As part of his series of club visits England Athletics Chief Executive Chris Jones recently visited Aldershot, Farnham & District.
Aldershot, Farnham and District (AFD) are well known for the success of many of their distance runners but there is also a lot of work going on behind the scenes and across the event groups.
Chris Jones said, “There is a lot of hard work that goes on in the background at any club. The successes that have come about as a result of the hard work of coaches such as Mick Woods and Keith Donkin, and their athletes are relatively well know.
“But it is good to visit a club to see more of what these people as well as many others do week-in, week-out away from the limelight. It is also good to hear the thoughts of different people in the club as they give different perspectives on the challenges they and other clubs face as well as sharing their approaches to some of these situations.”
Club chair Mike Neighbour said that some people’s perceptions of the club are relatively limited to the performances of the faster endurance athletes. He revealed, “To some extent our reputation goes before us. My last outing at London was a 3hr 28min and someone said to me at 5M ‘Are you really from AFD?’”
He laughs that he perhaps didn’t fit the stereotype for an AFD athlete that they expected. Mike said that the club’s reputation for endurance success can have a mixed impact - it can work in a positive way with people coming along because of it, but it can also mean they are not aware of other aspects of the club.
AFD do a range of activities for young athletes and saw an upturn in interest on the back of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Mike put the figure of membership growth at around 150 people. While this brought benefits it also had the usual challenges – the club now has a waiting list for young athletes. Young athletes start off with generic and multi-discipline groups. Mike said, “Then we manage them through into a specialist group over time.”
The club also organises an annual academy for youngsters held for three days during the Easter holidays. This has been running for around nine years. There are 10 to 15 coaches at the club who take time off work to be able to help at the academy which attracts 100 or so youngsters each year.
The club is continuing to work to grow its coaching capacity. Mike said, “We have had a drive for parents to get involved. We have slowly built up more of the senior athletes coaching. We have now got about 20 different coaching groups with almost 60 coaches, coaching assistants and parent helpers and the numbers are growing.
“The big drive that we have had is to up the number of coaches. We automatically pay half of their course fees.”
In the last two years AFD has worked with their Coach Education Coordinator to host its own closed coaching course at the club. A good number of people attended and the club was able to contact other local clubs who then filled the remaining spare places. Mike said that hosting the course themselves made it easier for people to attend and easier to persuade people to come along as it made it more convenient.
One of the club’s coaches is Verity Snook. Verity is the club’s assistant coaching coordinator and also a committee member. She has been involved with the club since she was 11. Verity joined with her sisters, she’s a triplet. She explained wanting to do something different to her sisters influenced her choice of event, “That’s why I got into race walking. One of my sisters ran middle distance and she got into the England team for cross country. My other sister was a javelin thrower.
“I competed for Great Britain for several years, about 10 years, until I stopped for a family. After that I tried to get back. I returned to some form of fitness and competition but wasn’t as competitive. That’s when I started thinking of coaching. I have been actively coaching for around eight years.”
Verity said that initially she found it hard to attract young athletes into race walking. But then her son who was training with an endurance group at the time had an aggressive growth spurt. He switched across to Race Walking to maintain fitness and avoid causing problems while that was happening but then decided to stick with race walking and didn’t switch back.
Verity explained that as youngsters saw others getting involved in race walking that in turn attracted more. She said the Athletics 365 and multi-discipline approach the club uses as youngsters come into the club has also helped, “Athletics 365 has made a huge difference. Every six to eight weeks I have youngsters to do their race walking. They all try it and all have a go. A few of them then think ‘I’m good at that, I’ll have a go at that’.
“They do once a week to start with and we won’t let them specialise until they are 13 or 14 as we’ve decided as a club that up to Under 15s there should be a multi discipline approach. We’ve see the results in the leagues such as the Wessex League – we’ve performed better.”
Aside from race walking other event groups were also in action. Due to the number of athletes at the club AFD have different event groups using the track at different sessions and makes use of the nearby playing fields, particularly for the young athletes and endurance runners. While the clubs endurance athletes are likely to continue successes there is plenty of other work going on at AFD far away from the glare of publicity.