National coach Chris Jones is excited about the future of Welsh athletics. Pics: Owen Morgan

Chris Jones: For A Small Nation Welsh Athletes Can Make A Big Impact On World Stage

Chris Jones is a few months into his role as Welsh Athletics National Coach having stepped up from his position as National Endurance manager to replace Scott Simpson. Here, in an exclusive interview with Dai Sport’s athletics writer, Owen Morgan, he reveals his hopes for the future and his plans for nurturing an exciting crop of Welsh athletes on the road, track and field and cross country.

If you are a talented young Welsh athlete, you will be spotted and your talent will be developed to the highest possible level.

This inspiring message comes from the man tasked with taking Welsh track and field stars to the next cycle of global athletics events.

National coach Chris Jones has been in post since last October, following his predecessor Scott Simpson’s move to a senior coaching role at British Athletics.

Jones says he is pleased with the start he has made in the post, but says there is much more to come.

With this year’s World Athletics Championships, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2020 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham looming on the horizon, Jones wants more Welsh athletes not just qualifying for those events, but performing to a high level and challenging for medals.

The former head coach for British Triathlon is confident Welsh Athletics is moving in the right direction and there are exciting times ahead.

Owen Smith one of three Welsh athletes representing GB at next week’s European Indoors in Glasgow.

“It’s in a good place. We’re building from the work that Scott had done,“ says Jones.

“It’s allowing me to refine the structure. I think we’re really moving at pace. The feedback we’re getting from the Sports Council and the various other sports, I think people are starting to see a change.

“You’re always presented with challenges in a small governing body, but they are healthy challenges. There is nothing wrong with that.

“We have talked in the past about qualification. When I came into this role, the whole thing, even in the staff team was about people qualifying for major games, be it the Commonwealth Games with Wales or representing Great Britain.

“But I think we’re past that stage, we’re at a point now where we talk about preparation and performance. The cultural change has shifted and I’m trying to really embed that in the staff, so the staff understand and believe that ‘you know what, we can compete at this level’.

“We have got small talent pools, but you know what we’ve got to be better with? The detail. We’ve got to be better with the detail. And that’s the message that’s being passed to the coaching team.

“That we really look at the detail with the small group of athletes that we’ve got and invest in that. Instead of just trying to do things generally ok, we’ll make it really good with what we’ve got. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Joe Brier, another Welsh athlete bound for Glasgow, with coach and ex-GB international Matt Elias

There is evidence that Jones and his staff are succeeding. Eight Welsh endurance athletes were selected to represent Great Britain at the European Cross Country Championships before Christmas. All returned home with medals.

Subsequently, four athletes were part of the GB team to take on the United States and Europe at the Simply Health Stirling XCountry event.

Others have made their mark on the road and on the track indoors. Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Melissa Courtney, who broke the Welsh indoor 3,000m record has been selected to represent Great Britain at the European Indoor Championships next month, along with 400m runners Owen Smith and Joe Brier.

In January, Cardiff’s Charlotte Arter set a new parkrun world record and earlier this month broke the 31-year-old Welsh Half Marathon record in Barcelona on a day when Welsh runners enjoyed a flurry of personal best times.

There were half a dozen Welsh medallists at the recent British Indoor Championships in both track and field events.

Jones says a small country like Wales has to do things differently to larger nations and can turn its lack of size into an advantage.

“People always look at building big pyramids with big bases from the bottom,” said the man who was previously Wales’ national endurance manager.

“In Wales, it’s slightly different. You’ve got this group of athletes at the top that you really need to invest in and make your mark with them to raise the bar quickly.

Jones hopes more Welsh athletes will be winning medals in Birmingham 2022 as Melissa Courtney did on the Gold Coast last year when she won 1500m bronze. Pics: Gettys Images

“Once you’ve raised the bar quickly, then the pyramid below can really start to get the momentum. That’s what’s happening in endurance, people are making teams and people believe they can make teams.

“And all of a sudden you’ve got four or five names who are actually starting to look at the Olympics. That’s never happened before in endurance. So you create that belief.

“I think that is now spilling over into other events. When I look at the work that Matt Elias is doing with the sprint group – he’s got three athletes he personally coaches into the European indoors in Glasgow.

“That’s fantastic. That shows that there is a momentum that’s starting to happen in sprints. Then you’ve got Helen James who is doing a fantastic job at Cardiff AC with the likes of Jeremiah Azu.”

Jones says it’s vital for Welsh Athletics to continue to nurture close links with the coaching community throughout the country in order to develop talented athletes.

