England Athletics CEO Chris Jones looks back on an eventful year and also forward to future plans for England Athletics, whilst sharing updates on our programmes and competitions.
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Reflecting on the summer
As I reflect on the summer, the overwhelming feelings I have for our sport are pride and positivity. There have been some fantastic performances from our younger athletes at major events. There’s been the success of Team England at the Commonwealth Youth Games, winning 24 medals to top the athletics table, English athletes performing for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the European Under-20s, and lots to get excited about at our own national championships.
It just goes to show that we continue to produce high quality age-group athletes in this country. We need to ensure that talent base is broad and deep because, as a late development sport, this will ensure we can continue to produce greater levels of senior success further down the line.
We should also highlight the performance of some of our domestic competition providers in putting on innovative athlete-centred modern competitions. We know we still have challenges as a sport in terms of age-group drop out, and that’s not unique to athletics of course, but it’s pleasing to see work being done at all levels of our sport to arrest that decline.
The competition experience provided to athletes is central to that. On behalf of the sport, I thank all the volunteers who put in their time to deliver the majority of track and field, off track, cross country, road, fell, mountain, and multi-terrain competitions. The role of volunteers truly is invaluable and a unique facet of our sport.
But we must continue to leave no stone unturned to ensure that we’re providing what the athletes need and want as part of their pathway, whatever their ambitions or aspirations are.
The autumn and winter seasons approaching
Unlike other sports, we don’t stop. As the summer season draws to a close, attention will turn towards the autumn and winter seasons. The number of cross-country, road, and multi-terrain events that we’re licensing continues to grow back to pre-pandemic levels; more than 3,500 in the last 12 months. And that positive, upward trend is consistent as we look to the future.
In a similar vein, our group led RunTogether programme has gone from strength-to-strength with more than 200,000 participants and 3,500 leader-led groups across the country. Elsewhere, parkrun is doing a fantastic job in engaging people in our sport, many of them for the first time.
So again, thanks to the volunteers, and thanks also to the commercial providers that put on those events. We know that the number of participants in those events is being spread more thinly. So, demand is outweighing supply, which is something to monitor, and we need to do more work as an organisation with the road race and multi-terrain communities to ensure events can take place and are accessible and available.
We know that events in such settings provide many positives to the economy, and improvements in the mental health and physical wellbeing of the nation. At England Athletics, we will be doing a lot with those providers, particularly London Marathon Events, the Great Run Company, and others to lobby and influence Government around the role that running can play.
Getting people out running, jogging, and walking, rather than using transport and also building stronger communities are fundamentally important as well as upskilling young people through sport, creating good citizens, teaching life skills, and educating them as coaches, leaders, and volunteers through athletics and running.
This is a priority for our charitable arm, the Personal Best Foundation, in terms of removing inequalities and celebrating diversity wherever and whenever we get the opportunity at all levels of our sport.
Coaches’ and Officials’ transition
Another key focus area for us is the transition of coaches’ and officials’ education from UK Athletics (UKA) to England Athletics, effective on 1 October.
If I can make a play for all licensed coaches and officials to sign your new terms and conditions to your respective Home Country Athletics Federation (HCAF) before this date, this will ensure that you can continue to coach with the confidence that you can provide your expertise to help our sport with the insurance protections that you have in place.
We have spent a lot of time as HCAFs with UKA looking at roles and responsibilities between us and believe that this strategically is the right thing to do. First and foremost, the HCAFs are the organisations that are working with the volunteers, member clubs, and majority of athletes. So, to make decisions on course content, qualifications, and processes to meet the needs of volunteers resides best with the HCAFs. We know that we need to retain and grow the number of volunteer coaches and officials in our sport to support our athletes. This is a significant priority for England Athletics and the other HCAFs as we move into the autumn season, and we will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the qualifications are fit for purpose and meet the needs of those undertaking them.
Of course, there has been much in the public domain around UKA’s finances and that has been a factor. But it’s not the driving factor. At England Athletics, we continue to constructively support and challenge UKA to influence the decisions that they’re taking. We’ll continue to do that, working closely through our chair, our board, and with the UKA members.
