In the first of our blog series. JP Laurent, Lead Coach of Junior Athletics at WLTF, asks ‘why?’ - providing an outsider’s insight into the structure of youth athletics in the UK.

JP Laurent

JP Laurent

Firstly, an introduction to myself: I question everything. WHY? WHY? WHY? 

I am never satisfied with the status quo.

If a system or procedure doesn’t make sense to me, I will ask why?' and offer alternative solutions. Often people don’t like this…

This approach certainly wasn’t appreciated in my previous life as a Middle Manager in the Education system. My decade plus of experiences found me hearing Senior Managers using words like Pedagogy, Edification and Interleaving to describe basic components classroom teaching … to me these had nothing to do with helping my students learn. I don’t care about sounding clever. I care about solutions. 

As such, I thought I would use this; my first ever blog post for WLTF, to highlight the questions - ‘the whys' - I have identified so far from my work with youth athletics in the UK.

I currently coach 100+ young athletes every week at a local track and schools. I consider myself a complete outsider in the sport, having never been a member of a club or competed in any competition in the UK.

My experiences are derived from other sports, and as such, I believe my observations are impartial and not biased in any way from previous experience. 

1)    WHY are there so many waiting lists at Athletics Clubs for young athletes? 

Surely, in a minority sport, clubs should ensure they have the coaching resources to cater for every child who wants to give athletics a try? Unfortunately, that is far from the reality and this means that clubs can trial young people and select the “best” at age 11. This is a terrible way to identify talent as at 11 you have little idea how a child will develop physiologically or psychologically. There will be literally 100’s of really talented children on waiting lists around the country who will never get to run on a track, throw a javelin or jump into a pit. Instead, they will move on to other sports with greater provision, such as football and netball. I have first-hand evidence of the problem of this. I coach Year 7’s every Wednesday at the local secondary school and in the group I have 3 boys, aged 12, who have been part of an athletics club for at least 2 years. These boys know how to measure a LJ run up and are better at relay change overs, but are by no means the best athletes in the group. Nowhere near. I also have 4 girls in my groups who have had trials and “failed” at one of the local clubs. One of these girls at her trial won the 100m, came second in the Long Jump and 600m, but didn’t throw the vortex very well. FAIL. At 11, Not good enough to join their club. 

2)    WHY is there so little athletics in both Primary and Secondary State Schools? 

I currently coach weekly sessions in 2 local primary schools and the largest secondary school in the area and have been in to run sessions in at least 6 other Primary Schools. I have two main observations from my experience.

1)    Children love to run, race, throw and jump. Without fail. The favourite part of any of my sessions are the relay races at the end. Children love to compete and most aren’t even that bothered if they win or not. Why? then do most Primary school sport’s days not resemble anything like an actual athletics competition? Egg and spoon, sack races, hockey dribbling, dress up races and space hopper races. These were all part of my own kid’s primary school Sports Day last year. There were two 100m races for each Year group – one for boys and one for girls. In each year there are roughly 90 children and only 6 boys and 6 girls got to race. There was a long jump pit that was sectioned off so that children didn’t play in it!! Seriously.

2)    Secondly, and probably more worryingly, is that the kids have learnt (almost) nothing about the correct technique of running, throwing and jumping. Most Primary schools now either employ a Sports Coach to run their PE provision or pay a company to do it. These are often very young, Level 2 Qualified Football coaches with no experience of either athletics (or most other sports) and definitely don’t have the skills to facilitate learning. Anyone can put cones down and run drills, enabling children to learn is a very different skill. This subject could be an entire blog for me as these schools all get Sports Premium Funding (Local Primary schools get £18000/yr +) as part of the Olympic Legacy and in my opinion completely waste it. 

3)    Why are coaches still coaching 90° stiff arms, run on toes, pocket to socket etc?

Some of the children that I coach in schools are members of local athletics clubs and will give me these (and more) as key coaching points.

I was pretty astounded hearing this, as I had (wrongly!) assumed that times had moved on! Even just a quick glance at the UCoach section of the EA website would be enough to educate coaches beyond this. However, my experiences so far have led be to be almost certain that many of them don’t do anything to upskill their knowledge and ‘just coach how they’ve always coached’. When I challenge these young athletes on why one shouldn’t run on their toes, I am most often met with look of confusion! This, to me highlights a lack of understanding at the grassroots level.

4)    WHY is there such a massive drop off at the age of 17 competing in the sport? 

 AGE 2017 2018

 11 & 12 10, 261 10, 280

13 to 16 22, 861 22, 273 

 17 to 19 5, 623 5, 524

The final one is probably the most important. The table above is taken from the England Athletics Research Summary on Participation and represents the number of young athletes registering performances on the Power of 10 over the past 2 years.  This is a very good indicator of participation rates in the sport. Every sport has a big drop off in participation at 16/17 years of age, but to go from 22 000+ to 5500 seems a dramatic plunge. This table is significant in defining the purpose of my coaching. My number one goal has to be to try and keep my young athletes (mainly 7-13) in the sport for the long run. If I can manage that I think I will have done well. This evidence suggests that there is a very good chance you will either miss out at 11 or drop out at 16. I have some very talented young athletes at the moment, just starting their journeys in the sport and I will endeavour to provide them with both the skills and knowledge needed to reach their potential as well as a life-long love of athletics. 

In conclusion, I have so far loved my involvement in this fantastic sport and despite all the issues identified, feel we at WLTF have both the people and progressive mindset to make a positive change. My first big goal in this is to create our own competition schedule for the 2020 season. I am sure I will be finding a lot more whys in trying to achieve this, but I am up for the challenge.