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Another conversation.

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Children in the starting position on a running track smiling into a camera on a bright sunny dayImage © shutterstock

It seems appropriate that just as Athletics Australia has assembled a Committee to investigate improving High Performance and the state of Coaching in the nation, a very realistic conversation arrived on my desk. Stimulated by Wayne Goldsmith, it has a distinct realism because he has no attachment to the sport. He is just an observer (with high-quality observational skills linked with much experience at the coaching coal-face) so I am always keen to see what people outside the sport think of the current state-of-play.

The interesting thing is that this new Committee is made up of people from within the sport, many, if not all, in paid positions. I wonder if they will venture farther afield than their own enclave and seek out comment and illustrations from those at the coal-face of the sport? 

Wayne started with this:

Athletics - WAKE UP!

I was on my way to my local gym the other day for a bit of exercise and right outside the gym is an Athletics field. Being someone who loves the sport - and have done since I was a kid - I thought I'd stop and watch for 20 minutes. After 5 minutes I'd seen enough. It was terrible. It basically hasn't changed since I was a kid running (slowly) around tracks in Sydney in the 70s. Kids standing in line bored out of their brains waiting their turn for Shot Put. Nine-year-olds doing long "elite-athlete" style stretching routines and complicated drill-based warm-ups for sprint events. Bored parents and kids sitting in the stands waiting, waiting, waiting...

And most obvious of all - very low numbers. It was sad.

Sad because you know that the majority of those kids and families will develop a dislike of this excellent sport and not come back - certainly not come back after their early teens.

I am sure there are some very well run Clubs around Australia with large numbers of kids enjoying one of the truly great sports but from what I saw - you're dying.

I've seen this in regional Australia over the past few years too - and it's very sad - but to see it right on my door step was more than a little depressing.

And it's not about Athletics Australia.

It's not about finding the money to build new synthetic tracks.

It's not about having more equipment.

It's not about the big bad bogie men - FOOTBALL and NETBALL taking all the kids.

It's not about the Internet.

It's not about kids being "softer these days".

These are easy blame-game targets and the usual suspects sporting organisations tend to blame when things aren't going well. It's no good coming up with great solutions to the wrong problems!

Here's the solution:

1. Clubs being 100% client-focused - i.e. focused on connecting with kids and families, listening to them, delivering sports experiences for them which are based on the Fs - FUN, FRIENDS, FAMILY AND FUN.

2. Coaches who put smiles ahead of split times!

If you're in the front line - delivering the end-user experience to parents and kids at Grass Roots level - YOU have got to step up and accept the responsibility to be better.

Make it your responsibility to make the sport:

More engaging.

More enjoyable.

More interesting.

More stimulating.

More focused on learning.

More about friendships, family and fun than times, distances and splits.

It is a great sport - but the way it's delivered - (and the same can be said of swimming and all the traditional Olympic sports) - is not even close to what's needed for Athletics to grow and thrive in this country. And more concerning for you should be the amount of money and resources the football codes are investing into summer versions of their games which will only accelerate the decline of Athletics - particularly in rural and regional areas. Time to change! Make a commitment to bring your coaches and committee together, listen to the needs of the kids and their families and come up with an exciting, engaging and enjoyable program totally focused on putting smiles on the faces of kids and their families - and things will change for the better.

I chimed in with some short observations about my experiences when dealing with the decision-makers:

When you ask pertinent questions of the decision-makers or others on the payroll you will only get the answer that "Everything is OK"; "We are working on solutions"; "We are already aware of these issues"; "We are launching a new strategy soon'; We have created a committee to investigate all this"; I will bet that 10 years from now we will still face the same problems.

Wayne replied:

True mate. It's more about political one's political backside than genuinely helping kids, coaches, clubs and families. Someone has to step up - say WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MAKING IT BETTER - and get people along with them on the journey. I am focusing on Clubs and Coaches at Grass Roots as the agents of change because I've seen way, way too many national and state sporting bodies promise they have the programs and the ideas to change the sport. Ain't going to happen - has to be bottom-up.

Craig Burns then sent an illustration of the experienced he witnessed:

First experience of athletics with my 7-year-old 2 years ago.... 3 events over 1.5hrs..... 100m sprint timed only 1... 3 throws of shot put all measured... 3 jumps in sand pit all measure and fouls didn’t count...my son lasted 2 weeks...why!!!!!

These latter comments from Craig illustrate the coaching dilemma the sport faces. There continues to be a preoccupation with competitive, event-specific activities that create the ‘laps, lines, lectures’ problems in the coaching session. By changing to a curriculum of ‘athletic movements’ the environment might change for the better. If coach education content included hundreds of running puzzles, throwing puzzles and jumping puzzles for the athletes to solve the journey might become more appropriate. If coach education content also included the teaching of the fundamental movements that lead to the solving of these puzzles, the journey might be more appropriate.

If Clubs wait for coach education to change towards this format and content, then they will wait a very long time. Why not do the exercise of questioning all assumptions at Club level. Get all the Club coaches to sit down together and ask, “Can we do this better.” “How can we do this better?” ”What do we need to do differently?” There are a number of practitioners who have set out this new pathway of teaching / coaching and who are more than willing to share. If you solely rely on what you learn in a single weekend of coach education, then you will fail the athletes.

So, again we see a continued failure of a ‘top-down’ system where coach education ceases when the certificate is given out; where no-one operates a quality-control strategy; where coaches and parents continue to put outcomes before long-term processes.

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