It’s important we have a healthy UKA to be able to lead world-class performance, find a sustainable way of delivering safeguarding services, major events for broadcast, and to be commercially viable.
The recipe for madness, in my view, is doing the same thing in the same way year after year and expecting different results. The good commercial and voluntary run organisations regardless of sector embrace change and are hungry, enthusiastic, and positive about it. That requires good leadership, and it requires leaders at all levels who are prepared to be open in terms of the issues and challenges that they face, but also to embrace feedback, views, and opinions.
In terms of participant numbers, it’s pleasing to see that organisations in our sport are doing that in the sport and have recognised that in many cases with the cost-of-living crisis, post-pandemic, the world has changed. Local is better. We’re encouraging people not to travel as far these days, for all the sustainability and environmental reasons that we are aware of and the format and time required of competitors and volunteers requires a rethink – local level, dynamic, shorter length, and inclusive formats of competition for clubs and athletes that keep people engaged are the ones that are attracting greater interest from the majority of participants in our experience versus the all day commitment that was the traditional approach for many years.
The way in which competitions are delivered is very important in our sport generally and that doesn’t exclude England Athletics. Indeed, we must lead from the front.
We have to make sure that our competitions are world class and I know our competition team are continually revisiting how we purpose our events with 2024 in mind. There are likely to be some major changes to our own championship programme in terms of when, and how we present the formats of our championships and take a step up in terms of putting the athletes at the heart of that experience.
I hope that will inspire others to take that leap of faith. If something is not working, then try something different is my message. Sometimes change is very difficult and people’s instant response to it can be ‘no’, because they label it into the ‘too difficult’ category.
We need good leadership at all levels of the sport to be able to create that change. That’s probably the one area that we spend more time at board level discussing and with our England Council than any other. It’s about what is happening around us in the environment, in wider society, in the sport sector, and how does that affect our sport and competition? The majority of competition in our sport happens outside of England Athletics delivery-wise, so it will require a collective effort to create such positive change.
The cost of living and protecting the sport
England Athletics is no different from any other organisation providing services, whether that be not-for-profit or profit-making. We need to ensure that the books balance our ability to hire venues, our ability to deploy contractors, employ staff, and deliver services generally. All this is directly influenced through the current cost of living crisis. Insurance costs have gone up, as have venue costs, as have costs associated with providing centralised safeguarding services.
That’s a very serious consideration for every governing body looking to invest more time and resource in terms of keeping people safe and providing support to our member clubs and bodies to put in place the right processes, procedures, and policies. We’ve invested more in staffing those areas, but we’re still clear that the current financial modelling is not sustainable.
With UKA, we’re looking at the feasibility of setting up an independent integrity unit that brings all our resources together in an arm’s length body. That unit would report into the respective five HCAFs to deliver that service, and it would provide some much-needed independence and be held to account.
Our affiliated club and association membership fee has not gone up since 2018, yet inflation and the cost of living has risen considerably. Our Board will have to look at that very carefully in September when we make decisions on member body and affiliation fees effective from April next year.
The message that our members have continually given us in previous consultations, and we work with our councils to check, is little and often is a more effective approach to fees. That’s why we’ve traditionally adopted a pound or so increase at a time on the athlete fee. We’re still considerably cheaper than most other governing body membership schemes out there. In comparison with Scotland and Wales, we’re still cheaper in terms of athlete registration. So, some difficult decisions to make, but we can either do that through overall membership levies or by increasing the cost-of-service delivery through areas such as event entry or coach and officials’ qualifications by way of example.
Ultimately, we need to identify sustainable sources of income to make sure we can maintain the level of service delivery. Of course, we must continually review in line with our strategy where we’re focused, where we’re headed, our own cost base, and ask ourselves are we investing in the right areas? We do this on a regular basis with our Board. And of course, by generating more money through commercial sponsorship, through membership, income, or other sources, we can invest in more important areas of work as well. We regularly discuss as a Board how we can create revenues to invest in vitally important areas of our sport such as coaching and officiating but also in areas such as facilities where there is currently no “athletics owned” scheme to generate funds to maintain or invest in the development of new facilities in our sport. The sponsorship market is tough at present, so we need to think creatively about solutions from within.
