This year’s coaching conference, ‘Aspiring to Coaching Excellence’, took place on the 29th September at Ulster University, Jordanstown.

The conference featured a stellar line-up of presenters headlined by Fuzz Caan, Olympic High Jump Coach who guided Robbie Grabarz to Olympic Bronze in London 2012 and Morgan Lake to Commonwealth Silver in Gold Coast 2018; and Simon Harland, Lead physiotherapist for Team NI at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. The break-out sessions were provided by Steve Vernon, Head Coach at Team New Balance Manchester and coach to 2018 European 4th placed Ciara Mageean; Dr Richard McCann, Sports physiologist at the Sport NI Sports Institute who assisted the Athletics NI Commonwealth team in the build up to Gold Coast; and Jared Deacon, Great Britain Olympic 400m runner and European 4x400m Gold Medallist.

Coach Development Lead Laura Kerr said; “Our Annual Coaching Conference brings the coaching community together to share knowledge and network with each other.  We were delighted with the response to this year’s conference and with a theme of ‘Aspiring to Coaching Excellence’ we wanted to focus on the interpersonal skills needed to excel as a coach as well as focusing on technical information that coaches can use to guide and support their programming this winter.”

The conference began with an address from Jackie Newton (Director of Coaching and Athlete Development), Laura Kerr (Coach Development Lead) and Tom Reynolds (Athlete Development Lead) that explored the question, ‘What is Coaching Excellence?’ and reflected on the success of Northern Ireland’s athletes at this year’s Commonwealth Games, European Championships and Junior World Championships.

The Athletics NI team presented some of the new initiatives which will support the Athlete Development Pathway this year including the Athletics NI inaugural Elite Coach Development Programme that will begin in November. This programme aims to provide a network for talent and performance coaches to share their own experiences whilst learning from world class service providers and coaches. The session concluded with looking at the strategy for supporting the next generation and this included a short explanation of the new World Rankings System that can be found here.

Fuzz Caan delivered the first keynote presentation of the day which focussed on ‘Coaching Communication’ and the importance of this in building and managing the athlete-coach relationships and working with supporting service providers. His session provoked thought on the many aspects of communication including pace, pitch, expression, body language and timing. Fuzz explained how communication style may change depending on the needs of an individual athlete and the context in which the pair are working – at a championship event, for example. He illustrated how he may lighten the mood in stressful situations. The session proved to be highly engaging and entertaining with Fuzz explaining: “Inspiring people is free!

Simon Harland was next onto the stage to deliver his keynote presentation on the most common injuries to look out for in athletics and warning signs coaches should be aware of. With almost 20 years experience in Physiotherapy; half of them spent at the highest professional level; Simon drew on his experience to provide an in-depth analysis of lower limb biomechanics with an interesting perspective on bone loading in runners.

Athletics NI later took time to recognise, and award two coaches that have had a huge impact to their communities:

Community Coach of the Year was Awarded to Norman Mawhinney. Norman is the lead coach for Scrabo Striders and has widened access to athletics through delivery of a number of community-based programmes including C25Ks in Comber, Newtownards & Bangor. Norman has also assisted a number of new running clubs with establishing their coaching structures.


Development Coach of the Year was awarded to Gillian Sykes. Gillian has led on reorganising Orangegrove AC’s approach to youth development adopting a multi event approach. Gillian has worked with athletes from 12 years+ with a number of U17’s now emerging as talented sprinters winning NI & Ulster Medals this year.


Those in attendance then had the option to choose from a selection of breakout sessions. Steve Vernon, Head Coach to Team New Balance, discussed his personal transition from athlete to coach, his coaching journey and philosophy and his view of what it takes to build world class runners. Steve naturally transitioned into coaching after taking on the role of assistant coach to Joe Franklin whilst he was at Butler University in America and taking the knowledge that he built there, back to England to share with Dave Turnbull’s group at Stockport Harriers and his team mates at St. Mary’s University. He described himself as a ‘student of the sport’ and continues to seek knowledge through reading and attending conferences and most importantly by not being afraid to ask other coaches about their methods and philosophies.

