National Lottery players are helping hundreds of youngsters in Derry and Strabane discover the joy of athletics over the last year through the newly formed Junior Athletics Club at the Melvin Sports Complex and Derg Valley Leisure Centre.
The club is part of Derry City and Strabane District Council and Sport NI’s National Lottery-funded Every Body Active 2020 programme – an initiative that seeks to reach out to sections of the community who wouldn’t traditionally take part in physical activity to get them ‘more active more often’.
The club is the brainchild of Everybody Active Coach for the Strabane area Mark Connolly who wanted to give local young people aged 6 up to 11 years the best possible chance of realising their potential by giving them a grounding in the disciplines of athletics at an early age.
“The aim of the club is to introduce the youngsters to athletes and teach them the basics through exercises and games,” he explained. “We try and make the classes as fun and enjoyable as possible and that makes the kids more likely to come back again.
“We try to challenge everyone but to allow them to take part at a level that suits them.
“Athletics has always been my sport and I wanted to start the young people off early so that they could get a good grounding and pick up good habits that they could take forward in their sporting life.”
Mark’s role with Council sees him work with a wide cross section of the community including women and girls, people with a disability, those living in areas of greatest social need, young people leaving education and those retiring from work to offer them a range of physical activity at a time and place that suits them.
He is one of a team of Every Body Active coaches who deliver a range of sports and activities to groups and individuals in locations including schools, community centres, local clubs and leisure centres.
It was during that work that Mark saw the need for a course to teach young people the basics of athletics.
“Going around schools as a coach I saw the lack of co-ordination in some youngsters and the need to give them some direction in the basics from early on,” he noted.
“When you see groups of people out running around the city and district, it’s amazing how many of them have the wrong technique and that’s because no one ever sat them down and taught them the basics.
“It is striking how quickly the young people progress when they use the correct technique.
“Our aim is to teach the right habits at an early age so that our young people can fulfil their potential, at whatever level that might be, and avoid injury from poor technique.
“After learning the basics there is good variety in the classes and they get to sample different disciplines to apply their skills to such as high jumping and small hurdles.”
While the emphasis of the club is very much on participation, the club already has some notable success stories of youngsters who have gone on to compete at a high level after first being introduced to athletics through the initiative.
“There is no pressure on any of the children to compete or to take their participation beyond the classes,” Mark stressed “But, for those who do show potential and are interested in pursuing it the pathway is there.
“The various disciplines are a great way for them to find the sport that suits them, we had young Blaine Lynch at the Derg Valley classes for 4/5 weeks and he didn’t stand out but then he picked up a javeline and hit the back wall with his first throw.
“He has gone on to win an UIster title and came third in the All Ireland Championships, you can coach out bad habits but a fast arm is just something you are born with and Blaine has it.
“We have two thriving athletics clubs in the area in Strabane Lifford AC and Finn Valley AC and a number of our members have gone on to join them and done well so the opportunities are there.”
The Junior Athletics Club is held on Monday evenings at the Melvin Sports Complex and Wednesdays at the Derg Valley Leisure Centre with ages 6 – 8 meeting from 4pm – 5pm and ages 9 – 11 from 5pm.
All new members are welcome and the cost is just £2 per class.
The Melvin Complex also hosts an Adults Walk, Jog, Run Club from 7pm – 8.15pm every Monday after the Junior Athletics Club.
More information on all councils Everybody Active 2020 classes are available at www.derrystrabane.com/eba