The Last Post? It’s a Question of Values.

Just what is the point of protest? Whilst many in the community of athletics feel that the polarisation of values between high performance and the grass roots is destroying the sport, a call to collective action seems to fall on deaf ears. Is this surprising? Well, no – apathy born of disempowerment, tunnel vision, vested interest and impatience with the diverse needs of track and field combine into a forceful braking system – a ball and chain round the ankle of progress – or, more accurately, the idea that progress might even be possible. To some, who could, collectively, have the wherewithal to make some political impact, the thinking seems to be that it is wiser, safer, more realistic to look away; decline is inevitable, in keeping with the times, nothing to be done. How pernicious is the experience of powerlessness – the feeling that things have gone so far as to be beyond mending.

And of course its been, in some ways, a sparkling season – Glasgow delivered a genuinely heart warming, exciting, efficient and fun Games in which new and old home countries stars emerged to re-energise the sports’ media profile. Then the European Championships saw GB hurtling up the medal table with a group of athletes containing new, maturing and long standing talent. To harp on about the backdrop of declining standards in Europe, the massively rising cost of each medal in terms of funding compared to those won in decades gone by, and to the terrible state of field events might seem churlish, for clearly some things have changed for the better. I get a strong sense that new personnel at the head of performance has allowed happier, less tense and pressurised athletes to flourish. Aided by Rana Reider and a small group of home grown coaches, including the only female coach on funding – Christine Bowmaker, sprinting is emerging from a bad place, this time, and at long last, including a dynamic and talented bunch of young women. There seems to be a much more mature and enlightened approach to people management – there is talk of buddy systems, awareness of issues, and support rather than the delete button for the personal coaches of funded athletes.

Of course, this success, although limited, makes a focus on our highly flawed, very expensive and unjust system even more difficult. ’Twas ever thus – and possibly always will be the case that a small group of talented athletes who, whilst ambitious and prepared to work, also happened to be in the right place at the right time to access scarce coaching and facilities, break through to glory, thereby ironically justifying what is, in the wider analysis, the unjustifiable. To the media, itself hidebound by a range of issues that discourage in-depth review, a clutch of athletics medals is more than enough to fill a few column inches, justifying the status quo, before a return to the sports media’s only real comfort zone – men’s games, predominantly soccer.

So why not leave well alone – so what if participation is falling away – so what if the under 15 boys field event entries in the Northern Championships averaged under 4 – so what if we are losing 400 coaches every year – so what if officials are become as rare as hen’s teeth. (See statistical evidence, posted on previous blog) So, what if, in future, no Cumbrian, Cornish, Dorset or Norfolk child ever again gets the opportunity to explore their athletic ability to the full because there are no coaches left to work with them? A few medals for the super-talented and geographically well placed will always be winnable. If the rest is fudged to look like an effective service, even though we all know it is not – well, c’est la vie.

As I lounge about with my Sunday newspaper, which crackles with debate on the Scottish referendum, it strikes me that the issues in our sport are indeed symptomatic of the times. I note this “.…all our utilities………..have been cashed out in the name of market forces, of being open for business and wealth generation. What has been created is predator capitalism, massive inequality and a society organised to benefit the top 1%.” (The union is broken. After Thursday, Britain will never be the same again. Observer; Editorial. 14.9.14)

Whatever your politics, or where you lie on Scottish independence, it is hard not to see a parallel here with our sport, where “British Athletics” a private company limited by guarantee, has taken (or been given) ownership of the fruits of the voluntary sector’s labour. By that I mean the athletes selected for funding who have been developed by hard working voluntary coaches who have had to pay through the nose for their coach education – and often sacrificed professional advancement and home life along the way. In terms of the business model these athletes become commodities – British Athletics’ stock-in-trade, the basis for its revenue building activities – the televised athletics meetings which attract sponsorships which, in turn, justify UKA’s existence and its huge and increasing salary bill. None of this additional revenue is reinvested in coaching – the seed bed of global medal success – no, it is all absorbed by the end product, the televised meetings and the flummery that goes with them. Meanwhile UKA is closed off to the disenfranchised mainstream of the sport that feeds it, apparently indifferent to “massive (athletics) inequality and an (NGB) organised to benefit the top 1%” - content with the apathy which naturally arises among the disempowered. Whilst, as already stated, there seems to be positive change happening by people of goodwill within the organisation, this does not justify, by any means, its overall structure and values, which, when you think about it, and even when making allowances for the huge difference in economic impact, make bankers look kinda standard, if not actually good.

If, as seems to be the case, UKA has recognised at last that forcing selected athletes away from personal coaches has been highly demotivating to coaching as a whole and helped to destroyed trust in the NGB, and, don’t forget, the money that goes to funded athletes’ coaches comes from the lottery, not from sponsorship– why has this change of heart not been flagged up to the sport as a whole as part of a strategy to encourage, value and re-motivate the voluntary sector? Because UKA does not see itself as connected to the whole sport at all. It is unaccountable to the mainstream, having the ability to set its own medal targets and the nouse not to set itself up for failure so obvious that even its paymasters in government and the press notice. In spite of having a clear strategic responsibility for the whole sport, which means, obviously, honestly evaluating the effectiveness of that strategy, a range of “anomalies” such as the over estimation of track and field participation by a factor of 20 by Sport England’s Active People Survey, similar wrangles over the numbers of practising coaches – and the apparent apathy of the athletics community itself, keep UKA tucked up safe, a law unto itself and, as a last resort, blaming England Athletics for failures of “delivery”.

From a personal perspective, I am no longer sure of the value of continuing to write in this vein. My original objective, to keep The Inside Track going as long as possible in memory of Tony and his lifetime of commitment to such issues, has probably been met, given that I always knew the process would have to be time limited. I continue to run, as a volunteer, The Tony Ward Memorial Trust, and have recently acquired funding (from non sport sources) for an exciting project working with previously un or under-coached schools athletes. This development project does not ask anything of already over-burdened, under- resourced clubs. It focuses on rounded development in technical events, recognises the need for excellent coaching at this level, pays talented, experienced coaches and other experts for their work, and emphasises the social benefits to the young people themselves of sustained participation. These are the values of the trust and, in our small way we will (quietly) make a difference for as long as we can find the funds.

Whatever happens on Thursday’s referendum, it seems clear that major constitutional change is afoot. Devolution is some form will be inevitable and will eventually, it is to be hoped, change the fabric of sport governance. Maybe then the prospect of real change will energise athletics in the way that the wider electorate has been energised by this referendum. One can only hope that, when that time comes, the track and field community will remember what its true values are and be prepared, at last, to stand up and be counted on them.


Open letter to everyone who cares about athletics:

Track and Field Athletics; The Facts

In the last 30 to 40 years athletics has changed from being run largely by volunteers (3 paid professional administrators and 9 National coaches under the British Amateur Athletics Board prior to 1991) to having 220 administrative and coaching staff costing over £10 million per annum. Since funding for performance began in 1999 more that £300 million has gone to athletics governing bodies, of which more than 50% has come from lottery or public funds.

Many people who have been directly involved in the sport during this transition in both voluntary and professional capacities are deeply concerned that the present powerful, rigid and very expensive structure masks overwhelming but officially denied decline in track and field athletics. The facts are:-


The latest Active People Survey 2013 (APS) states that 140,000 people over the age of 16 take part in track and field athletes as their prime sport. But analysis of results on the governing body’s own website shows that, in fact, approximately only 7000 over 16s compete in the sport 5 times per year or more. If the APS figures were correct around 1000 athletes would be found on each track in the country on training nights. Observation suggests that the real figure is around 50, which is compatible with the 7000 who are known to compete. The number of senior athletes declined in 2013 from 2012. The APS overstates the figures by a factor of 20.

Elite Performance

When elite funding was approved in 1998 the only objective KPI was to increase medals at Olympics and World outdoor Championships. The target for athletics at the Olympics was set at 6 medals for 2000 (matching the 1996 total) rising to 12 in 2012. The total achieved in 2012 was 6, no increase after 14 years of funding. In the World Championships in 1997 Great Britain won 6 medals and in 2013 Great Britain won 6 medals, again no increase.