Simon Harland followed on from his morning presentation and delivered a practical session demonstrating strengthening exercises to prevent injuries in the foot, ankle and lower limb with Commonwealth and European athletes, Ciara Mageean and Adam McMullen, getting involved. Simon emphasised the importance of event specific work and, with athletics being a ‘single-leg sport,’ the need for athletes to carry out single-leg work. Coaches were asked to partner-up and try foot strengthening exercises for themselves, while Simon observed and provided advice on technique. Simon also addressed some basic lumbopelvic stability exercises including bridging, deadbugs and single leg RDL’s, explaining the importance of cueing these correctly.


Later in the afternoon, Dr Richard McCann shared his experience of applied physiology in relation to athlete wellness, acclimation, hydration and load management so that coaches could consider how an understanding of physiology and monitoring supports the coaching process in athletics. Richard gave examples from the Athletics NI Warm Weather Training Camp in Murcia where training sessions were occasionally altered or postponed when athlete wellness scores, hydration scores and/or recovery warranted it. Richard explained that 6 key areas relating to athlete wellness that could be easily measured included; sleep quality, sleep duration, physical fatigue, muscle soreness, stress/mental fatigue and mood.

Richard presented the physiological profile of an athlete and explained how it could be used to predict performance in a target race and the training that would need to be undertaken, in the various training zones, to achieve it. The group moved to the Sports Institute physiology lab where Richard conducted a sub-maximal test on Ciara Mageean to determine her lactate threshold and lactate turnpoint. This data was then given to her coach so that he is able to plan her sessions at the appropriate paces. Richard encouraged spectators to ask questions around the science of physiological testing, and of its importance to inform training plans.

The final breakout of the day was delivered by Jared Deacon Jared who has successfully transitioned from professional athlete to coach. Jared discussed his approach to planning for 400m amd explained his views on talent identification for 400m and progression of training through the teenage years, transitioning from 200m-400m. Jared went on to share his system of annual planning with reference to Emily Diamond. He explained the elements of running in his programme as acceleration, maximum velocity, speed endurance, specific endurance, intensive tempo and extensive tempo.

Jared deploys and ‘Ends to Middle Approach’ with a year round focus on acceleration at one end and extensive tempo at the other end of the spectrum (to provide both a basis of speed and aerobic fitness.) As the year progresses toward competition speed endurance and specific endurance elements are increasingly included.

Speaking after the event Jackie Newton said, “I am delighted to see a great turnout at this year’s conference and I am encouraged by the enthusiasm of local coaches to challenge themselves as they seek to improve their own understanding on their journey to coaching excellence. We are now looking forward to continuing to support coaches and athletes at every level of the development pathway and look forward to new initiatives such as the Elite Coach Development Programme.”

Laura Kerr added: “We would like to say a special thank you to all our speakers for travelling to Northern Ireland to deliver such engaging sessions. Athletics in Northern Ireland is thriving and as we aim to transition many of our talented junior athletes to successful senior careers the future certainly looks bright for Athletics.  In coming years, it will be critical that coaches, NGB staff and supporting service providers work collaboratively, aspire to excellence in everything we do and embrace all the support on offer to develop athletes at all stages of the pathway.”

Gallery of photographs for Athletics NI Coaching Conference can be found here

Video List

Vision for Athletics in Northern Ireland – J. Newton, T. Reynolds, and L. Kerr

The Coach Communicator – Fuzz Caan

Common Injuries in Athletics and Warning Signs for Coaches – Simon Harland

Practical Injury Prevention Exercises for the Lower Limb – Simon Harland

Applied Physiology in Athletics – Dr Richard McCann

Transition from Athlete to Coach – Steve Vernon

Preparation for 400m – Jared Deacon