Accountability, culture and leadership were among the recurring themes to emerge from the first-ever European Athletics High-Performance Conference, which attracted 57 participants representing 42 Member Federations to Frankfurt, Germany.
According to the organisers, the engagement and interest shown during the 23-24 November conference is likely to lead to closer cooperation and further European Athletics measures designed to assist federations in achieving success at major championships.
“This was an important first step,” said European Athletics Council member Frank Hensel (GER), who led the conference organising team.
“It shows that, even though they are in competition with each other, there is an interest among this group for communicating and working together, something that a few years ago probably was not possible within the culture of our sport.”
Hensel, a former head coach himself, used the opening presentation to share statistics showing that, while it leads all the other continents in terms of athletics medals won at the World Championships and Olympic Games, Europe is not fully capitalising on the available talent.
Over the years most European federations have not been as effective in preparing athletes to perform at the highest level as what has been shown to be possible in the cases of the USA, Kenya and Jamaica.
In the first of the keynote presentations, Charles Van Commenee emphasised the importance of the quality of coaching and the environment for success while describing the lessons he learned leading the British team to a total of six medals, four of them gold, at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
He raised the issue of the accountability of head coaches for their team’s success when he explained that, despite a positive public perception of Britain’s performances in London, he decided to leave his job as an example to others because the team actually fell short of the eight-medal target he had announced prior to the Games.
Van Commenee’s presentation was followed by case studies given by the head coaches of Estonia, Marko Aleksejev, France, Ghani Yalouz, and Germany, Idriss Gonschinska, who each discussed the successful performance support systems in their countries and their approaches to leading the athletes, coaches and specialists involved.
The second keynote presentation was given by Erlend Slokvik of the Norwegian biathlon federation, who provided the participants with an interesting perspective on how their job is being done by successful counterparts in other sports.
After explaining the different cultures and organisation of both biathlon and orienteering, where he worked previously, Slokvik gave a detailed description of the system and management principles that have made his country the top nation in biathlon over many years.
The conference closed with a 90-minute panel discussion in which the invited speakers addressed questions on a range of topics including coach education, the structure of the athletics competition calendar and even the enforcement of alcohol policy for elite junior athletes.
“What really matters is that we brought almost all the head coaches together for the first time, they were fully engaged and they shared ideas,” said Hensel.
“In the breakout discussion groups we were reminded of the serious challenges some of them face, and our task now is to prioritise their suggestions and get started on implementing a Europe-wide strategy to improve our effectiveness in this area."