In a letter to an MP in Dec 2012, the head of Sport England stated there were 42,000 active coaches in athletics. The latest figures from Sport England, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2013, gives 14,111. More than 50% of this number are not designated as coaches but ‘leaders’, having obtained this qualification by merely attending a one or two day course. Analysis of qualified coaches from 2008 to 2012 suggests the number has declined by 50%. The number of active qualified coaches is now around 3000.


It is very difficult to obtain accurate information on officials, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. At all levels below elite, meetings are being run without sufficient qualified officials. The majority of officials are not registered and more that 50% of all meetings could not take place without using these officials. A meeting a Loughborough (an athletics Centre of Excellence) to select athletes for an international meeting was cancelled through lack of officials in March this year.


A lack of transparent, consistent whole sport performance measures hides the fact that £300 million since 1999 has resulted in just 7000 16+ track and field participants and 3000 coaches in 2013. Only 6 medals per global championship have been achieved, as opposed to the 12 targeted when performance funding started – and 5 of the 10 individual medals have been won by athletes who live and train abroad with foreign coaches. There has been no Olympic Legacy other than decline, a situation that demands urgent enquiry.

Gwenda Ward, Olympian, coach; Rob Whittingham, Track Statistician and author; Tom McNab, ex National coach, author and playwright; John Anderson, ex National Coach; Bill Laws, Chair, ABAC: John Bicourt, Olympian, coach; Hamish Telfer Ph.D coach, author and academic. Frank Dick Ph.D Former Director of Coaching, British Athetics Federation.

So, what can YOU do?

Many influential people have stopped even hoping that athletics can be rescued and, whilst that is understandable,  the more people think that way the more right they will prove to be.  Whatever opinions or allegiances any of us may hold regarding professionalisation, commercialism, club development, the status of coaching or schools athletics, the above statistics are incontrovertible, devastating for the future of our sport and an appalling waste of public funds. Yet in spite of various attempts to brief key personnel, nothing is done, the sports press keeps its collective head down (honourable exception; Dougie Gillon of the Glasgow Herald) and UKA/EA are allowed to continue passing themselves off as successful and worthy of their massive, taxpayer funded wage bill.

Dear readers, if you care (and why else would you read The Inside Track?) please join those who have signed above, in demanding an urgent, independent enquiry into the way our sport is governed  and pass these facts to your MP.  Just for once can we all pull together while we still have a sport left to argue over?  Thank you.

Does de Vos (annual remuneration, £¼million+) Know What His Job Is?

Among the objects laid down in the UKA Memorandum and Articles of Association:

“to develop broad strategy for performance, development and competition throughout the United Kingdom by means in particular of a consultative annual planning process for implementation and delivery by the National Associations;”


“to monitor the performance of those bodies involved in the implementation and delivery of programmes and strategies developed by the Company”

According to Athletics Weekly, Neils de Vos, UK Athletics Chief Executive, has given short shrift to the AAA’s criticisms of UKA performance in the light of the CEO and Board members’ huge salary hikes. “They are aiming at the wrong target.” He is reported to have said, complaining that it is all England Athletics’ fault for failing to implement UKA’s strategy effectively. “We have no teeth to force them to follow it.”

So, UKA is responsible for strategy but not for the outcomes of that strategy! Does strategic leadership not include evaluating and analysing your organisational outcomes and then adjusting your strategic vision and objectives for even greater effectiveness? UKA’s own articles of association clearly state their responsibility for the whole sport – and for monitoring delivery by national associations (see above) so, how our mega-bucks earning, Oxford educated CEO can, apparently, argue that he does not have overall responsibility is unclear, to me at least. Interestingly, he has also omitted to mention that he is himself a director of EA, so his use of the word “them” rather than “us” to describe EA is also curious. And why stop at England? There is nothing to suggest that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish associations have found the key to track and field growth under UKA’s enlightened guidance, quite the contrary in fact, so obviously de Vos must see them as falling down on the job too.

So what is this great strategy that the national associations are failing to deliver? De Vos seems unclear, apparently referring only to his UK wide roles – track certification, UK coaching qualifications and licensing, and the competition calendar. Neils, listen; that is not a strategy. That is a list of tasks. Setting strategy requires a statement of direction – aims and objectives – that kind of stuff. Maybe you could take a look at the British Swimming website, their detailed and explicit strategy for 2013 to 17 is there in full colour and might give you some ideas. There is also a detailed coaching development plan to support it called “Recruiting, Training, Supporting and Retaining a World Class Coaching Workforce.” They are well into the professionalisation process (a strategic decision) with most swimming clubs having part time paid head coaches, plus regional squads staffed by full-time professional coaches, so that talented swimmers get an effective performance pathway.

What does UKA have as an equivalent? Lets have a look on the website. Here it is – UKA Coaching Strategy, 2009 – looks like a press release launching a website. Nothing since. Oh dear. And the website is a disorganised and confusing mish-mash of videos and documents of very variable standard. Looks like its been flung together by someone who has no idea about either learning processes or making videos. One I looked at seemed as if it had been recorded by accident on a mobile phone. Rather annoying as the speaker seemed to know his stuff, but as he was answering inaudible questions put by someone out of shot, I didn’t gain a lot. Rumour has it that the guy who put this website together earned 150K per year. Actually, there is much more on the England site and it looks quite helpful, but I can find nothing on either site regarding strategic needs for growth in terms of numbers or quality of coaches or event distribution. There is nothing on the challenges affecting coach recruitment and retention – nothing on appropriate responses which could produce that very elusive world class coaching force which all global sports need – a strategic overview in other words. A coaching website, good, bad or indifferent, is not a strategy.

Now, AW may have done the Chief Exec a disservice in the way they have reported his response to the AAA’s statement, but de Vos appears to have totally ignored Chris Carter’s reference to the two central and ultimately connected purposes of any sport NGB; the national team performance (45% of the GB athletics team under-performed in London) and the very vexed issue of participation numbers.

De Vos himself has admitted on a YouTube recording that our London performance was poor, but appears to think that it didn’t really matter because, thanks to Super Saturday and “celebrity culture”, the general public has been fooled into thinking we did well!

And, as the major Olympic sport our track and field participation numbers are a national embarrassment, or would be if the statistics were not swamped in the Active People Survey by the millions who go out for a jog once in while, or at least say they do, thereby letting British Athletics/UKA off of a very sharp and nasty hook. Attempts by the National Union of Track Statisticians to clarify this with the relevant bodies have met with stubborn denial.

Athletics is in a dire state and requires a Chief Executive prepared to acknowledge the sport’s problems, take responsibility, motivate, draw together and encourage all stakeholders to focus on urgent priorities via a relevant and persuasive strategy. Granted, it is a complex and difficult sport to manage as history has proved over and over again, but the current structure appears to provide ample opportunity for so minded top brass to hide away from the mainstream, disguise the sports’ long standing failings and project a phoney image of success instead. As Chris Carter pointed out, “British Athletics” is more or less independent from the rest of the sport, from which it takes is primary business asset – athletes, found and honed by voluntary coaches – as of right. Neils de Vos appears to me have scored a massive own goal in both the tone and content of his response. But that judgement ultimately depends on who is he trying to impress and just how gullible they are.

Coaches; Mugs or What?

I got two rather contrasting bits of news recently. Firstly I received an email to say that a very successful development project that The Tony Ward Memorial Trust has delivered here in west Cumbria was being refused Satellite Club funding due to the coach travel costs (24.2 p per mile) being too high. The second piece of news was that Niels De Vos, UKA chief executive, awarded himself a 55% pay rise in 2012/13 amounting to £93,787 extra per annum, an inclusive pay package of £276.594.

It has taken me quite a while to get my head round where to take this next paragraph. Do these two shockingly contrasting facts relate to each other directly? Are they emblematic of moral bankruptcy and gross exploitation or simply a modern day reality reflecting the market for CEOs and their use of “big society” values? The Satellite clubs project comes from Sport England, not athletics, and is driven by the Active People Survey statistics, not sport performance. Athletics is seen, apparently, as a successful sport, and the CEO’s remuneration is probably in line with some comparable posts, so where is the problem? Why, when I thought I had heard it all to the point of chronic fatigue when it comes to dysfunction and unfairness in athletics, am I re-injected with so much anger and disgust?

