“ National club competition for under 17, under 15 and under 13 boys and girls. „
With the 2012 Olympic games being held in London Great Britain has at last a major opportunity to challenge and succeed in the field of sport. Over the years Britain has performed well and sometimes even excelled in many disciplines but it is probably in Athletics that most people will associate Olympic success. The names of Coe, Ovett, Thompson, Christie, Holmes still fire the imagination of athletes today.
But if Britain is going to really challenge at the London games and perform to the high levels that other Host countries like Australia, Spain and Greece have in recent Olympics where are our athletes going to come from.
The young teenagers of today could be Olympic champions of 2012 so it is in the area of youth development that an effort has to be made.
Up until the late 90s youth athletics used to be based around the school and interschool competitions. The most talented and most promising athletes could join clubs and compete at local and national level in competition like the McDonalds Young Athletes League (surely someone must have seen the irony in using these sponsors!) started in 1981 and the National Junior Athletics League in 1989. Funding was haphazard and the organisation and structure was not as professional as it could be and the competitions were low profile. The Junior league became more important in the late 80s the cutbacks in schools and the loss of facilities led to a decline in the interschool competitions. In the 1997 with the formation of the new body to control athletics UK Athletics ltd. (UKA) funding was set aside for development of grass roots sports and in 2002 UKA Ltd assumed responsibility for young athletes and the revamped UKA Young Athletes League (UKA YAL) was formed.
THE UKA YAL
The UKA YAL represents the premier level of competition for young athletes today. It is organised as local level in a club structure divided in to 3 area leagues for England (Northern, Midlands and Southern and separate leagues for Northern Ireland and Scotland to reduce travel costs. The top clubs in each area compete in a 16 club Premier league and comparable regional division in south and east.
A system of promotion and relegation is in force so that 4 teams from the Premier division go down every year and two teams from each of the regional division go up every year. The athletics meets are set up an roughly four week intervals during the season April to August with the best teams from each area league competing in a grand final at the end of the season. The meets held on Sundays feature four clubs at any one time and points are awarded for placing in each event, which contribute to the overall match score. The winning team gets 4 points the second placed team 3, third place 2 and last 1point. It is these placings points rather than the combined team socre that make up the overall league score. Over the course of the season (a set of five meets) all the clubs in the division will have competed against each other.
The competitions range from U13 (must be at least 11years old to take part), U15, U17 in both boys and girl categories and they compete over a full set of track and field disciplines.
The standard of competition varies from the extremely high in the premier divisions to the less so in the lower down division where some of the smaller clubs struggle to bring a full team competing in all the events to most competitions.
I was involved with a Southern premier league club last year where my son was a regular competitor and even at that level it was difficult to get enough kids to the away meets to make sure that all available points were won. The problem with many clubs lies in the individual structure of the club management and coaching staff, which rely totally of volunteers and parental goodwill for the management and training of the teams. Many clubs lack sponsorship and struggle even to organise transport to away events and of course most clubs especially in the boys section face tough competition for athletes from other sports predominantly football.
Despite the difficulties faced the clubs do their best and the kids of all standards, which come along to compete have a great time. The emphasis is on improving you own performance rather than beating other competitors and even in years where the club faced relegation I always heard a very healthy positive attitude expressed by the coaches and competitors. Certainly in youth athletics you see a much better attitude towards competition in both competitors and coaches than that exhibited in youth football, which Im also involved with in the winter months.
As in any sport young talent has to be nurtured though a combination of had training and testing competition. The training is down to individual clubs but then NYL does provide the needed competitive edge. The UKA governing body also sets national standards of performance for all events at all ages groups and when any of the athletes achieve these standards all of which are quite tough they are recognise and certificates handed out. The very top junior athletes that compete at the top level in the league are the ones that will go on to be selected for national junior competition and eventually could develop in to international athletes.
This will vary across the country and with the resources of the club. In the case of most of the premiers league meets which tend to involve the strongest clubs the meets are held at good quality athletic stadiums, which will meet national or even international standards. This will usually mean a 6 or eight- lane running track, long jump triple jump pits and throwing enclosures. Where there is more variability between locations is in the quality of the facilities associated with the league meetings. In some cases as in meets taking place at a new stadium like the K2 stadium in Crawley the athletes and spectators are well catered for with a covered stand plenty of seating and refreshments available both inside the sports complex next the stadium or at stalls run by the home club. Changing facilities and toilets are also provided. At other venues people arent so lick and you would be advised to bring their own fold away chairs. Protection from the rain and be prepared to get changed in the car. Be prepared! Find out where meets are to be held and look up the tracks beforehand on the running track directory website (see link at the end of this review) before hand to see what you will face on the day.
Despite the successes of the league I can see big problems ahead for the youth sport in general at a time when with the Olympics just around the corner it should be thriving. The biggest problems that need to be addressed are a lack of funds at local level and a lack of participation by youngsters.
The league meetings even in the Premier division featuring the top clubs can be poorly attended. Many of the categories are left empty as clubs struggle to find boys and girls to compete in them and the meets also often have to appeal for volunteers to act as officials at the events. The clubs competing do have to provide are certain number of officials to help out and points are given for doing this but it is often a struggle.
The lack of participation is of course not directly linked to the league but stems from a lack of resources at club level and a low profile of the competitive structure to a wider audience beyond those involved in the sport. More money has to be put into introducing young kids to athletics similar to the Fast Track initiative that was started a few years ago that allowed kids of all ages to get a taster of the different events over a two week summer course and then allowing the local clubs to try an recruit some of the more enthusiastic of the children. A lot of kids are lost to the sport simply because they are not aware that a local club exist and that while they might be no more than average footballer (or dancer) they could have the attributes to be a top class athlete.
The other part of the solution relies on the clubs recruiting the number of qualified coaches needed deal with an influx of new athletes. Coaches dont have to be ex-athletes they can be almost anyone with an interest in the sport and a commitment to help out at the club level. The clubs will provide support for people to go on courses and will generally be keen to take new coaches on. This is needed at the local level in order to keep the competition standard and attendance levels of great initiatives like the NYL viable in the future.
At a time when there are great concerns about childhood obesity a whole we should be encouraging kids to get in to sport and athletics is the purest form of sport relaying solely on the ability of the competitors to run, jump and throw. Any child that takes up athletics at any level will be fitter thinner and have a higher self esteem so we should all support any efforts that are made at local or national level to bring more kids into the sport.
UK Athletics have a useful website that contains more information about the sport at a national level.
The NYL have their own website for youth athletics and includes all the fixtures and events that take place in the NYL league including current national ranking for all age groups in all events.
In order to compete in the league you need to belong to an affiliated Athletics club a national list of these with website links can be found at
So could you have a potential Olympic gold medallist sitting at home playing on the computer eating crisps? You wont know unless they try out and club competition like NYL is the way to find out.
© Mauri 2006