KATHARINE MERRY, PATRON ATHLETE OF THE BASC, ON AGE-GROUP CHAMPIONSHIPS
The end of the track and field season is an opportunity to reflect on what great things the British junior and under-23 athletes have done in a small space of time this year.
I have had the pleasure of doing commentaries or being present for many age-group championships in 2015 and was happy for all the athletes, but especially for the likes of Nick Miller, who won the European under-23 hammer title in Tallinn.
I was especially pleased since there seemed to be a great, positive vibe and belief from the younger athletes. I did a record five junior championships as an athlete myself, starting with the European Juniors in 1989 when I was just 14. I attended three European Juniors and two World Juniors, collecting five medals. These championships were invaluable, right from the time when I made the finals of both sprints at the age of 14 in 1989. Many had questioned my inclusion and the fact that I was doubling up; not me.
Mentally I was fine and what I learnt was invaluable for my junior to senior career.
The main issue for many youngsters is the magnitude of the championships itself. The general size of the event reaffirms to some the serious nature of what they are facing and scares many. That is where athletes need reassurance that they are good enough and help in getting them to stay focused. Some deal with the pressure and expectation better than others. There are many agegroup championships now and I am a fan of them. They build confidence for certain athletes.
There are many valuable opportunities within our own system, but in my opinion it would benefit from greater use of mentors for young athletes at international championships; the chance for those who have been there and done it to assist and prepare later generations is important.
These mentors have been deemed important by the national governing body in the past, and worked successfully with athletes and coaches, but have not been seen as important by others.
It takes a certain character, however, to convey this experience of competition and achievement successfully. For those who haven’t been through it, it is actually hard to recreate elements of what to expect. You do have to go through the whole experience yourself, but this is made easier by preparation.
For some, it is easy to go from being a big fish in a small pond to a tiny one in a big pond! I went straight from winning the European Junior 200m in 1993 to lining up in the heats at the World Championships in Stuttgart against Merlene Ottey! I loved it. Other colleagues struggled with full-on senior or junior worldwide competition. This is where the coach, family, friends, mentors and national governing body can help.
The key is, in any event, to do your own competition. Discipline is needed. In my own event, the 400m, I always trained to make competition easy, so that I was not surprised by the performance of other athletes making big improvements in performance when running qualifying rounds. What I mean is that competition became a nobrainer, almost second nature.
I would hit times in training that made race-pace ingrained, for example a 300m rep going through 200m in 23.5 seconds race-pace. I always ran the first 300m at the same pace, whether it was a heat or a final; then took my foot off the gas at 300m. This meant that whatever lane I was in, I ran my own race.
Given the concerns raised by The Sunday Times’ revelations about the extent of cheating, we should consider what can be done at age-group championships to educate individuals about competing clean. We saw that European Athletics were emphasising their ‘walk/run/jump/throw clean’ initiative in Tallinn and Eskilstuna. Yes, more can be done by the associations for the athletics community, coaches, families, administrators and prospective agents, and now more than ever, but it has to be pitched carefully.
It goes back to athletes having faith and trust in those around them and having a strong mind. Education and insightful talks and stories from those banned and clean would hopefully be a positive influence.
Finally, on a sad note, I returned from Beijing to hear the news of Graham Botley’s death. He was a familiar face to many in our athletics community, helping athletes, coaches and supporters travel to events. I would like to pass on my thoughts and best wishes to his family and all at BASC who were close to Graham. I know those who travelled with him over the years supporting GB will echo this.