Sport is not the only arena where big society volunteering and large pay awards for directors collide. But the charitable sector is much more tightly regulated under law than sport, particularly in terms of performance and accountability – and of course it is in these areas that the hackles rise regarding De Vos’s little windfall. To whom is UKA accountable and what measures of success have been applied to justify his pay and the 35% average pay rise for UKA board members for the last financial year? (With thanks to Bill Laws and John Bicourt for this information)

These are issues that have been rehearsed in these columns many times before. Those who care will be well versed in the huge contrasts between official Sport England participation and coach statistics, and those more rigorously gleaned by statistician Rob Wittingham from Power of 10 and his own research. Similarly, medals as a measure of UKA effectiveness is full of huge anomalies which we can all recite, including the contrast between what the old British Amateur Athletics Board, run by volunteers and one paid clerk, achieved as against UKA on the back of annual staff costs of almost £7 million. The mystery of how UK Sport allows, justifies and condones such as state of affairs seems to be to be lost in polemicized political rhetoric (market forces plus or versus big society volunteering) enhanced by the relevant organisations’ defensive lack of rigour, including at times some determinedly deaf ears, when it comes to examining exactly what is happening under their watch out there in the real world of day to day track and field.

For a snap-shot of that real world, lets return to the Tony Ward Memorial Trust project, the basic elements of which either UKA, England Athletics, UK Sport or Sport England have direct responsibility for and which combine and conflict together to show how decline in athletics is structural and inevitable without very significant change. Our project has been a very effective partnership between the TWM Trust and our local FE college whereby we bring in L3 and 4 coaches from out of county to supply basic teaching and coaching for sport students, athletics not previously being offered on the curriculum or outside it, due to an absence of available expertise on or off campus. This is a demanding, high skill intervention for the coaches, requiring a level of innovation, flexibility, organisation and ability to motivate that is not taught on any coach education module. But it has worked very well and the college were happy to pay the trust enough for reasonable coach fees and travel costs, plus a % which we use to subsidise good quality sessions, by the same coaches, for local youngsters recruited from both clubs and schools. All the administration is donated and the trust is fully legally constituted. Nothing new there, just basic development responding to the eternal problems, all of which the athletics governing bodies, and therefore Mr De Vos, are directly responsible for, such as:-

1. The quantity of coaches produced by the traditional methods of volunteering via clubs has always been much lower than required to grow the sport and this numerical gap is increasing exponentially year on year as more and more coaches quit. This is particularly the case in field events and geographical disparity in event coverage is chronic but unacknowledged.

2.The delivery of athletics in education is problematic and challenging, especially for older students. It is often completely absent at FE and HE levels, even on sport courses, and attempts by governing bodies to address this have failed.

3. The absence of paid career pathways or any other realistic attempt to modernise the way athletics approaches coaching has ensured that the situation deteriorates further.

Whilst the college was able to fund this project all was well. However budget cuts occurred and other funding sources were needed. Hail the Satellite Clubs fund, specifically set up by Sport England to bring coaches in to educational establishments and create a pathway towards long term participation. £30 million or so invested nationally! Brilliant! Except that:

A. Satellite Clubs are about the Active People Survey outcomes, not improved performance. Level 2 coaches are perfectly adequate for this, because performance sport and health related activity are effectively different strands of operation, even though they come together in clubs. (NO they are not and NO they should not be!)

B. The SE funding formula says that coaches must be drawn from local clubs. Bringing coaches from further afield is not necessary or financially acceptable. (HA! HA! This is where we came in – the local clubs cannot meet their own coaching needs, let alone that of schools and colleges. That’s why we set up the trust in the first place!)

Result? Circular impasse, frustration, conflict and decline. Furthermore, these are the basic principles that underlie all of athletics development everywhere. Not surprisingly, it does not work and obviously, it never can. However effective individual England Athletics’ Club and Coach Support Officers are, they cannot overcome the basic anomaly between the very slow and probably negligible participation growth produced by traditional methods such as ClubMark, Network funds and laying on a bit of coach education, and the decline in coach numbers (estimated as about 400 per year from a base of about 3 thousand) and therefore athletes, from an already grossly inadequate base. But funding is so ring fenced as to be unavailable for different approaches.

Now, I do not believe for one moment that Mr de Vos and his fellow directors do not realise this. It is all too obvious. But with incentives on this scale, is a little fudging of reality and playing along with vision statement rhetoric unsurprising? Trouble is, it leaves you guys out there, especially if you are a level 3 coach or above and have been coaching voluntarily for twenty plus years, with all the financial, time and energy cost involved in that, looking slightly foolish. You might love what you do, but you are still being taken for a ride by a governing body that sees you as a customer base to be flogged some dodgy coach education, rather than a priceless and essential resource as much in need of incentive and reward as its directors apparently are. You did not sign up to any big society notions, your amateur status is just an historic relic long since ditched by most other sports. When are you going to get together, make a stand and demand a better deal which includes a share of the rewards being skimmed off by board members, so that the sport (on tracks, not just on roads) stands some chance of survival? To tell you the truth, I am not holding my breath. Meanwhile, you-know-who laughs all the way to the bank. Are you mugs, or what?

Heard it on the grapevine

I’m lolling in my sun drenched garden absorbed in the lazy luxury of the Sunday paper. Soduku attempted (difficult bits saved for later) headlines scanned, favourite columnists nodded over, magazine recipes frowned on, (Fried courgette flowers? Tempura flour? Top of the shopping lists down Cockermouth Main St – I don’t think)… when I stumble into the sports pages. “One last chance to reignite our Olympic love affair”, runs the headline; a thoughtful piece by Owen Gibson on the upcoming Anniversary Games, reflecting on the changing place of athletics in the national psyche.

Threaded through the piece are points of concern, such as Peter Eriksson’s hasty retreat back to the top coaching job in Canada, the failure of UKA’s new sponsorship strategy and reports that clubs have not been able to cope with additional numbers generated by London 2012, interspersed with the “relentlessly upbeat” comments by UKA chief executive Neils de Vos: that the public response to the Olympics was “a huge vote of confidence in the sport” and “the bigger the event, the bigger the appetite”. UKA’s strategies, goes the message, are focussed building towards Rio 2016 and London 2017, with the centralisation of coaching at Loughborough “a success” and with recreational running one of the few sports to be expanding, the Olympic Stadium is both emblematic of that success and a further opportunity as a top class home for track and field for the next 50 years. Whilst the writer clearly does not swallow de Vos’s message whole, I’m regretting that he seems to be missing a lot of debate going on inside the sport, when the phone jangles loudly, interrupting my thoughts.

Alternative communication

The familiar voice of an old friend; “I can’t swear its true, but I’ve heard a rumour that de Vos is leaving. XXXXX (name of mutual friend) just called. He heard it on the grapevine.” And off we go, a good half hour of electronic over-the-garden-fence yak about what we’ve heard from whom and what it all might mean for our beloved sport.

After the call I return to the garden fully awake and reflective. I think of some of the issues and concerns that people have raised with me this summer; a rumour mill driven by able people with achievement and whole life commitment to track and field behind them. In a sport not noted for cohesion, it is surprising how particular concerns arise time and time again, and how speakers project anger, sadness, frustration and fear for the sport’s future, not the enjoyment of tittle-tattle. It’s a type of communication that flourishes as a direct result of planned-in disempowerment of the voluntary sector. (Did I hear someone mutter about Members’ Council? Have a look at the minutes, if you can find them, on the British Athletics website…about as challenging as my cat Sid after a large meal.) The ad-speak gloss emanating from the British Athletics website and the public utterances of Messrs Warner and de Vos fool only UK Sport, it seems.

Persistent rumours are best addressed, aren’t they, Chief Executive?

So, lets call a spade a spade. Here are the four most consistent rumours I have heard this summer. They could not be more fundamental to the sport’s health and well-being. If Messrs de Vos and Warner really have a deep concern for the long term future of track and field (contrary to rumour) they will surely want to tackle these issues head on. I have added some helpful questions to guide their responses.

