I have just watched the BBC Broadcasting of the Rio Olympics which was absolutely brilliant and at the end of each broadcast they would sign off with the phrase ‘Get inspired’.
I thought about that and I have been inspired to get something off my chest that has been mothering me for some time and that is the seeming decline and fall of your athletics club.
The process has been happening for some years now and I am wondering if the membership and primarily you the athletes are really aware of what is going on, or if you do, care enough to reverse the trend.
Many of you probably do not know who I am because most of you are young and have been with the club a short time.
I was a moderately successful club athlete in the early 1970’s coached by Jack Walters, a highly rated senior sprints Coach and Coach to a number of GB Internationals. The Club I belonged to was Luton United Athletics Club, which merged with Vauxhall Motors Athletics Club some twelve years ago to form your club today. Luton United was in turn the result of other mergers many years ago. I was fortunate to have many talented team mates who represented England, Scotland and Wales, six of whom competed in the Commonwealth Games in 1974, three of whom returned with medals and one Commonwealth Games Record in the Marathon. I was nowhere near their standard but I was their team mate and they treated me as an equal which meant a lot to me and still does.
I briefly coached in 1979 an athlete who asked me to help him but I realised I would be in conflict with another coach for whom I had a lot of respect and I withdrew my help. Three years later I was approached by a small group of athletes, the youngest was only 18 years of age and I at first declined to take up coaching but they persuaded me to coach with the suggestion that they would leave my club if I didn’t.
The relationship of coach/ athlete only lasted two years before it broke up for various reasons but I am still friendly with all of those former athletes and while it lasted they produced some great performances, none of them left to go to other clubs and I felt a lot of satisfaction in that.
In the mid 1980’s I was approached again to coach long jump by Jenny, my wife, who had a talented sprinter/ hurdler and I agreed to step in again. I was blessed with a girl who went on to represent England and win the Euro Juniors indoor and outdoor titles (they were the precursor to the AAA U20 titles). I learned a lot from that young lady before she moved on to a National Event Coach and I will always be grateful for that. I had a small break at the beginning of the 1990’s to run the club bar before returning in the 1992 to jumps coaching, again because I was asked and I wanted to help the club. I have been coaching ever since and I still coach athletes from a number of clubs including Luton.
So much for me, I hope you now understand where I am coming from. I resigned my life membership of Luton United when the merger occurred for two reasons, the first was by then I was coaching athletes from at least six clubs and wanted to be impartial in my advice when talking to them and secondly LUAC was my club, not the merged version. In recent years I have become a Social member and throughout I have continued to help out where I can in Officiating and coaching.
I have therefore had more than four decades of involvement in both clubs as an athlete, club officer, coach and official so it disappoints me to see less and less people getting involved and less and less athletes willing to compete for their club.
Some of you will no doubt be saying ‘what on earth is he on about?’. What I am talking about is the lack of athletes competing on a regular basis for the various league teams in track and field and no doubt for cross country and road running. When I competed I competed a period of three consecutive years where I did not miss a single club or league match, which was at that time a record and for all I know may still stand today because club matches no longer exist.
In my time of course athletes missed matches for a variety of reasons and maybe I was a freak of nature, but it was no freak that within the team that I competed three of us that I know of and maybe more did not marry until the season was over because they supported their team and as a result that team went through five promotions in successive years, from the then Southern athletics league and into the National League. Now the British League.
When Young Athletes Leagues came along in the mid 1970’s it did away with the need for inter club matches because everyone was catered for by one league or another. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s LUAC could put out a team in excess of 90 young athletes and they were dominant in the EYAL, being champions for seven consecutive years. This was in large part due to a very active teacher who acted a Schools Liaison Officer and encouraged children to get involved. Today your Team Managers will struggle to see one third of those numbers on a match by match basis. Someone is no doubt going to say times have changed but when I travel to different meetings I see no such decline in other local clubs and indeed some clubs have a waiting list for young athletes to join. Bedford for example has an active group called the Beagles, who are under 11, and the coaches regularly work over two sittings on a Saturday morning with up to 150 youngsters. Their club membership is in excess of 500. Bedford and Luton have similar catchment areas in terms of population. I therefore see that the only way forward for the Club’s future is for more people to join and for the support network to be in place within the Club.
Of course this means that Coaches in turn should encourage the athletes they coach to compete for their Club. Within Luton I see that type of encouragement only in part which is probably my main area of concern.
As a performance coach I believe that I should prepare the athletes I coach for championships, where they have the ability and virtually anyone can compete in their County Championships and Eastern Championships. I also believe in using League Competitions as training to hone their skills. This, in turn, supports the local club wherever that may be.
I do not consider it necessary to recommend an athlete to move away from their local club for a so called better competition with bigger clubs. There is no solid evidence that moving a young athlete from one club to another is of any benefit. If you look back through recent history, you will see Fatima Whitbread (World Champion) remained with Thurrock A.C, David Otley (Olympic Champion) stayed with Telford A.C, Seb Coe (Olympic Champion) stayed with Hallamshire Harriers in Sheffield until he moved to London Haringey A.C. More recently Paula Radcliffe spurned bigger Clubs to stay with Bedford & County A.C and Greg Rutherford is still a member of Milton Keynes A.C.
All of these world class athletes could have moved on but they stayed with the Club they joined because they realised it is the quality of the coaching more than League Competition which matters and it is working hard enough to go to a Championship. To those athletes who belong to any local Club, whether it be Luton, Milton Keynes, Bedford or any Club, please think carefully before you make any decision to move. If a Coach pushes you in that direction, their motives might be well intentioned or they may be selfish.
I use the word selfish carefully because over the decades I have been involved with the sport I have noticed a minority of Coaches who claim to be athlete centred when in reality they are ambitious and ego driven to make names for themselves from your ability. Many Clubs have one or two of this type of Coach and they demand the loyalty of the athlete and encourage them to do what they want rather than what is really best for the athlete in the long run.
In my view, there is rarely any need for a young athlete to leave their local Club if the facilities are adequate and the Coaching is good. As a Senior you do not have the opportunity to use a higher Claim Facilities to remain first Claim to your Club but still get competition at a higher level should you choose. It is more understandable in that context because there are less competition opportunities as a senior than that of a young athlete who has Schools, Leagues and Championships packed into a short space of time from April to September.
The majority of Coaches are, of course, volunteers with the sole aim of improving you as an athlete and long may that continue. Personally I have never approached an athlete for coaching and I never will even though it has cost a lot of money and time over the decades. The reason is that coaching is my hobby and I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing someone improve, no matter how great or small that improvement is and I feel it personally if an athlete does not perform, I feel I have let them down in some way. As a coach I have always recognised that in victory it is the success of the athlete, not me and in defeat it is my failure not theirs. I am sure that many coaches feel the same way.
My pleas is therefore to you the athlete to compete as well and as often as you can for your Club and compete with pride with your team mates to support the Club and make it more successful, make the Team Managers happy because they can put out a team rather than a few individuals. From this you can build up a good social network and many friendships. To the coaches who are working for the Club, please do the right thing and support both your athletes and the Club to be successful.
If the Club continues to shrink the alternative would be to merge with a bigger Club and lose your identity, that’s if another Club would be willing to merge. Lets not leave Stockwood Park as a training base only.