In the latest of his club visits England Athletics Chief Executive Chris Jones headed to Bedford & County AC.
The club is competitive on a national level at both track & field and off track events, with national league teams and successes at events such as the ECCA National Cross Country Championships and ERRA road relays. The club’s most well-known athlete is Paula Radcliffe, who was coached from a young age by Alex and Rosemary Stanton at Bedford & County. But the club has had successful athletes across a range of disciplines and continues to bring good athletes through.
Among those currently at the club are the current England Athletics Under 23 100m champion Josh Cox who lowered his PB to 10.45 in the heats before going even faster to win the final in 10.39. Josh is part of Alan Watts’ group at the club. Alex Stanton-coached Rebecca Murray is the current National Junior Cross Country Champion, and Matt Bergin, who is coached by Simon Goodwin, is the England Athletics Under 23 5000m silver medallist. There are others establishing names for themselves looking to follow on from the likes of Paula Radcliffe and Robbie Grabarz.
Paul Gooding, the club treasurer and former Chair, said that the club had obviously benefitted from the profile Paula brought, but whilst some of that attention has now inevitably started to wane, the club is still seeing new athletes coming through the doors.
Paul explained that the club has seen changes to the flow of new athletes coming into the club in the past few years, “We now have a steady stream of new members all year round. The pattern has changed in the last four years. It used to very concentrated on seasonal peaks – between mid-March and mid-May you would get the vast majority of your membership, with then perhaps another seasonal peak at the start of the winter season. Now there is more of a spread throughout the year.”s Chris arrived at the club number of athletes and parents were at the front desk ready to sort out their new membership or renewal.
"Most aspiring new members are, of course, in the junior age groups. Many of these are clear as to which athletics discipline they wish to pursue, and may well already have some proven competence. Hence whilst we understand the potential benefits of the multi-event ethos for young athletes, and indeed we do run a number of thriving multi-event groups, we try to maintain a flexible approach. We find that the best way to implement the multi-event approach with athletes of 12 years of age and older is often to absorb athletes into their specialist group of choice - as many already know what they want - and then subsequently encourage them to get involved in other events alongside this. We need to respect that the multi event ethic is not for all - and acknowledge that many get the benefits of a multi faceted approach from involvement with other sports."As well as the Tuesday and Thursday sessions the club also runs the Beagles and Passport to Athletics groups. The Beagles for age seven to 11 meet on a Saturday morning, as does the Passport group for Beagle graduates and newcomers to the sport in the 10-14 year age group. Both are run on a "pay as you go" basis. Both Beagles and Passport are based on England Athletics’ Athletics 365 activities with a wide range of running, jumping and throwing activities covered.
The Beagles’ sessions are led and managed by Bedford and County AC coaches, but a number of by University students also help out. Linking up with the university has been beneficial to the club.Club Chairman Steve Janes explained that as well as having had a formal sponsorship relationship with the university a number of club members have also studied there leading to good informal links too. The club has benefitted from students wanting to build their skills and strengthen their CVS. But it is not just students that the club gets involved in helping out. Steve continued, “We don’t do too badly at generating coaches. We get parents involved, they might start by raking the long jump pit and over time they make the move into coaching.”
The club clearly works hard at its volunteer and recruitment, and its coaching structures. But, as well as the Beagles and Passport set up, it also has other measures in place to help newcomers make a smooth transition into the club. For example, Steve explained the approach to fees for new members, “We offer a £15 four week trial. That means they have a certain level of commitment and it puts a value on it. If they join they get the £15 taken off the membership fee. Four weeks gets them making friendship groups. We’ve had two or three new ones tonight. I say to them we’re not offended if they decide it’s not for them.”The facilities at the club will be familiar to those who have attended national, UK CAU or university championships there. Bedford Swifts RUFC are also based at the stadium and the club has a good relationship with them. For example, the rugby club allow the athletics club to use their floodlights in the winter so training can be done on the grass area outside the main athletics arena.
Another of the volunteers Chris met was Club President Ron Sullivan who has been involved in the club for many years. While Ron has seen a wide range of successes at the club Ron said that some of his proudest moments relating to Bedford & County were close to home, with some of the performances of his daughters for the club. And the family feel of the club is something Ron says he values very much, “It has always been a very friendly club.” And to prove his point he started to laugh and joke with Paul about some of the times they shared when he used to coach Paul as part of his endurance group.
Chris said, “Having been to Bedford many times for championships it was really good to see it in a different light – in action on a club night. The club has clearly had some great successes over the years. Meeting people behind those successes as well as hearing about how the club is set up was very valuable.
“I was also able to talk to some of the volunteers about their views on the challenges that the club and the wider sport face, and that was very important. It is good to hear about where the club volunteers feel what England Athletics is delivering is working well for them and where they feel there are challenges - where we need to look at how we work or how we can act to support our clubs more effectively.”
Paul said: "We very much applaud the club visit initiative, and we were delighted to welcome Chris to the club. Such visits are important to underline the link between the governance of the sport and the "coal-face" at which the volunteer-led services are actually delivered. Obviously we hope that Chris will have left with a positive view of what the club is trying to do, but we also wanted to take the chance to underline our very real concerns about the future of sport and its current structure. We believe that these club visits should not just be promotional, but also serve as a reminder to EA of the issues that face us on a week to week basis; matters such as the recruitment of match-day officials to enable us to continue to provide competition (especially at senior level where we can't utilise the pool of parents that is present at YA fixtures); recruitment of coaches; and the competition structure of, in particular, T&F at senior level.”