  1. It is the view of Neils de Vos and Ed Warner (Chair, UKA) that British athletics coaches are “no good”.  As so many of the top coaching jobs have been filled by foreign coaches, you could be forgiven for drawing this conclusion even without the benefit of rumour regarding top post holders’ expressed views. QUESTION: Who, ultimately, is responsible for the state of coaching in the UK? Is it not you, Mr de Vos and Mr Warner? Other than tinkering with coach education, what strategies have UKA introduced to make coaching more attractive for volunteers and to assist the transition by talented voluntary coaches into paid work, thereby providing incentive for coaches under pensionable age? What plans do you have to give top British voluntary coaches the experience they need to be among the best in the world?

  2. Racist views influence decision making. Consequently black coaches have been sidelined. The withdrawal of funding from Lee Valley was influenced by the perception that black coaches are “difficult”. Quite apart from the fact that ANY ethically sound organisation should work hard to ensure that diversity policies are clearly in place and effective, the black contribution to athletics has been and remains of incalculable value to the sport itself and to society. QUESTION: Does UKA recognise the alleged distress of black coaches who feel they are disadvantaged because of their skin colour, and what is it doing to improve communication with minority groups within coaching and ensure that equal access to progress and achievement is seen to be possible by all?

  3. The nature of the coach/athlete relationship is so poorly understood in UKA, and so overridden by commercial interest, that coaches have been offered bribes to induce athletes into competing in particular televised meetings. There is and always will be a tension between an athlete’s competition plan and wider needs, whether at international or club level. QUESTION: Is it UKA practice to bribe coaches for the sake of viewing figures? What is the current code of conduct for coaches, and does this code operate from elite to club level? What sanctions are exerted on anyone who contravenes the code or pressurises others to contravene it?

  4. Top British Athletics posts are held by careerists earning huge salaries but devoid of concern or even interest in the sport in Britain as a whole. Kevin Tyler, 3 years in post (left October 2012) as UKA’s Strategic Head of Coaching and Development, reputedly earned 169K per annum but made few significant changes to the coaching structure and did not complete his contract. The chief executive’s pay package is in the region of 200K, with other top posts on a similar scale. Coaches such as Dan Pfaff were/are employed via consultancies worth in the region of $200,000.) Charles Van Commenee earned 250K per annum. Sport England figures show that coaching numbers (Ls 2,3 and 4) decreased by 25% in the period 08 to 2012. The total number of licensed coaches, not necessarily practising, was 3923 in 2012. ( See ABAC website) A recent Review of Coach Education delivery was highly critical and another review is under way. There are now three top coaching and performance posts, all earning salary packages in the region of 200K or more, doing the job that Frank Dick, as a single Director of Coaching, did up until 1994 for a total package of 50K. Even with an adjustment for basic inflation, this represents additional wage inflation in this role of 600%, with questionable benefit. QUESTION: These, and other related statistics beg numerous questions. Are these salary figures correct? In what forum in the sport can stakeholders question this use of taxpayers’ money, and, given that global medal hauls have remained static or even declined, rather than improved by 600%, since 1994, what MEASURABLE and SUSTAINABLE benefit has the sport as a whole gained from this and other massive spending in recent Olympic cycles?

Clearly UKA sees it as vital to attempt to influence the public view of athletics and pass it off as highly successful sport. Yet it doesn’t appear to care a damn about the concerns of its own people – those within the sport who give their time, energy and expertise and on whom its real success or failure ultimately depends. Smoke and mirrors cannot create a legacy, so how about knuckling down to the real issues – or are you really just going to move on, Mr de Vos, before the smoke clears?

ABAC: Swivel-eyed loons, sport’s answer to Wikileaks, or even the 21st century Woodward and Burnstein?

Well, you’ve got to have a laugh, haven’t you – but if ever a community needed whistle-blowers, athletics does right now, so distorted and far from reality has the official line become.   And, for those of you who can’t remember Woodward and Burnstein – either because you are too young or because dementia has set in – they were the two journalists who investigated the Watergate affair which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 – so, never tell me I always have athletics at the end of my tunnel vision. 

Anyway, back to the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC) which was set up in 2004 just after the publication of the Foster report,  in response to a perception that the influence of clubs was being sidelined under the newly introduced England Athletics structure. Since then they have been dubbed an unrepresentative lunatic fringe by the governing bodies they have tried to influence.  Indeed, the outpourings and style of some individuals associated with ABAC have perhaps fed into that perception, and there is a further suspicion that their goal is a return to the pre British Athletics Federation, fragmented, wasteful, stultified but club powered structure, which so exasperated progressives who wanted to streamline decision making and free up the sport’s development.   


ABAC are, however, swivel eyed or not, an increasing effective pressure group.   Their website contains the only reliable indices of health for track and field athletics in 2013 , – or should I say ill-health, because, from work they have commissioned  from the respected statistician Rob Whittingham, we now know that, between the ages of 16 and 35 there are only 4287 women and 9711 men taking part in track and field competition.  But worse news is to come.  Of those competing at age 16, 75% have dropped out by age 20.   By age 26 no less than 90% of those participating at 16 have left the sport.  50% of all those participants take parts in only 4 competitions or fewer per year.  Our Olympic representatives are therefore drawn from an exceedingly small and ever diminishing pool.

In coaching, our governing bodies and Sport England  have been pedalling the laughable myth that athletics has 42,465 active voluntary coaches.  After a protracted struggle, utilizing the freedom of information act, ABAC have acquired and published the official Sport England figures for licensed track and field L 2, 3 and 4 coaches.  In spite of massive funding focussed on increasing the number of coaches in the 09-13 funding round, England Athletics has, this year,  2945 coaches licensed to work without supervision, a figure which shows a LOSS of over 2000 coaches since 2008.  We know that not all of the 2945 are active and Rob Whittingham has concluded from anecdotal evidence that this would account for about a third, leaving around 2000 actively coaching.

What the ABAC coaching figures do not show, however, is the breakdown between levels or event coverage.  These are the crucial figures upon which any kind of development strategy for the sport ought to be based, because it is coaches who attract, keep and develop athletes, not clubs per se – an obvious truth that seems to have bypassed our governing bodies.  In 2010 a coaching audit was conducted by the London region, providing that detail.   On the assumption that the percentages of levels and event coverage in London are likely to reflect the national picture, we can assume that, based on the official Sport England statistics,  the approximate deployment of coaches in England is:-

Sprints 31% Throws 13% Jumps 20% Endurance 35% Total
Level 2 376 160 244 424 1204
Level 3 170   73 111 192   546
Level 4   76   33   50   86   245
Total 622 266 405 702 1995

However, we also know that most clubs are swamped with large numbers of under 13s, most of whom enter and leave the club within a season.  That, plus dealing with the under 16s who may actually compete in club teams, is likely to take up the equivalent coaching hours of L2s and L1s.  So what coaching capacity is left for the vital 13998, the 16 to 35 year olds who are the base of the performance focussed pyramid?  Even without the children and under 16s, these statistics indicate an average of 7 athletes each for the 2000 active coaches.    If we continue to assume that L2s time (or equivalent coaching hours) is taken up with the under 16s, that leaves the L3 and 4s (or their equivalent coaching hours) responsible for an average of nearly 18 athletes each.  It is hardly surprising that 90% of athletes competing at age 16 are lost to the sport by the age of 26.


In fact, observation tells us that many L1s are taking a level of responsibility that they are not qualified for, which reduces the quality of the athletics experience for athletes to an unacceptable degree.  Furthermore, many of the endurance coaches are likely to operate within running clubs rather than track and field clubs, reducing the total even further.  Highly pertinent also is the fact that half of the 324 track and field clubs in England are in the south, therefore about half of these coaches will also operate in the south, leaving vast swathes of the country in a coaching desert.

It is also obvious that if the loss of coaching numbers continues at the current rate, i.e. 540 per year, by the Olympics after next the voluntary athletics coach will have gone the way of the dodo – extinct.  As ABAC point out, this is the outcome of £16 million of government funding given to the athletics governing bodies for coaching in the 4 years to 2013.  This is evidence of failure on such an epic scale as to defy description and the horrifying drop out figures at 16 plus are a direct result.

