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As an athlete Helen Clitheroe was a European Indoor champion at 3000m and set a British record for Steeplechase in the 2008 Olympics. She is now a coach and leads on England Athletics’ targeted event initiative work for the steeplechase in providing opportunities for athletes and coaches to develop and progress in the event.
Helen explained to us what is involved in the role which is supported by Sport England funding, “I have been putting on various workshops led by steeplechase experts on a variety of topics that are relevant to being a good steeplechaser. “I have had sessions led by Luke Gunn, Stuart Stokes, Trevor Painter, and physios Chris Bramah and Sarah Connors.”
Helen explained how these include workshops on drills, conditioning, injury prevention, self-management, training sessions, and psychology. She also oversaw a recent Steeplefest event where over 50 athletes competed in a steeplechase only event. This was the largest numbers of entries for a steeplechase event in the country and shows that the targeted event is growing in numbers. “The numbers of juniors, especially women, trying and competing at steeplechase is growing so the future looks good.”
She said that she wants these opportunities to be where people develop strong networks with each other as well, “My aim is to draw coaches and athletes together to not only learn new ideas but share knowledge and good practice.”
Aside from positive signs with athletes, both male and female, running personal bests Helen has also been encouraged by what people have been saying after being part of different activities, “We have already had valuable feedback of success from athletes and coaches who have attend workshops. If we can help progress any athlete to achieve their potential, then that is worthwhile.”
Helen works to deliver activity to male and female coaches and athletes, and away from her work for England Athletics, coaches more male than female athletes. She says that in her coaching and her work with England Athletics she is able to bring a value perspective as a female coach, “I’ve never seen being a female coach as a problem – there are fewer of us in athletics and that would be something I would like to see change. I think there are some advantages to having a female perspective – I have made it one of my missions to help raise the awareness of female athlete issues and how to deal with these. So I suppose that is something being a female coach has made me aware of to a higher degree.”
Helen says when coaching it is important to coach each athlete according to their personal situation and requirements and this is something she emphasises in her personal coaching, “The individual coaching I do is exactly that! I don’t have a massive group of athletes as I like to give attention to each athlete’s individual needs. I have had various influences over my own athletics career that I draw upon and still regularly speak with other coaches to sound out my ideas.”
Helen’s personal experience in the sport began when she was aged 11 and joined Preston Harriers – the club she has stayed with ever since. Helen said, “I was encouraged prior to that by my primary school teacher who coached us for cross country. I competed at club and county level as a young athlete but didn’t start to make any marks in elite level athletics until I was in my early 20’s.” But then the successes did come! She views winning the European cup in Gateshead in 2000 in front of a home crowd as a special moment, “That was my first big win and was an amazing moment.”
The Commonwealth Games 1500m final in Manchester 2002 was another great moment as she took the bronze medal with gold going to Dame Kelly Holmes and silver to Wales’ Hayley Tullett. Then in 2011 she claimed the European Indoor 3000m title, “It was an amazing moment for me and all my supporters as to finally win a Gold medal after competing for GB so many times!”
Helen had already set her eyes on coaching before she had stopped competing at an elite level, “I did my coaching qualification whilst still competing but didn’t start coaching properly until about 2014 when I started coaching Chris Livesey. Coaching was pretty organic as I had really been leading my training group at Preston for a while – organising the sessions and giving people advice. So it was pretty natural for me to start helping others in a more formal manner.”
Aside from coaching her own athletes the work that Helen does in leading on England Athletics’ targeted event initiative for steeplechase now sees her supporting other athletes and their coaches in working towards some of the successes that she tasted as an athlete.
Helen also is a Talent Coach Mentor to the England Talent programme where she oversees five coach and athlete pairs to mentor them and help them improve. This role as Talent Coach Mentor means she is working directly with talented male and female athletes and coaches across endurance to upskill them. As the coaches are upskilled as part of this work which receives Sport England funding they can also impart this knowledge down into their own coaching group.