Tamworth AC was the latest club to be visited by England Athletics CEO Chris Jones, as part of his ongoing series of visits to affiliated clubs across the country. The club, part of the South Staffordshire Athletics Network, has produced a number of senior international athletes in its 40 year history and is open four times a week for training at their stadium on the outskirts of the town.
It is, as club chairman Dave Williams says, also one of the few clubs in the country to own its own facility. “We have the ground on a 99 year-lease from the council,” he explains. “The lease costs us nothing, although we don’t get a full exemption from business rates, but everything to do with ongoing investment is from Tamworth AC.”
Indeed, since 1992 the club has invested over half a million pounds in providing facilities including a clubhouse, all-weather track and floodlights.
The early September evening of Chris’s visit coincides with the time of year that many club members choose to take as a rest period – the short gap between the end of the track and field season and the beginning of the busy road and then cross country activities – although groups of young sprinters and older endurance athletes still make use of the track, while Dave, committee member and club coach Matt Hargreaves and team managers Tessa Barnard and Liz Neville explain a bit more about the club and some of the recurring challenges they face as volunteers.
Interestingly, despite fielding teams in the Midland League, the Birmingham Cross Country League and the Midlands Veterans League, Tamworth AC’s membership comprises largely of younger athletes. “We have roughly 250 members, with about 160 under 16s,” Dave reveals. “It’s a large number of young people that we’re providing organised athletics for. That’s both from the point of view of training and also competition.”
That competition comes in the form of the UK Youth Development League and the Heart of England League in the summer and Sportshall athletics in the winter, with team management duties falling to Tessa and Liz.
Dave outlines some of the challenges: “We struggle, to be honest, to cover all the age groups. At U11s and U13s we have plenty of kids – always more girls than boys – and at U15 we start to struggle and then at U17 we have relatively few. They’re the smallest group. Then there’s the usual issue of youngsters going from school to university and you lose quite a few. In the last few years, we’ve kept people; they’ve kept coming back, which is quite nice.”
Athlete recruitment is always at the forefront of the team managers’ minds, especially when it comes to finding boys to compete for the club in the face of competition from other sports. “We need more boys,” Liz confirms. “We’re struggling to get the kids in, especially boys. A lot of the lads start coming down because they’ve done well at sports day at school. It’s hard work. With the lads it’s always football and rugby, but we do try.”
As team managers, Liz and Tessa have the arduous task of not only recruiting more athletes, but also attending the many competitions throughout the summer months. “There are too many competitions, too close together,” suggests Tessa. “We could do with them being more spread out.”
Yet, like many volunteers at many clubs across the country, the role of the team manager is an enjoyable one, with plenty more positives than negatives. “We got involved through our own kids six or seven years ago,” says Liz.
“It started with Sportshall. Andy Day (England Athletics’ Head of Competition and Tamworth AC member) was running the team for a bit and I was sat with him and he explained that they were short and we both agreed to help out. We carried on because we enjoy it. I suppose we started doing it because our children were doing it and we thought that we might as well be useful! It’s a good social scene for us and we’ve made a lot of friends through doing it as well.”
“What’s nice about this club is nobody pushes you to do the competitions,” continues Liz. “That’s nice. It’s pressure free. I’ve been in sport where we were pressurised at a young age.”
Matt Hargreaves agrees. “We want to be inclusive. It’s about getting kids involved in athletics.”
Matt himself is a coach to middle distance and hurdles athletes, but is also a qualified official and, after 40 years and more in the sport, is well-placed to offer insight into some of the challenges faced by club volunteers.
These include the importance of delivering officials' and coach education courses that reflect the needs of those at the sharp end and support for clubs in making grant applications and dealing with other funding bodies. Matt ensured that Chris left Tamworth with a clear list of issues to address and reflect upon.
2014 was a successful season for Tamworth AC, with the senior track and field team promoted from Midland League division 4 to 3, and Dave Williams is under no illusions as to why that was: “You have to get every single athlete you have available out. We have some very good athletes who can win competitions, but the only way you do well in those leagues is to find somebody to take part in every event.”
That spirit and ethos seems to run through the whole club, whether it’s coaching, officiating, competing, developing the impressive facility or running the highly successful tuck-shop, which means that Tamworth are well-placed to meet the various challenges that they face head on.
Chris Jones explains why he does the club visits, “It is important to see a range of clubs in action on a ‘normal’ club night and to be able to talk to the members and volunteers of those clubs in a more informal environment. Over recent years we have been working hard to ensure our strategy and delivery are more closely aligned to the needs of clubs and that we can respond as these evolve. Our National and Regional Councils, as well as club representatives on the England Athletics Board do a very important job. We meet many clubs through our consultation events, and can, for example, catch up with coaches and officials at conferences that are specific to them."
He continues, "Our Club and Coach Support Officers also work closely with clubs. Many of us are also members of our local clubs and know about their day-to-day activities. But these less formal opportunities with clubs give us a chance to take time to see how different clubs work, discuss the issues they face and also show that we are receptive to hearing their views and comments.”