At least when the Royal Bank of Scotland posted the biggest loss in corporate history its chief executive lost his job, his reputation and, eventually, his knighthood.  But what happens in this sport?  Keep schtum and commission a review (Independent Review of Coach Education Delivery, posted here on 18th May) seems to be the response…and if that tells the wrong story, commission another one.  Yes folks, you wait years for the next coaching review and then two come along at once.

The new one is a full review of UKA coach education and is seeking feedback from across the sport.  Laudable enough, even though most of the aims were addressed in the England review completed last   December. But what baffles me is the narrowness of the remit.  Surely it is not possible that UKA sees the existentially threatening shrinkage of the coaching workforce as the result of problems within coach education alone?  Is it not crystal clear that a more profound review, presaging a complete rethink, is necessary?

What about:-

  • the lack of any drive or initiative to attract and recruit coaches other than the running of courses
  • the lack of attention to recognition, reward and incentive once qualified
  • UKA employed coaches’ terms and conditions which have created a perception of a frequently  predatory coaching “super-class” and the consequent removal of the pinnacles of achievement for the voluntary sector
  • the ruthlessly competitive, them and us culture that evolved from that in certain event groups?
  • the organisational gulf between volunteer and professional  coaches which has bred resentment and mistrust, and resulting in curtailed aspiration for the bulk of the workforce
  • in defiance of overwhelming evidence, the simplistic assumption that clubs can recruit and nurture enough volunteer coaches across all events to support the potential of their members AND expand, or even maintain,  the base of the athlete pyramid that feeds the elite level
  • the total lack of a voice for the coaching workforce in decision making – an historic legacy that is still taken for granted, in particular by coaches themselves.

And this is quite apart from the very real issues in coach education – in particular the suspicion that it is used as a cash cow and its distance from the practical realities of coaching under 16s, which is what almost all voluntary coaches spend 90 to 100% of their time doing.


As a friend of mine said – it’s easy to criticise, but what needs to be done?   A room full of the best brains in the sport would not agree on that, which is part of the problem.  However, my view is that there is a pressing need for qualitative change, away from the current top down, initiative based, one-size-fits-all,  professionals-know-best approach to a  style, and ultimately a business model that fits a looser, volunteer dependent, coach hungry athletics community which does not, crudely and systematically, disempower its vital component parts, i.e., coaches and clubs. (The demise of “democracy” in our sport is worth another 2000 words alone; don’t worry, I will desist)   And then…

  • Strategists must take an honest, evidence based approach to the assessment of the sport’s coaching needs and change its whole approach to and perception of the voluntary sector
  • That must include taking direct responsibility for the recruitment and growth of coaches, rather than everlastingly devolving that responsibility to clubs in spite of overwhelming evidence that this does not and cannot work
  • That may include resisting, or at least taking steps to ameliorate, UK Sport and  Sport England’s crude,  target driven approach, which falsifies reality and over simplifies or distorts the way the sport functions
  • As in other sports, the rigid delineation between elite-paid and voluntary coaches must cease and coaches provided with options which include organised professional opportunities.  In reality the best expertise, experience and skill by no means always resides with those who are currently salaried.

…and so much more.  I don’t know if the gentlemen from ABAC would agree with this or not, but without their tenacity this crucial debate could hardly have started.  Right now they are probably entitled to say “we told you so” regarding the formation of the British Athletics Federation, and, although I would vigorously resist the notion that clubs should rule and a return to the fragmented pre 1991 structure is the way the sport needs to go, a fundamental rethink is obviously essential and if that aligns me with the swivel-eyed, so be it.

Coach Education “Poorly planned” “blighted” and “plagued”. Official!

Yet again athletics is suffering an unplanned clearout of key personnel. Following the departure of coaching’s strategic duo Kevin Tyler and Richard Wheater, newly in post UK A head coach Peter Ericsson is also moving on – ‘heading back to Canada for family reasons’ leaving another yawning chasm in the structure at a crucial time. Whilst Ericsson’s departure may indeed be due to family issues, (in which case our best wishes go with him) sadly, the hubristic outpourings from the sport’s formal spokespersons stretch credibility to the limit. Take this statement on the appointment of Peter Stanley as Head of Coach Education and Development, replacing Tyler and Wheater, taken from UK A’s website:

“We are absolutely delighted to appoint Peter to this pivotal role as we seek to build on the solid foundations laid by both Kevin Tyler and Richard Wheater in putting athletics at the forefront of NGB coaching development across the UK.”

Solid foundations? The Forefront of NGB coaching development? Not according to the recently commissioned Review of Coach Education Delivery, by SportsCoach UK, dated December 2012, which judges the coach education delivery system to be – among other criticisms – disconnected from national to local level, blighted by a lack of relevant information, poorly planned and apparently costing less to deliver than the prices charged to participants. Furthermore it has found that the whole coach education system is seen by coaches as “too difficult, too expensive and poorly run”.

No surprises here really – because such comments have been buzzing around the coaching community for years – long before Tyler and Wheater’s appointments. Clearly England’s strategists also had concerns, otherwise why commission this review in the first place? Yet we are treated to the usual, politically motivated blurb that all is hunky dory, which can only add to the bitterness and mistrust which this report identifies among the coaching workforce.

Yet the implications of this report do not stop at its stated purpose. In fact one wonders if the authors themselves actually grasped the full implications of their findings on planning, so underplayed are they in this review in terms of the whole sport implications. There is comment on the lack of connection between coach education and coach development, AND ALSO

“Forecasting is consistently over optimistic. It is not informed by appropriate insight from across the sport nor translated into appropriate delivery models. Forecasting appears to rely predominantly on reviewing and replicating the delivery from the previous 12 months.”


“There are no overarching coach workforce plans, identifying current and future coaching capacity, driving coach education and delivery. Instead coach education planning occurs as a discrete exercise.”


“The delivery model follows a rigid “one size fits all” approach that does not cater for “real life athletics”.

As has been pointed out here before, lack of a strategy based on objectively gathered athlete and coach statistics and a vision for growth translated into SMART objectives, lack of cohesion across various functions, lack of a hard headed assessment of outcomes, lazy one-size-fits-all plans, (which are by definition diversity unfriendly) and organisational deafness to the concerns of customers, i.e., the whole athletics fraternity, are the characteristics of England Athletics as a whole. Coach education delivery gets it in the neck because its management failed to overcome that organisational culture. But the Club and Coach Support Officer role is also, I suggest, plagued by the same issues. The coach mentoring scheme is, or was, a potential advance, but is limited even on its own terms, incomplete in terms of event coverage and penetration, makes no impact in large swathes of the land, is poorly promoted, divorced from an overarching development strategy and, in some instances its processes break down entirely. England’s strategy has been, especially when taking the Networks project into consideration, a sieve for money, with the return on huge investment remaining hazy, disconnected from measurable growth and effectively unchallenged because the potential mechanisms of challenge have been rendered powerless.

This review itself can probably be criticized from various perspectives. There does not seem to have been much consultation in semi-rural and rural locations. (Sorry Londoners, I know a 2 hour journey to a course is tough, but for Cumbrians, and no-doubt other far-flung participants, the 3 day athletics coach course means overnight accommodation and a total budget requirement of well over £500) The relationship between event under-development and lack of strategic planning is another blind spot. There are many other points to be made from the review detail, but the over-riding scandal is that this important report has been effectively hidden from coaches themselves, who are, meanwhile, being fed fairy stories about athletics being at the forefront of coaching development.

So, here is the whole report so that you can judge for yourselves, a right to which you, dear reader, are surely entitled. And, if you are wondering why this blog has returned after a year of silence, the answer, bluntly, is anger – anger about incompetence, waste and denial, anger about hubris and arrogance, and, most of all, anger about having the wool pulled over our eyes.

Click here for Independent Review of Coach Education Delivery.

