The Path to Becoming an Athletics Official

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The author volunteering at a recent race.

Looking for a new way to contribute to the club, Josephine Wildridge discovers the world of athletics judging.

I have been a member of Serpentine since 2009. I joined a running club after I went from not being a runner at all, to running the London marathon on a charity place, in eight months. Wanting to get involved, and wanting to make new friends, I started by organising some socials. Remember Meal of the Month? Maybe we met? From that, I joined the Committee and was the Social rep from 2011 – 2018.

I enjoyed being part of the Committee and helping to steer the direction of the Club, but last summer I started to feel that the Committee and the Club could probably do with a fresh approach to socials from someone with new ideas in the role. Being on the Committee was such a big part of my identity within the Club and I wanted to have something to do that would still keep me actively involved. I wanted a purpose. But I didn’t know what form that would take. And then by chance, a day volunteering in Battersea Park changed everything.

At school I was pretty sporty and I was on all the sports teams. In the winter we played netball and hockey. I was always in defence. In the summer we played tennis and did athletics. I was never that good, but I was enthusiastic; reliable and committed. I was so keen, I even owned a pair of Reebok athletics spikes. Do you remember that urban myth? We’ve all heard it – the one about the javelin, and the guy who was stabbed through the chest on the sports field? That always worried me. I left athletics behind when I went to university. Until one day last summer…

Every year Serpentine hosts an athletics fixture on a Saturday, in Battersea Park. Last summer, the usual emails had been sent out by Malcolm French and Ian Hodge: the call for volunteers. I was ambivalent about signing up to volunteer, but then as the weekend came closer, I realised I was going to be alone, and lonely, all weekend. I emailed and was told to arrive by 11.30. After reporting for duty, I was asked to help with the shot competition. I assisted a lovely group of judges from Harlow AC. They were Levels 1, 2 and 3. They asked if I was there to get experience for my logbook. I had no idea what they were talking about, and said as much. They explained that the logbook was where you write down all your experience to gain your athletics judging qualification. I thought this was brilliant – you get to hang out in the park all day, help the Club, and get a qualification for it? Amazing. I stayed with that lovely group all day. They were an incredibly synchronised team. We completed the shot competition, and then later went on to do discus. It was fascinating, and enjoyable. I learnt a lot from them. And then I started to think.

The athletics event that inspired the author's new interest.

The first step towards qualification is to attend a one-day England Athletics training course. They are held all over the London region, and all year round. Serpentine funds your training. You start with a Health & Safety course in the morning; and then move on to your chosen discipline in the afternoon. I realised, if I wanted to be gaining my practical experience during summer season 2019, I would have to complete my classroom based training during the winter. It’s best to complete your classroom course between September and February.

On a cold, rainy Saturday in November, I travelled to a school in Wimbledon (my closest training centre). The Health & Safety section of the course was in the drama studio. In addition to that, there were four classrooms in use: Track; Field; Timekeeping; Photofinish. You can also train to become a race starter (and starter assistant). I had picked field judging because that is what I had done at Battersea. It turns out Serpentine have a shortage of field judges, so that worked out well.

That day I was taught by Level 4 judges. Levels range from Level 1 to 4. Level 4 is International/Olympic level. Most common at the club level are Levels 1 and 2. My tutors had worked at London 2012, and many other international competitions. Their knowledge and experience are phenomenal.  I am in awe of them all. They are inspirational, and it was an absolute privilege to meet them and be taught by them. They very kindly shared their contact details with us. They are passionate about athletics, sharing their knowledge, and getting more people involved. England Athletics describe officials as the beating heart of athletics.

One thing the teachers all kept repeating was: we are a team. You are never out there alone; you’re in a team. We all work together. Other key attributes for Officials include: being calm under pressure, and in a stressful environment; good communication skills; attention to detail; being good at planning and being organised; being prepared; and the ability to be inconspicuous. Maybe most importantly, you have to have a sense of humour.

After the day in the classroom, it’s time to get practical experience. You learn by observing others at events, and by being part of the team. There are various judging tasks on each event. The number of officials needed depends on the complexity of the event. Something like high jump will only need three officials. Javelin needs six officials, all doing something different. Tasks can range from measuring, raking, validity, and others things you would never think of. Officials are so inconspicuous I never really noticed them when I was watching athletics on the TV, but there are a lot of them there to enable athletes to do their best, and to make events run smoothly.

After gaining experience at two fixtures (at the time of writing, Perivale and Watford), I am now halfway towards my Level 1 Field Judge qualification. I will be Level 1 by the end of the summer, and hopefully part way towards gaining my Level 2. I was very nervous at my first fixture. There is so much to remember – both what to take on the day, and the rules of each event. You have to be prepared for everything. Over time, I am gaining in confidence. At each fixture, Serpentine are allocated events by the Meeting Manager. Events are rotated so each club does something different every time. So far, I’ve gained experience on long jump; triple jump; high jump and javelin.

The author, Sally Hodge, and Stephanie Vaatz at a recent athletics event in Luton.

Serpentine competes in three leagues: Southern Athletics League (Saturdays); Rosenheim (Wednesday evenings); and the Southern Veterans AC League (weekday evenings). At our home matches we have to provide judges and volunteers. In the words of Malcolm French (Level 3 Field Judge), every athlete, regardless of the level of competition expects the fixture to be safe; fun; fair; organised; and conducted in a technically correct manner. Without officials, Serpentine would not be able to participate in any leagues.

This year, our home event for the Southern Athletics League is scheduled for Saturday 13th July, in Battersea Park. Come and spend the day in the park with us. It’s a great opportunity to give something back to the Club. It is also a great opportunity to test out officiating and to see if you like it, and would like to take it further. As I said, I got into field judging by chance. Serpentine requires more judges across all disciplines (Track; Field; Timekeeping; Starters) but we especially have a shortage of field judges and starters. But come along to Battersea Park in July. Like me, this one day could change your life.

Becoming an athletics official is also a very sociable way to participate in Club activities. We all travel together to fixtures. When we arrive, we set up a base in the stands. Everyone comes and goes throughout the day as their events dictate, but we always return to the base. It’s a great way to meet new people, and to talk to people you never would otherwise. You spend the day in the park with Serpies in the sunshine, and then afterwards we go to a local pub for drinks. There is also the end of season social – it’s always important to celebrate successes.

I fell into judging completely randomly. I’m not a fast runner; I organised socials. I never would have imagined that I would enjoy officiating. It never would have occurred to me to follow this route and have this as a hobby. However, a chance day volunteering for the club because I was lonely, has opened the door to a new exciting direction for me.  It is both enjoyable and incredibly rewarding. It’s a great way to contribute to the sporting community. I absolutely love it.

For more information on competing in athletics, and for becoming an official, please read the following web pages or email athletics@serpentine.org.uk :

https://www.serpentine.org.uk/pages/racing_athletics.html

https://www.serpentine.org.uk/pages/volunteer_official.html

Josephine Wildridge joined Serpentine in 2009, after going from novice to marathon runner in 8 months. She loves running, chocolate and Eastenders. Josie loves organising things, and being organised. A former boss once described her as frighteningly organised.