Gold at the end of the rainbow

With British cycling on top of the world, The Leisure Review went to Manchester to talk to the governing body’s John Mills about the coaching, clubs and development behind the medals

John Mills
John Mills, British Cycling's coaching, education and developent director


The National Cycling Centre, Manchester
The National Cycling Centre, Manchester

Some time around 1999 Peter Keen, then British Cycling’s performance director, began talking in terms of being number one in the world by 2012. John Mills, then newly in post as coach education director, set himself a similar aim: number one in the world for coach education by 2012. Nine years on, it seems both targets have been achieved ahead of schedule.

John Mills does not make such explicit claims himself but, speaking to The Leisure Review at the National Cycling Centre a few weeks before the world track championships arrive in Manchester, he is aware of the significance of the progress that has been made over the last decade.

“If you had suggested  nine years ago that cycling would be in the top ten sports from both a coaching perspective and a performance perspective you would have said we were nowhere near,” he said. “From a performance perspective, when I came in I think we were seventeenth in the world. We said we wanted to be number one by 2012 – long before the Olympics were announced for London – and when Peter was saying that I had in my own mind that it would be very good to be number one in terms of coach education by 2012.”

In recent years the British track squad has been the team to beat. Impressive medal hauls at the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games have been supplemented by consistent gold performances at the world track championships, culminating in the British team’s seven world titles last year. On the track at least British Cycling is widely acknowledged as the strongest squad in the world. It represents significant progress since Peter Keen coached Chris Boardman to a pursuit gold medal at Barcelona in 1992, a British cycling gold that was as remarkable then for its rarity as for the dominance of the performance. Every national performance director around the world now wants to know the answer to one question: what has British Cycling been doing right?

“In terms of the plaudits at the very highest level, we have a very focused Olympic programme driven by Dave Brailsford, our performance director,” John said. “Over the past four or five years Dave has developed a programme that looks at any young people who are identified as being talented and providing them with the best possible support to take them through ultimately to the Olympic podium. All aspects of the programme are  in place: an Olympic talent team, an Olympic development programme, an Olympic academy programme and Olympic podium programme. If you have the right aptitude and the appropriate ability you go from one to the next right the way through.”

Ed Clancy is one example of a rider who has gone through the whole process, from junior development through to world championships performer. Within British Cycling coaching is clearly understood to be an essential element of this elite development process. There is clear commitment to coaching development at all levels and this commitment is matched by resources.

“We’re trying to develop coaching at every level,” John explained. “Through the work we’ve done with the development of the UK Coaching Certificate [UKCC] we’ve tried to produce a world-leading coach education programme. We can be reasonably confident that we’ve been able to do that because the material that we’ve been developing doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. We’ve developed a curriculum so that if you find a talented 13-year-old we can say these are all the skills you will need between the ages of 14 and 18 to take you from being talented to being on an Olympic podium. In essence we’re trying to support that programme.”

While success in elite competition has a long-recognised impact on potential competitors wanting to start on the road to gold medal glory, John also points out that something similar can be said for coaches.

“I think it’s really important,” John said. “Someone starting out as a coach might aspire to be the best coach in the world so it’s important for us to be doing well and to see coaches being recognised. People talk about the performances of the top-class cyclists and quite often the coaches are mentioned in that process so people who are setting out on a coaching career, whether in their spare time or full-time, can aspire to reach the highest levels in coaching. From my perspective, having come into British Cycling to develop the coach education programme, it has been interesting that everybody that has gone on to coach professionally in the sport has come through that coaching programme. That is an endorsement of the coaching programme in itself.”

The development of the coaching programmes has followed the emphasis of the performance programme, which has a clear focus on the Olympic disciplines. British Cycling coaching programmes levels one and two are complete, as is the level three programme for track, one of the six coaching disciplines being developed; road and time trial, mountain bike, BMX, cyclo cross and cycle speedway will follow in due course. A series of curriculum documents, titled the Go Ride Gears books, accompanies the programmes, taking coaches from the basic skills and drills of Go Ride Gears one and two right up to Go Ride Gear seven which deals with national competition. From Go-Ride Gear seven the next step is into one of the Olympic programmes.

“We’ve always had this ethos of quality and doing things well,” John said. “It might take us slightly longer to produce material than some other sports but we’ve developed a reputation based on the quality of what we do, the quality of resources, the tutors and the venues. We’ve taken the view that if we deliver a quality product with a strong group of people delivering that product then we know good-quality coaches will come through. And that is the key. We’ve hardly had to go outside our coach education programme to recruit coaches and I think that speaks for itself.”

Every aspect of the coach education courses is evaluated. Scored out of five, each aspect of delivery is reviewed with a view to a score of four being an acceptable level. The average score across the programmes is currently running at 4.5, equating to a 90% approval for British Cycling courses.