Time For A Field Trip

Have you heard about this amazing new young sprinter? Isaac Poole, not 20 until December, ran 10.11 in a secret location in the south of England last weekend – clearly a fabulous new talent that ought to be accompanying Gemilli et al to the London Olympics. The press are beside themselves and the kit companies are queuing round the block to sign him up. Channel 4 are planning a profile on our new kids off the blocks, the fabulous young tearaways of the track who will be lining up beside Bolt and challenging for the relay medals anytime now…

Isobel Pooley high jumpingOh no, wait a minute, I may have got that slightly wrong… It was the 10.11 time that confused me and maybe I have dreamed up Isaac Poole, because 10.11 gets you 47th on the world rankings in the men’s 100m (at the time of writing). Just for a minute I muddled that 47th ranking equalling 10.11 in the men’s 100m with Isobel POOLEY’s 1.90 in the women’s high jump, which, as it happens, ALSO gets her 47th in the world rankings at the time of writing. She’s 19, not 20 till December. Of the 46 athletes currently above her in the world rankings, 36 of them are over 23 years old, so, Wow, she must have a great future. What a talent! The press are…yawning rudely; Isobel WHO? They are too busy splitting their collective trousers over Dwayne Chambers’ inclusion in the Olympic team, and the sport itself…well, that’s my point. Have we lost the plot when it comes to assessing the value of field event performance?

Dwayne Chambers is a courageous athlete, but I note that his current best time this season ranks him a lowly 123rd globally, and, in the absence of more deserving contenders, I wouldn’t necessarily quibble about his selection on the basis of his A standard from June last year. But I just wish we could inject a little field event awareness and balance into the collective athletics mindset. The IAAF’s qualification marks, as we all know, discriminate heavily against field events. This, together with the British running tradition and the values and interests that go with it, have big impact on opportunities for young athletes, the messages they get about their own value and potential, and, therefore, on performance.

Clearly in this Olympics, possibly for the first time in the modern era, GB has as many or more medal chances in field events than in track. Farah, Dai Greene if fully fit, and perhaps the men’s 4×400 and now also Perri S-D, are best running hopes. But it is in the field that exciting young talent is breaking through; Grabarz, Rutherford, Okoye, Bleasdale and maybe also Proctor and Aldama (not young, but definitely intriguing!), join Idowu (if fit) in deserving, but not necessarily getting, super-star status.

For, although lottery funding has softened the huge impact that commercial forces used to make on performance standards due to sponsorship deals for the highest profile names but nothing for the rest, competitive opportunities driven by the “bums on seats” criterion, the juxtaposition of motivation and incentive, and status and value perceptions by athletes themselves, event disadvantage is by no means dead. Steve Backley, whose training company has been supporting Grabarz in the absence of lottery funding, reports on his website that Robbie lacks a kit contract and only possesses one pair of high jump spikes! Although his absence from the list of funded athletes may be just about logical in terms of last year’s showings, its hard to imagine Gatlin or Blake, Robbie’s 100m statistical equivalents until a few days ago, – or dear old 132 ranked Dwayne for that matter – having to worry about not splitting their only pair of competition spikes before the Olympics!

Greg Rutherford long jumpingBut let us return to Isobel Pooley for a moment – a young woman who has the stature, at 6.4”, to match the world’s best and who has progressed quietly but consistently to her present p.b. of 1.90 at age 19, in spite of any maturation and skill acquisition issues that her height may have caused. Clearly the Olympic B standard of 1.92 is within her grasp, although her off day in the Europeans has killed her admittedly slight chance for this Olympiad. But if she makes that height later this season, it would place her 15th on the current World rankings. Were she to achieve the A standard, 1. 95, she would be ranked 10th on today’s list. The equivalent mark for female 100m sprinters, i.e. 10th in the world rankings, is 11.01. But the 100m A standard is actually 11.29 equalling 65th on the world lists today, and the B is 11.38 = 117th. Although we all understand that these entry standard inequalities are rooted in major games logistics and the sport’s relationship with TV, how does equality of opportunity apply here, and what is the impact on field event development both nationally and globally?

Pooley’s 1.90 is actually equal to Oyepitan’s 11.21, or 22.85 for 200m in terms of world ranking. And Pooley is only 1 year older than Jodie Williams and therefore in terms of world status her 1.90 this year is not so far behind Jodie’s celebrated 11.18 in 2011. Yet, in terms of how ability and potential are perceived and, probably, rewarded, Isabel cannot be compared to Jodie. Jodie has also achieved highly in competition and thereby attracted the wherewithal to elect to step outside of UKA’s support system. It is very hard to see a British female high jumper ever being able to do that.

So how does all this affect any young high jumper’s perception of their own future in the sport and what kind of message or incentive does this relay to throwers, jumpers and their coaches in general? And, most importantly of all, to what extent do these slanted perceptions of quality of performance penetrate the sport’s all-powerful elite support systems, within which track athletes out-number field eventers by more that 2 to 1. Even if this the appropriate outcome of totally objective, rounded assessment of each athlete’s potential, where is field event under-development on the sport’s long term strategy?

All this certainly presents yet another huge challenge for field event coaches, already used to battling against a lack of indoor facilities and consistently good enough domestic competition for their charges. Then there is the little matter of the dearth of an adequate spread of quality field event coaches to attract youngsters into these events in the first place and a systematic, athlete centred process for linking ability to coaching at a young age – issues that successive governing body regimes have chosen to overlook and which in fact challenge, or should do, every assumption that the British approach to athletics coaching is based on.

That we have such exciting field event talent to entertain us over the Olympic period is down to the persistence, wisdom and unremitting energy of coaches such as John Hillier (Okoye) and Fayyez Ahmed (Grabarz and Pooley). Surely its time for these coaches, and others similarly well versed in the realities of British conditions for field events outside the UKA support cocoon, to be allowed to come up with a national field events development strategy designed to overcome these inherent inequalities, because the current one size fits all approach simply does not fit all, and never can.

The Invisible Resource

At the start of 2011 England Athletics commissioned research on the development and retention of young athletes, specifically u20 year olds who had been ranked in the top 20 at u15.  The resulting report, Bridging the Gap (Shibli and Barrett, Sport Industry Research Centre) was published in July.  There are few surprises in the findings, which largely back up what is already apparent from general observation or indicated from previous athletics and general sport research. That is not a criticism; basic research of this kind is essential as a sound foundation for further enquiry, providing of course that additional research questions are objectively framed and not slanted by assumptions rooted in current policy or tradition.

There is much to discuss in Bridging the Gap, but for the moment I am focussing on a topic which is on few development agendas in athletics although much researched in sport generally: that is the influence of parents on sustained participation.

In this report athletes and coaches identified 3 critical success factors that drive achievement: intrinsic motivation, coaching and the support of family and friends.  Obvious?  Yes of course, but worthy of emphasis all the same, because in terms of what athletics provides and prioritises, the first two items are often, wrongly, taken for granted and the last – family support – is generally ignored.  Yet, in my experience, in particular as a recent county team manager but also as a close observer of coaching over many years, it is increasingly the case that parental support is the essential component for ANY level of participation, if only due to their possession of sets wheels.  Furthermore, the need for informed parental support increases as young athletes progress, and the higher the level of potential the youngster has, the higher is the requirement for that information to available and acted upon.   Yet the oft heard cry from clubs and coaches about parents is that they use athletics services as crèches.   So, what effort are we making to inform and support parents?

I spoke to a friend of a friend who lives in a large conurbation many miles from my home in Cumbria.  Ann (not her real name; I don’t want to embarrass the athlete) whom I had not previously met, is the mother of a gifted youngster, a national champion in his age group.  She is a thoughtful and highly supportive parent, but by her own admission has little background in sport.  Her child is also gifted in other sports, so, inevitably, comparisons are made. We spoke at length over the phone.

“He always showed great aptitude, but there was not much help from the primary school.  It was at a summer play scheme that his ability was first noted and I was told to get him to a club.  But I didn’t know what to do or how to contact one.  Meanwhile he went through the schools system and got 2nd in the county u15s when he was only 13.  At that point he met his current coach “Graham”.  Graham took him to various clubs and entered him in small competitions.  But there was no information from those clubs.  They didn’t explain how you got selected for the competitions, or what they were.  There was no information about county or area competition or what to expect from coaching.  When he went to club sessions he was bored. If Graham  is not available he gets very disappointed at what the club gets him to do, which is more or less “what do you feel like doing?”.   Graham is not attached to a club, but if it wasn’t for him the boy would not be involved in the sport at all, because what the clubs are offering does not appeal.   And that would be a tragedy because he absolutely loves it.  But it is down to luck, luck, luck that he met Graham at all and stayed in the sport.  Athletics seems to be very disorganised compared to rugby.  The people in the club are very nice, but there’s no obvious structure and they don’t offer any information. I was really surprised.”

