‘I worry that we’ll lose the next Jessica Ennis-Hill’: Sheffield athletics coach John Wood fears suspension of grassroots sports could negatively impact finding future stars
- Grassroots sports have been suspended due to the second national lockdown
- John Wood of the City of Sheffield athletics club fears it could impact the sport
- He believes it could impact finding future stars like Sheffield’s Jessica Ennis-Hill
I love athletics. Always have. My first heroes were Ron Hill and Dave Bedford, through the Sixties and Seventies, and that shifted to Brendan Foster and then Coe and Ovett in the Eighties.
It’s funny — people do what they see, so a bunch of people of my age, 58 or so, will have been middle-distance runners. You can always tell what is going well on a national level when you go to your local club.
I joined my first, Sheffield AC, in 1977. I was into 800 and 1500 metres, but wasn’t great. I never got into any national league teams but I’d run in the Northern League and those races on a weekend became the highlight of my week. It just gets into you.
Suspension of grassroots sports could impact finding the next star like Jessica Ennis-Hill
Toni Minichiello, Jess Ennis-Hill’s coach, would also be competing. We weren’t brilliant but we got the love for it. And when you take the tens of thousands of people around the country who do that, what you have is grassroots sport. They are so important — all pyramids have a base.
But right now I’m worried, both as a lover of the sport and as chairman and manager of the City of Sheffield club, because there is a big risk to athletics with this virus and another lockdown.
For 25 years or so I have coached a few runners as well. There is a Basque lad who was running in the world half-marathon championships last month. But I have the other end of the scale, too — those who come over after work and want to get a bit fitter. All levels are treated the same.
Ennis-Hill was one of the stars of the London Olympics 2012 winning gold in the heptathlon
I got into coaching by accident. A bloke I trained with didn’t have a coach and one day said he wasn’t going anywhere with his running. I said I’d help and he started to go faster, so a few athletes followed and it went from there.
I’ve always done it alongside being a postman. I did nights in the sorting office until about 2006. My routine would be a night shift, home, on a coach by 8am to get to a meet. Now I work mornings, and before the pandemic I was doing coaching four or five nights a week, then travelling for a national league meet on a Saturday.
I have never been paid for it but there have been perks: camps or competitions in South Africa, Spain, Colombia and France with the travel paid. But I don’t do it for that. I doubt anyone in grassroots sport does. I do it because I love it.
Nothing compares to finding a talent. I had it with this guy, Stephen Cooper, who had cerebral palsy. He got a bronze medal at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, the T37 800m class. He was the only guy ever to set a world record in a race and come third, because it was a combined field with another class. When you work with a talent, you go on a wonderful journey with them. I was at work the night he was competing in Sydney and I couldn’t sleep the whole of the next day for excitement.
That is the higher end but the grassroots stuff makes the sport tick. Like I said, I am worried.
Athletics coach John Wood says his track has been closed from March to late October
Our track at Sheffield Hallam University was closed from March to late October. Many other clubs around the country had the same, so no coaching, no club nights, other than maybe over the phone. You miss doing it properly.
We are still waiting to see how another lockdown changes things again but it looks like meets will be cancelled, coaching will be done virtually and tracks will probably close again.
It is a hard situation and I wouldn’t want to be someone making decisions that affect the country, but athletics is looking at a serious problem.
The sport has been losing people for years and this pandemic makes it harder again, because if people drop out now, will they come back? Maybe there could be a few more ideas from the national bodies, such as UK Athletics or England Athletics.
The big risk is we could lose so many people who this sport needs, whether it is Joe Jogger or the next Jess Ennis-Hill.
Let’s hope not.
John Wood was talking to Riath Al-Samarrai