“This commitment to improvement runs all the way through so we never get to the stage where we’re complacent,” John said. “It doesn’t mean we can change the course after every single delivery but we’re looking for tweaks and if we’re reviewing a course the starting point is the feedback for that course. The other element of quality assurance is the UKCC. Quality assurance is built into that programme. Sportscoach UK evaluates the programme in the first instance, then it goes to external review, then to the coaching standards group. Then there is a review process after twelve or twenty-four months. All of these things are helping to develop that coach education process.”

Participation is an important aspect of John’s remit and the development programmes are run alongside coach education in an effort to create a clear link between the community development schemes and clubs able to provide a participation pathway. Across the British Cycling regions each regional manager works with a full time Go-Ride coach. Working in tandem, each team of manager and coach will work with schools, develop school-club links, assist club development and provide community coaching. Over the course of a year each coach will work with 1,000 young people, delivering 3,000 coaching opportunities.

“When we go into a school we go in for four consecutive weeks because a one-off hit doesn’t really do anything in terms of development,” John explained. “Last year we had a target of 12,000 young people involved in the programme with 36,000 opportunities to participate; delivered by twelve coaches across the country. We have delivered on all of those targets. We work in schools that are close to our Go Ride clubs, clubs that are actively looking for new members, so that it’s not an ad hoc approach to development. For example, Ribble Valley is one of our strongest clubs in the North West, based at the Preston Arena with a purpose-built cycling facility. They’re always interested in new members, so we work with the schools around the club.”

Making sure that the clubs are working to acceptable standards is another key strand of the development process. A total of 143 cycling clubs have registered as Go Ride clubs, signifying that they want to encourage young people and work towards Sport England’s Clubmark accreditation. With support from the development team a total of 63 clubs are now Clubmark accredited.

“Within these clubs we want to develop an appropriate coaching structure.” John explained. “The ideal would be a Go Ride club with level one coaches to work with people just starting out in the sport. Then a number of level two coaches who were able to work with developing riders and they might have one or two level three coaches who are trained to deliver high level discipline-specific cycling skills. The idea is that this structure should be in place for all Go-Ride clubs.

“Ten years ago it was not uncommon to find one person running a club. We’ve made that first step-change, which is to have a core group of people running the club. Included in that core are a coach or coaches, a club welfare officer looking after the welfare of young people and a clear point of contact if someone wants to join that club. The basis of our club development is to go from a one-person club to an absolute minimum of a three-person club.”

Now in its third year, this development programme has delivered a 25% increase in young people joining British Cycling. Given that these figures are purely based on those taking out Governing Body membership, the increase in the number of young people participating in cycling is actually significantly higher.

“As British Cycling we are trying to run a national programme,” John said. “We know that it works and we just want to do more of it. It hasn’t necessarily been contentious but we have had to convince some people that it’s the right way to go. At the moment twelve coaches work with 12,000 young people each year and deliver 36,000 opportunities to participate. We’ve added another twelve coaches to the programme this year so we’ll be working with 24,000 young people and delivering 72,000 opportunities.”

Having reached the top of the podium, becoming the team to beat and the team to emulate in the process, how does a sports governing body stay on top? What does the British Cycling coaching, education and development director have on his long-term to-do list?

“From a coaching perspective the key things for us are to finish off the UKCC development to get the whole of the coaching programme in place for every discipline, and to continue the process of embedding the coaching culture within British cycling so that there is only one way to go,” John said. “If you want to become a coach you come to British Cycling and you do the best coach education programme available. However, product development is nothing without implementation so we need to make sure we have that coaching culture within clubs. We started with the coach education programme in 1999 so it was 2000 before we got it launched and we had one coaching course, a single course that was for every coach in every discipline. If at the end of the next funding period we’ve got a course at every level in every discipline, that would be fantastic. Then as a coach coming into the sport wanting to coach track, for example, you could see that the route was level 1, level 2, level 2 track, level 3 track and ultimately a level 4 qualification. From there you could be working full-time as a professional coach on British Cycling’s elite programme or be the very best coach you can be at your local cycling club.”

“From a development perspective I would like to see us grow the coaching programme still further. We have doubled the number of coaches on the ground this year but we also need to grow the number of accredited, quality-assured clubs and continue supporting them to ensure the key principles of clubmark are truly embedded. We’re also working at the moment on a competition framework for young people to enable them to get into the sport more easily, through schools and clubs.”

It is an Olympic year so expectations for the Worlds are high. Whatever the final medal tally, the arrival of the professional cycling circus in Manchester, with all its noise, speed and colour, will captivate everyone who sees it and start a few more on the road towards involvement in the sport. To the casual observer it might appear that the centre of the cycling world has temporarily shifted to the north west of England. Those who follow the sport closely would be glad to put them straight: when it comes to racing on the boards, the centre of the world shifted to Manchester years ago.


The Leisure Review, April 2008



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“We’ve tried to produce a world-leading coach education programme. We can be reasonably confident that we’ve been able to do that because the material that we’ve been developing doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

Vicky Pendleton and her coaches, Manchester 2008
icky Pendleton and British Cycling coaching staff celebrate gold at the Worlds in Manchester


Chris Hoy, Manchester 2008
Chris Hoy takes another gold in Manchester


British Cycling development
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