I asked Ann what kind of information she think clubs should provide.

She reeled off a list:-

  • How much training should he be doing and what kind?
  • What competition is available and how do you get into it?
  • What about area and national championships, what are the standards like and how do you enter?
  • Other sports have academies to provide structure, information and progression; athletics doesn’t seem to. Why is that?
  • Why is there an inter-counties competition for combined events, but not for other events?

“I am also concerned about how much it costs coaches in terms of money and effort to provide this coaching and support.  Our involvement also costs us a lot, which is a worry because we have two other children.   I have a full-time job and it’s often a real rush to get him to training – a time and financial pressure.  He is coming up to GCSEs, and although I am determined not to be a pushy parent, and anyway I don’t need to be because he is a grafter, but I can’t help wondering if it’s worth him bothering with athletics, longer term. Where’s the gain? Is he going to have to put in so much time that it detracts from other things?”

In these bullet points and in Ann’s additional comments we have a summary of questions and concerns that any thoughtful parent will be thinking about, if not directly asking.  Considering the absolutely vital role of such parents to the future participation and athletics well-being of their children – and therefore of the future of the whole sport – could not clubs and coaches have access to an approved leaflet for parents giving simple and practical answers to these questions?

Then there is the debate about the more qualitative aspects of Ann’s concerns.   It is all very well to underline the value of “intrinsic motivation, coaching and the support of family and friends” and few who are versed in this sport would question that these are indeed the fundamentals of sustained participation and achievement, but unfortunately we seem to be seeing these qualities as static requirements rather than the outcomes of dialogue with all concerned.  Whilst happy, well coached young athletes will indeed be primarily motivated by wanting to be as good as they can be,  parents, especially those under financial and time pressure (and who isn’t?) and with other children to consider, are bound to ruminate about the extrinsic purpose and future of their whole family’s commitment to their child’s participation and progress.

A few years ago I was asked by a member of the regional development staff of England Athletics to run a workshop for parents at one of the now defunct regional academies.    This was on the basis of my then day job, together with my athletics and personal experience (managed a Children’s Services team working with difficult teenagers and their families: delivered the personal development element in the Mental Preparation Foundation Courses with psychologist Alma Thomas, mother of an elite potential athlete..oh yes,  nearly forgot, ex-Olympian) .

The objectives of the 90 minute session where to:

  • Identify the benefits and demands of being an athlete
  • Discuss the consequent role of the parent
  • Assist the development of balance and emotional well-being as the foundation of success and healthy family life
  • Outline the basics of effective communication

Jess's parents; more nervous than the athlete?

Whilst the workshop gave  information, its main achievement was to give parents a structured opportunity to discuss these issues in a supportive atmosphere and share their own personal challenges, such as dealing with their own and their off-spring’s pre-competition nerves, to manage the difficult boundaries between support and pressure and the parent/coach relationship.  The workshop ran a couple times and got excellent feedback. I have considered posting the PowerPoint presentation on this site for clubs and coaches to use, but decided against it because it needs supporting notes which are well understood by the facilitator in order to be safely and effectively delivered.   If anyone is interested in further information about this workshop, just drop me an email.

Success in sport depends on partnership between the governing body, athletes and, in their formative years, athletes’ parents.  Even the most gifted youngsters are unlikely to succeed without parents who are able and willing to spend time and large amounts of money providing appropriate support.  Most parents are left to do the best they can, but that appropriateness frequently also requires input – of basic information but also of help to manage the stresses and emotional and behavioural challenges of what, for a tiny but very visible minority is an escalator to fame and wealth, but for the majority is simply a highly testing tightrope towards being the best that you can be for your own satisfaction.   Parents who get it wrong can easily drive their children out of the sport, but in the absence of any structured guidance, whose fault is that?

365 Continued: the most important debate a sport can ever have

How can it be that the sport that created some of the world’s most successful induction packages: – Sportshall Athletics (George Bunner) 5 Star Award and 10 Step Award – remains so inept at selling itself to the next generation?

Tom McNab became a National Coach in the 1960s and, still coaching today, is unique in being able to reflect on the current state of the sport with both an historian’s eye and a coach’s expertise. Here he widens the debate about Athletics 365 and examines the trends and attitudes in coaching and administration that, he argues, have caused the sport’s inability to enthuse and retain children and young people in enough numbers to ensure a healthy future.

This piece raises a vital question: In its rush to intellectualise and conform to an over literal interpretation of LTAD models (Long Term Athlete Development), is athletics failing children and young people and sabotaging its own future? If so, what can be done? It is the most important debate any sport can have and every club and coach has a responsibility to consider it and their own contribution to a better future.


Tom McNab

I occasionally look back at what I wrote as a young man, as a National Coach, forty odd years ago. My major work on teaching was “Modern Schools Athletics” (1970) an early attempt to deal with the class-teaching of the sport. At the time, I and my co-authors, (men like Alan Launder and Wilf Paish), fondly imagined that the book would trigger off an explosion of interest in the P. E. profession. We would soon, we assured ourselves, be drowned in letters from teachers from all over the country, offering us alternative methods of teaching athletics, ideas on teaching facilities and modified equipment, a host of things which we could insert in the next edition.

Forty years on, and not a single letter, indeed not a hint that the P.E. profession had given the issue of class athletics a single thought has emerged. For, strangely, it has rarely shown much interest in bread and butter issues such as this, as has been clearly revealed in other sports such as swimming and football.

Thirty years ago, F. A. National Coach Allen Wade devised a means of teaching football which would enable teachers to work more effectively with large classes of children. This involved the creation of grids, in which small team games and practices could be pursued, giving children of all abilities the opportunity to get many touches of the ball in opposed and semi-opposed situations. I defy anyone to find a set of teaching-grids anywhere in his neighbourhood, for teaching method has changed not at all in a century, and consists simply of dividing the class up into two teams and to referee the resultant game.

It has not been much different in swimming, where most of the ideas on teaching have come, not from the universities who train teachers, but from A. S. A. swimming coaches such as Hamilton Smith. They have been the ones who created award schemes; they are the ones who have developed teaching method.

It is at this point worth summarising what teachers and coaches are attempting to do in their different contexts. In schools, where the teachers can guarantee attendance and assign time with confidence, the aim is to provide an athletic education, teaching children how to perform within the rules and testing them in competition, using an essentially Five Star approach.

What presents them with problems are large numbers, relatively primitive facilities and lack of commitment on the part of many of the pupils. But what also limits them is an understanding of the nature of technique at this level, the need to modify equipment and facilities, how to organise large groups in different activities, what events to teach and what to leave. Athletics teaching has hardly moved forward in any way since I was first exposed to it as a boy in 1945, for all of the development of educational theory and all of our greater technical knowledge. But school athletics will be, for most children, their only experience of athletics in their lifetimes, and it is sad that the experience is often so shoddy.

The aim of the club coach in dealing with novices is in essence not that much different from the P. E. teacher, the three big differences lying in numbers, commitment and time. Of these the only negative is time, in that club coaches have no idea how long their children will stay with them. Here, one answer is to have clear blocks of induction tuition for which children sign up and pay, followed by programmes( jumps/ throws/ sprints-hurdles relays) with clearly-defined objectives. Central to all of this is to have a Director moving children from one programme to another. This kind of organisation is, alas, anathema to most clubs, and most of what I witness in clubs is closer to Chaos Theory.