“The thing I’m trying to do is to get the event leads to build the right relationships,” says Jones, who has more than 20 years experience of high-level coaching.

“We need to work with the local coaching community. We’ve got some great coaches in Wales and sometimes we just think about what athletes are going to be once they get established seniors.

Jeremiah Azu is one of the exciting crop of talented Welsh teenagers Jones hopes to help nurture. Pic: Owen Morgan.

“But the work we need to do – and this is the one message that I really do want to get across to the guys – is that we are a performance development team. Our job is to support coaches who are coaching athletes between 13 and 17, 18-years-old – to do the best we can in that environment.

“Then we come to the next level, where we can help refine that and find the right environment for the athletes, where people like Jake Heyward can grow with James Thie, people like Helen can still work with Jeremiah.

“It’s that continuous support that’s the beauty in Wales where you’re not working with big numbers. You can get to that detail a lot earlier. That’s what’s important. Not just waiting for the athletes to arrive.

“There will always be a slight difference between coaches who are volunteer coaches in the club structure – and we need to invest in those. It’s understanding what part do I play in this athlete’s development pathway and be very honest about that and be very clear about that.

“We need to get what we see as best practice for the most talented youngsters at the age of 15 and 16 years of age. Athletes do move on, athletes do transition to different coaching set ups.

“Our job is to support those coaches in that environment for as long as we can, then when it comes to a point where athletes need to go to a higher level group or the top of the British programme or the Welsh programme, we also support that as well.

“I think that’s what we really try to be honest with, we try to support the coaching environment at the right stage, instead of just waiting for the athlete to come through and then just do the refining at the top end of the programme.

“That’s not what’s going to make it sustainable. That’s not what’s going to make coaches feel valued. It’s about valuing those coaches when they are doing such a good job.”

Charlotte After has been in great form on the road and cross country. Pic: Mark Shearman.

Looking ahead, Jones is excited about the forthcoming cycle of global athletics events, where he believes Welsh athletes can shine.

“We’re punching above our weight, in a sense, as a small nation,” says Jones. “I’d like to see more athletes making the Olympics.

“We had one representation last time. I can see five to six names who are really in line to try to make that. If we could convert that to 50 per cent and have three, maybe four, athletes making the Olympic Games it would be a huge step forward.

“Long term, I’m really excited about the year of the Commonwealth Games. You can see athletes really want to perform at the Commonwealth Games. More athletes taking part is one thing, but actually performing there is what I’m more interested in.

“And that same year, at the European Championships, a biggest representation of Welsh athletes at the Euros, that to me would be a line in the sand in terms of improving across all events. Athletes challenging in finals at the European Championships and medalling is what we are really all about.

“You need to build a programme and I think 2022 offers that platform to build from where we are right now.

“I think, realistically, we have got athletes who are starting to move into that area, people like Melissa Courtney, Charlotte Arter, Dewi Griffiths, Jake Heyward, Bethan Davies . . . athletes who are starting to drop into that category.

“Jeremiah is a young guy, by that time in the sprinting world, you should be in that bracket. That’s a realistic timeline for athletes to step up to that space and be competitive and make finals at the European Championships.”

Jones and his team are doing everything they possibly can to help athletes achieve that potential, including warm weather training camps, the latest of which paid dividends with some excellent performances at the Barcelona Half Marathon.

Walker Bethan Davies, celebrates her new British record, is another eyeing future major championships. Pic: Owen Morgan.


Jones says: ” I think it’s a really big part of the development. We get the world class resources from Sport Wales, the scientists, the nutritionalists, all the right resources in that environment for the athletes.

“We then become major influences on what’s good practice with those athletes at a critical point of their development.

“Recently I went to Spain with some of our better athletes and they came back and ran really well in Barcelona.

“However, I also took seven of our best juniors to that camp to train with our best seniors. The feedback from the juniors was that it was great to be treated like the senior athletes and to be around the right environment.

“We do the development camps with education for the kids where we do things like nutrition and they are used to that. But those athletes had a totally different experience of being treated how it really is. This is what a training environment is, this is how you look after yourself, you take ownership of it and we provide the right environment for you to grow in.

“The feedback from that was really positive. The guys are starting to do that across all the other events as well.

“And I think that’s what we can do in Wales. We can actually identify our really talented juniors and expose them earlier. Blend them into that environment where we can get the right resource around them. I think that’s what’s going to help them then understand what it takes to really do their events.

“There is an honesty about saying ‘This is hard work. This is the environment . . . it’s a hard working environment’.
“It’s honest, and that’s what I want.”

Hearing Chris Jones speaking so passionately, you get the feeling he will get what he wants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *