He coached at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, was head coach at the London 2012 Olympic Games – where Korea won both men’s and women’s individual titles for the first time – and was the long-time boss of the LH pro team, home of Rio 2016 Olympic Champion Chang Hye Jin.
“In Korea, we say that you can still lose by being one cut above the rest,” said Seon Tek during a recent interview.
“So we need to be two cuts above the rest.”
He’s already started making significant changes to the techniques of the members of the talented French squad, including former European Champion Lisa Barbelin.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn brand new things,” said Olympian Pierre Plihon. “We’re aiming towards that main goal. It’s still blurry but every step we take, the fog gets lighter and so hopefully soon the sun will rise.”
Make no mistake, with Paris just two years away, France can’t wait long for night to turn into day.
The only thing that’s made this high-risk high-reward approach possible is that, as host nation of the next Olympics, France will receive a full quota of six athletes for the Games.
It means that while the rest of the world is battling for spots at next summer’s worlds, French archers can remain focused on their process.
“When you make technical changes, scores will drop at first,” said coach Oh. “Until they start to become accustomed to things.”
That drop is evident in the statistics. Plihon is averaging 9.02 points per arrow in 2022, the lowest of his career, while Barbelin hasn’t made it past the third round internationally this season – just one year removed from becoming world number one.
Plenty of countries have hired Korean coaches in the past – but only a few have really worked out.
Kisik Lee and Brady Ellison formed a partnership that’s spanned a decade of producing top-shelf consistent results for the USA, shortly after he stood behind Simon Fairweather when he won the Olympics in Sydney.
Aida Roman had some of her best results under Lee Mi Joung in 2014, Kim Hyung-Tak and Yang Changhoon have had successful stints abroad, and a number of Asian nations currently count a Korean coach on their staff.
Korea is undoubtedly the most successful archery team in the world, so why is there not a longer list of accolades for its coaching exports?
Elite archers in Korea are taught form by their elementary school teachers in their early teens. Their techniques are honed in middle school and, by high school, the focus is on competition performance.
A 12-year-old on an elementary school archery team will practise for one to two hours every weekday – and more on Saturday if there’s no tournament.
It’s a wonderful solution to two problems. Talented, passionate young archers invest a lot of time in the sport and learn the basics well at an early age. And working parents don’t need to worry about after-school daycare because their children are at the archery club.
The French team that Oh Seon Tek has inherited – or nearly any team outside of Korea – simply doesn’t have that background.
Having retired from his long-time job with the LH pro team, he has the benefit of knowledge. One of the early group of archery coaches to emerge in Korea, Seon Tek has the technical ability to improve the French fundamentals.
Whether he has time to complete that process before Paris 2024 is another question.
For now, and during the hardest part of the transition, he critically appears to have the buy-in of his athletes.
Ultimately, though, this experiment will be judged on what result – if any – the home nation produces at the next Olympics, three decades after Flute put archery on the map in France.