Written by PW
Chairman Peter Waddington's strongly-worded broadside to the Board of UKA,mirroring views of K&P Team Managers including David Barrington(BAL) and others is reproduced here.
If you are mystified about the proposed changes to Competition Rules,which are considered from time to time,you can find details on the England Athletics website - www.englandathletics.org
Dear UKA Board
Re: the proposed ban on U17 athletes from Senior competition
It is with complete dismay that I (and my Club) have learned of this, no doubt well meaning, but ill conceived proposed move from UKA. With 2012 fast approaching and a very public commitment made to encourage participation and leave a lasting legacy for our sport, it frankly beggars belief that our governors are attempting to restrict young athletes and hamstring UK clubs in their attempts to provide and encourage sporting endeavour.
We, as volunteers, are expected to go out and promote unfashionable Athletics in an increasingly competitive and difficult environment, yet this UKA move is so undermining that to draw on Geoffrey Howe’s sporting metaphor, "it is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain".
It appears that this naïve proposal is meant to protect U17 athletes - from what exactly? Is it from being over-used by callous and stupid clubs with no thought for their long-term health? (The same clubs that have nurtured them in the sport since infancy) Or is it for fear that competition against Seniors will somehow destroy the fragile mental health of our clubs’ younger members? Both fears are groundless.
As somebody who has spent a great deal of time supporting grassroots matches across the age-groups in recent years, I can assure you that Senior competition is NOT littered with hordes of U17’s wearing their bodies out or having nervous breakdowns, recklessly urged on by uncaring club team managers. In fact it is increasingly difficult to get U17’s to turn out at all, due to competition from other sports perceived as more glamorous than Athletics, plus the ever-increasing academic pressures of exams and course-work, and the desire to earn money from Saturday jobs for must-have, up-to-the-minute fashion accessories such as i-pods and mobile phones.
With nearly all the National Young Athletes League matches now stupidly scheduled in the key period building up to exams, our U17 athletes are understandably not keen to compete in them, so the possibility of competition in Senior matches post-exam time offers some flexibility and the chance of keeping U17 interest in the sport. For example - my Club participates in a very low-key midweek league contested by U17’s & Seniors, through to Masters and Special Needs athletes, which is not only fantastic fun for all, but also keeps our youngsters engaged with our sport and our Club, and offers a gentle introduction to Senior competition. Your draconian, one-size-fits-all, proposal would destroy that league and remove a central pillar in the delicate mechanisms that bond club memberships together; a pillar allowing integration across the age groups and helping to retain more young people for lifelong commitment to Athletics through the cross age group friendships and club loyalties engendered. Your proposed age-apartheid would thus be hugely damaging to club and grassroots Athletics and shows no grasp of the complex inter-relationships that prevent our sport from descent into divisiveness and collapse.
You presumably believe that, in some way, exposure to Senior competition causes U17 athletes to leave the sport through various forms of needless trauma, physical or mental, or both. What I have seen at grassroots belies this. Nearly all of my Club’s athletes who participated in Senior competition as U17’s really enjoyed the experience and found it especially inspiring to bond with their Senior club counterparts. They have done so unharmed. The vast majority of our U17’s who have been called into the Senior teams have in fact transitioned into Senior athletes and thus remain active in the sport and are keen supporters of Athletics as a whole, such as Dominique Blaize – UK international Heptathlete - and my son – Humphrey, top-60 Triple Jumper and qualified/active coach and track official. Of the many U17’s who did not have any experience of senior competition during the time I’ve been with the Club, I genuinely cannot think of one who has stayed with the sport when they hit the Senior age group, despite our best efforts to keep them interested.
I’ve spoken about the benefits of low-key Senior outings for U17s, but high-level Senior competition can be a real benefit to U17s at the top end of Athletics too. U17s with ambition get a real kick out of exposure to Senior comps. As I was told recently by the parent of one of our stalwart athletes – it was really inspiring and a huge thrill for him to be in one of our Senior 4x100m relay teams, when an U17, and is part of the reason he fell in love with Athletics and is still participating in the sport at U23, despite social pressures and the lure of local football leagues.
At a higher level still, how on earth would exceptional athletes of the quality of say, Emelia Gorecka or Emily Pidgeon, have been able to develop at U17 if they’d been totally banned from racing seniors? Another example - at U17, Jack Green was racing flat 400m at a BAL qualifier and such early experiences have obviously helped him to transition so maturely to Senior international competition. It makes no sense to think that in future the development of such quality performers could be needlessly inhibited by over-protective UKA meddling to the detriment of medal prospects in the future… Unlike ours, Football is a full-contact sport with much greater risks for young players taking the field with Seniors, but the England team would be greatly impoverished now if the talents of Rooney, Milner and Walcott had been banned from breaking through before their 17th birthdays.
As several members of my Club have pointed out, the real danger to U17 and younger athletes is overtraining, rather than competing in Senior events under club guidance. If UKA really feels the compulsion to nanny, I’d suggest your efforts would be much better utilised on increasing coach and athlete awareness of the risks of overuse injuries to the younger age-groups, rather than some form of inflexible blanket ban on Senior competition, which will not only be insidiously destructive to the grassroots clubs, such as ours, that hold Athletics together and painstakingly spot and develop all the young talent UKA can then take credit for, but - ultimately – will be deeply destructive to our sport in general and our future medal prospects in particular.
At present, I feel that this debate can be dealt with “in the family”, but should UKA commit to a course so damaging, I can see no alternative to escalation and the involvement of media and politicians when the focus should be on positive stories celebrating our Olympic year.
Chairman, Kingston AC & Polytechnic Harriers
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