Chris Jones recently visited Tonbridge AC to find out more about the club and talk to the volunteers.
Chris explained, “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.
"Our Club and Council 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.”
As well as seeing the club in action, subjects volunteers discussed with Chris included Clubmark, volunteer recruitment, the Trinity Club and Athlete portal and the structure and formats of competition. Attending with Chris was Tim Soutar, one of England Athletics Board members who was this year elected by clubs.
Tonbridge AC had recently held Leader courses split over three weekday nights, rather than on a weekend. This had seen 22 people, primarily parents of young athletes, going through the course at a time convenient to them.
Chris Hogwood and Vicky Thomas coach young athletes at Tonbridge AC. They have both been coaching at the club for more than ten years and have seen the benefit of more ‘Leaders’ becoming involved.
Vicky explained, “We got the people on the Leader’s course and they have been coming to help. That is great. They offer another set of hands and eyes. It means we are able to watch the athletes more and watch the whole athlete not just one aspect of what they are doing.
“It is ideal if we have got four coaches down as we can then split the group four ways.”
Vicky said that having more people able to help deliver the sessions means that as well as increasing the attention they can give to the youngsters it means they are also able to offer more variety in the activities the young athletes can do.
Chris explained how having been involved in the coaching of young athletes at Tonbridge over a number of years has helped. Even with young athletes a good coach-athlete rapport can help the athletes get more from the sessions, “We had about 45 youngsters here tonight between us. We can have up to 60 or 70 nine to 12 year olds. We have got a good situation that the children know us and we have a good knowledge of them. A lot have been here for a couple of years. They know how we work and we know how they work.
“More children are now interested in athletics and want to improve. They want to get better.”
Chris is a primary school teacher and the club have used their connections with schools to engage with more youngsters, “I have set up a cross country league in Tunbridge Wells. I’m also running an event here tomorrow for Year 3 and Year 4s where we have got 400 children coming down to try different events. They come to have a go and get to know this is where the club is. I did the same for Year 5 and 6s.”
One event group that the club has been successful at over the years is race walking, international Tom Bosworth is a member of the club and was developed by Peter Selby who also coaches other athletes at the track. The inclusion of race walking in the Kent League gives an incentive for athletes to try walks and a competition opportunity.
The club has also enjoyed success with middle and long distance athletes. Pete Mason first went down to the club as an Under 13 and has been involved since.
“I came here as a young athlete and then as a senior athlete. Then I got to the stage where I was getting injured more than I was running. My son was eight or nine so I decided that as there wasn’t any middle distance coaching going on for the younger athletes I’d put my efforts into coaching.”
Mark Hookway is one of the coaches who has been prominent in the emergence of Tonbridge’s distance runners.
“Mark then joined me doing that [coaching]. We started with about four boys at Under 13 and we took them to the national in Leeds to get a bit of experience and they came away with Silver Medals. That was in 2004. The next year we won the National and from then on it has just got bigger and bigger.
“We have got a whole spread of coaches across the groups.”
Another of the coaches involved in the distance running side of the club is Diane Bradley. She explained the growth the club has seen and how they cater for all the different athletes, “We took 168 athletes to the Nationals this year across all ages, 202 people in total. I work with Under 13s, Under 15s and a couple of Under 17s. We base things primarily on age and ability.
“Helen Cohen has many of the Under 13s. Pete has the Under 15s and Under 17s. It is good to do a lot of cross over and put the athletes where they fit best. We do sessions where they cross over groups so they build up to being able to move through, and we are also mindful of friendship groups.”
Among the athletes coached by Helen are Stephanie Puxty, 12, Sally Palmer, 12, and Katie Goodge, 11. Sally highlighted the importance of parents in young athletes coming into the sport explaining how it was Stephanie’s dad who had first brought them down to the club. Katie spoke of how the competitive and social sides of the sport go hand-in-hand, “We really like it – everyone has something in common. We do the Kent League, open meetings and different events like that. I like to be part of a team for that, it is really good.” And Stephanie explained part of the enjoyment comes from also getting a taste of different events, “It is really good fun. We do different things – sometimes we do track, sometimes field events and jumps, sometimes we do short distances.”
Ann Czarnowski, Club Secretary said, “We think the club works well and we have an increasing membership.
“We should say we are not just a distance running club, we have good sprinters coached by our Chairman Iain Presnell and Dave Hull and also have good pole vaulters and multi eventers.
“We have help from a number of volunteers, but could always do with more, some have taken coaching and officials’ courses and others help in different ways such as manning the welcome desk at the track or maintaining the website. Most of the volunteers are parents some of whom are still helping the club when their children have moved on. There is a great atmosphere and team spirit and the athletes are encouraged to support each other whatever discipline they are taking part in. It must be good as many people have been involved in the club for many years and have encouraged their children and their children’s friends to come along.”