England Athletics’ Chief Executive went along to one of the club’s training nights at Medway Park Track, Gillingham, to find out more about what they do.
The club was formed by a merger in 2001 which brought together Medway Athletics Club and GEC Avionics AC (formerly Maidstone & Rochester Athletics Club).
As Chris arrived young athletes were training at the track. The Minis meet from 5.30pm to 6.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Club chair Warren Salter explained to Chris how the club brings in young athletes through its satellite club work with schools, “We have done three for the past two years and have just put through for the funding for another two.”
Warren said the club finds that there is a challenge to ensure athletics gets youngster coming in ahead of other sports such as football. But they do have good numbers coming in and have made changes to enable them to take the numbers they now see.
He said, “We are inundated with children. We did have waiting lists. What we do now is train our junior athletes to become coaches. We offer them free membership for the year after they have done it for a year. That has increased our coaching base quite a lot this year.”
But the coaches are not all new comers. Among the familiar faces at the club is Barry Royden. The distance runner has been a member for 32 years, and now coaches a group of around 30 athletes who compete at distances of 800m to marathon. But he is a relative newcomer when compared to another of the volunteers Chris met, Derek Garrard, who initially joined in 1955 when the club was City of Rochester. Derek is still actively involved.
Club also meets at the track at Sutton Valence on Mondays and Wednesdays which are sessions mainly attended by sprinters and distance runners. But it is the track at Gillingham which is the one used for the club’s competition.
Also underway early at Gillingham was a heavy throws session – this was something that the club have proactively targeted as it felt a need to grow its number of throwers. Warren said, “We have worked hard on the throws this year. It is something we were looking at as a club – particularly to bring in the hammer to the younger audience. Resident NCM Mark Chapman heads up the throws and Warren drafted in Amir Williamson to develop the Hammer and Craig Lacey on the Javelin.
“At our open meeting on Saturday we had possibly the biggest hammer throwing numbers for a while – there were around 25 entrants.”
The open meetings have been another aspect of club life that the volunteers have put a lot of effort into. “We have five Open Meetings a year. This year we have done well with the Opens. We work them hard and try to push them hard.”
As well as more local club athletes coming along to the open meetings the entries see a number of athletes who travel a fair distance and as well as publicity the club has focussed on the offering available to athletes who come – for example by moving to electronic timing which is fast becoming seen as an essential for Open Meetings.
In terms of membership the club did see an impact from the increase in profile for athletics associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. They have adopted an approach to deal with one of the subsequent impacts of that.
Warren said, “We had a big influx of people from other sports around 2012 – sports like rugby and football.” The club also has had people come along from a boxing and martial arts background.
He explained that this had an effect on the club which they have addressed this in a way which has also had wider positives, “We found a lot of footballers came for a certain amount of time but then didn’t want to compete – they were just here to improve their football.
“We have now got a coach who runs a general athletics group for people who want to run to get fit but don’t want to compete.”
Previously it was a stretch on resources for the club when a coach could have a squad of 30 athletes of whom half may not be interested in competing. These non-competing athletes meant the coach was not able to give the focus they would like on those who were targeting competing. This has been resolved, “Now people go straight into the general group for four or five weeks. If they are chomping at the bit then we move them to a different group.
“If they miss three or four times they go back into the general group.”
Alongside this the club has also introduced a new system of registers being taken for each training group at all the sessions. Collecting a clipboard and administering the registrations is often delegated to a senior athlete in the group. This makes keeping tabs on activities easier including for knowing whether someone is staying committed to their training group.
Warren explained how he first became part of the club, “I have been involved for eight or nine years. I started when my oldest daughter, Jazmin, came here and she is now 17. That was what got me involved – the Dad thing.”
Before that athletics had not been Warren’s ‘thing’, but when he got involved he threw himself into it with his obvious full-throttle enthusiasm. “I was into basketball and gymnastics but when I get into something I get into it properly.”
“I drive my wife mad,” he joked. Warren has strong family connections with the club now. His five daughters are all members and compete. Jaz is an Under 20, Summer and Tegan are Under 13s while younger sisters Skyy and Callia are both Under 11s. He has now been club Chair for three years.
As in common to many clubs he is not the only committee member to become involved through their children’s involvement. Lynn Neeves, the club secretary, first got involved when her son took up athletics she was a committee member before the club merger and now her grandchildren are involved in the club.
Chris commented, “Going along on a club night gave a great opportunity to not only hear about what is going on at the club, but to also see it in action first hand. The volunteers at Medway and Maidstone AC are clearly doing a very good job and we heard about a number of ways in which they have overcome challenges and created new initiatives.
“It was good to hear from people such as Warren and Lynn about where the services and support England Athletics offer are working well, but also where they feel we can do better or adjust how we work to better support them. It’s essential that we are able to listen to people who have good ideas and are showing great initiative about how we at England Athletics can adjust what we do to take a more effective role in supporting them.”
Warren said, “To be able to showcase Medway and Maidstone to the likes of Chris is a fantastic opportunity and to discuss new initiatives and projects going forward was great. I think we both could have talked all night.”