Tracking progress of Irish athletes
Irish distance running has hit a few bum notes since the glorious ’80s. So can a classical musician who specialised in the French horn put the wind back in our endurance stars?
And can a landmark move to professional coaching help build on the recent promise shown by Fionnuala Britton and her cross-country colleagues?
Chris Jones is convinced it can. Jones was announced last week as the new full-time National Endurance Coach for Athletics Ireland – an historic appointment for an association that has traditionally relied on volunteer labour.
The Welshman, who has been involved in performance sport since 1979, takes up his role next month. He insists that Irish athletes can compete consistently on the world stage, but accepts there are challenges – not least the need to create a culture of openness in Irish running.
“I am really looking forward to working in a single sport,” said Jones of his move to athletics from triathlon – the sport where he made his professional mark with British Triathlon and Triathlon Ireland. The opportunities are huge but at the same time I am realistic about the challenges I face as a national lead. Triathlon was a blank canvas in comparison and gave me the freedom to implement change and influence what was seen as best practice.”
Jones’s sporting profile began as a private coach and consultant with clients including the Royal Navy and Royal Marines alongside elite athletes and members of the public which ultimately led him to become head coach of British Triathlon in 1998.
He also worked extensively with Dr Greg White in pioneering the first UK sports science research programme with elite triathletes.
In a previous life Jones was a classical musician – playing the French horn with the West Fallen Chamber Orchestra before joining the Army as a musician, studying at Kneller Hall (the Royal Military School of Music).
The 54 year-old also competed for the army in the biathlon while seeing several periods of operational service during his army career and served worldwide – receiving an army commendation for outstanding service in 1982.
“The nature of athletics is very different and until now has been very outcome based,” said Jones.
“It will be a huge challenge to gain the confidence of athletes and coaches, to get them to focus on the process and offer support that is seen as just that – support.”
This will be a big challenge for Jones in a sport that is resistant to change but he hopes to lead a new and positive environment in which he will be accountable in the remit of national lead.
“The remit of any national lead is to be firstly accountable for supporting athletes and coaches – creating the right environment for athletes and coaches to develop in.
The support promises to be of wide ranging scope from physiological testing and monitoring to crucially analysing the masterpiece of all sport – performing at the championships.
“Delivering a performance on a given day is what we must be about,” said Jones.
“Supporting coaches at the highest level is about the detail, it is crucial to allow athletes and coaches to prepare as best they can, confident they have a resource behind them comparable with other nations.”
Another critical factor for Jones, who coaches Fionnuala Britton, will be to bridge the divide between professional and volunteer coaching. Athletics Ireland has had a professional High Performance role for the last number of years but ultimately it has been up to the volunteer coaches to carry out these plans.
“The challenges we face in sport are common,” reflected Jones. “Athletics is heavily reliant on volunteer coaches. There is a very good coaching network in Ireland, all of whom are giving up hours and time for the right reasons.
“The moment we fund athletes and bring athletes on carding, it is crucial to establish the right relationship with personal coaches. Support, review, refine and performance are what we are about.”
Jones has a positive message in terms of this impact for the distance running community and believes that Irish coaches can offer even more than they are at present with a shift in mindset from focusing on qualifying times, to proper athlete development.
“I would firstly say I have huge respect for Irish athletes and coaches,” said Jones. “I believe the community of coaches across Ireland can offer so much more than what is happening right now.
“I hear the word ‘qualification’ all the time. I want to support coaches not to be under pressure for qualification at the early stages of development. We all talk long term athlete development but it is important to implement this properly. In the cut and thrust of athletes making teams this clearly gets lost, interfering with the overall athlete development due to the pressures of making championships.
“We need technically good athletes who have functional skill, strength and are then, and only then, robust enough to take on the loads and intensity that will eventually see them progressing to the senior ranks with still more room to improve.”
So what can the Irishrunning municipal expect from Chris Jones when he takes up his role as National Endurance coach? “Offering leadership and creating an environment for athletes and coaches to maximise their performance,” answered Jones.
“At the same time I would be happy to say the bar must be set high. Everything we do must be best practise but if we believe we can compete, firstly at the highest level in Europe, then it will take a collective approach.
“I am very aware we have produced a lot of performances at junior and under-23 level and we also have a consistent pipeline of talent. What we must be very clear about is how do we optimise this talent and convert a higher percentage of athletes to compete successfully at European senior level first, before then developing standalone athletes that can compete at world level.”