I hope you are keeping safe and well as we all look towards April and a period when we can emerge from lockdown. I wrote this on Sunday morning, whilst watching with admiration the performances of our young English athletes, members of English clubs, competing for the British Athletics team in the European Indoor Championships in Poland.
It is sure to have been a very surreal experience for those involved during what has been an unprecedented year. The empty stadium does not seem to have dampened spirits and the determination, skill, and commitment on display from those involved is something for all of us to be very proud of. I am sure that those athletes and their coaches would have learned a lot during this last year and specifically the need for perseverance and focus during a stop, start 12-month period of several lockdowns, adapted training, and competition.
Having watched a number of these English athletes competing at age group level in both club and national level competitions during the last decade, it is particularly satisfying and a timely reminder for us to reflect on the importance of clubs and those volunteers in clubs who provide so much for the thousands of athletes and runners who enjoy our sport. I am also sure that they would themselves recognise this and thank those volunteers who have worked tirelessly to support the return of our sport at all levels during a year that none of us would ever have predicted being possible prior to March 2020.
Volunteers at all levels of the sport are fundamentally important and it is their efforts that will once again be critical in the coming period as we look to make a progressive return to normality. Discussions are now ongoing between England Athletics and a number of these key organisations such as the National Athletics League and English Schools' Athletic Association as we plan together for the spring and summer outdoor season. Without their efforts it would not have been possible to bring back 300 adapted track and field competitions during late summer 2020 that generated around 30,000 athlete performances and 300 off-track races with around 60,000 performances.
With the current UK Government roadmap outlining a gradual cessation of restrictions through to 21 June, clubs, coaches, officials, and competition providers will no doubt be preparing now for what we hope will be a golden summer and sporting bounce back from the pandemic. We published our initial guidance to support our member clubs and bodies shortly after the Prime Minister’s announcements and will continue to update this as, when and if, further information becomes available from the UK Government. All eyes are firmly fixed on 29 March when organised outdoor sport can return as we look forward with hope to an action-packed domestic season.
We have also recently launched the 2nd round of our Club Support Fund and this is open to not only clubs but member bodies including competition providers as they prepare for their events. In the first round we were able to invest in more than 100 clubs and we hope that this round, specifically focused on the return to action, will be as popular.
We have also announced details of a Facility Support Fund which we hope will be welcomed as clubs work to prepare for the new season, working closely with facility owners and contractors to prepare ready for competitive action.
I firmly believe that sport, and particularly athletics and running, should be at the forefront of the fight back against the pandemic. During an Olympic and Paralympic year, and with just over a year to go until Birmingham hosts a home Commonwealth Games, athletics remains the foundation of all sports, is rooted in physical literacy and is inclusive, accessible and appeals to all abilities and all backgrounds. We build healthy communities through our sport and not only do we prepare participants like Jodie Williams (Herts Phoenix AC), Keely Hodgkinson (Leigh Harriers & AC), Holly Archer (Cambridge and Coleridge AC), Jamie Webb (Liverpool Harriers & AC), and Holly Bradshaw (Blackburn Harriers & AC) for glory on the biggest of stages, but we also help people to take their first steps in our sport, to become healthy human beings, learning lifelong skills and disciplines that help to build and maintain good physical and mental health.
I am sure that like me you will all be hoping for a fantastic sporting summer where athletics becomes engrained in the psyche of the population as the performances of our finest talent on the domestic and world stage serves to inspire others to get involved. We have a truly wonderful opportunity to play our part in helping the country recover given the breadth of opportunity and access that our sport provides.
Much has been reported of the physical impacts of the pandemic but like others, I am very mindful of the mental health and wellbeing impacts that have been wide reaching. I think that the brave and courageous actions of individuals in our sport are helping to create a safe space for more people to talk openly about their struggles and this is something that is very important to me personally having struggled with my own mental health at various times in my life. I have been fortunate to speak in recent times with Olympian Jack Green (Kent AC) and international athlete Joe Fuggle (Blackheath & Bromley) about their personal journeys and I know that their stories would have inspired others too. Jack has also spent some time talking with young athletes on our talent pathway programmes and to volunteer club leaders in recent weeks and Joe has recently established the new digital platform theathleteplace to encourage athletes to network and share their experiences in a safe space – something that I sense will be very much valued as we emerge from the pandemic. I feel we all have a responsibility at all levels of the sport to listen, empathise more and to support one another on this journey through life which is often fraught with challenge.
As we look to a period where England Athletics will launch its new strategic plan for the period 2021 onwards, it is important for us all to consider what lasting impacts the pandemic will have upon the participation in our sport and what this could mean for how we organise and deliver it.
These are important strategic considerations for all those working in the sport at all levels. As we look to society 'opening up' during the spring and into the summer, what have we all learnt that we can take forward with us and how can we do things differently reflective of 'normal' life in 2021? What new habits will be here to stay and how will that affect our social and sporting interactions? Time will tell I guess with regards to understanding the answers to some of these questions and it is important that as providers of services in our sport that we all react, adapt, and embrace innovation in responding to any changes in participant behaviour that have become the 'new norm' during the last year.
As England Athletics we are very clear that a greater blended approach between face-to-face activities and virtual delivery of services by digital is here to stay – at all levels of the sport. We have perhaps, on reflection, realised that at England Athletics we can work and interact more efficiently by connecting and communicating with audiences by digital and in doing so addressing some of the cost and time concerns that existed before. At England Athletics, we will continue to offer a significant digital service provision as a part of our normal delivery moving forward. We have converted many of our qualification and education programmes online and we will continue to blend face-to-face activities such as competitions and conferences with virtual challenges, resource delivery and webinars.
In closing, I want to wish you all, whatever your involvement in our great sport, the very best of health, happiness, and enjoyment as we look towards the coming months and a return from this COVID-led wilderness.
Personally, I am just looking forward to being track side again, enjoying conversations with people whilst watching our fine aspiring athletes enjoy their competition whether they be on the journey to compete for England in 2022 or just because they love participating and, in doing so, no doubt reflecting on a year like no other.