Toni is not in a good mood. Partly because he’s been accused, in some quarters, of being negative but mainly because, once again, he believes Athletics in the UK is being let down by a lack of leadership, an excess of bureaucracy and a fundamental misunderstanding about what the sport, particularly its coaches and athletes need. Let’s examine the reasons for lack of Christmas spirit. First, his alleged negativity.

Does Toni occasionally spit frustration? Yes. Does he occasionally show contempt for those in authority? Absolutely. Is he prone to cursing anyone and anything that he sees as undermining the sport he loves? Without doubt. And there’s the rub. He loves athletics. With a passion. His motive is not to feed his ego, protect his pension or advance his career. His motive is to improve athletics. Want to know who has really got the best interests of Athletics at heart? Release your inner Hercule Poirot and examine their motives. Then decide for yourself.

Toni working with Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill

Moving onto the second reason for his current mood and Toni has his own case to state,

“I’ve been the UK Athletics Council Coach Representative for a year and there is still no strategy for Coaching written by UK Athletics. To be frank, I’m not sure they even have agreement and understanding on what coaching qualifications should be designed to achieve”.

The challenge in achieving the, relatively insignificant, landmark of creating a coaching strategy lies in the type of conflict that lack of shared understanding, clarity of vision and inconsistent leadership tends to foster. Some argue that the current coach education system should have more focus on a prescriptive delivery of the athletic disciplines rather than its current, more general, aim of physical literacy.

Others debate the need for professional qualifications whilst some still try and create a pathway that leads cleanly from Sunday afternoon volunteer support to Olympic Podiums: a path that Toni has taken but one that should be far easier to follow than it currently is. Meanwhile, Home Countries tend to paddle their own canoe in line with the requirements of their funders. Toni makes no attempt to hide his frustration,

Organisations go in different directions, adopt fashionable trends and suffer due to the lack of solid, basic coaching.

“As a result of the current situation, organisations go in different directions, adopt fashionable trends and suffer due to the lack of solid, basic coaching. Foundation level coaching qualifications are wholly inadequate to support the performance level of the Lottery pathway, which drives UK Athletics’ perspective and thinking. There’s a conflict and contradiction right there”. Toni turns his gaze towards those ‘fashionable’ coaching trends,

“Athlete-to-coach is a prime example of how deep the level of misunderstanding runs. High performing athletes are fast tracked and funded as coaches are based on the belief that athletes are being “lost to the sport” because the coaching awards do not fit their needs. The implicit belief that athletes make better coaches just doesn’t hold water.

Toni and Alicia

Athletes might make great coaches but so could someone who has never been an elite athlete. Being an elite coach requires 30,000 hours over 10 years compared to a high performing athlete who requires 10,000 hours over 10 years. Dave Alred has coached world class rugby players and taken middle order golfers to number one in the world. He’s never personally attained top flight success in either sport but he’s refined his knowledge and skills over a lifetime. We need to better understand what really makes a world class coach”.

The imminent introduction of a coaches’ Code of Conduct receives a withering reaction Toni,

“It’s all well and good having a code of conduct for employed coaches but it shouldn’t be the same for volunteers. What would be more useful would be good practice guidelines – make it more aspirational”.

I suggest to Toni that codes of conduct are often put in place more to protect the governing body than to benefit those who they purport to protect and support. Toni sees it as a deep -rooted issue,

Coaches up and down the country are feeling more and more disengaged and detached from UK Athletics.

“The disconnect just gets more and more extreme. Coaches up and down the country are feeling more and more disengaged and detached from UK Athletics. Their voices feel all too often ignored, un-supported and consequently they are losing trust in the organisation. A Code of Conduct is similar to a lawyers’ boiler-plate contract – it’s a cover all without consideration of individual needs. Whilst we’re at it where are the Welfare Guidelines for coaches? They don’t exist”.

There is a lack of investment in coaching and this is the root cause of Toni’s frustration,

“24% of medals last year came from athletes and coaches not on the funding programme. Imagine what we could achieve if there was better investment in coaches and improved coach education?”

I ask what approach Toni would take. His response is simple and concise. He recommends a four-step approach.

1) Define what the coaching award should be and do at all levels.

2) Identify what you want a coach to be able to do at trackside.

3) Create a programme that is all about quality and relevance (people will only attend once. It must be on point).

4) Provide ongoing applied support to enable coaches to improve (anyone can attain a qualification).

Toni sums up the rationale for his approach, “In the first instance, anyone who comes to a track for the first time wants to be able to play the game. Our sport is not just movement skills, core stability and balance. Beyond that we need to create programmes and a pathway that caters to individual needs and provides a structured, practical route for those that want to progress to support and develop elite athletes. All the time we must remember that many are happy to continue as volunteers – they should be recognized and celebrated for this just as those who take the road towards Olympic podiums should be nurtured. Coaching is changing and so are the demands placed on coaches. Keeping and progressing people in the sport up to and beyond 23 is paramount. At the moment we are wasting too many of those young people’s lives”.

Coaching Pathways

Any coaches out there reading this – perhaps you could tweet us, let us know your views and what needs to be done to fix things because (and I hope I’m wrong here), I’m not sure there’s space on Santa’s list for ‘an effective, well-funded coach development and education programme’. Toni’s already bagged that one.