CEO club visit - Young Athletes Club

As part of his series of club visits England Athletics CEO Chris Jones and Board / National Council member Peter Crawshaw visited a club created specifically for Under 11s, Young Athletes Club, which meets at Guildford’s Spectrum Arena.

Young Athletes Club has grown from 60 members when it first started in September 2011 to more than 350 members by September 2015. It was set up by Virginia and Tony Mitchell who are both international Masters athletes as well as qualified coaches, and Stephen and Gillian Wilder who have backgrounds in finance and IT as well as athletics. Virginia, Tony and Gillian lead on the regular running of the club with Stephen also helping out.

Before running Young Athletes Club, Virginia and Tony had been managing the Under 11s section of another club in the area for 5 years and had seen that Under 11s section grow. It had roughly doubled in size and had a waiting list. They wanted to create a junior section that had a structure designed to bring in and support more coaches, who could in turn support a larger number of young athletes. Their plan to create a junior section with paid coaches at their existing club received a mixed response. So they decided to set up a brand new club at Guildford in an area where there were no juniors. In September 2011, Young Athletes Club was created. After dialogue with local clubs and having made their objectives clear, they gained affiliation to England Athletics, and became part of the Surrey Athletics Network and the Border League for cross country.

Virginia explained, “We have worked on being sustainable. The question was ‘Can you try to make athletics coaching for young athletes more professional and build commitment with paid coaches’.

“Our capacity is about 120 athletes per session at the moment. That is on the basis of six groups of 20 and two coaches per group. We have now got 25 coaches we can call upon.

“We provide a programme for every session. Each coach is given a job to do. Specific coaches have specific skills so we allocate the right coach to the right event and group. We also move coaches around so they can gain experience in all areas.”

The club initially met only on Monday nights, but now also holds two sessions on a Friday. Virginia said, “We have added the Friday sessions as we have grown. We have grown organically, we don’t promote ourselves but have grown mostly by word-of-mouth.”

Tony explained, “We don’t want to be like a ‘Business’ in that sense but we want to be ‘business-like’ in everything we do.”

Gillian explained that the club has sought to operate in a way that meets the realities of life for parents and children. They are not selective and do not place criteria, such as ability, on which children are able to join the club. “The world has changed for children and for parents.

“The only criteria we have is that they want to do it. They come along and if they like it they stay. 99% of the children who try Young Athletes Club do stay.”

Virginia and Tony now run the coaching and competition programmes of the club with Gillian leading on membership, databases, website and finances.

From its inception the club aims were first and foremost to provide quality coaching for Under 11 athletes, to work alongside neighbouring clubs in the Surrey Athletics Network and to provide competitions for Under 11s and to then pass on athletes who were well coached and ready to join senior clubs when they moved out of the Under 11s age category.

It is now heavily involved in the delivery of the three QuadKids track meetings in the summer and two indoor Sportshall meetings which are for the athletes of the 10 clubs involved in the Surrey Athletics Network. Plus the Border League Cross Countries. Part of this involvement is Gillian’s key role in putting results into scoring systems for the Sportshall and QuadKids competitions so results are ready to give out swiftly at the end of the events.

Young Athletes Club has held an open meeting each May for the past four years. They involve 150 athletes taking part in QuadKids events for Under 7s, Under 9s, Under 11s and Under 13s with medals given for the first three places. The QuadKids Competition that the Surrey Athletics Network operates from June to July sees 10 clubs taking part in the qualification stages with the final contested by the top eight clubs each July. Young Athletes Club won the final for the first time since it was founded this year with Camberley taking second and Aldershot, Farnham and District third. The Surrey Athletics Network Sportshall competitions take place in December and March, again involving 10 network clubs.

Young Athletes Club holds ‘training camps’ during the Easter and Summer holidays. During these holiday sessions the coaches are able to do some more technical coaching with the youngsters. Tony said, “The athletes can get a bit more time with the coaches. It is also good for us as we get new children come through them.”

Spectrum, the facility where the club is based, do some promotion of the holiday sessions as part of the information they provide parents on the holiday activities that are available at the facility.

The club charges a membership fee of £65 per term with the three terms based on those of the school year. Gillian manages all the renewals and membership applications each term. This includes emails to all members and emails inviting new members to their first session – a free taster session. The club operates an online subscription payment system and Gillian also manages the club kit orders and membership queries which come in on email. There is regular email contact with parents, other channels are available for the few parents not accessing email, but the vast majority make the most of the email communication. Termly newsletters are produced with competition information, results and advice for members. Updates are also given via the club’s website and Social Media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

The coaches are paid for their work with the club and the directors are also paid for their work in running the club.

For training sessions the athletes are split into six groups which are then coached in a different event each session, with registers taken for each of the groups. The groups are based on age and ability with athletes progressing to the next group as they improve. Each of the six groups is based on a ratio of one coach to ten young athletes and the club has roughly 12 coaches to operate each session. As part of the coaching set-up people are given a 50% subsidy on taking coaching qualifications and then paid for the coaching that they do. A mentoring system is in place to enable those who are new to coaching to be mentored by those with greater experience.

Coaches are recruited from parents and students, some of whom use their coaching as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme activities.

Athletes who have gone through Young Athletes Club are encouraged to come back and work with the club as part of the coaching team. Tony highlighted a benefit of this in terms of keeping developing athletes in the sport as they grow older and face a new set of demands and challenges that can conflict with staying in the sport. He said, “Once they have left us if they want to come back and coach we will really encourage that. We know how many young people go away from athletics because on a Saturday and Sunday they need to go and earn some money. They can coach Mondays and a double session on Fridays. They can get experience, be mentored and earn some money at the same time.”
He highlighted how the older athletes coming back in also act as role models for the younger athletes who see what they have gone on to achieve. Virginia and Tony have two children themselves who are also now coaches.

Chris commented on the visit, “Young Athletes Club has clearly grown effectively over the past few years and it is was a good insight to see how they have created a structure and systems that see the coaches recruited and supported in their work with all the athletes. Watching a club session in action you can see how smoothly run the sessions are with everyone – young athletes, coaches and parents – understanding what is happening and showing lots of enthusiasm for the sport.

“As society has changed and continues to change we need to consider the different ways in which we can effectively cater for people in the sport. This includes looking at how we can use a range of approaches to bring in and retain people in key roles such as coaching, and offer opportunities to young people which help retain them in athletics as they grow older. While volunteers remain a fundamental part of the sport considering different approaches that can be used in delivering athletics is essential. This includes looking at where making payments for services can incentivise, or in some cases enable, different people to become more involved in key roles.

“Hearing about the way the club has placed a high importance on effective administration of communication, membership, and club finances was also good. The people who support and deliver these areas of club life across the country are extremely important. The club has clearly embraced a proactive approach to these and it was clear how this then benefits what happens in terms of coaching and competition.”