As I have said, the main problem is the uncertainty. We have 24k children in our clubs in the 11-15 age range, and this probably represents a turn-over of 2-3 times that number. I make this as an estimate, for no one has ever troubled to track this population, so we simply do not know. What we DO know is that they are by no definition athletes, and to try to treat them as such, as if they all have long-term aims, is madness. And what we also know is that though the level of ability in this group is higher than in schools, the technical parameters are similarly narrow. This means that most children in this age-group will never reach more than an absolutely basic technique in any but a few events. But if they stay with us long enough, then they will leave our clubs having competed in runs, jumps and throws, will have some understanding of the rules, and a feeling for the nature of athletics – in other words having received an athletics education.

When the coaching scheme developed under Dyson in the 1950s, it was quickly embraced by the P.E profession, for this was science, this was status. Thus, our teaching magazines were soon full of abstruse articles on the mechanics of the hitch kick and the Western Roll. It mattered little that their authors had never coached a jumper. Neither did it matter that little of the biomechanics were important to the class teaching which physical educationists were employed to deliver. This tendency to concentrate on theory and on technical minutiae accelerated twenty years later, when physical education became a degree subject. For there were no professorships to be gained in dissertations on practical teaching, on the problems of dealing with thirty children of all shapes and sizes. But there were plenty to be gained in the exploration of the science of that which was not worth knowing.

This issue was compounded by the fact that those who DID succeed at practical level rarely if ever committed themselves to paper. I was fortunate in having Alan Launder in my area, for though he was at that time not a writer, what he had done at Dr. Challenor’s school showed me what could be achieved with the right approach. My own ideas on class-teaching (indeed on how to deal with novices) had not matured at that point, simply because I had gone straight from teaching into national coaching. I nevertheless provided expression to what he had done by creating the Five Star Award; here my mistake was to omit teaching-notes which might have given more detailed practical example of Alan’s approach.

My book “Modern Schools Athletics” (1970) went some of the way to dealing with this, but not far enough, for although the philosophy was clear, and the technical advice reasonably sound, I failed to address the central issue of class-organisation. Practically expressed, this means “what do you do with the other twenty odd children, while you are working with a group on shot put?” And I made no attempt to make it clear that certain events (discus, vault, hammer) were unsuitable for class-teaching, or to press teachers towards modification of equipment in events such as shot and javelin. Neither did I give any idea of how many events should be tackled in a summer season, the balance between technique and competition, or what different forms that competition might take.

From this distance, the reasons for these omissions are obvious. I was no longer teaching, no longer putting my early thoughts into action. For there is no substitute for practice or for the reflective thought which follows that practice, when bringing new methods to the table.

The lack of any response to the ideas brought up by “Modern Schools Athletics” left a vacuum and left room for anyone to offer any speculative thoughts which entered their mind. Thus we had “How to Improve Your Coaching”, a Sports Coach UK publication back around 1997. This was a bland, generic document, clearly written by someone with little practical experience of coaching and was issued by UKA to all of its coaches. Alas, in its earlier form it had clearly related to netball and its pages were dotted with references to that sport. It was understandably treated with contempt by the senior coaches to whom it was presented, and passed quickly into deserved obscurity.

A few years later, Levels One and Two coach education materials were produced, and Wilf Paish, John Anderson and I were asked to comment on them. These related essentially to the introduction of athletics to novices. We said that they were rubbish, poorly- presented, badly-written and unrelated to the work that coaches were required to undertake in our clubs. As I remember it, the beginners’ session on triple jump featured pre-jump routines which were more difficult than the event itself! Needless to say, we heard no more from the UKA Coaching Director. It reflects the lack of informed opinion that there was no comment in our athletic press on the inadequacy of the coach education materials. Neither was there any response by the governing body to Wilf Paish’ detailed critical observations.

Then there was a series of event posters (purporting to be visual aids) but choked with thousands of words, and often simply factually incorrect. For no, high jump was not on the programme of the Ancient Greeks, and no, women did not appear in Olympic athletics in 1924, but in 1928.

Elevating Athletics then arrived, a work of fantasy, which development officers understandably found it impossible to place in schools. Undeterred, but without admitting error, UKA then ordered its Coaching Director (who had never previously committed to paper a word on schools athletics) to create a second version. I was shown a draft, and finding it no better than the first, advised against publication, but was ignored.

What all of this describes is an organisation convinced of the quality of anything that their employees produce, regardless of evidence to the contrary. There could therefore be no knowledge, no wisdom other than that which they or their minions created. And any criticism necessarily derived from ignorance, envy or simply a failure to keep up with the times.

Running through all of the above was an aversion to consider past experience. For the just-employed coach/ administrator inevitably, invariably felt it essential to make his mark by offering something new. Thus we recently had “What we are going to do and how we are going to do it”, an EA strategy document purporting to provide a vision of club athletics in the future. This portrayed a British female winner of the Olympic high jump (some mistake, surely?) lecturing to parents. Outside, a “hammer guru” took a session in which several hammers appeared to be in the air at the same time. Meanwhile, at the other end, javelin throwers launched their implements in rage towards the hammer throwers, themselves only a few dangerous feet away from a row of shot putters. Out on the track, hurdlers chased each other in the same lane and high jumpers leapt over unsupported crossbars on what appeared to be a long jump approach-run.

What troubles me most about all of these follies is first the cost; second their irrelevance to our present coaching/teaching situation, but most of all their relentless mediocrity – the fact that there seems to have been no mature editorial control, no pause for reflection at any point – no reality check. And, beyond all of this, worse still is the lack of informed response from the athletics community.

I can say categorically that none of these materials could possibly have passed muster with Dyson and his colleagues, who would have given their right hands for similar funding. Nor could they have been considered seriously in my time as National Coach; simply laughed out of court. This is not to say that all of the National Coaches’ booklets were of good quality, but what identified all of them is that they described what their writers had actually done, rather than what they thought should be done.

But only a handful of National Coaches were interested in the teaching process within schools, and only a small number were interested in the instruction of club novices, a group who were not by any definition athletes. This was a major omission because, by the late 1980s, this group had become by far the biggest sector within the club population. The vacuum in these areas, together with the decline in the quality of governing body appointments has, alas, brought us Shine, Elevating Athletics and 365.

We appear to have reached a point where everyone’s opinion has validity, even if it derives from little or no successful experience. Thus I am already reading blogs where the thoughts of coaches such as Launder and Paish are given equal status with writers who have achieved nothing in coaching, and who have never previously put up their ideas for scrutiny. Launder’s comments come from someone who rarely expresses criticism in print, and who has no hidden agenda, but they will pass through athletics with little comment.

It gives me no pleasure to observe that Alan Launder’s work at Dr Challenor’s still represents the high point in schools athletics after almost fifty years; or that works like Elevating Athletics and “365” are being presented as realistic ways by which the teaching of athletics in clubs and schools should be pursued. It shows that, unlike coaching, this is not an area which has been vigorously pursued by teachers and coaches, and this is sad, for it deprives children of the pleasure in athletics which I once enjoyed.

A Question of Interpretation: for Maslow substitute LTAD?

Long Term Athlete Development Late Specialization Model
FUNdamental stage
Learning to Train
Training to Train
Training to Compete
Training to Win
Retirement / retainment

“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will be a blunt instrument if used as such. The way you use the Hierarchy of Needs determines the subtlety and sophistication of the model.

For example: the common broad-brush interpretation of Maslow’s famous theory suggests that once a need is satisfied the person moves onto the next, and to an extent this is entirely correct. However an overly rigid application of this interpretation will produce a rigid analysis, and people and motivation are more complex. So while it is broadly true that people move up (or down) the hierarchy, depending what’s happening to them in their lives, it is also true that most people’s motivational ‘set’ at any time comprises elements of all of the motivational drivers. For example, self-actualizers (level 5 – original model) are mainly focused on self-actualizing but are still motivated to eat (level 1) and socialise (level 3). Similarly, homeless folk whose main focus is feeding themselves (level 1) and finding shelter for the night (level 2) can also be, albeit to a lesser extent, still concerned with social relationships (level 3), how their friends perceive them (level 4), and even the meaning of life (level 5 – original model).

Like any simple model, Maslow’s theory is not a fully responsive system – it’s a guide which requires some interpretation and thought, given which, it remains extremely useful and applicable for understanding, explaining and handling many human behaviour situations.” ( ethical work and life learning)