Certainly, us taking over coaching officials’ education from October 1st is an opportunity for us to generate some revenue to invest in the ongoing development of the individuals working in that space. We know we have a challenge in terms of number of coaches that are licensed and qualified, and the number of officials and the breadth and depth and diversity of that pool.
I am very passionate about growing the number of female coaches, team managers, and administrators. In a sport that enjoys a 50/50 male/female split, it is fundamentally important that we have gender equity across every level of the sport right to the very top. It’s vitally important that as a sport, we continue to reinforce the importance of ensuring diversity and inclusivity at all levels. It helps us to make better decisions and ultimately a better sport.
Talented athlete and coach development
As I mentioned earlier, it was so exciting to see Team England’s young athletes competing at the Commonwealth Youth Games, particularly the fantastic performances in some of the field events where we know there are concerns in terms of breadth and depth of senior participation and performance.
We know there is a lot of work to be done here and the need to make sure that we’ve got the right systems and processes to support those athletes via our talent hubs, but also the coaches at all levels that are working with those athletes.
I’ve already mentioned the transition of coach education, but it’s also about long non-qualification-based development of coaches. Sarah Benson, Head of Talent Development at England Athletics, and I have been talking a lot about this in recent times and that we need to revisit the UK-wide coaching strategy that was launched in 2021. There’s still a lot of good content in that, but it’s probably lost its way somewhat because of some of the other priorities within the sport. We need to regroup as the five governing bodies, in partnership with others working in this space, and make sure what that strategy is going to be because coach development, athlete development and performance are inextricably linked.
We’ve had a period of consultation that’s taken place over the summer. That concludes in September when we’ll begin analysing the data and it will be something we’ll be looking to repeat annually. I would urge people to read some of the information, but also engage with some of the consultation webinars that England Athletics and the other home countries are hosting in September around the age-group specific proposals for change. It is important that people contribute to this specific consultation and listen and contribute constructively to the debate. Athletes have told us through consultation the challenges they face around GCSE and A-level time. If we can ease that pressure and create greater flexibility and opportunity for athletes to stay in our sport, then that’s aligned to competition reform. The whole experience provided by clubs and those working in the sport is vital, as is continually investing in the quality of coaching. If we can achieve this, suddenly you can see how the super tanker might start to change in the right direction.
It’s everyone at all levels looking to embrace change and learning and evolving.
Future of the Commonwealth Games
There’s been much discussion recently about the future of the Commonwealth Games and the cost that comes with hosting. It’s obviously a difficult time financially not just in this country but around the world. We need to be respectful of that. That said, the thought of not having a Commonwealth Games in 2026 and 2030 is a huge concern following on from such a successful Games in 2022.
We have direct dialogue with Commonwealth Games England, and they keep us regularly updated, but ultimately any decision will be out of our hands. I’m sure the Commonwealth Games Federation will still be looking at Australia and will be in negotiation with the parties to see if there is a solution for 2026. It’s such an important competition, both in terms of elite performance and as a steppingstone for many young athletes to experience a senior multi event Games, in some cases for the first time.
At England Athletics, we take 30 to 40 England representative teams home and abroad each year so we place great importance on the need for athletes to experience the best international competitions available, supported by a diverse and inclusive management and support staff.
In closing, I’d like to offer my thanks again to everyone involved in our great sport and look forward to seeing as many of you as possible when I’m at events over the coming weeks. For those nominated in our volunteer award celebrations, I wish you the very best and I’m delighted also that we’ll be involved again in the Sporting Equals Awards, formerly the British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards. England Athletics has long supported these Awards and is delighted to do so again, specifically the “Coach of the Year” category for 2023. Help us celebrate sporting excellence within ethnically diverse communities and nominate via Sporting Equals (sportingequalsawards.org.uk), with nominations closing on 25 August.
Please continue to support one another, take a leap of faith, embrace change and opportunity to drive forward our great sport wherever and whenever the opportunity arises and to sustain its success for generations to come. We are stronger together when we unite our efforts for this common purpose and love that we have for athletics.
Chris Jones, CEO, England Athletics