Edition number 15; dateline 6 March 2009

Making a man of Telemachus

Not unusually, I am sat in the office on my own (well if you don’t count Jack who is asleep on my feet) and hatching all sorts of plans and schemes. My head flits between reports I am writing, new projects I am working on, business development, setting up a new triathlon club, coaching and on and on. I need direction and support, at least for some of it. I need a mentor. I need someone to discuss my ideas, to help me get my thoughts in order.

I admit that mentoring has been on my thoughts recently as I have been ‘orientated’ to deliver the new Mentoring in Sport level 3 qualification. Mentoring does seem to be moving up the consciousness in sport. In particular, I know that several national governing bodies of sport have already embraced the concept, if not always the practice yet. There is also the Team Visa Mentoring Scheme which enables young Olympic hopefuls like Tom Daley to get mentoring support from people like Sir Steve Redgrave and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, and ‘RAMP’ (Respect Athlete Mentor Programme) which is funded by the DCMS and run by the Youth Sport Trust and Sport England and which aims to provide positive influences for disaffected and disadvantaged youngsters.

So what is mentoring? Well I am not known for my extensive theoretical and academic research but I thought that now was perhaps the time to head for the books and the internet. My initial investigation revealed that this mentoring thing goes back a long way, the Oxford Dictionary tells me that mentor means:
“An experienced and trusted advisor”

It also tells me the term comes from the name of the advisor of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey which I think takes us back a fair few centuries. This encouraged me to think about mentoring relationships based on this understanding and it started to occur to me that this too went back many centuries and included Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Mr Brown and Queen Victoria, Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII; and there’s a worrying trend emerging here as the last two mentors were beheaded!! However, we can find well-known mentoring relationships in more modern settings such as Sir Freddie Laker and Richard Branson, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone. In the world of fiction there is Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin and then Luke Skyewalker or Merlin and King Arthur. And from sport Lance Armstrong and Eddie Merckx, Ron Dennis and Lewis Hamilton and Brad Gilbert and Nick Bollettieri who were both mentors to Andre Agassi.

So what is mentoring? Again I took to my books and came up with a couple of definitions: "Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be." (Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring)

Or how about: "Mentoring is a long standing form of training, learning and development and an increasingly popular tool for supporting personal development... Traditionally mentoring is the long term passing on of support, guidance and advice." (CIPD February 2009)

It seems then that, fundamentally, mentoring relationships are a long term commitment and mentoring is a way of developing learning. I speak to many coaches, volunteers and professionals in the leisure industry and many describe  the relationship with significant people in their lives and how important they are to their development as coaches and community leaders. I can think of one example of a voluntary coach who was ‘mentored’ from a young age by an elite athlete. This athlete lived in the same village and was an inspiration to what was in the first instance a young lad who liked to run. This young lad (who isn’t quite so young now) describes the support, advice and faith his mentor had in him. Without this relationship the community wouldn’t have a thriving athletics club for young people with a qualified coach who continues to develop his own learning and that of new coaches coming through the system. I can think of many examples like this, as I am sure you can, without which we wouldn’t have the thriving sporting, arts and leisure activities that we have today. So mentoring appears to be a very important part of what we do but until recently it hasn’t been very high profile.

My main experience is drawn from the coaching system and I know that the majority of our concentration has been on education programmes for our coaches which haven’t much if any ongoing support for the participants. I wonder how many people we have lost because they haven’t felt supported, lacked direction and didn’t have someone they could turn to for guidance and not feel silly.

So I welcome the new training programmes which look at mentoring and I am certainly pleased that its role is being acknowledged as important but I would sound a note of caution. I worry that we may try to force people into mentoring relationships because the ‘gurus’ tell us that it is important. If the system becomes too autocratic e.g. ‘you are on this course, therefore you will have this mentor and like it’ as it is currently is in gymnastics, mentoring may lose some of it’s power. The new level 3 qualification is predicated on a ‘life-long’ relationship not a ‘quick fix’. We have to ensure that people are guided and informed about mentoring from both a mentor’s and a mentee’s perspective and that it doesn’t just become something else we have to go through to achieve a particular job or qualification.


Kay Adkins is an executive board member of a county sport partnership, chair of a CSN and a member of the interim board of the National Skills Academy for Sport and Active Leisure. Kay is also managing director of KAM Ltd, which offers a range of support services in the sport and leisure industry working in volunteer/workforce development and facility development.

For a full explanation of the new Mentoring in Sport qualification go to last August’s edition of The Leisure Review at http://www.theleisurereview.co.uk/articles08/mentoringsport.html



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