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Meet Helen James - Athletics coach

Category: Achievements, UK Athletics, Career Development, Career in coaching, Coaching Athletics, coaching experience, Sports Training, British Indoor Champs



Cardiff AC sprints coach

uk athletics


What is your athletics background?

I ran a little bit as a junior in Cardiff – I seemed to always come second! I was very small so people seemed surprised when I did well although I had some good sporting genes; my grandfather ran for Wales and my dad was a professional boxing coach.

At age 12 my parents emigrated to New Zealand and I was put in a class with children a year older than me but I won at the school sports day and then went on to win at the Auckland Schools Championships. I think my love of athletics started there where I really enjoyed running. Two years later we moved back and I continued to be involved in Cardiff and Vale Schools, won a lot of races and it developed from there. I competed for Wales, won the Welsh Senior Champs at 100m, won the Welsh indoors and was Welsh record holder for 60m for 12 years. I did particularly well at indoors as I am small and quite nippy! I retired at 18 years of age because of a knee injury.


What brought you into coaching?

I got back into athletics after having children and they started school. I took them to Cardiff AC and there were still a few folk there that I knew.  If you stand still long enough at the club, you’re given a job!  They needed a team manager for a club match to Carmarthen and someone said; ‘you know a little bit about athletics; you used to compete; you do it.’ And that was that!

I took it on with just a week to go; got the team together; managed them on the day and we actually won.

After that someone suggested I should get involved in coaching and I have been involved in coaching ever since – 26 years now. I’m at the club Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday every week. It has been a journey.

When I started coaching I was working as well and had a family so it was full on. I would rush from work to the track. I am retired now which makes it a little easier.

We have a big group of sprinters now that I am working with. The group size varies from year to year.

Before the pandemic I would go into local schools, watch competitions  and recruit kids that looked like they had potential.


What is your coaching philosophy?

I make all my athletes welcome. I like them to really enjoy the sessions.  It will depend on the age of the athlete. With the older athletes it is more of a partnership.

There is a big emphasis on mental health so I try to coach each athlete to their strengths as they are different rather than assume they are all the same. It is all about confidence building.

I like to get the more experienced athletes to help with the junior ones, encourage them as they are closer to their age than I am! I want them to enjoy their training so they stay in the sport. The older ones can help with drills, get to know one another and help them settle and encouraging the younger ones to stay. When athletes get to around 15 or 16 there are so many other options for the youngsters that it is important they enjoy it so we need to be imaginative and treat them all on an individual basis.


What keeps you motivated?

I really enjoy it. It is hard work but the satisfaction when you have done a session that everyone has enjoyed is great. Getting to know them all as people and what makes them tick is a process that I enjoy.

My motivation when the weather is freezing in the winter isn’t always so great!  But I love to see the athletes develop and when that works it gives me a real sense of well-being. You learn to understand their disappointments, their highs and their lows – being a former athlete myself helps with this.

There is no better feeling than when they come off the track and they’ve done well – I just love seeing the satisfaction on their faces. They can be so determined and motivated especially when you have a good relationship with an athlete they come to you with their problems, issues over training. I feel like I am doing something good and making a difference. I am still friends with many who have moved on to other coaches or other sports. I love to see them develop as human-beings as well as an athlete.


What do you consider your biggest achievement from a coach perspective?

My best achievement is seeing the kids develop and do well. When they get a PB it makes me so happy.

Every athlete has a different level of achievement – some will be a gold medal; for others it will be a county or regional selection; others a PB but they should all be celebrated in the same way if all the hard work is being rewarded.

Jeremiah Azu who I have coached from a boy is doing incredibly well. It took me a lot to persuade him to come to the club – I am so glad I persevered. I saw him run the 100m at school, he came third and we had a chat about him joining a club. At the end of the season I saw the results of the regional meeting and he had run 100 in 11 zero-something so I rang him again and said ‘you’re really good, you need to come and train’. It was the end of the season and at the start of the following year he didn’t come so I tried one final time three weeks into the season and he finally came to the Club.

Since then, he has excelled winning the European under 23 gold last summer and coming third last month in the 60m at the British Indoor Champs.

A few years ago, I had another U20, Kris Jones who ran in the British under 20 team.


What are your ambitions for 2022/23?

To get the best out of my athletes.  They put a massive amount of effort in so I am confident they will do well.

There are a few options for Jeremiah this year – but it is all about performing at the British Champs. There are three big championships this year. He will do well, he is in great shape, training hard.  He has had a week off after the indoors and he will be back training hard. He has the standard for Commonwealth and Europeans.


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